I started my first business as a junior in college. It changed my life. I’ve never written publicly about the whole experience. I think it’s time to share. This is the story of GradStreet.
March 2017 - I was $8,000 in the hole. I had borrowed it from aunts and uncles with the promise that I’d return it with interest. I had 90 days to sell 1,000 graduation gowns...
Backing up a bit. As a student, I had always been on the lookout for a business opportunity, but was having a hard time finding anything... Finally, one day my junior year it occurred to me that graduation caps and gowns was probably a slept-on market.
I noticed my friends were paying 40, 60, even 80 dollars for a cheap polyester cap and gown from the school bookstore. A quick look ok Alibaba told me it costed about $4-5 to produce each one 👀
I estimated I could manufacture, ship, and distribute for about $10 each. That meant I could cut the price in HALF and still make a descent margin.
I thought, if all of my graduating friends tell just TWO other people about this, I could probably sell ~1,000. I dried out my savings & borrowed money from relatives (after much convincing) to purchase and ship the gowns. From that moment, I had about 90 days till the ceremony ⏳
The idea was that students would pre-order online and then pick it up nearby campus during set time-slots. I set up a simple shopify store, and then hit the streets...
Pretty much every senior student I talked to was down to buy from me. But I didn’t have enough time to rely on word of mouth. Out of necessity, I pioneered an obnoxious but very effective advertising tactic: pasting ads to surface of the sidewalk.
I experimented with a lot of different advertising techniques for GradStreet, but this one method remains my legacy amongst the students at UCLA. You could not ignore it. Every 10 feet there was another one. Within days, I was seeing huge surges of traffic to the site.
Distribution day #1 arrived. I was so excited. I hired some help and set up a table on campus. Big mistake. “YOU CAN’T DO THAT HERE 👿, I’m calling UCPD, you can’t do business on school grounds!!” It was my arch-nemesis, the manager of UCLA’s graduation store. Pissed
We had to relocate fast. I told the line of people to meet us instead at the edge of campus. My team and I grabbed threw our boxes on a cart and wheeled over, a line of customers trailing behind us.
The rest went pretty smooth. Until the next day when the sprinklers went off all over our inventory...
In the end, the hustle paid off. I sold my 1,000th unit about a week before commencement. It was an incredible feeling to see it all come together. The product was relatively trivial, but making even a small impact felt awesome 🤩
From those 90 days I ended up making about $25k in revenue, 12k profit. It was more exciting and lucrative than any work experience I had ever had prior. I haven’t held a job since.
I went on to expand the business in the following years to a dozen other universities in southern California. When I graduated, I turned down an offer from Accenture to continue on this entrepreneurial journey that all started here.
Thanks for reading :)
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