Catalyst to re-envision Yale T-shirt

A successful entrepreneur never takes no for an answer.

After losing a competition for funding from the Yale Entrepreneurial Society in January, Robert Henehan ’10 and Vincent McPhillip ’10 did not give up on their dream of building a T-shirt design company. Instead, they took their business proposal to another group — the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute — an institutional organization designed to support new student ventures and help keep them in the area. A month later, McPhillip said, they had procured a $5,000 living stipend through the YEI Summer Fellowship Program to stay in New Haven over the summer to develop the Catalyst Company, their startup T-shirt design company.

Vincent McPhillip ’10 and Robert Henehan ’10 discuss production of T-shirts at a meeting of the newly formed Catalyst Company. The pair will remain in New Haven on a YEI fellowship this summer to develop their budding business plans.
Emma Ledbetter
Vincent McPhillip ’10 and Robert Henehan ’10 discuss production of T-shirts at a meeting of the newly formed Catalyst Company. The pair will remain in New Haven on a YEI fellowship this summer to develop their budding business plans.

The idea for Catalyst was born last August when McPhillip, while browsing racks at the Yale Bookstore, became disillusioned with the dime-a-dozen Yale shirts stamped in navy, white and gray logos.

“Students want to show Yale pride, but they want to look good doing it,” he said.

The company’s designs will feature various Yale-relevant logos drawn by student designers and printed on American Apparel T-shirts — Henehan and McPhillip said they were dissatisfied with the quality of shirts at places such as Campus Customs — in cuts both for men and women.

Their first venture will be selling T-shirts during Bulldog Days and Spring Fling, McPhillip said.

Joshua Feldman ’10, a designer for the company, said the goal is to convey the Yale name in a new way. His design, one of three T-shirt prints that will be available for sale over Bulldog Days, was inspired by the gothic architecture at the Law School: a “Y” emerging from a hand he had seen as the base of a column. Another design, by Emma Ledbetter ’10, features a Yale bulldog sporting retro Ray-Ban sunglasses.

Shirts will sell for $20, a price based on costs, which, without funding for the project itself, have been entirely out of pocket for Catalyst’s managers.

“I bummed some money off my mom,” McPhillip laughed, “but we see a good opportunity to see return on our investment.”

The sophomores said they are investing considerable time and resources into growth and expansion, looking to potentially outsource production to Mexico, tap into the alumni network for possible funding and advance their Web site into a “shopping experience” to include an exchange of design ideas.

“I am basically majoring in this company,” McPhillip said. “It’s a fairly significant amount of work.”

The managers of Catalyst are not alone in their entrepreneurial pursuits — student startups over the past year have included GoCrossCampus, an online game similar to Risk, a smoothie vending-machine company, an on-campus snacks and supplies delivery service and a timberland investment project, among others.

Matt Brimer ’09, a founder of GoCrossCampus and a YEI fellowship participant last year, said he thinks the community of entrepreneurs at Yale has grown significantly over the past two years.

“It’s nothing like MIT or CalTech, but we are starting to see great things,” he said. “Instead of going to work for a consulting firm, students can go to work for their own startup — and that’s fantastic.”

President of the Yale Entrepreneurial Society Marty Rod ’08 agreed: “Things are certainly on the upswing in the last few years.”

Rod said although it is difficult to pinpoint a success rate for student businesses, there have been several notable success stories that have gone on to receive venture capital, including Brimer’s GoCrossCampus and PaperG, an online local-advertising network founded by Victor Wong ’10.

Brian Thompson ’08, another of YEI’s summer program participants last year, said the program is an eye-opener for commonsense business knowledge.

Thompson is a staff columnist for the News.

His advice for new entrepreneurs: “Don’t believe your own financial projections.”

In spring 2005, Thompson founded the Dinosaur Candy Company, an on-campus business which hires student representatives to sell various snack foods from their rooms. Although the enterprise cashes in at a 50 percent profit margin, Thompson said the $1,000 in annual business falls short of his original projections.

The YEI was established as a joint effort by the Yale Office of Cooperative Research, the Yale Office of New Haven and State Affairs, the YES, and several students and alumni in 2006. The YEI fellowship, a 10-week program in New Haven, features activities, workshops and 50 guest speakers to educate students about starting businesses.

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