Tag: UW-Madison

Entrepreneur Profile: Wisconsin Relic Founder Bryon Shannon

Note: This post is the first in a new series called “Entrepreneur Profiles.”  These posts will focus on an interesting entrepreneur who I’ve gotten to know and hopefully provide a window into their business that you might not otherwise find in a newspaper or magazine.

Bryon Shannon is the founder of Wisconsin Relic, an apparel company that he started in January 2009.  Bryon graduated with a degree in Management and Real Estate from the University of Wisconsin‘s business school and started Wisconsin Relic while he was still a student.  He describes Wisconsin Relic as:

Wisconsin Relic is an apparel company that I started in January 2009.  It is a creative, colorful brand centered on shirt slogans that resonate with young people in Wisconsin. We sell clothing on our website, www.wisconsinrelic.com, as well as through stores such as the University Bookstore in Madison and Milwaukee.  Wisconsin Relic is a lifestyle brand providing premium quality apparel that celebrates the Midwest and its young pioneers.  We sell vintage, organic and Wisconsin Relic original tees at numerous outlets, as well as on WisconsinRelic.com.

Here are a few of Bryon’s shirts:

Nathan Lustig: How did you come up with the idea for Wisconsin Relic and why did you start the business?

Bryon Shannon: I got sick of walking around campus and seeing red and white Wisconsin t-shirts.  I knew I could design some pretty cool tees for kids in the state that would be more interesting than the traditional red and white Wisconsin shirts.  I’d consider myself a very creative and trend-savvy person and keep up to date on social culture through print media and online blogs, so I thought that I could do something based around Wisconsin.

NL: Did you have any experience before you started Wisconsin Relic?

BS: I didn’t have much experience starting a business, but during school, I had attended case study training at the Harvard Business School and competed in an entrepreneurship competition at the London School of Economics.  I got to travel to London and compete alongside other people interested in entrepreneurship and it was a good learning experience.

I had also worked at Abercrombie & Fitch and was a consultant to Fair Indigo Clothing Company and had done some graphic design and marketing for brands and had done a some modeling as well.  Earlier in college, I was the branch manager for a college focused magazine and newspaper that was just breaking into the UW market and I was a founding member of my frat.  Overall, I had a good foundation before I started Wisconsin Relic.

NL: Many founders of startups have some sort of an “ah-ha moment” either when they first get the idea for their company or after they’ve been in business that makes the business work.  Did yo have one and what was it?

BS: My biggest ah-ha moment was during Mifflin! (NL note: The Mifflin Street Block Party is an alcohol-fueled campus-wide block party that occurs each spring right before finals) Imagine an intelligent revelation coming from Mifflin, suprising!

Tons of people were coming to our website to buy Mifflin Street Block Party tees and that really helped raise awareness for our company and brand.

NL: So you had some initial success, what was the biggest challenge you had to overcome starting Wisconsin Relic?

BS: Managing money. You always assume that when you get a big sale you’ll make alot of money. When the University Bookstore ordered 300+ shirts, we got really excited, and then realized we needed to print and give them 300 shirts, and we weren’t going to get paid for a month, so cash flow all of a sudden became an issue. The hardest thing is having enough free cash on the side for the company and knowing what is a good investment for the company and what isn’t.

NL: Do you have any funny stories or amusing anecdotes about starting or running the company?  Do people ask you “when are you going to get a real job?”

BS: Haha, that question is most frequent question I hear these days. My great uncle owned his own sign company and said people always think being your own boss is easy because you can get away working just half a day. To that he said, “yes and I have to pick out what 12 hours that’s going to be.” Just shows that owning your own company is way more difficult than getting a “real job” which sometimes makes real jobs tempting, but sometimes not as rewarding in the end.

Funniest anectdote is getting called by Pabst Blue Ribbon’s Legal Deptartment with a threat to sue if we do not stop selling our Mifflin tee (It was inspired by the PBR logo). They laid off once they found out we were a student company, but it did make for a fun “limited edition” shirt.

NL: What is the most fun part of running your company?  The least?

BS: Being your own boss and being your own boss. You can do whatever you want, and make your business something you are really proud of and connect with, but also, there is no paycheck and no one above you telling you to get up and do something when it gets rough, so there is alot of responsibility.

NL: What/who has been the biggest help to you and your company?

BS: Financially Allen Dines at the University’s Office of Corporate Relations, and the Student Business Incubator for grants and office space respectively. Also my parents for helping fulfill online orders and supporting my ideas.

NL: What are three websites you check everyday?

BS: nyt.com, concreteloop.com, everyoneisfamous.com, hypem.com

NL: What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting a startup?

BS: As Richard Branson said, “Screw it, just do it,” and then stick with it. It is so difficult to actually bring yourself to action, and then once you do, you will encounter so much opposition, so many obsticles that you want to toss the business sometimes, so you’ll need alot of determination.

NL: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.  Do you have any other interesting stories, facts, advice to share?

BS: No problem.  I’d tell people to join networks, ie. Capital Entrepreneurs, and share ideas and resources. It makes business easier and more interesting.

