A student entrepreneur pursues a plan to build attractive, affordable housing for some of Iowa’s smallest towns
Nathan Drew has always wanted to be his own boss, and he hopes his plan to realize that goal helps people in small Iowa towns achieve their dreams, too.
The University of Iowa senior founded Drew Holdings, Inc., a start-up company based at the University’s Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory (BELL). Drew’s business focuses on building homes in towns with populations under 2,000, offering these communities a chance to refresh their housing stock with small, affordable homes aimed at older adults.
“I think rural America—especially rural Iowa—is worth saving,” Drew says. “Some developers don’t like to go into smaller towns, mostly because they don’t know what to expect. But I’m confident in my plans and in the market for these kind of homes.”
Drew intends to start building his first house this spring, a model unit that will introduce his concept. He describes his compact and attractive designs as perfect for homeowners looking to downsize, but he also expects to catch the eyes of first-time buyers.
Originally from Des Moines, Drew picked up the entrepreneurial spirit from his parents—his dad maintains a legal practice, and his mom started her own baking business. “I’ve always loved the game of Monopoly, too,” Drew says of early signs that he might find a future in real estate.
Drew started college at the University of Kansas, but transferred to Iowa once he learned about the BELL. He entered the entrepreneurship certificate program at the Tippie College of Business, developing a business plan and soon applying for an open spot in the BELL, which provides mentoring, office space, and other resources for student-created businesses.
“The first thing we noticed was his vision for solving a problem for Iowa communities,” says Lynn Jahn, assistant director of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. “He’d already done a lot of research and we were confident he’d continue to develop. Plus, we saw that he’s an excellent communicator and negotiator.”
Drew’s homes are based on the “Katrina Cottages” originally designed by architect Marianne Cusato as housing for people displaced by the 2005 hurricane. Their efficient floor plans and classic detailing echo trends toward “not-so-big houses” and the New Urbanist movement inspired by traditional neighborhoods.
Lowe’s Home Improvement bought the rights to Cusato’s designs and has been seeking developers who’d like to build them. Drew pitched his plans to Lowe’s and became the second developer in the country to launch a Katrina Cottage project. He offers the one-story, permanent homes in two designs, each around 700 square feet.
“These homes appeal to Baby Boomers and active seniors who want to stay in smaller communities,” Drew says. “They’re easy to live in and inexpensive to heat, cool, and maintain.”
Much of Drew’s work to date has involved approaching small-town officials and making the case for his concept. Needless to say, not all of them have immediately embraced it.
“In part, my age makes it a challenge,” Drew says, “But I go in, tell them what I’d like to do, and take it from there.” His enthusiasm is infectious, and the fact that he’s clearly done his homework—identifying, for example, a U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development program that would guarantee financing for some buyers—has kept the project moving forward.
To sustain that momentum, Drew juggles local building codes, USDA requirements, real estate transactions, and work with contractors, all while wrapping up his undergraduate degree. “I’m in the office about 20 hours a week,” he says, “but I swear I’m thinking about it 12 hours a day.”
Drew looks forward to the chance to narrow his focus once he graduates in May. “My primary goal is to make this a full-time job, to be able to put 120 percent into it,” he says. “What I like about entrepreneurship is that I can watch it progress and realize, ‘I’m a part of this.’”
But will it fly? While Drew is completely confident in his current venture, he notes that he’s got plenty of ideas lined up waiting to be developed.
“If in five years I’m doing something else, I know that this will have opened up doors for me,” he says. “But ideally, this is the business I want to build, because I believe in it and honestly have a great time doing it. It’s a lot of fun.”
Story by Lin Larson; Portrait by Tim Schoon
March 17, 2008