Davidson teen starts bow-tie company, meets Warren Buffett
05/30/2014 10:37 AM
05/30/2014 12:21 PM
Talk about a resume.
Davidson resident Jake Johnson has been an actor (“Talladega Nights,” “One Tree Hill” and Lifetime’s “Army Wives”), a reality TV guest (Season 2 of “Shark Tank”) and a two-time entrepreneur who counts millionaire Daymond John as a mentor and billionaire Warren Buffett as a fan.
Not bad for a 15-year-old.
These days, Jake and his older sister Lachlan, 19, are busy launching their latest business: Beaux Up, a line of bow tie halves in different patterns that can be mixed and matched, using a clip to connect the separates. The end result is a bow in the front in one fabric, and the knot and back of the bow in another fabric.
Jake, a longtime bow tie wearer, said this option allows for more self-expression – an important selling point for millennial consumers.
And the line taps a growing trend, Lachlan said. Just look at pop stars Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z, sporting bow ties in the pages of magazines.
Jake and Lachlan are self-funding Beaux Up, which is what led Jake to his latest success story: winning the grand prize in Buffett’s “Grow Your Own Business Challenge,” a competition that garnered thousands of entries from aspiring young entrepreneurs around the nation.
Along with the $5,000 grand prize, Jake also got a few minutes with the “Oracle of Omaha” himself. Jake even gave Buffett a few Beaux Up bow ties to add to his own collection.
“He said they would make him a ‘chick magnet,’ ” Jake said.
Beaux Up isn’t the Johnsons’ first foray into entrepreneurship: The three children started their first business when Jake was 8 years old, Lachlan, 12, and sister Erin, 14.
It started with a van ride back from Myrtle Beach. The siblings were arguing in the back seat. Tired of the bickering (“ She’s taking my air!”) their mother, Emily, offered a distraction: What do you wish you had to play with? she asked.
“We threw out random toy ideas,” Lachlan said. “A purse that turns into a hat. ... a baseball cap with golf ball markers.”
The winning idea – dubbed “Flipoutz” – combined all their interests: a silicone bracelet (from fashionista Lachlan) that could hold five different coins that expressed their personalities (from theater-loving Erin).
Kids would then trade – or “flip out” – their coins in a succession of swaps, then go online to see where they ended up (from geocaching-enthusiast Jake).
The family was featured on prime time in Season 2 of ABC’s “Shark Tank,” where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of self-made millionaires and billionaires – and potential investors – including real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran and FUBU fashion line founder Daymond John.
The pressure on the show can be intense, but Jake has long been comfortable on camera. When he was 6, he played the younger version of Ricky Bobby in “Talladega Nights,” filmed partly in Charlotte and Concord. He later appeared on the Lifetime series “Army Wives.”
On “Shark Tank,” two of the panelists, John and Canadian businessman Kevin O’Leary, loved Jake’s idea and agreed to invest – all on the condition that the pending patents were approved. (They’re still waiting.)
In the meantime, Flipoutz appeared on the shelves of Toys R Us and Hallmark, as well as hundreds of independent retailers on five continents.
But there were problems: Turning their idea into a craze required marketing – a lot of it. And as the Johnson kids grew older, they lost interest in silicone bracelets.
So in early 2013, the family sold Flipoutz to consumer-products holding company Wild Craze Inc., for an undisclosed sum, plus stock in the company.
“We’re always looking for a new idea or project to pursue, and after we sold Flipoutz, we had empty hands,” Jake said.
Enter: Beaux Up.
Busy at the sewing machine
Between the attorneys, inventory and patent applications, their parents, Robin and Emily Johnson, invested about $100,000 in Flipoutz.
“With Beaux Up, they’re trying to finance it all themselves,” said Emily.
Lachlan, a rising sophomore in the business school at St. Louis University, is overseeing the business development, everything from applying for a utility patent for the bow tie clip to establishing a parent company, Joxie (Jake + Loxie, Lachlan’s nickname), which would allow them to launch other products as well.
Her latest idea is Stud Statements, little clips that can be added to the Beaux Up bow ties to make for even more customization.
Jake, a rising sophomore at Woodlawn School in Davidson, is overseeing product development.
Using the sewing machine his grandmother gave him for his birthday, he has cut up all of his bow ties to test the new concept. And he’s tapping his high-profile connections.
Over a recent dinner with John of “Shark Tank,” Jake and Lachlan mentioned their latest idea.
John suggested they meet with a friend of his, Emmie Howard, founder of Atlanta-based Southern Proper, a preppy men’s line of clothing sold in more than 250 specialty men’s retail shops.
Howard invited Jake and Lachlan for a barbecue lunch. They discussed potential partnerships, and while nothing was decided, Jake said, Howard did offer one extremely helpful contact: their North Carolina-based manufacturer, Salem Neckwear.
The Randolph County company has since created several small batches of Beaux Up prototypes – including the ones Jake presented to Buffett and several he made for high school buddies to sport at the prom.
Lachlan, now home for the summer, has been canvassing fabric stores such as Mary Jo’s in Gastonia for patterns she thinks will sell. (Her goal: “Keep it classy, creative, fun, young and hip.”) She buys them in 3-yard quantities to keep costs low.
Jake expects one-half of a Beaux Up bow tie will retail for around $22.50, including the clip.
Most recently, they’ve been tapping their network at Independent Youth, an invite-only group of young entrepreneurs from around the country who travel to encourage other youths to start their own businesses.
The 15 or so members of the group include: 16-year-old Hart Main, who founded ManCans, a company that sells candles with scents men like (think bacon, sawdust, new mitt); 14-year-old chef Remmi Smith, who has her own TV show and works with the executive chefs in 500 school districts nationwide; and 16-year-old Jaylen Bledsoe, founder and CEO of Bledsoe Technologies in Missouri – a company worth $3.5 million, Emily said.
Bledsoe is their new website consultant, Lachlan said.
“We have different strengths,” Jake said, smiling. “Jaylen doesn’t know how to tie a bow tie, so we’ll help him with that.”
No driver’s license yet
Amid all the talk of spreadsheets, business advisers and prototypes, it’s easy to forget Jake is not yet old enough for a driver’s license. His card lists his mom’s cellphone number because midday business calls aren’t allowed at school. His friends would rather talk sports than market share.
But the decisions he makes now will shape his future, Jake said, recalling a favorite Buffett quote: “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
“I’m trying to plant the tree,” Jake said, “so that later on I can be sitting in the shade.”
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