Whether it starts as a side gig or a passionate new business, college students around the country are opening brands of their own before graduation.
College students are not just students anymore. Many students around the country have jobs on top of their schoolwork to earn extra money. Some work as college tour guides, some work in school offices, and others have off-campus jobs. About 81 percent of undergraduate part-time students and 43 percent of undergraduate full-time students are employed, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
With tuition, books, meal plans, and additional costs, college is expensive. Luckily for Erin Watton, John McGrinder, and Anthony Moody, they work right out of their rooms — running fashion and apparel companies by themselves.
21-year-old Erin Watton, who hails from Milwaukee, WI, is currently a junior at the University of Richmond, and the sole talent behind e.xclusively: a hand-painted apparel company that sells custom painted designs on anything, including denim jackets and handbags for any occasion.
Watton started e.xclusively after spilling ink on her favorite sweatshirt in printmaking class during her freshman year of college. “After covering up the ink with painted stars, I sent a photo to my friends,” Watton said. “They loved the sweatshirt, and begged me to paint theirs. Soon after, I realized I could create a small business out of this painting venture.”
e.xclusively officially started in the summer of 2018. Although Watton was working in retail at the time, she wanted more experience in fashion and marketing. “Because I had no experience of my own to offer in an internship, I created a learning experience for myself,” she said. “I have gained so much experience owning my own business, and I love doing it. If you can do something now and love it, why wait?”
Watton advertises her products through her Instagram, Pinterest, and website. “In the fashion industry, user-generated content and word-of-mouth are how people learn and trust brands,” she said. “For me, when my clients post photos in their custom, hand-painted pieces, their followers trust my business and may even follow along on social media, or purchase a piece themselves.”
With the growth of social media, Watton believes that 2020 is a great time to run a business as a student. New entrepreneurs can decrease their overhead expenses, reach people within their target audience quickly, and gain instant feedback on their products and services as well as content they produce, she said.
Being a student is time-consuming, but Watton has found a balance between classes and work. When she isn’t in class, she is either at a client consultation, sketching and painting designs, posting Instagram content, or updating her website. “When I’m working on e.xclusively, it could be five minutes spent on a social media post or five hours spent painting,” she said. “It definitely depends on my schedule, my orders, and what my goals are at the moment.”
John McGrinder is another student who runs his own business while managing classes and extracurriculars. Originally from Downingtown, PA, McGrinder is a sophomore at James Madison University, and the mind behind Renegade Sports.
Renegade Sports, a sports-focused apparel company, started in 2016 in McGrinder’s sophomore year of high school. The idea for the company arose from a class project with a friend, and was originally called Seal Team Sports.
“My friend Evan knew I was involved in graphic design for sports Instagram pages for fun, but he asked me if I wanted to help him with a new project for his class,” McGrinder said. “I absolutely loved working with sports and designing, and it was a fun way to set aside some extra money for school while doing something I loved.”
Similar to Watton, McGrinder mainly advertises his business through his Instagram. Most of his work is done on his phone or iPad because he makes the designs himself. “I have them with me in case I have an idea for a design while out on the go or at home,” he said. “With big brands like Barstool Sports out there, I always try to get my ideas onto my products and website as fast as possible, to be the first out there with my idea on a certain trend,” he said.
McGrinder has a busy schedule as a student, but he finds time between classes at JMU and work to make designs. “I really work best when I’m inspired by a new player or trending team,” he said. “Not every day for me is involved with creating a design, but I’m always checking on my site, tracking sales, and keeping my eye on the sports world for new ideas.”
Running a store in 2020 as a student allows McGrinder to use his brand as a creative outlet. On top of gaining experience, it allowed him to get involved in marketing before learning about it in any of his major-related classes.
Renegade Sports also helped open doors into the marketing world as this past summer. McGrinder worked with the Denver Broncos Super Bowl 50 MVP, Von Miller, in creating some mock-ups for a shirt to commemorate his 100th sack in this past season. “Overall, running Renegade Sports has been so valuable to me in exploring business and marketing, but also in allowing myself to be more creative outside of schoolwork,” he said.
Another entrepreneur student, University of Richmond sophomore Anthony Moody, owns and operates his clothing company, Redeemed Generation. Moody started his brand when he was 13, and it has been steadily growing ever since.
Moody’s day starts and ends with marketing, which he believes is the most important part of the business. “It’s all about connecting with influencers, commenting on posts, interacting with followers, and building the brand,” he said. “It makes a big difference when companies are active on Instagram, and have a page that really showcases the brand — so that’s really crucial for me.”
In addition to running all the marketing for his business on his Instagram and website, Moody also makes and prints everything in his room. “My room is full of presses, dryers, and paint, because I make it all,” he said. “I’m actually looking for a small office where I’ll be able to work. With the way the business has grown in terms of sales and inventory, it’s a lot to keep in my room.”
Moody originally found his love for art in elementary school, but pencils and paper weren’t enough for him. Being a student and a business owner has been a challenge, and the balance has been one of the most difficult things, “It’s worth it,” he said. “It’s my passion, and it’s what I love doing.”
In addition to Redeemed Generation, Moody also prints clothes for outside groups like dance teams and class reunions. “With all the materials and machines I have in my room, as well as the skills I’ve gained from Redeemed Generation, expanding to print clothes for other people was not that big of a challenge,” he said.
Redeemed Generation is mainly based out of Moody’s dorm room, because the presses and machines make it hard to travel in terms of production. His ideas and art, on the other hand, are constantly on his mind — regardless of where he is.
“My brand has become my life,” he said. “A lot of people around me always plan and take on so much, working solely to build their resume. I just make clothes because I love them, and it’s a way for me to express myself.”
Overall, these three students are just a small glimpse into the larger world of student business owners. Students everywhere are starting their own companies on top of their already-stressful college lives. It’s time we give these students the recognition they deserve. While they’re going to class, doing homework, and writing papers, they’re also running the companies of the future.
Top Photo via e.xclusively on Instagram