by Alison Rich
When it comes to launching their own businesses, most youngsters lean toward the lemon. Touting an established track record, an easy setup and a respectable profit margin, the venerable beverage-hawking business has been lining anklebiters’ pockets for decades.
Daniel Burke, Matt Burke, Zach Johnston
TCU Game Day
For the vast majority of entrepreneurial neophytes, manning a lemonade stand for a day or two while raking in some spare change quells their capitalist thirst. The fervor typically melts right along with the ice, and these once gung-ho kiddos are more content to banter about Barbies and baseball than worry about balance statements and bottom lines.
Such is not the case, however, with the business-minded bunch you’re about to meet. These millennials all are involved in different ventures, some with their roots planted in childhood. What they share is extreme drive and ambition. And their ages. All fall along the 10–29 continuum.
A couple of caveats: The purpose of this story isn’t to parse their P&Ls. The definition of success is relative — especially when mom has to cash your checks and you’re making presidential decisions but still aren’t old enough to vote. Also, while this list is by no means exhaustive, we think it gives a well-rounded snapshot of our area’s under-30 entrepreneurs.
Take, for example, Hannah Scheideman, a 2010 TCU grad who is collaring the market on retail cool. In June, the 24-year-old unleashed her dogged entrepreneurial spirit with Wag, a “boutique and lounge for Fido and his people.”
“The most motivating factor was to have a place where people and their dogs could be happy,” Scheideman said of her Foch Street shop, which nestles among a hive of independently owned stores in the West 7th Street enclave. “From an entrepreneurial standpoint, there wasn’t another dog boutique in Fort Worth.”
Capitalizing on that untapped gap in the market, though, was secondary to the first reason for setting out her shingle, Scheideman says.
“I love dogs and would like Fort Worth to have a more dog-friendly community,” she said from the covered patio of her pooch-inspired outpost, taking a quick break from time to time to greet her clientele — both of the two-legged and the four-legged ilk. “Hopefully, Wag can start that trend.”
And if the amount of happy hellos she fielded that day are any indication of future performance, Scheideman is well on her way to trend-setting status.
But being a young small-business owner — especially in today’s crimped economy — is not without its challenges.
“Emotionally, there were days when I thought I was in over my head,” Scheideman said. “The driving force and what keeps me going is, first, God, and second, it’s having a firm group of people supporting me. My husband, Ben Witten, and my parents are always cheering me on.”
Not Kidding Around
Southlake’s Jarrett Cadiz, a 20-year-old CEO of two companies, is also a big believer in staying connected to family and friends.
Justin Avery Anderson
Anderson Trail Granola
His mom, Jamie, is heavily involved in helping run his ventures: Gathowin — which among other initiatives markets 360 PharmaTracks, a vaccine and injection tracking system designed for medical clinics — and Cloud Chase, a cloud-hosting service that “rents” space to customers. Jarrett launched Gathowin in September 2011. Cloud Chase came about this past June.
“Jarrett was always thinking of ways to start a business,” his mom recalled of his childhood. “When he was 2, he would change every door handle in the house with a battery-operated screwdriver. When he was 3, he was changing locks.”
Jarrett’s mechanical prowess evolved from locksmithing to wordsmithing. He learned to write computer code when he was 6. He evolved into a personal help desk of sorts at age 8.
“I was kind of the Geek Squad before Geek Squad existed,” Cadiz said. He charged $25 an hour for his services, bumping up the pricing structure at age 12: $50 an hour for individuals and $100 for businesses.
Ten-year-old Caroline Ellis has a demanding agenda as a fifth-grader at Trinity Valley School (and straight-A student, no less), but that hasn’t crimped her dreams one iota.
“I like to do crafty stuff,” said Caroline, who counts headbands, hairbows, bracelets and even dog collars among her inventory as owner of Color Tag. The budding businesswoman has peddled her wares at Kay’s Hallmark and Sobo Fashion Lounge in Fort Worth, as well as to friends and to her mom’s students. Caroline has a vendor number and regularly checks her sales online.
“I felt like my role as a teacher was to help Caroline find her gifts and help them grow,” said her mom, Danielle Ellis, who teaches third grade at Fort Worth Academy. “This [experience] has taken my little introverted child out of her shell and done so much for her self-esteem. … She’s constantly thinking of new ideas. She motivates herself.”
Justin Avery Anderson bit into the business world after a trip to the orthodontist to repair a broken braces bracket. The culprit? A piece of crunchy granola.
Now 25, he was 16 when he started Anderson Trail, which markets the company’s flagship product, a soft granola in three flavors: original, blueberry and peanut butter graham cracker. The company recently underwent a rebranding, and more “snackable” oat-based products are in the pipeline, he notes.
