BHP seniors Jed Cole and Phillip Niels started their own custom apparel business, Cole Niels & Co., together in 2011, and have printed close to 50,000 shirts since then and continue to bring on new customers. There were some bumps along the way, but their business has expanded significantly since that time and so has their knowledge of what it takes to run your own business. Jed will go to McKinsey after graduation and Phillip has one more year in the MPA program, but both plan to continue growing Cole Niels & Co. We sat down with them to learn more about the challenges they faced and the lessons they learned.
What is Cole Niels & Co.’s niche?
Phillip: We have positioned ourselves to serve student organizations, fraternities and sororities. They could get the same deliverable from other vendors, but our service is unique and valuable.
Jed: Leadership in student organizations and Greek organizations turns over each year. Our value proposition is that the new person coming in to handle orders won’t have to start from scratch. We tell each girl from the beginning that they can be as creative as possible, and we will take care of everything else. Because we know what they need from their previous orders and have a very high level of service, it is very easy on them to hit the ground running.
How did the idea for this come about? Had you always been interested in starting your own business?
Phillip: BHP brought the two of us together. We both had talked about wanting to start a business. We were on a train in Scotland, studying abroad the summer after our sophomore year, and that is when we really started talking about the business and how it could work. I had familial ties to screen printing shops and there was clear need, so it made sense. Jed got us our first client that August to do a print job for OU weekend.
Tell me more about how you got the business off the ground.
Jed: I called a girl I knew who was the apparel chair for her sorority and asked if we could lighten the burden on her by making their shirts and she agreed to let us do their OU shirts. On our first order we made some mistakes with trademark issues and therefore didn’t get to print all of the items. We learned a valuable lesson with that order to promise less and deliver more. From there I started connecting with other sorority apparel chairs and asking if we could work with them. The first quarter we had only worked with two sororities, but by the end of our first year of business, we were serving more than 10 groups, including fraternities and other student orgs.
Phillip: The business is very seasonal, so in the fall it is a bit slower, but by that spring we had a lot of orders. We have grown pretty drastically.
How did your coursework and BHP community help you in starting the business?
Phillip: Being in BHP, you are surrounded by natural entrepreneurs. The coursework along with the social aspect of it was inspiring. We have learned to be analytical and thoughtful in our decisions.
Jed: We started it in our junior year, so we had built a lot of the skills we needed in our classes. It felt very natural and comfortable to us.
Phillip: We also had to learn a lot along the way about how to start a business – things we hadn’t learned in a classroom. We had family and professors support us and offer advice.
What advice do you have for other students wanting to start a business while also managing school and other commitments?
Phillip: My attitude is that although as a student you will spend a lot of time in class, if you manage your time properly, you can accomplish pretty much anything. We did a lot of planning, and kept each other accountable. It is also crucial to be flexible. I think any student in BHP can accomplish whatever they set out to do, if they really set their mind to it, stay disciplined, and are passionate.
Jed: One of my favorite quotes is “don’t let school interfere with your education,” said by Mark Twain. I think that is very applicable. Starting our business has been an education in its own right. I think it is really fun and exciting and it is great working with a friend. It is like the greatest group project ever.
What were and are the biggest challenges you faced?
Jed: Being able to balance the line between friendships and customers. Our business revolves around the fact that we are friends with our clients and when something doesn’t go right, it is more personal because we feel like we have disappointed our friends. It makes it harder to leave work at work and not take it home with you.
Phillip: Being an entrepreneur, there is never a moment of the day when my work is not on my mind. I am always thinking about what needs to be done next for the business, so that has made it a bit harder for me to manage my time and give time to other projects and organizations.
How do you plan to keep the business growing after you graduate and leave campus?
Jed: Phil is MPA so he will be on campus another year. I will have to take on more of a supportive role since I will be in Dallas. We are going to try to bring a sophomore BHP student into the business next year to keep it going while we can help facilitate forming relationships with the new apparel chairs before we leave. We hope to then pass off some of the workload to them once Phil graduates. We will always want to be involved, even when we move to other cities.
Phillip: We have done a good job of streamlining our process, so I think we can pass that on pretty easily. With our oversight, I think we will continue to grow and refine our services.
When you reflect upon your time in the BHP and on the 40 Acres, what do you think will stand out most to you?
Phillip: I was so excited when I got in to the program, but didn’t really know what it was going to mean to me. Now, I feel very fortunate to have been in the BHP and received such a strong education. I don’t think we would be where we are with the business without BHP. We are used to doing things at a high level. More than anything, the friendships will stand out along with having created a business that is successful. It is fun walking around campus and seeing everyone wearing a shirt that you helped make. We have made more than 50,000 shirts now.
Jed: It has been fun to start a business that meshes so many of our interests. We have gotten to meet so many new people, make new friends, and help organizations. It is the same thing we are doing in other orgs we are involved in, but it is also a business. It is also fun to see people happy when they receive their orders.
What are you most looking forward to about this new phase of your life?
Phillip: I am excited about starting another business in the future that is bigger, but also merges my interests like this one did.
Jed: We are both going to see what it is like to work for large businesses. I am going to Mckinsey and Phillip is interning at Bain this summer. I am excited to get back together after we have worked in this new big business environment and look at starting a business through a new lens. I think we would both like to start another business together again in the future. I never imagined that I would have a business capable of putting me through college and so it’s exciting to think of how high the ceiling can be 4 years from now as we expand our horizon’s and ambition’s.