There were definitely some snags en route to the launch of SuziLlo Designer Backpacks. The first crack at a prototype was more parachute than backpack. The PowerPoint presentation in front of the investor panel wasn’t exactly polished. And a communication error with the manufacturer led to some of the packs’ reflective silver fabric being sewn wrong side out.
But given that the company was started by two sixth graders, you can hardly fault them for a few stumbles.
Logan Richards and Suzy Mahlman are the co-founders of SuziLlo, a company created through the Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!) offered by the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce. The program, which is accepting applications for the start of its third year, is open to students from sixth to twelfth grades.
The seven-month, after-school program meets weekly and takes students through the process of creating a business or social movement.
It begins with brainstorming unmet needs that the entrepreneurs want to fill, whether it’s an app, a service, a physical product or an organization working toward a worthy cause.
The students learn how to do market research, develop and present a business plan to potential investors, share their product at a trade show, and wend their way through the regulatory and financial hoops needed to establish their business. Students are assisted by business professionals who serve as mentors.
“They don’t have to know what they want to do when they come, they just have to want to be entrepreneurial,” said Betty Capestany, president and chief executive officer of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce. YEA! is a national program active in more than 100 communities in 38 states.
Logan and Suzy, who are now in eighth grade at Bellevue’s Tillicum Middle School, found that backpacks sold commercially were either too small to fit their books or too large and heavy to cram into school lockers. So they decided to create a lightweight, waterproof, expandable backpack.
Then they had to build it.
“We tried to make it ourselves and it didn’t work,” said Logan. “We didn’t use a pattern. We cut stuff up and sewed it together and it was a parachute.”
Seattle Fabrics, which is where they found the material for the packs, recommended a professional prototype maker who helped them get started. From the prototype, they were able to figure out a price-per-unit and draft a detailed business plan.
Unfortunately they spent more time on the written plan than fine-tuning the presentation of their strategy. So when they made their pitch to the investor panel convened by the entrepreneur program, SuziLlo was among the teams awarded the lowest amount of startup funding: $200.
“I was sad,” said Suzy, “but everyone else was older than us and had more experience with businesses.”
The YEA! program was ending soon after the pitch, and it was up to the girls to keep the project going. So team SuziLo turned to the internet for help.
They borrowed a phone from Suzy’s mom to shoot a video, wrote the story of their business, and created a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds they needed to do a first round of production. People were asked to donate $10 and receive a thank-you note, or buy a pack for $60.
In 30 days, the online campaign raised $2,030, beating their goal by more than $100.
The entrepreneurs found a manufacturer in Tukwila to sew the backpacks and they produced 100 packs in black and combinations of blue, purple and pink.
From there the girls created a homepage, a Facebook page and began offering their backpacks through Amazon. Each step took more time, work and hassle than expected, Suzy and Logan said. But now the business is profitable and the girls are trying to decide whether to do another production run once their current supplies run out.
Another YEA! participant, Alex Erling, did better with the investor panel.
Alex, who was in seventh grade when he enrolled in the program, landed $600 from the investors to start Brute Jute, a business selling reusable shopping bags made out of jute, a strong, environmentally-sustainable, natural fiber. Alex was inspired to create the bags based on his own frustration unpacking sagging, plastic grocery bags and because of his concern about plastic pollution.
Now a ninth-grade student at Bellevue Big Picture School, Alex is promoting Brute Jute on his company homepage, Facebook, Pinterest and Amazon. Online technology has been useful throughout the endeavor.
“It’s much easier nowadays to market and spread the word, and to find suppliers,” Alex said.
All of the students were glad for the opportunity to test their entrepreneurial chops through YEA!
“At the beginning [of the program] we were both really shy and didn’t want to talk to anyone,” Logan said. “Now I can make presentations without starting to shake. I can call people now that I don’t know.”
For more information on the Young Entrepreneurs Academy offered through the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, contact Kim Fredericks at 425-213-1211. The program costs $495 per student and scholarships are available. Interested students can download the application or apply online. The application deadline for the 2015-16 program is Sept. 30, 2015.