SCHENECTADY -- When James Brooks was a 7th grader at Brown School, he started his own business: Fishies Landscaping. He went door to door to drum up lawn work, and he eventually built a team and expanded into excavation, he said.
“It was totally off the books,” Brooks told about 75 students during a visit to his old school Thursday. “Don’t tell the government,” he joked.
He still has a copy of the first contract he ever wrote for an excavation job he did in those days: $643.09. He later went to work for the man who paid him for that job, selling jewelry around the country out of a suitcase after college. He has gone on to start multiple businesses.
“If you have the will and desire to do your own thing, you can do that,” he said. “It’s just a matter of doing it -- showing a little charisma. Whether it’s a matter of selling Girl Scouts cookies or elephant pants or mowing lawns, it doesn’t matter; you can do it.”
Yes, elephant pants. Brooks, who graduated from Schenectady High School in 2005 after spending eight years at Brown School, started that business with a friend in 2014.
Based in Brooklyn, The Elephant Pants sells a line of clothes – mostly focused on pants – with a retro (think MC Hammer) look. Some of the money from the business is donated to nonprofits that support the conservation and protection of elephants.
“Why did you pick elephants?” one of the students asked Brooks.
“Have you ever seen an elephant in person?” Brooks said. “They are really amazing animals, and they don’t really have a way of protecting themselves."
The business scored a big boost earlier this year, when Brooks and his partner appeared on ABC's "Shark Tank." In front of a television audience of around 10 million, Brooks pitched his business to a panel of five billionaires; they earned an investment and a “Shark Tank” bump, thanks to the exposure. Brooks said there were 15,000 unique visitors to the company’s website directly after the "Shark Tank" episode aired; they usually have 50 to 100 people on the website.
He visited the Brown School to share his story as an entrepreneur, highlighting how he took his interests as a young student and constantly pushed to make money or do his own thing. He told students to think about how they can turn their personal passions and interests into businesses and careers.
“Using tools you find in the world, magazines you read, programs in school, you start to learn about business or baking – if you like baking, maybe you can own your own bakery,” he told the students.
The path of the entrepreneur never runs in a straight line, he said, and it includes many ups and downs. Every good entrepreneur has a “side hustle,” he said -- things they are working on other than their main job and project.
“The road to entrepreneurship is a very windy road,” he said. “When you run your own business, it becomes a part of you… those businesses become you. It takes intelligence, fearlessness, trial and error, learning from mistakes and making it look like you know what you are doing when have no idea.”