At an age when most of his peers are either grappling with the demands of a first job or figuring out what to do with their lives, 24-year-old Jamal Robinson belies the stereotypes. The ambitious Fort Wayne, Indiana-native started to pursue his dreams at the University of Central Florida’s College of Business Administration, but he put academia on the backburner when a plethora of opportunities surfaced. From 2008 until this past spring, he was president of sales at Novis Communications, a watch brand that he co-founded. His latest venture, Chicago-based Desiar Eyewear, has attracted the attention of venture capitalists, private equity groups, and celebrity clients like rapper/producer Soulja Boy, and recently launched its retail distribution at the Randolph Street Market. So what tips—and caveats—does Robinson have to offer others who may be contemplating life as an entrepreneur rather than a college student? Robinson shares his experiences and insights with business writer Iris Dorbian.
ID: Why did you decide to stop pursuing a business degree and drop out of college?
JR: There was an opportunity for me to design and make my dream a reality in running my own fashion business. I took that chance. I went to UCF and then I transferred back home where I was going to finish my bachelor’s degree at Indiana University—Purdue University Fort Wayne. I stopped after my associate’s degree to pursue building my business.
JR: I went there to connect with individuals who were successful in business. I met someone who was in real estate. He was looking to start a woman’s brand, Foxy4. I told him I could develop a line of clothing if he just gave me the opportunity. That’s how I got started. After my second year at UCF, I designed that line [which included hats, t-shirts, bathing suits, and dresses] and then decided to move back to Fort Wayne, drop out of UCF, and pursue building a fashion business. From 2008 to 2011, I did custom eyewear for celebrities. I had a buzz around my name in Florida and that opened up great opportunities. That’s when I decided to pursue fashion and build my brand rather than go to school.
ID: Do you have a design background?
JR: When I got the opportunity to design for Foxy4, I would spend nights reading fashion magazines like Elle, Harper's Bazaar, and Vogue. I would also watch videos on designers, especially Karl Lagerfeld, in a series called “Signe Chanel.”
ID: What convinced you to take on the designer gig even though you didn't have a design background? Was it the same kind of impulse that convinced you that you could succeed without a business degree?
JR: I have always been creative and I knew designing was something I could do if I learned a little more about the technical aspect. That's the same thing I felt about school. Education is very important to me, but once I saw what school could offer I knew when the opportunity came, I would be able to leave school while still creating a successful company.
ID: What do you feel are the pros and cons of your dropping out of college?
JR: I’m learning what they can’t teach you in classrooms, which are the trials and tribulations of what it’s really like to start a business. You can have simulations, you can have internships, but nothing can give you that real world experience, which I feel is the most valuable thing I’ve learned so far. Also, schools teach you to be part of a business and add value—not so much to start and develop your own business. Even with entrepreneurial programs, the core courses are still based around big business. The con of dropping out is missing the proper things that you learn in school that will eliminate some of the learning curves at building a business.
ID: What are some of your strategies for handling critical business tasks like managing cash flow and other technical skills that they teach in college business classes?
JR: I am a firm believer in mentors. I have five people who have been, and are, entrepreneurs who assist me in growing as a small business owner. They are my sounding boards for how I handle cash flow, credit, and scalability, especially as my business grows.
ID: Can you describe what led to the formation of your eyewear company?
JR: I had a pair of sunglasses that I really liked and I had the idea to put Swarovski crystals on them to make them flashy. That was in 2008 and that’s how I got started creating custom sunglasses. Up until last year I was still enhancing glasses with crystals by myself. Then this year I decided to source my manufacturing and I did that through relationships. That’s a challenge in itself. And in growing the brand this year, I raised the capital. It took me about six to seven months of meetings with venture capital groups, private equity groups, and business people to really nail down who I’m going to bring in as an equity partner.
ID: How specifically did your affiliation with Soulja Boy help grow your brand? Can you cite an example?
JR: Affiliation with entertainers just opened doors and added credibility to what I was doing. I was a young kid running to every concert I could with a bag of sunglasses. When Soulja Boy started wearing them, I became the young kid who made Soulja Boy's sunglasses. It was never a strategic business move, but it did give my brand credibility. I knew the Desiar concept at the time was cool and could work, but when a major celebrity begins to wear your product, it gives you a boost.
ID: What are some of the obstacles you have dealt with? And how have you overcome them?
JR: I would say understanding cash flow was an obstacle starting out. Being a small business, every penny matters so I'm learning to be as efficient as possible. The best way I handle that is by calling one or two of my mentors and asking them questions that I may have problems with. They never tell me what to do, but they give me suggestions on how they would handle my situation. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I don't but it's always good to have a different perspective.
ID: Do you have other employees at Desiar?
JR: No, it’s just me—it’s your typical start-up. I have someone who helps me in marketing, but that person is not an employee. He’s a good friend of mine. With Desiar, I design, develop, market, and create the content. The only thing I don’t do is manufacture, which I outsource.
ID: What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?
JR: Anyone who is interested in becoming an entrepreneur should surround themselves with mentors who have been successful in business. For example, I searched out mentors who were very strong in areas I wanted to focus on, such as finance, general business, fashion, and manufacturing. I didn't force any relationships, but I waited to connect and associate with people who wanted to help see me grow as a person and entrepreneur.