CHAMPAIGN – Zak Horn was dubious a year ago when a classmate in the University of Illinois MBA program suggested that they and another student start a consulting company in Champaign-Urbana.
"I told him I just don't think the market is big enough. I don't think we can make a solid business out of it, supporting three guys," recalled Horn, a 27-year-old Sullivan native who had already owned two businesses.
But the classmate, Brian Precious, was "kind of persistent about it," Horn said. "He pitched it again in July. I said I'll do it, but there are certain things I committed to doing, between school and my other businesses."
Nine months later, Horn is a believer. Their company, Illini Professional Services, has consulted for several area businesses since then. Many of the clients are young companies, including start-ups in EnterpriseWorks, the business incubator in the UI Research Park.
The three partners – Precious, Horn and Stephan Seyfert – provide an array of services for businesses, including project management, marketing and financial services.
Their projects so far include: working on project management for Nextumi; helping write a business plan for Open Integration; doing financial analysis for Fox Development; and upgrading customer relations software for the Cardthartic greeting card company.
IllinoisVentures, the UI entity that helps start-up companies on campus, enlisted the services of the Illini Professional Services trio to assist companies not yet ready to hire full-time managers.
"They've been helpful filling in in some of the interim management roles," said Rob Schultz, senior director of IllinoisVentures.
Although IllinoisVentures has dealt with individual consultants before, it's the first time it's used "three guys working together with different skill sets," Schultz said.
"Zak is more financial-oriented, Brian does project management and Stephan does marketing and interactive media," he said.
Horn and Seyfert say most MBA students plan to land high-paying jobs with major corporations after receiving their degree. But the three partners didn't wait for graduation to make their career move, starting their business midway through the two-year program.
"I didn't think of it as anything too amazing," said Seyfert, a 33-year-old former resident of Danville. "But a couple people in the class ahead of ours told us, 'You guys are doing the dream.'"
Seyfert admitted that "if it was just me, it would have been a more difficult decision to start my own business." But with two partners, "you have a little bit of confidence."
It didn't hurt that Precious, a 29-year-old native of New York state who moved to Naperville in 1993, had previous consulting experience and was intent on starting a business here.
He knew the community well, having received an undergraduate degree in business administration/management informa-
tion systems from the UI in 1999.
"Brian Precious is one of the most passionate people about Champaign-Urbana that I've ever met in life," Horn said. "It's not about business or money. He'd like to see Champaign-Urbana grow and prosper and see commercial development come out of university research."
His partners have bought into that notion. Other students may go through the two-year MBA program and move on to other things, Horn said, "but we want to make this our home."
All three students expect to graduate in May. They started Illini Professional Services in the summer of 2005, formulating their business plan in July and incorporating in August. They attended the UI Center for Entrepreneurial Development's boot camp for entrepreneurs in September and took office space in the Executive Center in downtown Champaign.
Precious said running the business while going to school has been challenging but rewarding.
"The MBA program is fairly demanding, but by combining classroom learning with running IPS, it has made earning an MBA an even more valuable experience for each of us," he said.
With nine months of business under their belt, the partners say they intend to continue with the business after graduation.
"Brian and Stephan are going to stick it out the next 18 months, and I'm certain I'm going to be here as well," Horn said.
"I like being part of a growing business," he added. "I think that's what sold me on it."