After two months of toying with recipes, Anderson knew he’d landed on a winner after passing out samples of his concoction at a Boy Scout campout. “It was all gone by midnight on Friday,” he recalled.
And a company was born.
Rising to the Occasion
What inspires an elementary-aged kid to not just create a company but also to stick with the idea, growing it into a bona-fide business? Beyond that, how does a youth filter out the typical daily distractions and focus instead on the finer points of free enterprise?
Marlo Adelle Greta
Marlo Adelle Accessories
“It’s not easy,” said 20-year-old Matt Burke, who owns TCU Game Day with brother Daniel, 25, and best friend Zach Johnston, 20. “It’s all day, every day. What keeps me going is just creating. And I’m a stress junkie. I need a certain level of stress just to go about my day.”
Which is a good thing, seeing as how things get mighty tense during football season, when the trio sets up specially designed Game Day yard flags in neighborhoods surrounding TCU.
“Last year, we did around 120 flags,” Daniel said. “We’re expecting to do about 300 this year.”
They put up the flags on Thursday and take them down on Sunday.
Matt Burke says providing premium-grade follow-through helped him curry favor with dubious clients, who were prone to second-guessing the preteen. “When I was DJing, I had a ton of [age-related] issues,” he said. To counter that, he “always gave excellent customer service” in the form of thank-you notes and phone calls, which engendered trust and goodwill.
The brothers Burke are no strangers to capitalism.
“I started a car detailing service when I was 9 and ran that for a couple of summers,” Matt said. “But I only did the interiors because I was way too short to do the outside.”
Lack of stature, it seems, isn’t the only challenge with which youthful leaders must contend. They also must contend with image.
“When I was in middle school, it was hard to convince people that I wasn’t just sitting there playing video games,” Cadiz said of the time he spent tweaking clients’ computers. But those skeptics quickly turned to devotees after just a few keystrokes. Like magic, the pre-adolescent pro would have their once-unruly systems up and running again.
Then faster than you can say “control-alt-delete,” Cadiz amassed a faithful following.
It’s hard not to harken back to Apple impresario Steve Jobs and Microsoft mogul Bill Gates when chatting with Cadiz. Both are renowned for their high-tech wizardry and visionary business sense;Jobs and Gates also got their start as young gurus.
“I look up to entrepreneurs like them who have been able to take their idea from start to a reliable, viable company because it’s not easy,” said Cadiz, whose brother gifted him with a programming book at age 6.
A voracious reader of computer manuals (yes, we’re serious!), the pint-size student quickly soaked up its contents. Incidentally, all that learning enlightened him on the world of password protection, which he eagerly demonstrated to his kindergarten teacher.
“I set the password on her computer, and she banned me from it for a week,” Cadiz recalled with a mischievous grin. But, as luck would have it, she lifted the ban after just a couple of days: The hapless instructor needed computer help, and the “little businessman” was the only person capable of helping.
It was fashion sense, not function keys, that roused Marlo Adelle Greta’s interest in the corporate world. When she was 14, Greta launched her eponymously named business, Marlo Adelle. Now 21, the online retailer of feather-adorned hair accessories is every bit the consummate professional. But, she admits, getting people to see her as such isn’t always a piece of cake.
“On one hand, it can be beneficial because people want to support you as a young entrepreneur; they don’t see you as a threat. Then again, they also don’t take you seriously,” said Greta, an Austin native whose business has been spotlighted in Seventeen magazine. “So from a young age, I’ve positioned myself as someone older.”
Arlington resident Chris Tracey launched Gymdoll with partners Chris Phillips, 28, and Cory Peters, 29. Although well-acquainted with the rigors of entrepreneurship — Tracey was entrenched in web development and computer programming at age 11 and ran an online advertising business with Phillips and Peters at 14 — the 28-year-old still grapples at times with a generation-gap mentality.
“It’s not as bad as it used to be. But you do run into ‘old-fashioned-type’ businesspeople who may not take you seriously,” said Tracey, who debuted his online fitness apparel company in mid-June.
Gymdoll’s mix includes tanks and tees designed especially for women, with other products planned.
“Being a younger entrepreneur, that’s one of the obstacles you run into. … But after you get that [entrepreneurial] bug and see [your idea] build into something, you can’t go back,” Tracey said.
Bring on the Benefits
So what’s the remedy when customers seem hesitant to partner with younger-than-average entrepreneurs?
