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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 8, 2005

Young, restless, unrelenting

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

Jimmy Chan was 10 years old when he discovered his entrepreneurial spirit.

Maury Agcaoili, foreground, operates the packaging machine for Hawaiian Chip Co. Cooking the chips in the background is Lars Tanaka.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

He took some old posters that his father had given him and auctioned them off to the neighborhood kids. Some were bidding as high as $20 for a single poster. Chan headed home, his pockets full of cash.

But when his parents found out about his auction — news travels fast in Hilo — they ordered him to give back the money.

"I remember being so upset, because I didn't really see what was wrong what that," Chan said, laughing. "To me, I was honest. I let them bid. That was my first emotional roller-coaster in business."

Today, Chan, 29, owns Hawaiian Chip Co., which specializes in gourmet sweet-potato and taro chips that are sold at specialty retailers, including Hilo Hattie and Neiman Marcus. Sales have improved 30 percent over last year. Whole Foods Market, the world's largest retailer of natural and organic foods, may stock their shelves with Chan's chips as early as next month.

"It just started out as a little project. Then it got out of hand," said Chan, who started cooking sweet-potato chips in his Mo'ili'ili apartment before he started the business six years ago — at age 23. "But I realized I was having a lot of fun. Now that I've got a lot more experience and more confidence in what I'm doing, I'm enjoying it."

Chan is one of hundreds of young, budding entrepreneurs in Hawai'i, all driven by the dream of being their own bosses and doing their own thing. No one telling them what to do, no one stifling their creativity.

They're starting lifestyle-inspired clothing lines and making glass-bead jewelry. They're designing cutting-edge Web sites and running public relations firms.

They're defying the slacker stereotype of their generation, armed with a whatever-happens attitude and more business savvy than most people think.

Jimmy Chan, owner of Hawaiian Chip Co., started cooking sweet-potato chips in his Mo'ili'ili apartment before he started his business six years ago — at age 23. He's seen sales rise 30 percent over last year.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

"They play hard, but they work hard, too," said Bev Harbin, president of the Employers' Chamber of Commerce and former small-business owner. "Their minds are open and fresh and so full of technology and doing things correctly. They've got the tools, and they know how to use them ... I think they know they have a lot more options and a higher quality of life owning their own business."

Annie Lin, Kristy Oshita, Eric Lau and Aaron Lovelace — all business students at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa — decided they wanted to run their own company.

At first they tried organizing speed-dating events for college students. But that didn't work. Then they tried operating an Internet-based communications service. That didn't work, either.

Now they sell a discount card — currently called "qpqp card" but set to change to "Play Card" — to UH students. The card offers various discounts at 95 retailers, restaurants, clubs and bars on O'ahu. They've already sold about 300 cards at $5 each, with plans to sell them at three O'ahu community colleges and UH-West O'ahu. They also generate income from companies that advertise on the card, brochures and their Web site.

The group has broken even on their initial investment of $7,000 from their own pockets.

"People always have ideas, we always have ideas, and to see those ideas actually make it is pretty neat," said Oshita, 22, management major and president of the UH Entrepreneurship Club, which she revived two years ago. "I get a kick out of it."

Their next big venture is to start a blog-style Web site with restaurant reviews and rental listings for college students. Ultimately, they want to be angel investors for other young entrepreneurs and start-up businesses.

"We're long-term thinkers being entrepreneurs," Oshita said. "We take this seriously ... We didn't just do (the discount) card to see if it would work. We all aspire to be Bill Gates; at least I do."

Following a passion

Part of the attraction for young people to entrepreneurship is being able to do their own thing, make their own decisions.

Neal Kido, 24, created a Web site, surfboardshack.com, where surfers can buy or sell boards. Hundreds have been sold through the site.

Photo courtesy Jeff Kao

But another, perhaps idealistic, draw is the pursuit of a passion, not a paycheck.

Neal Kido surfs every chance he gets. He loves the lifestyle, the connection to nature, the people he meets. But ultimately, he loves the ride.

"It's a feeling I can't really explain," said Kido, 24. "It's an awesome feeling, riding a wave and feeling the power of the ocean under your feet."

During his last semester at UH in 2003, he created www.surfboardshack.com, where surfers can buy and sell used boards. More than 400 boards have been sold through his site.

He decided to blend his passion — surfing — with his skill — Web design — to create a business that he hopes will someday be his sole source of income. Until then, he works as a Web developer at Wet Sand LLC.

"If I can have my site pay the bills and employ people, that would be awesome," said Kido, who recently launched another site — www.alohasurfgear.com — to sell surf-inspired jewelry and accessories. "My dream is that when anyone thinks of a used surfboard, they'll go to my site. I hope this becomes the eBay of used surfboards."

Andrew Castillo, a junior at UH and avid surfer/snowboarder, hopes to follow that same path.

His ultimate goal is to open up a surf-snow-skateboard shop in his hometown, Long Beach, Calif. For now, he's starting small, designing surf-inspired T-shirts in his bedroom in Makiki.

