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What I Learned from a High School Startup

 

Marco Brzozowski

 

Apr 15, 2019 · 6 min read

 

I was sitting in my junior-year chemistry class when the girl behind me asked if I could help her out with her startup. At the time, I thought she was just asking me to convince my art teacher to build free silk-screens to make printed t-shirts. Then she told me she had a business license. And then she was having clothes made in China…that she wanted to sell. Obviously, this wasn’t the usual clothing brand that us kids at school always talked about. This was a legitimate opportunity with entrepreneurship. So I said yes.

Dakshina and I sat down in what was probably a Starbucks or coffee shop with a productive atmosphere, and we started brainstorming. The company’s registered name was PALAS, a part of her last name, with a logo already created. I used my Photoshop skills to make it look professional and sleek, and then we moved on to thinking about what kind of clothes to make.

She already had designs in mind and in the works, but we decided to have two simple tops, a dress, a hoodie, and a long-sleeved t-shirt. We had one typical, easy tube top, and the other was a crop-top with a floral design radiating from the collar. The black hoodie had a dragon on the back. The dress was a champagne imitated silk slip dress. The long-sleeved t-shirt was mustard yellow, maybe a bit brighter, with Virginia Woolf’s “I have had my vision” from To The Lighthouse printed on the back in multiple languages.

It is safe to say the choices we made about these five items were impulsive since they weren’t as cohesive as we thought. The colors were a bit random — the styles were all similar but not similar enough to be considered “a line.” We had a nightmare with the measurements to send over to the manufacturer, and then we had issues on the colors that could be provided, since seeing a picture through WhatsApp wasn’t too promising (luckily, our choice of yellow wasn’t horrendous). But we got samples anyway and moved on to the website.

We were too hasty with the designs. This was the first mistake. She definitely had her own unique style to work with, and I had my artistic background. Had we given more time, we could have really knocked it out of the park.

I designed a website on Squarespace, which I would highly recommend, but it’s expensive. Squarespace really allows for a lot of interesting website features, but we were spending too much. Financially, we were really disorganized, but we were able to swing it for a while. We heard things about Shopify and considered switching over, but I had spent entirely too much time with the website I had just created. Had I been more educated on the platforms to use, I would have chosen differently. But we were young and naive and busy with school work, and I had my job in a restaurant. But, in the end, the website came out looking wonderful. Of course, we could have saved money using another platform, but Squarespace really offered a great opportunity to give a clean, classy look to the website with very specific customizations. I wouldn’t consider this to be a mistake at all. I was actually quite impressed with what we were able to create.

We then had to figure out ideas for promotion. We were at square one for a while. We had ads on Facebook and Instagram and targeted specific audiences that still weren’t engaging enough with our posts or accounts. We didn’t have a lot of followers. We thought that, since our personal Instagram profiles were aesthetically pleasing, making a new one from scratch with basically no photos of our products would be easy. It was certainly not.

Had we waited until we had top-notch designs, with all the samples in our possession, then we could have definitely been able to have a great marketing platform to work with. Our disorganization and timing was the second mistake.

This was our silk slip dress. It wasn’t that bad, but we later said that another color might have worked better, as well as a different cut. We had a friend model this within our first couple months of working together.

When we finally had everything together, we started selling — well, at least had our items available to buy. We completely underestimated how much promotion you need to actually have customers reach your website.

We ended up making a few sales, mostly local to friends and their friends. After all, we had inventory sitting around, so we just got rid of as much as we could. In all honesty, we thankfully didn’t make many sales on the website because we were definitely disorganized logistically as well.

This was all over the course of a year. We then were drowning in college applications. Then we got the decisions, and I got into Università Bocconi, here in Milan, Italy, and she got into UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Time passed quickly, and we finally graduated. She was getting ready to move to California, and I was eyebrow deep in Italian bureaucracy to obtain my student visa to move to Italy. We decided to stop trying to make it work, and she kept the license and name for her own future endeavors. After all, there are now nine hours between us, on top of studying for exams and being involved in our new lives. It just isn’t meant to be.

And I’m sure people will read this and say, “You literally didn’t do anything,” or that we “didn’t accomplish anything and just wasted money.” I’m sure kids at school said things like “they think they’re entrepreneurs” or “they actually think they can do it.” I’m sure people, in general, will think that we were foolish to think ourselves capable or that we knew nothing and still know nothing since we’re young. They probably also think we just wasted our time for nothing.

But they’re all wrong. Of course, we learned a lot about what it takes to get your idea or your dream rolling. Yes, it’s difficult. You need to be organized and you need to be on top of everything, which, as teenagers, is almost impossible. You need to educate yourself more than you would expect, and you must make it a habit to assume you never know enough. You must take your time with the product(s) you want to offer and put 110% of your effort into it. Make it a thing to be as unique as you possibly can; to be visible means to have something incredible. Give yourself a direction, a base to what you want to achieve, and don’t lose that focus.

Someone reading this will probably also say, “We know that already.” However, I must reiterate that I learned this all before turning 18, alongside studying for AP exams, finishing schoolwork for my usual high school classes, on top of a demanding restaurant job that I loved. We had the ambition, the inspiration, and the dream to do it, which is all that mattered then and what still matters now.

Your ambition will propel you forward. Your inspiration will keep you focused on your goals. Your dream, if created for the right reasons, will keep you working. You just need to put in 110% of the effort.

I cannot stress the 110% effort enough. Of course we made silly mistakes, but the effort was there. Prepared to clear the known obstacles and face the newer ones, I would start from scratch if we had to do it all over again.

This is obviously a very entrepreneurial mindset. But to think that thousands of people are out there with ideas that are certainly better than mine, the world would undoubtedly be an incredible place with a little determination and creativity.

I went into high school expecting a future career in art — with the intention to study architecture in New York City — but I ended up discovering in a couple of weeks that I wanted to own something of my own. Since then, I’ve taken steps, and I still plan to take many more to make that dream a reality.