Texas MBA Alum’s ‘Spirit Sticks’ Become Latest Schoolyard Craze

This story features Texas Executive MBA alumnus Luis deBonoPaula, MBA ’08. Original story and photos were published in the Fall 2012 edition of Law Notes, the newsletter for the St. Mary’s University School of Law.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

Luis deBonoPaula (third from right), now a second-year law student, is a retired U.S. Air Force combat aviator and officer.

Like most law students, Luis deBonoPaula has many irons in the fire. The retired U.S. Air Force pilot is a husband, father of four, marathon runner and entrepreneur. Maybe it was the 22 years in the military, but deBonoPaula is committed to each duty.

A second-year law student, he has built a reputation as a successful entrepreneur who knows how to make projects work. deBonoPaula has owned several small businesses and guided each to the million dollar-sales benchmark. He’s licensed craft products distributed to Hobby Lobby, Michaels, Target and Wal-Mart, surpassing $20 million in sales. He’s also a judge for the University of Texas’ Global Venture Labs Investment Competition, a prestigious showcase of student companies. He has even mentored one of those companies after the competition, joining its board and helping raise $2 million in venture capital.

The successful entrepreneur has opened and closed the NASDAQ (fourth from right).

His most recent venture, Spirit Monkey, has become the latest schoolyard craze. The company produces cloth, patch-like tags called “spirit sticks” that are used to decorate backpacks, lanyards, instrument cases and key rings. Schools use them to motivate and reward students for achievements such as attendance, reading, sports participation and honor roll.

The idea came to deBonoPaula’s wife, Lisa, who as a Parent Teacher Association (PTA) president, was brainstorming new incentives for students beyond the usual unhealthy foods or worthless trinkets. Lisa thought of cloth tags similar to the ones she’d seen on airplane landing gear. Through their contacts from other business ventures, Luis and Lisa created spirit sticks.

“Schools are finding amazing success with these incentives,” said Luis deBonoPaula. “Many are collecting data on how the spirit sticks have improved attendance and decreased tardiness, which is important to schools with state funding. And the kids love these things.”

DeBonoPaula said principals have offered spirit sticks for attending low-turnout events such as science labs, and then watched the events become standing room only. Not only are spirit sticks popular, they’re affordable for schools that don’t have money specifically budgeted for incentives.

Spirit Monkey began selling spirit sticks to school districts 15 months ago, now projecting $2.5 million in sales this year.

“For the first 10 months, we sold 500,000 sticks,” deBonoPaula said. “We sold 500,000 sticks last month.”

At last count, Spirit Monkey’s spirit sticks were being used by almost 300 schools in eight states. Elementary schools are the largest market, but even high schools are using the company’s patches and key rings.

How does deBonoPaula balance law school with his burgeoning business? By working 20 hours a day, he said. He has recently taken on partners, which he hopes will help him concentrate more on school.

He admits that it can all be “very overwhelming,” but has secrets to his success. He records audio from all his classes and has classmates do it for him when he’s away at meetings.

“I am religious about keeping up with my outlines,” deBonoPaula said. “I don’t have time to catch up, so I never get behind.”

He seems to be an expert at the balancing act — he’s ranked third in his class.

“Unlike most law students, I didn’t come back to school to change careers or make more money,” deBonoPaula said. “I love learning and have always enjoyed learning about the law. I wouldn’t rule out practicing law — I’d love to be a litigator — but for now I’ll be applying it in my business.”

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