Business partners Vince McPhillip ’10 and Robert Henehan ’10 got some straightforward advice this summer: “Fail often, but fail better.”
The juniors, who in August 2007 founded Catalyst Apparel, a student-focused T-shirt-design company, said this more realistic understanding of business affairs is a result of their participation in the sophomore year of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute’s 10-week Summer Fellowship program in New Haven. A “crash course” in business venture, the program organizes workshops, mentoring and a series of 45 guest speakers to educate a group of about a dozen selected Yale students with business plans ranging from commercial music production to industrial robotics.
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“People have a really glitzy, glossy image of entrepreneurs,” McPhillip said. “But that’s not what entrepreneurship is about at all. It’s more of a process; it’s not a ‘Eureka!’ moment.”
Admittance to the program is based on application, and each of the chosen students receives a $5,000 living stipend.
Professionals from fields in investing, venture capital, corporate management, accounting and law spoke to the group of about 12 summer fellows in a classroom in Dunham Labs, and after the talks finished for the day, the students were given time to perfect their business models by working with the guests one-on-one, McPhillip said.
Being able to connect with so many entrepreneurs and executives was an invaluable experience, Henehan said, given the importance of “business-card exchange.”
David Lee ’10, the founder of microfinance investment company Mangrove Partners and a participant in the fellowship program, lauded the YEI for inspiring young businesspeople and bringing resources within their reach.
But the most constructive lesson Henehan and McPhillip learned in the program, they said, was not to be afraid to scrap failed practices and reinvent the business model.
McPhillip said that after their initial idea for Catalyst Apparel — which sought to use student designers to produce more original and artistic versions of the standard “Yale” gear — proved to be more difficult than he and Henehan expected, they were forced to learn a lot on the job.
“We personally selected the designs,” he said. “And we bought a ton of inventory; it was painful to sell shirt by shirt.”
Their initial shipment of 500 shirts arrived in time for last April’s Bulldog Days, when pre-freshmen spend a weekend on the Yale campus. Setting up a table on Old Campus — “in the hot sun” — was a very labor-intensive retail method hardly sustainable for the two full-time students, they said.
So, McPhillip said, it was time to focus their energy on moving into cyberspace.
In a month, he said, their Web site, catalystapparel.com, will be updated to serve two purposes: to showcase new student designers and to allow shoppers to vote on threadless.com for the most attractive designs in Catalyst’s line. Once a T-shirt design has enough votes, McPhillip and Henehan will get copies printed off for sale.
The Web site is meant to eliminate “the awkward middleman” in the design process, Henehan said, since customers can commission a specific designer to work on a T-shirt proposal.
The business partners said they are in the process of working with campus groups such as Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Jonathan Edwards College and Sigma Phi Epsilon to create specifically designed shirts. Their biggest venture in the near future, however, is the upcoming Harvard-Yale football game.
Emma Ledbetter ’10, who designed the bulldog-with-sunglasses shirt for Catalyst in the spring, said she is working on a general design that can be worn by both Harvard and Yale students at The Game this November.
Alhough she said she has yet to get a cut of any profits — “I think they are just breaking even” — Ledbetter, who is a staff photographer for the News, said the excitement of seeing students wearing her designs is well worth the effort.
Lee said he respected the Catalyst business model for its unconventionality.
“[Henehan and McPhillip] are visionaries, to put it simply,” said Lee, who met them in the YEI program over the summer. “They want to change the way relationships happen between customers and businesses. … It’s going to be an uphill battle for them.”
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 Yale Entrepreneurial Society and several students and alumni in 2006. Applications for the YEI Summer Fellowship in 2009 are available online toward the end of the fall semester.