Story by Matt Wing
Illinois Wesleyan Entrepreneur in Residence Marc Talluto ’94 provides students with experiential learning opportunities through internships that benefit IWU’s Design, Technology and Entrepreneurship program.
Marc Talluto ’94 comes from a family of teachers. His parents are teachers. His siblings are teachers. Their spouses are teachers.
But, alas, Talluto did not choose that career path. Instead, he is a self-described “serial entrepreneur,” best known for founding and building the information technology service management consulting company Fruition Partners. He is also an adviser, consultant, board member and investor in a number of tech companies, startups and real-estate ventures.
Talluto keeps plenty busy, but teaching is still in his DNA.
As such, he has remained connected to his alma mater in myriad ways. He currently serves on Illinois Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees and previously served on the Alumni Association Board of Directors. He sponsors scholarships. He established IWU’s Entrepreneurship Fellowship, which twice a year awards a student (or student group) a grant of $5,000 to pursue an entrepreneurial vision.
Talluto additionally serves as Illinois Wesleyan’s “entrepreneur in residence,” where his expertise is an asset to IWU’s Design, Technology and Entrepreneurship program. For students thinking of starting a business or investing in a startup, Talluto is an unparalleled resource. Many have gleaned knowledge from him while enrolled in the upper-level DTE courses he has co-taught the past four semesters.
But the newest — and perhaps most interesting — way that Talluto has given back to his alma mater is through an initiative that could only have been imagined by someone with his entrepreneurial spirit.
At the outset of his term as IWU’s entrepreneur in residence, Talluto pondered the idea of a student-run business. He considered many options: a bakery, coffee shop, pizza place, food truck, a franchise of some sort. But he admittedly knew nothing about food service.
Then came the light-bulb moment.
“I know real estate, and Airbnb is a proven platform,” he said. “That was the genesis of this.”
Talluto’s idea was to bring together a group of students and have them run a local residential property as an Airbnb — short-term lodging booked online, similar to Vrbo and HomeAway — while handling all aspects of managing the property. Student interns would, under his guidance, manage all facets of running the Airbnb as a business: reservations, maintenance, cleaning, marketing, customer service. They would do it all.
And then the kicker: revenue generated from rentals would be funneled back into Illinois Wesleyan’s DTE program.
“Students are getting great experiences in class, hearing about entrepreneurship and starting businesses, but it’s not actually doing it. That’s a big difference,” Talluto said. “We have some classes where students try to build a business, but building a startup takes longer than four months, and I liked the challenge of creating a student-run business.”
The concept of a business that quickly became known as “Wesleyan Manor” was born. A plan was devised. Recruited students were given their charges.
The first assignment: find a house.
“When I learned it was going to be an Airbnb for students to run, I was so on board with it,” said Flower Edington ’20, a DTE major and one of the first student interns to work on the project. “When I heard that we were going to be in charge of finding the house and coming up with what it would provide for guests, it was just so exciting that we would be in charge of it all.”
The group did its homework. Student interns explored Bloomington-Normal real estate listings and surveyed locations, conducted market research and examined Airbnb analytics. The students eventually pitched to Talluto a historic home near both Illinois Wesleyan and downtown Bloomington. He was sold.
But purchasing the property was just the first step. The home at 1007 East Jefferson Street, once honored with the prestigious Gift to the Street Award by the Old House Society of Bloomington-Normal, was in need of some attention. The house built just seven years after the conclusion of the American Civil War required more than a few upgrades and repairs to match its stately title.
“When I had the opportunity to visit the home before I signed on, I was just blown away,” said Rowan Hanold ’20, this year’s student project manager. “But there was definitely some work to be done.”
Students led the efforts. Getting the six-bedroom, five-bathroom home ready for guests presented the group with a daunting to-do list. But, utilizing strengths of the group’s individual members, tasks were slowly and methodically checked off. Flooring was replaced. Walls were painted. Landscaping was revived.
“This internship was different because the students took initiative. We had ideas. We had plans. We took care of everything,” said Mateo Grajales ’21, a business administration and psychology double major who served a May Term internship last year. “It wasn’t that we were given tasks or had to do everything we were told. If you wanted to improve something, you did it.”