So far, he has a name — Velocity Clothing Co. — and some basic designs. But he envisions his clothing line — a blend of Volcom, Famous Stars and Straps, and Lost — to take off globally. Already he has family and friends committing to invest in his company.

"This isn't messing around for me," said Castillo, 21, who quit playing baseball for UH to concentrate on this business. "This is what I'm going to do when I move back to California. This is why I'm going to school."

Boom in business

More students than ever are learning basic business concepts in classrooms, even at the elementary-school level. This exposure has fueled more interest in entrepreneurship, especially at the college level, experts say.

"These are the skills that become lifelong tools for them to succeed," said Eva Laird Smith, president of Hawai'i's Junior Achievement, the oldest, largest and fastest-growing business and economic not-for-profit education organization in the world, reaching about 10,000 students in Hawai'i every year. "It's really about being prepared for their future, to be successful in life and know their career opportunities."

In Hilo, about 150 high school students participate in a 15-week program in which they put together a company from start to finish. They decide on what product to sell, who their target customer will be and how to best market their business. Students have created and sold everything from cookbooks to brownie mixes to memory book kits.

In addition, they have to pay wages and taxes, track inventory and distribute profits to their shareholders. Last year the range of return on $2 stocks was $25 to $100 per share. At the end of the program, they present their annual report, complete with PowerPoint presentations.

"It's really impressive," said Jerel Yamamoto, chairman of Hilo's JA program and a practicing attorney. "It's amazing to see what these high school students can do. Hopefully they will utilize what they've learned."

Heather Tatum, an 18-year-old senior at Moanalua High School, had dreams of opening a restaurant. But after taking four business classes and managing the school store — a project that became so popular last year she couldn't close it — she realized being a small-business owner may not be the best fit for her.

"It's really time-consuming," said Tatum, who won the 2004 High School Marketing Plan competition. "It's not the lifestyle that I want."

But she doesn't think her experience in business was worthless. She's gained confidence, improved her speaking skills and now has a better idea of what she wants to do with her life: be a teacher. And maybe teach business.

"I think if I decided to take business classes in college, I wouldn't have been able to handle it without the experience I got in high school," Tatum said. "I definitely have become more confident in myself."

Skills inherited

Often times young entrepreneurs get their skills — or their drive — from their entrepreneurial parents.

Steve Wakita, a sociology major at UH, has worked for his mom and stepdad's discount travel company, Hawaii On Sale, for six years. He's watched them get up at 4:30 every morning, often spending late hours at work, but doing what they want to do — and being successful at it.

From them, he's learned the allure of operating his own business.

"Basically, you can set your own hours and do what you want," said Wakita, 22. "And all the business decisions, I'll make."

So early last year he began working on a multidimensional search engine that harnesses the power of three major search engines — Google, Yahoo and Ask Jeeves — with a few unique features, including Web hosting and image searches. He plans to launch an improved version of his site — www.wakweb.com — at the end of the month.

"This is something I want to do for a living," Wakita said. "I'm hoping this will be my full-time job when I graduate."

So far it has cost him and his girlfriend/partner Marissa Hattori about $15,000 of their own money. He spends about 35 hours a week working on his site, in addition to working full time for his parents and going to school.

But he believes it will be all worthwhile. He's banking on it.

"I figure someday I won't have to work so hard," Wakita said. "Hopefully."

Reach Catherine E. Toth at 535-8103 or ctoth@honoluluadvertiser.com.

• • •

High School competition

2005 High School Marketing and Business Plan Competition

• Wednesday and Thursday

• Sheraton Waikiki

• 110 students participating from Baldwin, Castle, Hilo, Ho-noka'a, Kapolei, Kohala, Mililani, Moanalua, Pearl City, Sacred Hearts, Wai'anae and Waipahu.

• Information: 956-5357

It's the law

What you need to know — and how to find the answers — before you start a business:

Protecting your ideas

U.S. Patent & Trade Office: www.uspto.gov

U.S. Copyright Office: www.copyright.gov

Organizing your business

Real Small Business:

Finding tax forms

Internal Revenue Service: www.irs.gov

Knowing about hazardous jobs

Occupation Safety & Health Administration: www.dol.gov

Check these web sites for tips

Here are Web sites for young entrepreneurs:

Collegiate Entrepreneurs' Association: www.c-e-o.org

Future Business Leaders of America: www.fbla.org

Gen-X Idea Cafe: http://businessownersideacafe.com/

Junior Achievement: www.ja.org

SBA Teen Web Site: www.sba.gov/teens

The National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance: www.nciia.org

Students in Free Enterprise: www.sife.org

YoungBiz: www.youngbiz.com

YoungEntrepreneur: www.youngentrepreneur.com

Young Entrepreneurs Network: www.youngandsuccessful.com

Young Entrepreneurs' Organization: www.yeo.org

Youth Venture: www.youthventure.org