Young Visionaries Dream Big on the First Coast
Pandemic hurdles have not dampened Florida’s entrepreneurial spirit. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that of 5.4 million new business applications filed last year, Florida represented 683,a680. Among these are young visionaries driven to chase their dreams. Evolve Magazine got to meet a few of them. What follows are snapshots of their stories’ origins and innovations.
In 2021, Ryan Clark opened two learning center franchises called Code Ninjas in Fleming Island and Ponte Vedra Beach. As a child, he was goal-oriented and intrepid. Ryan remembers watching the Challenger explosion on TV with his classmates in 1986. Rather than seeing tragedy as a reason to give up, he thought, “I want to be an astronaut.” His business is positioning children aged 5-15 to gain coding expertise with the help of ingenious gamification. Modeled after martial arts, “ninjas” report to their respective “dojos” to train as coders. They progress through a nine-belt system with a view to eventually becoming proficient “black belt” tier coders. “Today, your fundamentals are reading, writing, arithmetic and coding,” shares Ryan. An eye-opening life event arose after he finished his military service and began working for a digital bank. “It was amazing to see how much of the work I did required coding,” observes Ryan. “Technology is…challenging us to think differently…it’s a necessity in everything we do.” Thinking differently is not limited to tech. The pandemic has taught us to question some pre-COVID procedures – re-evaluating whether they served or hindered us.
Optimism helped Ryan adapt to the uncertainty. “I don’t know that there’s ever a right time to do something. But you don’t know until you try.” As someone who enlisted in the military shortly after 9/11, Ryan knows what it means to embark on intimidating journeys. His mindset moved him to take a risk and build a business in the early portion of the pandemic. For him, a global crisis did not change the needs of parents and children in terms of connecting with peers in an engaging environment. This is precisely what Code Ninjas is doing. A time of isolation proved to be the relevant moment to build a business that brings families together. Even in the face of mistakes, Ryan says, “Re-evaluate – redirect your energy and re-attack…come back after it in a new way.” This approach is an asset whether we face times of crisis or stability.
To learn more: codeninjas.com
Fresh Air, Fresh Perspective
Beaten Path Co. (BPCO) is a clique-free outdoor clothing brand that has as its founders two veritable nature lovers. Kendall Hewins and Miles Dittmar of St. Augustine did not cross paths until 2019, but their respective upbringings charted them on courses bound for convergence. Kendall describes her childhood self as a studious “tomboy mixed with a cowgirl wannabe.” The oldest of four siblings, she remembers lots of tree climbing and trampoline jumping. Her family moved frequently while her father served in the Air Force. “It definitely helped me build an adaptive character,” reflects Kendall.
Miles’ childhood was marked by the freedom to spend long days biking and exploring the outdoors with friends until dinner. For him, being an entrepreneur was second nature. He dabbled with selling duct tape wallets, knitting beanies and selling candy. Around the age of 14, he organized a skating competition called “Slide Jam” near Tarpon Springs. This meant getting required approvals, emailing more than 100 companies and securing dozens of sponsors.
When colleges at large shifted to online curricula, it afforded BPCO more time to focus on social media marketing and fulfilling orders. “School is very occupying, but not as occupying when you don’t have to commute…when you can just do it from your laptop,” remarks Kendall. “I think…that’s why we saw a spike in sales,” she continues. This spike occurred despite cutting back on in-person events. Using some of that extra time to decompress in nature also afforded Kendall and Miles the mental clarity to envision what a post-pandemic future might hold for their company. One such adventure took them to Kansas, where they worked as farm hands on a 400-acre property owned by Kendall’s grandparents.
When Miles is not operating BPCO, he does contract work as a social media manager. This applied skill set breathes unique life into his business. Despite being Florida-based, BPCO has been able to strike a chord clear to the Southern Hemisphere. As Miles puts it, “…because of how I was marketing a lot of the social media, my first three sales were Australian sales.” In the face of the pandemic, international shipping became so complex and cost-prohibitive that, for now, it has to be put on hold. But BPCO’s overseas customers miss them and are eager to continue making purchases after supply chain instabilities level out.
These unforeseen hurdles do not deter Miles. For him, patience has been the key to success. “Many people start a company with the notion that it will grow rapidly, and they will make money almost instantaneously, which is just about never the case,” Miles observes. In high school, he remembers learning that most new businesses fail while still in infancy. “I held this information close and tight as one of my motivations to never give up,” recalls Miles. For him, bad days don’t mean permission to give up. Making a written record of goals along with a company mission statement help Miles stay the course. “My whole adult life, I’ve been focused on doing anything I can to make “world peace” a less impossible idea…through my company Beaten Path Co., I plan to fulfill that dream – even if it means many…bumps and long hurdles along the way.” It’s not lost on those who have met Miles that he takes the aforementioned ethos seriously.
BPCO has an enthusiastic, loyal following. On their social media, followers see time-lapse videos of mounting orders producing slips spanning literal flights of stairs.
To learn more: beatenpathco.com
To Do, or Not To Do?
Erik Libby remembers being guided by a strong moral compass since childhood. “Since the beginning, I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit…I love the ability to create things and will them into existence,” says Erik. He describes his younger self as a “little sales guy,” whether that involved setting up lemonade stands or observing his parents, who work in real estate and sales.
It was no wonder then that in May 2020, he founded To Do Dudes, a Palm Coast-based concierge service with more than 1,000 home and yard projects under its belt. Erik remembers doing some landscaping for his grandma in a golf community when several neighbors drove by and asked him to see them about helping with similar work. He immediately perceived a larger need. What started as a fun project among friends launched into an official LLC with a robust team of high school and college students – a Harvard graduate among them. During one memorable project, Erik and his team were tasked with disposing of 18 ancient musical organs in a home once owned by a Disney cartoonist.
Face-to-face interaction with clients posed challenges during the early days of the pandemic. In a business that calls for entering homes, Erik and his crews had to be ever vigilant of varying personal preferences in terms of masking, physical distancing and the like. He always encouraged his colleagues to be prepared and situationally aware of each client’s needs and comfort levels. The effort it took to accommodate an array of preferences did not deter Erik and his teams. “You don’t need to be an expert to identify and capture a business opportunity,” says Erik. “You learn so much as you go, and when you just start, you realize what is possible.” Mistakes are inevitable when starting and operating a business. For Erik, these have only served as learning opportunities that propelled him forward.
To learn more: thetododudes.com
It is heartening to contemplate what these young entrepreneurs and their peers will continue to accomplish in the coming years. We can learn much from what they have already experienced, endured and earned.