There's nothing like a couple of entrepreneurial striplings to make a geezer feel like a hapless failure.
Young whippersnappers such as Andrew Ferenci and Ben Glaze, for example.
Ferenci and Glaze, both 23, are longtime pals who started their first business as high school sophomores selling screen-printed and embroidered sports apparel to school and club teams. By the time they graduated from Wayzata High School, they had banked upward of $20,000.
Then they took a year off to get acclimated to college, Glaze at the University of Michigan and Ferenci at Boston University. But they stayed in touch, regularly bouncing potential business ideas off each other.
In the summer of 2006, after completing their freshman year, they started the College Shack, an online business that sells baseball caps with the names of colleges, sports teams, student organizations and a growing variety of other groups imprinted on the front.
It's an enterprise that kept doubling in size as they progressed through college, reaching $80,000 of sales in 2009, the year they graduated. And with sales up 30 percent so far in 2010 -- and their heaviest sales months coming up this fall and winter -- they're looking for 2010 sales to reach $125,000.
And given an unexpected flurry of sales in April, including $10,000 in orders in one 10-day period, the 2010 total could grow by $50,000, Ferenci said.
That trend offers him hope that business will be brisk enough in the next few months to pay him a salary so he can upgrade his diet from "rice, beans and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."
After graduating, Ferenci and Glaze moved to New York City last summer to take jobs, Glaze as an analyst with a Wall Street hedge fund and Ferenci as a development manager with a firm that creates iPhone applications.
Why abandon the entrepreneurial road? "It seemed like the safe thing to do," Ferenci said on a recent trip to the Twin Cities. But he left the job in March, explaining that "I needed to work for myself."
He now spends full time trying to nudge the College Shack to a point where it not only can pay him a salary, but also Glaze's mother, Leslie. She labors, uncompensated, as shipping, ordering and customer service manager out of the basement of her Plymouth home, now the company's official headquarters. Meanwhile, her son is keeping his job for the time being.
In the beginning...
Ferenci's and Glaze's first business, dubbed Prime Design, started after they heard that some west-metro school and club teams were having trouble finding reasonably priced embroidery and screen printing services for their T-shirts, jackets and other sports apparel.
So they lined up a roster of services with the best prices and began marketing their sportswear to team coaches and managers, financing the business with prepaid orders.
The first summer after their freshman year in college they were back in the game, peddling memory cards and digital cameras online. Alas, that lasted less than a month: "It was a flooded market with very narrow margins," Ferenci said.
Then one of them recalled the on-campus popularity of the Game brand of bar caps, which is not a reference to a college pub, but rather describes the trademark bar embroidered onto the caps by the manufacturer, the Game LLC in Phenix City, Ala.
"Nobody was selling them online, not even the Game," Ferenci said. "They were available only at college bookstores at comparatively steep prices."
So they contacted the company, negotiated a wholesale contract, built a website and with each of them contributing $2,000 from savings, were in business in June 2006.
When they returned to college, they split the chores: Glaze handled shipping out of his dorm room; Ferenci, who had transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, did the marketing and focused on new markets beyond colleges.
The result is a custom business that generates about 35 percent of sales, including caps with embroidered names of groups such as the Erie County, N.Y., Police Academy and U.S. Navy ships, in addition to fraternities and sororities, prep schools and club sports team.
Oh yes, and my favorite: caps ordered by a self-described Massachusetts "carnivore's club" and bearing the acronym M.E.A.T -- which stands, of course, for "Men Eating Animals Together."
Their second year in business, Ferenci and Glaze switched jobs, with Ferenci taking over the shipping chores. By that time the business was growing so fast that his bedroom was soon filled waist-high with inventory, with a narrow path leading to his bed.
Not that it was disorganized: The caps were arranged by school alphabetically, starting with Alabama and Arkansas at the headboard on one side of the bed and flowing around to Vanderbilt and Wisconsin on the other side.
When they returned home the summer of 2008, Leslie Glaze saw that the inventory was getting too big for a college apartment. So she volunteered to keep it in her basement and handle the shipping and related chores, for which the boys gave her a share of the company. Meanwhile, Ferenci is existing on meager savings and sharing an apartment with five other guys as he pushes the College Shack toward success. If you ask the Game folks, however, it already is doing quite well.
"Andrew and Ben were forward-thinking enough to develop the first retail website for bar caps," said Marti Black, an executive sales manager at the Game. "They've been Number 1 for bar caps online" despite the emergence of some large and well-financed competitors.
Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • email@example.com