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Taking virtual tours into the real world

By Alexandra Wertz '12
May 17, 2011

St. Olaf seniors (from left) Gabriel Rysdahl, Kai Hansen, Joe Erickson, and Steve Milne founded a virtual-tours company called CircaVista with the help of an Entrepreneurial Grant from the Center for Experiential Learning.

Last summer Steve Milne '11 had an internship in the IIT Department at St. Olaf, where he learned to create virtual tours by taking 360-degree photographs. His friend, Kai Hansen '11, had an internship with the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

"I got really excited about these tours and showed Kai," says Milne. "I thought, 'Hey, we could make some money doing this.'"

With Hansen's connection at the Guthrie, he and Milne created a virtual tour of one of the venue's performance spaces. The experience turned into more than two friends consolidating their internship skills; it became the inspiration for a starting their own company.

They founded CircaVista, a virtual-tours company, earlier this year with the help of an Entrepreneurial Grant from the college's Center for Experiential Learning. Milne and Hansen added two more friends, Joe Erickson '11 and Gabriel Rysdahl '11, to their employee roster, and CircaVista now creates virtual tours for real estate companies, assisted living centers, and hotels.

CircaVista has already sold 70 tours and is one of the most profitable student business ventures to come out of the Entrepreneurial Grant program. As the company grows, they hope to also photograph golf courses, vacation destinations, and other types of venues.

"Our goal is to give people a really good idea of a physical space from a computer," says Milne. "Say we created a virtual tour for a hotel. This tour isn't gonna sell your hotel; your hotel will sell your hotel. But if your hotel website has a cool virtual tour that gives people the chance to narrow down their search before they get there — a tour that can highlight good things about the space — your hotel will have an advantage."

Foundation of friendship
Milne, an economics and political science major, is the company's photographer; Hansen, a media and entrepreneurship major, works on the company's website; Erickson, a mathematics and economics major, handles the company's finances; and Rysdahl, a mathematics major, is in charge of external relations and communication with clients. "We complement each other very well with the different skills each of us brings," says Rysdahl.

Being close friends in addition to business partners adds a unique dimension to their operation. "Working with my best friends makes the bad things a little worse and makes the good things way better," says Hansen.

Yet the group is adamant that they won't let the business come in the way of their friendship — or vice versa. "We all know each other well enough. We don't let the business stuff ruin the friendships. In the end, it strengthens it," says Erickson. "We're pretty blunt with each other. That makes communication easier."

Long-term possibilities
The CircaVista founders still meet regularly with advisors at the CEL, who offer advice on making the business viable long-term. "The CEL did not just hand us the money," says Milne. "They help us figure out where we're going and what we need to do to get there. This is our first time doing this, so it's nice to have the input of professionals and mentors."

Beginning this fall, CircaVista will be based out of Minneapolis. Its founders hope that some day it might become a full-time job. "We want to do this for many years to come," says Rysdahl.

The CircaVista creators feel grateful for the education and preparation St. Olaf offered. "We're applying a lot of stuff we learned in class here," says Erickson. "In general, the liberal arts education teaches you how to think on your feet, manage many simultaneous tasks, and to have a wide world view. So now in our business, challenges come up all the time that we don't expect. St. Olaf gave us the tools to work through unexpected challenges."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or