Story by: Tom Lammert, Lecturer at MSU Department of English
A football spirals above lounging students who, dressed in white polos, drink from cans hidden in cozies, lick barbeque sauce from their fingers, raise and ring cowbells and yell “Hail State!” You, also in a white polo with your cowbell tucked into a back pocket of your khakis, catch the football, yell to your friend, “I need to take a break,” and escape Mississippi’s late-summer sun by ducking beneath one of the hundreds of maroon canopies that occupy every inch of lawn within a quarter-mile of Davis Wade Stadium. Once in the shade, you can have a quick snooze, clean the grill to prepare for the third and fourth (and, if the game requires overtime, fifth) rounds of burgers, or challenge a future Bulldog to a game of Cornhole as a flat-screen TV shows the current Bulldogs battling an SEC rival. Stomach hot and grumbling, you opt to clean the grill, and as you’re scraping the last charred chunk of beef from the grate the TV shows quarterback Nick Fitzgerald slamming the football into the gut of his fullback, who finds a gap between two linemen, rushes into the end zone where he drops the ball and raises his hands in unison with thousands of screaming, cowbell-clanging fans.
Grill left unattended, you high-five the other dozen fans under the canopy. Someone proposes a drink to celebrate the Bulldogs’ reclaimed lead over their opponent, so you – your smile reaching from ear to ear – nudge the lid off a nearby cooler.
And your grin relaxes into a slack-jawed expression of confusion and fear. The cooler is empty.
Panicked and grief-stricken, you rush out of the shade to join the amorphous throng of maroon-clad students and alumni. Russell Street – which runs west from the Junction to Highway 12 – is as clogged as an artery after a weekend of tailgating. There’s no way that before the game ends you can maneuver through this gauntlet, reach the nearest gas station – a Chevron across from the Cotton Crossing Shopping Center – and replenish the stash of cold drinks.
You’re about to return to the tent, dejected and afraid to tell your friends there’s no way you can walk all the way to the nearest convenience store, when you spot a golf cart creeping among the endless mob of football fans. The cart stops and over the din of jeers and clinking cowbells you hear music blasting from its speakers. Five riders – all laughing, all their words slurring – stumble from the cart.
The driver makes eye contact with you. You wave at him and he beckons you over and you ask, “Can I get a ride?”
He says, “Of course.”
You tell him you need to get to the nearest convenience store. “And fast.”
You ask why some random dude driving a decked-out golf cart (six seats, nice speakers, an AUX cord that you plug your phone into to choose some cruising music, lights rimming the roof) is willing to give a ride to a total stranger. He says he works for Cowbell Carts.
A trip to Tuscaloosa inspired James Moore to start Cowbell Carts, a student-focused shuttle service that operates around Mississippi State University. While spending a night out with friends, James noticed golf carts chauffeuring students across the University of Alabama’s campus. Familiar with the raucous nightlife the Cotton District affords to Mississippi State’s students, James returned to Starkville with the idea of starting a business that would make its priority getting students home safe at the end of the night.
But it wasn’t as if James could jump in a golf cart at one in the morning and offer rides to students. In addition to obtaining funds – Low-Speed Vehicles (LSVs) aren’t exactly flying off car lots because of their bargain-bin prices – James faced the problem of getting permission to cruise Starkville’s streets. Although he had seen the E-Center during a freshmen orientation tour, James recalls having thought, “Oh, that’s a cool office. I will never go there in my life.” Ultimately, his parents reminded James of “that entrepreneurship center” they had walked past.
Although he had seen the E-Center during a freshmen orientation tour, James recalls having thought, “Oh, that’s a cool office. I will never go there in my life.” Ultimately, his parents reminded James of “that entrepreneurship center” they had walked past.
Soon after this discussion with his parents, James came to the E-Center. He spoke with the Director of Entrepreneurship, Eric Hill, who suggested to James that he find a partner to help manage the venture’s financials. Up until the Spring 2017 semester, James had spent his time studying business administration, practicing his pronunciations of irregular Spanish verbs, and hanging out with his fraternity brothers; budgeting landed outside the scope of his expertise.
Luckily James knew that one of his fraternity brothers, Cameron Maddox, had been studying accounting. James brought the financial projections for Cowbell Carts to Cameron, and Cameron knew he could help. “He came to me with this line [that represented expenses] on a piece of notebook paper. And I thought, ‘I think I can make that look right.’”
Cowbell Carts returned to the E-Center to pitch their concept of a micro-transportation service for students; the PREP board and ECAB granted funding, but their plan to zip from campus to Main Street was halted by their inability to get permission to drive on campus. Thanks to their newfound position as co-founders of a start-up funded by the E-Center, James and Cameron approached the E-Center’s Director of Outreach, Jeffrey Rupp.
According to James, “Mr. Rupp knows pretty much everyone in town, so whenever we had a problem [with driving on campus], Mr. Rupp handled it.” Cameron agrees, claiming that Mr. Rupp made a phone call, and the next morning Cowbell Carts had permission to escort students on campus. Thanks to the E-Center, the LSVs haven’t stopped rolling since hitting this initial pothole.
Whereas some businesses seek to expand at a relentless pace (What mom-and-pop retailer doesn’t covet the success of behemoths like Amazon and Wal-Mart?), James and Cameron intend to keep their business simple. The company’s app exemplifies this pursuit of simplicity. When a night ends at The Bin or The Klaas Room, no one wants to scroll through pages riddled with options just to get a ride home. The app for Cowbell Carts has a bare-bones design – a map that determines the user’s location, a button that confirms his or her location, and a screen that asks how many people will be riding – and this ensures a hassle-free experience for the user.
Akin to the app’s sleek and simple design, the business plan for Cowbell Carts remains uncomplicated. Sure, the company’s popularity (largely due to word-of-mouth about its convenience and excellent service) allows the co-founders to hire more drivers and a social-media manager, and eventually James and Cameron plan to extend the company’s hours of operation, but the routes will remain the same, as will their target demographic: anyone who needs a safe means of traveling around campus, the Cotton District, or Starkville’s downtown area.
So the next time you tailgate and you find yourself thirsty and needing a celebratory drink, don’t let an empty cooler ruin the party. It should be easy to flag down a Cowbell Cart and hitch a ride to the nearest convenience store.
Learn more about Cowbell Carts on their website at https://www.cowbellcarts.net