Sean Kelly, 22, wanted to study business at Rutgers University but when he couldn’t make it through a required math class, took a leave of absence at the end of his freshman year.
Fortunately, that didn’t stop him from building a million-dollar, one-person business. Before he left school, he founded Jersey Champs, an online jersey store, from his dorm room in New Brunswick in May 2016—and discovered his calling as an entrepreneur.
“I would rather work than go to class,” he says. “I’d literally skip class to work on the business.”
Today, Jersey Champs, based in Piscataway, N.J., brings in $1.2 million in revenue a year and is profitable, according to Kelly.
Kelly is part of an exciting trend: the growth of million-dollar, one-person businesses. The number of entrepreneurs bringing in $1 million to $2.49 million a year in nonemployer firms—those staffed only by the owners— hit 36,984 in 2017, according to the most recent Census data available, up 38% from 26,744 in 2011. It is a trend fueled by the availability of low-cost technology like e-commerce stores and social media.
So how did Kelly build his business to $1 million at an age many people are still figuring out what they want to do for a living? He recently shared his story with me.
Find a unique niche. Kelly, whose dad has experience as an Amazon seller, came up with his business idea in college, when he noticed how many high school and college students wear them everyday. Most of the jerseys had sports teams’ logos, but Kelly realized it would be impossible to start a business making them on a college student’s budget. “For regular sports jerseys, you need to have licensing and have to have millions of dollars in sales,” he says.
So Kelly decided to make custom jerseys that celebrated hip-hop artists and rappers, as well as vintage TV shows, and sell them online, with the idea he’d arrange revenue shares with those whose brands he leveraged. Starting up with $1,000 he’d saved in high school, he launched Jersey Champs, investing in hiring a freelance graphic designer, putting up a Shopify site and creating a small batch of inventory, using a manufacturer in Pakistan that he found on the giant commerce site Alibaba, after messaging 15 factories.
Find creative ways to spread the word. By asking the musicians he featured to show images of his custom jerseys on their Instagram feed, Kelly was able to spread the word quickly about his shirts to their fans and build his brand’s own Instagram following, which currently includes 2.1 million people.
Kelly figured out how to work with the artists—who today include Lil Pump, Preme, Soulja Boy, and many others—through trial and error. “Some we have to pay to post on their feeds, and some really like the product and do it for free,” he says. Still others opted to buy the shirts at wholesale and sell them on their own. Fans of musicians who did not sell the jerseys directly could come to a site he put using the ecommerce platform Shopify, which he eventually replaced with one built on WordPress. p
Kelly also built his brand by arranging to hold giveaways on the artists’ Instagram pages and joining give-away programs run by the Kardashians. The latter was not inexpensive—Kelly says he spent $15,000 to participate in one contest along with 49 other merchants—but it got results. “When the Kardashians post, you gain about 100,000 followers overnight,” he says.
Kelly also invested in paid ads on Facebook. He doesn’t use an agency so he pays close attention to whether the ads are profitable and increases his investment only when an ad is performing well. He views this advertising as an investment in his social media platform. “You’ll not only be making sales but gaining followers, he says.
Although Kelly’s business is humming, he’s always looking for ways to keep it growing. His next frontier: marketing on social site TikTok, popular with Gen Z. “I started a week ago,” he told me when we spoke recently. “I’m up to 3,000 followers.”
Slow and steady wins the race. With his music jerseys retailing for $40 to $60 each and a small set of NBA jerseys he creates going for $100 to $150, Kelly was able to built six-figure revenue this first year but tried to pace himself. His first year’s revenue was $245,000, he says. It grew to $450,000 in year two and $1.2 million in year three.
He learned it was important it was to manage his cash flow carefully so he could fill any orders that came in and to be prepared for sudden surges in orders. “If you get 100,000 followers, you’ll probably get tons of emails out of it and website traffic,” he says.
Keep overhead down. Kelly travels frequently to speak about entrepreneurship and social media. “I love the community of entrepreneurs,” he says.
He has designed his business for his mobile, laptop lifestyle. “I work from home,” he says. “I don’t even have an office. I haven’t really needed one.”
Running an ultra-lean operation has allowed him to turn a profit each year. He pays himself a salary of $50,000 a year to buy groceries and pay the rent.
It hasn’t always been easy says Kelly. “You’ve got to sacrifice the first year or two and really grind it out,” he acknowledges.
But he’s happy he committed to building his business. “Now I’m at the point where I can wake up and have sales,” he says. “I can travel wherever I want. Because I’m spending so much on ads on my credit card, I can basically travel for free.”
That’s a nice place to be at age 22. And he’s just getting started.