Students are told the only way to be successful in the ‘real word’ is to go to class, get good grades, work the system and wait for opportunity to present itself.
As so many graduates will tell you, things don’t often work out that way.
But what would happen if you ignored the system? If you bucked convention and gave yourself permission to be an entrepreneur in your 20s? In your teens?
We’re going to show you it’s possible, by speaking with young Canadians who are shrugging off the traditional description of what it means to be a “student”, and who are already making a name for themselves. Because if they’re doing it, you can to.
First up is Benjamin Stevenson, full-time engineering student, as well as Founder & Creative Director of Alfy Clothing.
“It seems a little crazy to take on a business while in school for engineering, but it keeps me grounded and focused and I love every minute of it.”
How did you get interested in fashion?
I was designing Youtube channel backgrounds and band logos for my friends before I was even in high school. But throughout high school, my love for fashion grew. I spent hours every week looking at clothing to buy, watching videos and viewing lookbooks.
When did you have the spark to start designing clothing?
I was obsessed with this one online store where I bought a majority of my clothing. One day, the website hosted a contest requiring the contestants to design a screen print for a clothing company they carried.
The prize was $1,000. As a young person whose only source of income was a summer job, $1,000 for a winning design seemed like the chance of a lifetime.
I hopped onto good ol’ Photoshop and spent 2 full (school) nights designing a gorgeous print, which, in my mind, entitled me to a $1,000 shopping spree. Well… I didn’t check the guidelines, apparently you had to be a U.S. resident to participate (and 18).
“One morning, it hit me like a brick, “If I can design it for someone else, why can’t I design it for myself?””
Unfortunately, it took me a few years to realize the moral of this story. One morning, it hit me like a brick, “If I can design it for someone else, why can’t I design it for myself?”
Benjamin Alfy went from an idea, to a hobby, to now one of my priorities. I licensed Benjamin Alfy within my last couple of months as an 18 year-old.
How did you raise the money to start your own business?
I wasn’t blessed with an angel investor, or any business related private/public sector funding. Most of the money that I used for the start up was from wages. I was forced to take a year off before attending post-secondary because the program, which I was originally accepted into, got canceled.
I was working at a manufacturing plant on weekends during high school, which then became my full-time job for the year. Not only did the job provide me with the funds to start up Benjamin Alfy, but it also gave me the mental motivation.
Down the road, I’d like to try out some crowd funding. I’ve always been intrigued by it.
So you license your business, you have some designs, you have some money saved, then what?
My first real challenge was building my network with good talent.
Coming out of the gate, I had a laptop, a dslr camera & a couple of adobe design programs. I had some knowledge of HTML from business classes in high school, with some development of that knowledge, I was able to build my storefront online.
The problem was creating actual, tangible products out of the designs. I had no background knowledge in sewing, screen printing or embroidery. This was 100% the hardest thing I had to deal with.
I had to learn a lot of the trades myself. I currently outsource two of the processes to a couple of very skilled local entrepreneurs that I’ve met along the way, and anything else from sewing to packaging, photography to marketing is completed by myself. It took time and experience to find the right rhythm. With my fourth season coming out, it’s become easier with each release.
“It was also hard for anyone to take an 18 year-old kid seriously.”
Is it difficult to deal with big businesses as a newcomer?
So, I’ve dealt with countless businesses from Orillia to Mississauga. I even walked away from my roots at one point & tried to get involved with some Chinese manufacturing, but high MOQs (the minimum order quantity that a supplier requires) were a limiter. As a college student, I don’t exactly have money to blow.
Thankfully, I kept it local. But I was thrown on back-burners [by suppliers] because I was using MOQs wherever I ordered (due to limited capital). Because a lot of the processes are now done in house, MOQs aren’t too much of an issue, however I do deal with them on occasion.
It was also hard for anyone to take an 18 year-old kid seriously. But to get around this, I generally used email to build connections before human interactions ever took place.
I assume you go to school for fashion design?
Engineering. I fell in love with engineering for the same reason I fell in love with creating my own business. Problem solving. Problem solving is a trait that’s required to be a successful engineer, as well as a business owner. Math also came pretty easy to me, so engineering seemed like the answer to my question.
It seems a little crazy to take on a business while in school for engineering, but it keeps me grounded and focused and I love every minute of it.
“I just want to ensure that my happiness is so distinguished that it’s contagious for my loved ones & peers.”
What’s next for your business?
Long term plans of mine would be investing in some commercial space, hiring a great team of skilled workers that love their job and focusing on my favorite parts of Benjamin Alfy: marketing, design and photography.
I’m trying to provide myself with a couple of options with school. I just want to ensure that my happiness is so distinguished that it’s contagious for my loved ones & peers. You can bet that wherever I land, however I get there, I’ll be smiling.
Ben is no stranger to the obstacles of starting a business. He’s faced them all. But barriers are inevitable to anything you want to do in life.
Starting a business, or even just learning to start a business, isn’t about becoming the next Bill Gates. It’s about learning to overcome obstacles, connect with an industry and acquire skills you’ll need to stand out in a competitive job market.
Ben just launched his latest season of clothing, which you can check out on the Alfy website. Ben is also going to donate 10% of the proceeds of the blue ‘Comme Ci, Comme Ca’ t-shirt towards the CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association).
*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.