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UI Student Finds Success in Untapped Online Market

Tyler Finchum grew up helping his dad on the family farm. And whenever the aging manual for the decades-old tractor or combine was lost, it was his job to dig through the piles of junk in the shed to find it.

Sometimes the darn thing never turned up, and Finchum, a Muscatine native who's now a freshman at the University of Iowa, would have to go online and have one shipped.

When it comes to farming, though, that's a problem.

"A lot of times, you have to get the corn planted before it rains or you have to get the combine fixed and running before it starts snowing, things like that," he said. "It's all these time-sensitive things where you can't afford to wait even a day for an operator's manual."

So Finchum, a junior in high school at the time, thought up what he calls a "21st-century solution to a 20th-century problem." He and his dad rigged up a homemade scanner and Finchum began digitizing farm equipment manuals. He sells them on his website, Farm Manuals Fast, to customers all over the world. Not even two years into the venture, Finchum has made enough to cover his college education and then some.

In 2011, Finchum estimates he raked in more than $50,000. In 2012, he said it's shaping up to be more like $75,000. And because everything happens over the Internet, the vast majority of that is profit.

At his dorm in Daum Hall, floormates often ask Finchum why he's still in college.

"I just have so much fun in college," he said. "Truthfully, that's why I go, but I don't really need to."

Finchum is pioneering a market no one else had really thought of, said Lynn Allendorf, director of UI's Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory, which has provided mentoring for the business. Finchum did a lot of upfront work, she said, but now he can be relatively hands-off and let the market dictate the business.

"Very few businesses do this, but his kind of runs itself," she said.

Many of the machines he makes manuals for—hay balers, combines, tractors, planters—were made in the 1940s or 1950s. Finchum said he can always tell what season it is by what manual he's selling the most of. For example, now that it's spring, it's the John Deere 7000 Planter manual, because farmers are planting their corn or soybeans. In the summer, it's the John Deere 14T Hay Baler manual, he said.

Due to a 1989 federal law that requires a copyright notice for reproduction, Finchum can’t digitize any manuals made after that point. That's why all of his manuals are for older machines, and it's also what makes Farm Manuals Fast a fleeting venture. Sooner or later, all of that old farm equipment will sputter out once and for all.

Finchum's aware of that, though, and is already scouring the market for another unmet need. It's part of the reason he took a job in the UI Athletic Department's IT office, where he said there's a lot of different types of people and technologies working together, which, hopefully, will offer up some ideas. The funny thing is, the job pays $9 an hour, and Finchum said he already makes about $250 per day.

"Sometimes I question my sanity for taking the job," he said, "but it's been a lot of fun so far."

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