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College is the Best Time to Start a Business

I was talking with a friend who is in the UW Business School about a discussion in one of his classes about the best time to start a business.  Most of the class believed that the best time to start a business was 5-10 years after college.  They argued that it would be best to start a company after working a job for a few years, building up savings and learning about how the business world works.  Its my feeling that this is the conventional wisdom.  I think both the students and conventional wisdom are dead wrong. 

College is the best time start a company.  In college, you have very few, or no, responsibilities.  You most likely are not married and do not have kids.  You probably do not have a mortgage or a car payment each month.  You are not tied down in a job or a specific city and can live on comparatively small amounts of money.  You have freedom and lots of free time and are surrounded by other smart, like minded students.  These smart students are the perfect place to find partners.  Your only responsibilities are to pay your tuition (which can be tough), go to a few classes and get passing grades (and have fun).  If your company fails, you have plenty of time to either start another or get a job.

Universities also provide many resources to student business owners that graduates would have a much harder time accessing.  For example, I entered ExchangeHut into the Burrill Business Plan Competition during my sophomore year.  This competition was a free way to learn how to write a business plan, present to a panel of judges and make connections in the local startup community.  I also met my lawyer during the competition and made connections in the press that I would not other wise have been able to make if I was not a student.  Not only are there student papers that love to write about student startups, but traditional media love a story about student entrepreneurs, whereas it can be much harder to get press if you are older.  Students also are able to use University Health to cut down the costs of health care and have access to library research materials, free wireless internet and much more.

Additonally, lack of market knowledge can actually help startups.  College students may be more likely to try new, innovative ideas that others would dismiss out of hand.  They have no history to protect and may be more willing to take risks that others might not.

After graduation, most grads look for a job and start to earn a salary.  After a few years of making decent money at a job, they have probably upgraded their lifestyle, making it harder to live on a smaller salary.  Many college grads are married or are in serious relationships 5-10 years after graduation.  Some have kids and many own houses.  It is much harder to quit a decent job and take the big risk of starting your own company when you are used to a paycheck every two weeks.  Its even harder if you have a spouse or kids.  The time commitment required to be run a successful startup can take a toll on family life.  Its also harder to find potential partners, as many people in your network will also be settled in their jobs.  You might dismiss ideas because “in your experience, you know companies don’t work like that.”

Some may say that students cannot start companies while they are in college because they have to pay their way thought school.  I would argue that many students can do better starting a company than working 15 hours a week as a bartender.  Even if they fail, they will have something interesting to talk about during job interviews.  Companies are looking for smart people who have skills and starting a businesses teaches you these very skills.

While it may be more comfortable to start a company with a financial cushion under you, I believe that the benefits of starting early outweigh the benefits of waiting.  College is the best time to start a company: it provides you with access to smart people, university resources, discounted health care and easier press coverage, all during a period when you have limited responsibility and hours of free time.  If you are in college and thinking of starting a business, go for it!  What’s the worst that could happen?  At least you’ll be avoiding the Business School Way of Life!

UW Grad New CEO of Yahoo

Carol Bartz was named the new CEO of Yahoo! today, replacing Jerry Yang.  I know nothing about her, other than she’s a UW grad, which is good enough in my book!

Yahoo! faces huge challenges ahead and hopefully she can turn them around.
EDIT: My brother informs me that Bartz gave a guest lecture in one of his UW Computer Science classes this year and that she seemed smart and interesting.

What do you DO all day?

What do you DO all day?
I’ve been asked this question by so many people in the last few weeks since ExchangeHut was acquired.   Its been asked with varying degrees of disdain what seems like hundreds of times in the last few months.  From professors to friends, to other entrepreneurs to people at the bars, not to mention my parents, I try to come up with something interesting and meaningful for each audience.
So, what does a college student who just sold his first business do all day?
At the start of the fall semester, I was 11 credits from graduating with a degree in Poli Sci from Wisconsin.  I decided it would be worthwhile to take these 11 credits in two semesters for many reasons, which I will go into later.  As a result, I’m currently taking two classes, both on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
I try to work 1-2 hours per day consulting for other startups by doing research, coming up with marketing ideas and helping with business plans.   Its usually some of the most interesting parts of my week.
I love to read.  I always have, ever since I was in grade school.  I read the Economist cover to cover each week, along with lots of random blogs and books that I find.  I try to spend 2 hours a day reading various books, blogs and magazines.
I’ve also been trying to spend at least 2 hours per day researching new business ideas.  Many days, I spend closer to 4 hours and as many as 8, but on average, its probably closer to 2.  I’ll usually try to read just about anything relating to new ideas that I get to try to get a better feel for new markets.
Working Out
I try to either ride my bike every day, whether its outside or on my trainer.  Other days, I’ll play racket ball with one of my roommates or just mess around at the SERF.  Depending on the day, I’ll try to spend at least an hour a day doing something active.
Sports and Entertainment
Since I’m still a college student and am only taking two classes, I try to make sure I enjoy the college lifestyle while I still can.  I also have student season tickets to football, basketball and hockey and go to all of the games with my friends.