8 Lessons I Learned Running a Business In College

by Fernando Rojo October 31, 2016

“Working in a third-world country will be a logistical nightmare.”

“No one will want such bright patterns on shoes.”

“Why aren’t your sales higher already?”

These are a few of the sorts of things people said to me as I started PATOS, a line of modern sneakers made with traditional Peruvian textiles that I’ve spent the last two years bringing to market. The idea for the business came to me during my freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. I was visiting extended family in Argentina and met an artisan named Rafael at a flea market there. He made these incredible shoes with vibrant textiles. I heard his story and perspective as a talented artisan in a struggling economy, and I was hooked; a few days later, I got on a plane back to the U.S. with 100 pairs of Rafael’s textile-covered shoes and the idea for PATOS: I’d partner with him and other talented artisans across Latin America, building a global brand for their handcrafted, one-of-a-kind sneakers.

I’m now a college junior, and while I’ll spare you all of the ups and downs of my entrepreneurial journey (there are many), it’s safe to say PATOS and I have come a long way. In September, we launched a Kickstarter, exceeding our $45,000 fundraising goal in less than a month. After testing over 100 shoes styles and dozens of different textiles, we’ve gone from hiring one artisan to over 15. We’ve been lucky to get attention from outlets like BuzzFeed, Inc, and CNBC. Here’s what I’ve learned in the process of taking PATOS from an idea to a business:


1. Solve your own problem.

It took becoming my own target customer for me to figure out how to really differentiate PATOS. Originally, I was selling shoes exclusively to women. But I soon realized that by focusing on women’s shoes, I couldn’t adequately anticipate what sort of problems might arise for a target customer trying out the product. Eventually, I realized that I was more obsessed with running the business than my product itself. That’s when I decided to redesign PATOS from scratch, with the goal of creating my favorite pair of shoes ever – a pair that women and men would want to wear all the time. That switch in perspective allowed me to consider things like how easy it was to slip the shoes on, what sort of clothes I’d wear them with, and what about the design would make me never want to retire them. When I finally wore my first prototype of the unisex sneakers out in public, strangers would ask me where they could buy them. That helped me build my confidence in the product and told me I was on the right track. Now, I’m my target customer. If all else fails, I’ve solved my own problem.

2. Have a mission beyond money.

No matter what you’re working on, it’s important to have a clear mission and passion for what you’re setting out to do. Starting a company that has, at its core, a social mission, has certainly defined my experience as a business owner. For me, success goes beyond sales numbers – not to mention that I don’t pay myself. We care about providing opportunity and fair working conditions for artisans. Not every company is aimed at serving a community, and that’s okay. But I spend time in the villages where my shoes are made. I grew up speaking Spanish. I’ve shared meals and built relationships with the artisans I work with. These are my people, and I’m personally invested.

3. Find the fun parts.

Before starting PATOS, I’d never used Photoshop or tried coding. Now, I do both daily, and I’m discovering that design is actually a passion of mine. Everyone has parts of their jobs that they don’t enjoy; the best part of being an entrepreneur is that you can identify what you find most fun and often design the workflow of your business to focus your energy there. Then, it’s up to you to bring on others whose skillsets and passions complement your own. For example, I love designing the way our packaging looks – from the box and tissue paper to the couple of little surprises we leave in each order. But the complicated logistics around efficient distribution took a lot of time out of my day, so I sought out and hired an awesome warehouse in New York City to handle all shipping, returns, and exchanges. Now we send our shoes there directly from Peru, and they take care of getting orders out to our customers. It's been critical to hire other qualified people to take care of things they can do really well while I put my energy into the things that I’m most interested in.


4. Put rejection in perspective.

I got rejected from every college business competition I entered and every outside accelerator that I submitted PATOS to for the majority of that first year. It wasn’t until October of 2015 that I had my first breakthrough in the form of an opportunity to participate in a student-run accelerator called PennApps Accelerator. Even then, the rejections kept coming. But that one success kept me going, and after a year and half and a whole lot of applications, I finally landed a small grant from the Wharton Innovation Fund and a place in Penn’s WeissLabs Incubator. The Innovation Fund was quick to provide a follow-up grant after our strong progress. After all these rejections, I realized that I spent far too long worrying about building an impressive business plan early on instead of focusing on the one thing that matters – sales.

