By Jim McElhatton
In the boardroom of a downtown D.C. law office recently, T.C. Williams junior Dagim Girma stood up in front of dozens of onlookers to sell his business plan for a website called The Audible.
“How many of you watched the Super Bowl?” he began, pacing the room as two PowerPoint slides loomed behind him.
Girma, a tennis player for T.C., is a huge sports fan — he loves to watch Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks — but he’s also a businessman who considers Bill Gates a role model. His two passions came together this year when he enrolled in the school’s entrepreneurship class, in which each student produces a business plan and then competes against others in local, regional and — in Girma’s case — national competitions.
Girma’s business, TheAudible.net, mixes sports journalism and social media concepts, and it’s mostly produced by high school students. His business plan to expand the site won local and regional competitions against other would-be entrepreneurs, landing him a $1,500 prize that he’s now pouring back into his company.
His first-place award in the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship contest also bought him two plane tickets and a spot at a national competition in the fall in New York City.
But The Audible is far more than an academic exercise. It’s a real business — and it’s growing fast.
The junior, who co-founded the site, has several classmates writing for him as paid reporters. And he’s working on an app for people to access his content using smartphones.
Girma is quiet when you meet him at first, but all that changes once he starts talking about his business.
“At the competition, we were at a law office right near the Capitol, and there were more than a dozen judges, not to mention an audience, watching,” recalled Girma’s teacher, Mary Ellen McCormick. “Most high school kids would be intimidated by that, but Dagim was walking around the room and talking to the audience like he was Steve Jobs in his 10th year at Apple.”
Girma, who works from wherever he’s got an Internet connection, began the site as a quick way to earn extra money after watching his older brother make a few hundred dollars here and there writing for sports and entertainment sites.
He’s not sure where the entrepreneurial spirit came from but noted that his grandfather is a successful businessman in Ethiopia.
In the beginning of the school year, Girma and some friends began a sports blog that mostly consisted of them posting their opinions on the big sports news of the day. Soon, however, Girma had another idea — The Audible.
The site combines social media and sports news, where users can register and follow other users or give their analysis, with the overall content reflecting a decidedly high school point of view on the pro sports scene.
“I wanted to make it different,” said Girma, who said he’s partnered on the site with a Canadian media consultant named David Tile. “So I went with the social media aspect. If you register, you’re given your own personal profile page so you have an activity feed. As people post articles, you’re constantly getting updates.
“You can also write articles for the site, but the ones on the front page are my featured writers, and they’re people I’ve hired from my school.”
On a typical day, Girma said he talks to his friends about writing assignments while editing and posting content. He’s also trying to contact potential investors and watching sports.
He said the T.C. class has helped a lot. It teaches him about finances, promotion, networking and advertising. Most importantly, Girma said, he’s been exposed to other entrepreneurs who have given him important advice.
“It’s all about finding a niche,” he said. “Most of the people have told me to find one thing The Audible can concentrate on, which is the high school point of view and the social media aspect.”
Cal Simmons, one of the judges who watched Girma give his presentation, was so impressed that he offered the junior some local office space during the summer.
“For some of the kids, the business plans they put together aren’t always terribly realistic just because they haven’t been in the real world and they don’t know what works and what doesn’t,” said Simmons, chairman and founder of Alexandria-based Blue Cotton Tech Services. “But Dagim has put together a real business. It’s a site that looks great already, but more importantly, he’s discovered a niche and he’s got a competitive product.
“I think he can make a go of it.”