To make the space livable, the house needed beds and furniture. The kitchen needed plates and bowls and utensils. The bathrooms needed soap and shampoo and towels. The house needed some basic technology (televisions, WiFi) and some of the more advanced variety (automatic locking doors, keypad entry).
After the exhaustive process of making the home functional, decorating it provided a much-needed outlet for creativity. Students incorporated a piano and guitar into a music-themed room, complete with a record player and selection of albums. Upstairs is a game room with a dartboard and foosball table.
“They knew what needed to be done here more than I did,” Talluto said of the interns. “They are constantly coming up with things to fix or ways to improve.”
By late 2019, the house was ready for its first guests.
The first to stay at Wesleyan Manor was a group of IWU soccer parents in town for a game. A review posted to Airbnb by a member of the group included words like “fabulous” and “sensational.” And the group enjoyed their stay enough that when the soccer team held its end-of-the-year banquet a couple months later, it sought its lodging again at Wesleyan Manor.
Other guests have had positive experiences and posted similar glowing reviews. But the early success did not come without hard work, dutiful maintenance and a few emergency fixes.
There was the time a window broke upstairs. Another time the heat went out. Over winter break, Hanold got a call from guests informing him the garbage disposal was broken. Another time, a group of students courageously replaced a leaky toilet.
“It was something we had never done before,” Hanold said. “It was pretty gross, but we ended up bonding over it, and we installed the new toilet and everything works fine now.”
Those are precisely the challenges Talluto had envisioned students grappling with as he hatched the idea to operate an Airbnb.
“I couldn’t even make up all the experiences these students have had,” he said. “Whether they’re dealing with contractors or vendors, dealing with neighbors or customers, dealing with Airbnb — all of those things — I think it’s been a tremendously valuable experience for them.”
Word of Wesleyan Manor has spread through the Illinois Wesleyan community — and not just among potential guests. Talluto has been contacted by friends and fellow alums wanting to get involved in other ways. One returned to Bloomington-Normal last year to help fix the roof and make some general repairs. Others have offered similar assistance.
An open house in February introduced more members of the IWU community to Wesleyan Manor, and advance rentals are coming in every day. Commencement and Homecoming weekends are booked, as are most weekends this spring and summer.
“It’s been great and by far exceeded my expectations,” Talluto said of the early success. “We have bookings out for months in advance because people are looking at soccer tournaments, volleyball tournaments, Commencement, Homecoming. We have dates booked out for the next 10 months.”
Talluto has been pleased with the early returns and the support it will provide to the DTE program (although many interns are DTE majors, internships are open to all students). There has already been discussion about expanding the operation and potentially managing more properties.
But, perhaps above all else, Talluto is pleased with the students he works alongside.
“Every time I work with students, I’m always impressed,” he said. “I give them guidance, but they know what needs to get done. They’re on top of it. They’re ahead of it. They take care of things before I even think of them.”
The students, though, are equally impressed by Talluto.
“Marc is probably the most interesting mentor I’ve ever had,” said Bailey McPherson ’19, one of the first student interns to work at Wesleyan Manor, who now works for a Talluto-backed realty management firm in Chicago. “He’s one of those people who likes to have you learn from your own mistakes, but he’ll also try to nudge you in the right direction.”
Illinois Wesleyan students taking part in the Airbnb internship are getting experiences extending far beyond the run-of-the-mill internships bemoaned by Talluto, wherein eager learners are all too often assigned menial tasks like making copies or fetching coffee.
“I like to think that these are very unique experiences,” said Talluto, who doesn’t hesitate to answer affirmatively when asked if he would have benefitted from such an internship. “I don’t know how many universities have ongoing, operating businesses that students themselves pretty much run on their own.”
Talluto, after all, comes from a family of educators. A strong belief in the power of education has been firmly instilled in him. He has a special affinity for the kind of hands-on, experiential learning that can be gained through working at a business like Wesleyan Manor.
As someone passionate about education, he is increasingly motivated to share the knowledge he has gained from a highly successful career.
And he does it with an eye toward the future.
“Learning and education have always been a strong part of my personal foundation, so I see the university experience and ambition as ways to foster the next generation of leaders,” Talluto said. “I’m hoping that, through this experience, other alumni will see the University as a way to channel what they’ve learned over the years back into the next generation.”