Just start-up

Connor Alne started his entrepreneurial journey as a junior in high school. He and his friend Austin Rash created CRAARC, a semi-custom clothing line designed by teens for teens.

In the fall of their senior year, they entered the Jacobson Institute’s Innovator Competition, a national pitch competition for high school students that awards seed capital to the top finishers. They earned an Honorable Mention. More importantly, they followed the judge’s advice, tweaked their pitch and took second place the following spring.

“The (Innovator Competition prize money) let us take the idea a little further,” Alne said. “After the first initial pitch, we recruited our teachers to watch the pitch and give suggestions. One of my teachers suggested having the clothing in the background, which ended up being the thing that set us apart from other businesses.”

Alne’s support system didn’t end with his teachers. His parents understood and supported his dream to be an entrepreneur from a young age.

“My family was definitely really supportive,” Alne said. “My parents aren’t entrepreneurs. So it took that first money that came in to convince them that I could really do this. I made my own money in high school, and I was never pushed to find a ‘normal job.’ ”

Going solo

Eventually, Alne and his partner amicably parted ways, and Alne went with CRAARC alone. He continued running the business the summer after high school graduation and into the beginning of college.

“I learned so much from starting a business as a high school student,” Alne said. “I learned a lot about the value of failure. I went door-to-door to almost 50 businesses and was denied. I pitched to more than 100 people, and no one said yes. From there I learned more about customer discovery.”

Alne realized his clothing designs were more to his taste and did not necessarily appeal to others. “I shifted to fit the market and found more success because of it.”

As a first year student at University of Iowa, he enrolled in as many entrepreneurial classes as possible through the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (Iowa JPEC). He joined Iowa JPEC’s Founders Club, a student business incubator, and was able to move into one of the student office spaces in the building.

“Having an office at the Founders Club made all the difference for me,” Alne said. “Since I lived in the dorms my first year, there wouldn’t have been room for all my products. Without the office, CRAARC would not have existed in college.”

In search of a venture

Alne continued running CRAARC until sales started to fizzle out. He knew that he wanted to be an entrepreneur and needed to find another venture.

It found him while he was playing video games with friends during winter break of his sophomore year.  They joked about becoming professional gamers. Alne, though, wondered what it would actually take to be a professional gamer and earn a living doing it.

“There was no normal route to become a professional gamer,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t be the only one who was frustrated by this. When I got back to school, I talked to my Founder's Club mentor, Jeff Nock, and we worked out some of the big-picture details.”

He then talked with 300 gamers and more than 30 business owners in the gaming industry.

“Everyone saw the same gap that I did and encouraged me to fill it. That year we spent $6,000 on our first Xboxes,” Alne said.

Alne created the National College Gaming Association (NCGA) and held his first gaming event.

“The most satisfying feeling as a student entrepreneur was the first NCGA event hosted in the Iowa Memorial Union at the University of Iowa,” Alne said. “This event was a year in the making, and it was so rewarding to see 60 people who showed up.”

Since its creation, NCGA has held events throughout Iowa and surrounding Midwest states.

Sage advice

“Starting a business is a lot of hard work, but the reward of getting it right is priceless,” Alne said. “If you’re passionate about chasing your dreams, this is the field for you. One of the hardest parts about being an entrepreneur is that your success is up to you. If you go in full force and are never outworked, then you have a better chance of finding that success.”

By the age of 21, Alne had started two revenue-generating businesses and kept up with school. Since graduating from college, Alne believes the key to being a successful student entrepreneur is to make sure people realize your age is not a detriment.

“Don’t take no for an answer, and don’t let age be a factor,” he said. “Plenty of people won’t take you seriously because of your age. So you have to compensate for your age by presenting the hardest-working and most skillful self. If you have a passion, take the risks needed to make it happen.

“Dream big, take risks, and don’t let anyone hold you back.”