Chris Tracey, Chris Phillips, Cory Peters
“We deal with it by investing in technology to create lower-cost services for clients,” like next-gen GIS (geographic information system) mapping and cloud computing, said Jesse Hejny, 28, president/co-founder of Purple Land Management, a Fort Worth-based oil and gas company that offers lease acquisition, project management and title services.
His partner and fellow TCU alum, Bryan Cortney, 29, is CEO. The duo rolled out Purple Land in early 2010. (If the name sounds familiar, it’s probably because their natural gas-powered Chevy pickup sits conspicuously in the parking lot, which fronts Hulen Street. It’s emblazoned with their company logo.)
Hejny and Cortney stress no-holds-barred professionalism — that’s the “Purple Way,” they say — as another antidote to any skepticism posed by potential clients who may view them as the antithesis of “old-school” oil and gas execs.
“We learned a lot about business from playing football for Coach [Gary] Patterson,” said Hejny, who was a defensive end; Cortney was a punter. “He runs a tight ship, and that’s how we’ve been from Day One with this company.”
“We both have a relentless drive, which came out as youth in athletics,” Cortney added. “Then when we graduated, we applied that same relentless drive in our business.”
It’s that get-up-and-go — coupled with a “giver’s mentality,” the pair says — that helps keep any age-centric doubts at bay.
“It’s going to be a long, hard road and you’re going to hear ‘no,’ ” he said. “But it’s OK. It’s the relentless pursuit of the big-picture concept and how you react and respond when things do happen.”
Gymdoll’s Tracey says the solution rests in consistent delivery of stellar results.
Chris Powers, 25, and Andrew Curtis, 26, founders of Fort Worth-based real estate investment and development firm Powers & Curtis, agree.
“Real estate is definitely an ‘older person’s’ business,” Powers said. “But it’s one of those things where if your first couple of deals work out — which ours have — people will trust you no matter how old you are.” (Two of those deals, incidentally, are this magazine’s 2011 and 2012 Dream Homes.)
Curtis, in fact, contends their youth is a boon.
“I think [our age] works to our advantage because people see we’re young and hungry,” he said. “Every deal is a make or break, so we’ve always been on top of our game. [Our age] adds a high level of motivation.”
Powers concurs. “In most cases, we don’t say our age up front,” he said. “Then people see what we can do and, if anything, are more impressed than seeing it as a risk factor.”
Twenty-something status also allows entrepreneurs to plan on a more protracted timeline than those who are more advanced in years, Purple Land’s Hejny says
“Because we are so young, we can make decisions based on where we see our company 20 to 30 years from now, not 20 to 30 days,” he said. Purple Land acquired its first client, Chesapeake Energy, in 2010. The company currently does business in more than 20 states.
“Early on, it took a lot of convincing,” said 28-year-old Red Sanders, president of script-to-screen production company Red Productions, of the age issue. “Now, not so much. When we seek new clients, there’s definitely some trust that has to be earned. But I’m glad there is. It keeps us working hard.”
As for Sanders’ exceptional work ethic, he nods to his mom and dad.
“My parents gave me a lot of freedom. They trusted me,” said Sanders, who first realized the fruits of his own labors during his initial foray into the self-employment sector; he hawked tomatoes from the family garden. “And with that trust, it gave me all the more reason to want to perform and not screw up.”
Decoding the Difference
Sanders isn’t alone in his age-defying maturity. The entire lot of our gifted group exudes professional prowess and poise that belie their birthdays. Is it nature? Is it nurture? Or is it something more esoteric?
Bryan Cortney, Jesse Hejny
Purple Land Management
Believe it or not, all of our interviewees shrugged off notions that they’re somehow “special.” Sure, they know they’ve accomplished more at their young ages than many people do in a lifetime, but they also maintain that much of their success comes from working hard and aligning themselves with like-minded folks. Oh, and having top-tier entrepreneurial DNA doesn’t hurt either, they note.
“Almost everyone in my family has been an entrepreneur, so they set a high bar for me as far as success goes,” said real estate pro Curtis.
A precocious teen turned savvy businesswoman, who has even sat on panels postulating on the entrepreneur ideal (with fellow speakers three times her age, no less), Greta says her zeal for capitalism stems from her lineage and her upbringing.
“Both my parents and grandparents are entrepreneurs. So it’s second nature,” she explained.
TCU Game Day’s Matt Burke points to his dad and granddad as the source of his entrepreneurialism.
“It runs in the blood,” he said. “I think you are born with a business mind and then trained by your surroundings.”
Tracey would likely see eye-to-eye with Burke on that concept. His older half-sister, Tiffany Hughes, is a self-employed Dallas-area Web designer who embodies the same entrepreneurial mindset as Tracey. Here’s the interesting part: They met for the first time when Tracey was 12 but didn’t forge a relationship until he was 23.
