The 2016 spring semester at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) was amazing for me. I was elected vice president of the economics club and initiated into my fraternity; I made an unbelievable number of connections among the administration and faculty; and I was on my way to becoming one of the most well-known faces on campus.
Sadly, I was doing well socially, but not academically. My GPA wasn’t as good as I knew it could be. Plus, although I had declared economics and finance as a double major, I hadn’t taken a single course in either subject — even after sitting through eight months of classes.
Dropping Out of College
Just a few weeks following the end of the spring semester, summer courses were upon me. After dropping a double college math course worth five credit hours that semester, I was feeling frustrated and defeated. In the back of my mind, I knew that if I couldn’t even pass my double math course (remedial math combined with a 100-level college algebra), there was no way I’d be able to tackle the upper-level calculus and econometrics courses that I needed to earn my bachelor of economics and finance degree. Unfortunately, I went in to my redo of that course in the summer with the same mindset.
Within three weeks, I dropped both of my summer classes. I was left with a college dream that was falling to pieces right before my eyes.
Then came the emails. I had to send one to every head of every organization that I was involved with — managers at my job at NKU’s IT department, club advisers, fraternity presidents — to let them know that I was dropping out of college.
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Writing those emails broke my soul. Attending university had been a dream of mine since I was in elementary school. I solidified my choice to attend NKU in my sophomore year of high school and didn’t visit a single other college or university because I knew it was the one for me. So making the decision to drop my courses for the fall semester devastated me. As a result, I went into a depression that lasted for weeks. That is, until I realized I was in a position that I may never be in again in my adult life: I didn’t have any plans.
An Entrepreneurial Idea
It was July 2016, and I was frantically looking for a job because my temporary summer position was coming to an end, and all hell was about to break loose. Nobody would hire me — I had no degree, and I was overqualified for my age.
Thankfully, I still lived at home with my mom, so I decided I would go all-in on an entrepreneurial idea I had. I had been selling things on Craigslist and on eBay since age 13, and I knew that if I pulled it off correctly, it could potentially become a viable alternative to a college education. But that “if” was a big “if,” as I soon found out.
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I had always used prepaid and no-contract cell phones because I knew they were cheaper, but provided the same quality of service as the big contract carriers. One of the challenges I usually faced was finding cases for those phones. Nothing was ever available in brick-and-mortar stores in my area, and quality was always all over the place when I ordered online.
I wanted to start an online store of curated cases for the most popular no-contract carriers — and not ones for phones like iPhones, Galaxy S-es, and Note devices. I knew that cases for those would be readily available locally. In addition, I would source the inventory and make sure it was up to my high standards before selling it to customers on an ad-free, well-constructed website optimized for mobile devices.
Starting a Business
I took what little I had left in my savings account; combined it with a Spark Business Credit Card I had received from Capital One; and threw every penny into inventory, site-hosting costs, and advertising on Facebook and Google AdWords.
I sourced most of my inventory from eBay in the beginning, buying in lots to cut down on cost. As a result, I formed a direct relationship with a wholesaler in Ohio that was willing to offer me lower prices than were posted on his eBay page, with a low minimum order and quick shipping.
I did all of this without ever consulting any of the many people I knew that had business experience; without researching exactly how many people were buying the phones that I was sourcing cases for; and without doing market research to see if people would even actually buy these things. Like a typical naïve young person, I thought that I knew everything. That was a grave mistake, as I would soon come to find out.
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I launched the website — PrepaidPhoneCases.com — in mid-July 2016. But by late August, things were falling apart. I was out of capital, patience, and ideas, and sales were almost nonexistent. By late September, I pulled the site from public listing. After my entire inventory was liquidated, I had lost close to $1,500, which was a lot of money for me. I was at the lowest point I think I’ve ever been in my entire life — two big blows, back-to-back.
Why My Business Failed
I didn’t do the necessary research to start a business, and it turned out that not as many people were buying specialized prepaid phones as I had thought. Of the people who were, most weren’t looking for cases — especially not online. I was frustrated with myself once more, thinking, Talon, how could you let yourself fail again. You’re better than this.
Well this time, I might have failed, but it wasn’t all my fault. I did some things right, but finding a niche is a hard thing. You have to do your research first to make sure that what you’re trying to create or sell is a desirable product within that niche. That’s where I went wrong.
Returning to College
Going through this process was difficult for me. It involved a lot of learning, and a lot of trying to find myself and figure out where I wanted to be in life. I only wish that I’d done it before my freshman year instead of after.
After the website failed, I spent quite a few weeks trying to figure out what to do. I went through Christmas and New Year’s doing nothing but wondering what would come next. I’m happy to report that in January 2017, I decided to return to NKU for the 2017 fall semester. I’ve just completed online summer courses, earning As in both. Soon I’ll start working on my organizational leadership major, with several professors, peers, and advisers to help me along the way.
A Final Thought
I want to end with this piece of advice for future or current college students: Don’t be afraid to fail. Failing allowed me to experience the process of entrepreneurship. That experience — among others — helped me realize that I wasn’t on the right path.
Looking back, it was obvious that the idea of who I wanted to become was completely different from the reality of who I was supposed to become. Don’t get caught up in romanticizing the future. Instead, recognize when it’s time to take a step back and reevaluate things. You’ll be glad you did.