5. Be the first person to believe in yourself.

An important of launching a startup is publicly pitching your idea. I spoke on a number of panels and pitch competitions to polish my public speaking skills as I worked on PATOS. At first, it was really uncomfortable. But that lessened with time and practice, and now I like to think I’m pretty good at it! My advice: Speak slowly, make eye contact, and remember to muster up “blind confidence.” Basically, believe that you’re the best person to be giving this talk, even if you might not have any clear basis to do so. It’s something I’ve been doing since the first grade; when my class was learning how to multiply single-digit numbers, everyone was complaining about how much they hated math. For whatever reason, the more people said they hated it, the more I told myself I was good at it. In some sense, I tricked myself into making it true. Now, I’m studying math in college. Talk to people you think you have no business talking to. Try telling yourself you’re the ideal person to be doing something. Soon enough, you will be.

6. Reach further than you think you can.

You can’t get big results if your goals are small. I almost launched PATOS’ Kickstarter with a fundraising goal of $20,000. I’m so glad I didn’t. If I’d gone for $20,000 instead of the $45,000 goal I eventually settled on, I probably would have only raised the $20,000. Even though I knew I needed more, at first glance, I figured it was what I could do. $45,000 seemed too absurd. I hadn’t brought in that amount of revenue after working on PATOS for two years, so how could I possibly raise that much in 30 days? But something about the visible risk I was taking with an all-or-nothing crowdfunding campaign pushed me and the people around me. The product was great. The story was real. And we’re somehow 116 percent funded with a day to go. The high stakes gave me the motivation I needed.

7. Forget networking and start actually meeting people.

A tipping point for PATOS came when I started reaching out to other entrepreneurs, especially young ones. Now, I go for a coffee date and set up multiple calls per day. I attend conferences like Forbes 30 Under 30 and Next Gen Summit (which are great for anyone interested in entrepreneurship) whenever I have the opportunity. Even if you don’t have a fully-baked idea or the resources to execute, strangers with experience and energy will push you in the right direction. Get rid of the idea that “networking” should provide you with a rolodex of tangible benefit. Focus on paying it forward. You’ll become friends with awesome people and learn really cool things. There’s incredibly strong support among entrepreneurs who’ve been there. If you haven’t yet, that’s okay. There’s more space out there than you might think. Meet people, set stretch goals, and start hustling.

8. Demonstrate your value upfront.

I’m a big believer in anticipating what’s going to be expected of me and then delivering at a level above that before anyone asks me to. It goes a long way, especially when you’re young, inexperienced, and fighting for your seat at the table. Asking for the opportunity and then trying to prove yourself can put you at an immediate deficit. For example, if you want to get into web design, for example, make someone a website to show them what you can do right off the bat, before asking if he or she is willing to pay you for your services. Involving yourself in a company you want to be a part of before asking for anything in return — especially at a low-budget startup with a less-than-orthodox work environment — will set you apart. At an entrepreneurship conference, for example, I met the CEO of a really cool early-stage startup. After we talked, I emailed her with some thoughts around the app’s current design, accompanied with mockup redesigns and a breakdown of how using my strategy could elevate them– a free example of my work. It turned out that she just so happened to be looking for a user experience consultant, and I showed her that I was a good fit by showcasing my value upfront. This method has worked wonders. It shows someone that you are more interested in building a relationship than getting money from them. The mentioned project became one of my favorite clients and now is a friend of mine.

Want to intern for me? Go sell 10 pairs of shoes and prove it.

Images courtesy of Fernando Rojo/PATOS

Fernando Rojo
Fernando Rojo


Fernando is a junior at Penn and the Founder at PATOS Shoes. You can reach him by smoke signal.

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