“We started hanging out and instantly realized we shared a lot of the same passions and had very similar personalities,” he said. “We soon began working together on various Web development projects. In the last couple of years, we both became very busy with our own projects, but we still help each other out on things.”
Although its link to genetics is impossible to prove, it stands to reason that entrepreneurial prowess could be passed from parents to progeny.
That said, the ability to build your own business isn’t reserved solely for the lucky inheritors of good genes.
“I definitely think it’s something you can learn,” Greta said during a break between her college courses at TCU, where she is a fashion merchandising senior.
If you don’t love it, our mold-breaking bunch says, you’ll surely leave it, so pick a profession that will please you for the long haul.
“Find something you’re passionate about, something you can see yourself doing for a long time,” said Anderson, whose passion for his product has been undergirding his decisions and fueling his drive since the day he unwittingly chomped down on too-crunchy granola.
Powers parallels Anderson’s sentiment.
“I don’t consider this work,” Powers said of his principal/broker role. “It’s a passion. I’m excited every day to come to work. I want to create my own destiny. And being an entrepreneur, you hold the key.”
All for One
Although entrepreneurship connotes individualism, it takes a village, these young people profess, to raise a successful brainchild.
Hannah Scheideman Witten
“There’s no way I’d be able to do this alone,” said Sanders, who has six full-time staffers. “Our team is awesome, and I would by no means be half the entrepreneur I am today without them. … This isn’t about being independent. It’s about being interdependent and how we all sharpen each other.”
It’s that sort of symbiotic relationship that buttresses Purple Land Management, its leaders contend.
“We have a mutual respect for what each of us brings to the table,” Hejny said. Both he and Cortney worked in the oil and gas business for four-and-a-half years before forming Purple Land. “Bryan’s very analytical. I’m more apt to make a decision and move on. And we have a mutual respect for what each of us brings to the table. We are a really cool team.”
Although he worked as a sole proprietor until just this year, Anderson emphasizes the importance of teamwork.
“As soon as you can, take an inventory of your strengths and weaknesses and then find a business partner who can complement what you’re not so good at,” he said. Anderson recently brought on a 40-something former Frito-Lay exec, who will serve as full-time CEO, freeing Anderson to focus on product development and other issues.
Tracey, too, points to the influence of others as the catalyst for his leap into corporate America. But his motivation ran even deeper than that.
“I grew up kind of poor and wanted to get past that,” Tracey said. “I also never wanted to do the 9-to-5 thing. And I have great mentors who are entrepreneurs as well and who inspire me to keep pushing.”
Just the Beginning
Sanders, a TCU grad who grew up in Grapevine and founded his Fort Worth-based company in 2005, started out at Tech Fort Worth, as did Jarrett Cadiz.
For the uninitiated, Tech Fort Worth is a not-for-profit business incubator that helps aspiring entrepreneurs evolve their innovative technologies from embryonic ideas into sustainable commercial enterprises. The organization is a public-private partnership of the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, the City of Fort Worth and the North Texas business community at large.
“In 2005, we were accepted into the Tech Fort Worth incubator,” said Sanders, who counts David Minor, the first director of the Neeley Entrepreneurship Center at TCU’s Neeley School of Business, as his most influential mentor. “It was a really cool atmosphere with others in startup mode.”
It’s when he officially brought Red Productions into being that things truly began to take shape for Sanders and his crew.
“That was the real 2.0 of what I was doing,” said Sanders, who started a local DJ business at age 12. “Everything else was like being a ‘baby entrepreneur.’ ”
Besides knowing almost instinctively that he wanted to run a business of his own making, Sanders also was adamant in his desire to root his company in Cowtown. Although he travels to Los Angeles each month for a one-week stay, he has no plans to acquire a California ZIP code.
“Fort Worth will always be home base,” Sanders says, noting that instead of headquartering his company in production-saturated Hollywood, he decided from the get-go that he’d much rather be a big fish in a smaller pond.
Among its numerous big-time projects, Red Productions released its second feature film, indie comedy thriller Searching for Sonny, Aug. 28. Starring Jason Dohring, Minka Kelly and Masi Oka, the full-length movie was filmed entirely in Fort Worth, save for two opening scenes in New York. Eagle-eye viewers will surely spot Ol’ South Pancake House and Trinity Valley School in several scenes, but Searching for Sonny was filmed “all over town,” Sanders said.
And speaking of searching, while Sanders admits he’s always on the lookout for new ideas, there’s something to be said for time-tested concepts — sometimes.
“On certain things, don’t reinvent the wheel,” Sanders advised. “With other things, totally smash it.”