International Finance
Magazine May - June 2018 StartUp Sucess

The journey of America’s youngest Buttonsmith

14-year-old Henry Burner’s entrepreneurial success is one for the textbooks. The teen overcame challenges to become one of the youngest ‘Forbes 30 Under 30’ title winner and has established a multi-million dollar empire. But he is like any other youngster who loves to study and socialize.

Find out how he manages this delicate balance

Success is all about persistence and determination, and 14-year-old entrepreneur Henry Burner has proved this adage. While most teenagers his age are prepping for competitive exams or training to be athletes, Burner decided to chart his own route for success. The young teenager runs a US$20mn retail company Buttonsmith, which already has more than 250,000 customers.

How it all began

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Being dyslexic, Henry struggled inschool but by the age of 10,,dyslexia notwithstanding, he started Buttonsmith.

Talking about how he built Buttonsmith Burner said: “When I was younger, I was really struggling in school because of dyslexia. The spring I was 10, I had a trading post for frontier life. My mom asked me if I wanted to make cupcakes or cookies, but I said, ‘Mom, the baked goods market is going to be totally oversaturated. We need to make something durable.’ So, I pulled out my mom’s old button machine and made buttons. At the end of the day, I ended up with more beads than any other kid at school. It was the first time I felt really successful at school. When I got home, I asked my mom, ‘Can I make real money doing this?’ That was the initiation of Buttonsmith.”

Now Burner, plays a large role in the company’s strategic decision making, and invests his breaks and weekends working on the company.

Parental support makes Buttonsmith a dream come true

Henry, who draws his entrepreneurial inspiration from Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motors, derives a lot of support from his parents. “My parents have been critical to my success in creating and growing Buttonsmith. They’ve been supportive from day one, and because I have to go to school, they do a lot of the day-to-day management that is needed.”

Online vs brick and mortar stores

ButtonSmith

Buttonsmith started from the farmer’s market before expanding online to Amazon and eventually, developing its own website. The company also sells products in 1,600 Walmart stores. However, Buttonsmith’s sales showed a significant upward graph after the business went online and that was a critical turnaround point. “When we started selling online, the ability to reach millions of people was transformative to the company. Since then we have greatly expanded out product lines into many affordable high quality products that allow people to express who they are to the world. Our margins are better by selling online than in brick-and-mortar stores.

There are a handful of additional brick and mortar retailers that carry Buttonsmith products, but most of the company’s focus is online.

Walmart generated less revenue – and considerably lesser margin – than selling online. “We have, however, learned a great deal from the experience, and we are grateful for the opportunity to make our products more widely available and for the impetus to fine-tune our processes to scale.”

Product designs and funding

Starting with buttons and magnets, the company has expanded its product offerings and currently offers lanyards, dog collars, leashes, business cards, banners, etc. and is working to expand its existing offerings. When asked how these designs are executed, Henry said: We have a mix of sources for our designs. We have an in-house designer who, along with my mom, creates many designs. We also use public domain art from classic artists, as well as licensing art from independent artists.”

To stay ahead of Chinese competitors, Buttonsmith has optimized itself to have custom products made within minutes of the order being placed, and makes sure the products are in the hands of customers within two days. “That’s very difficult to do, and nearly impossible if an ocean separates you from your customers,” said Henry.

The company has a unique patent for its Tinker Reel. Buttonsmith is bootstrapped so far, but is preparing for a round of investment. “Protecting the investments we have made in engineering and design through patents and copyrights is critical for our success, allowing us to reap the rewards of what we have own.”

Going beyond the borders of USA

After creating an impressive impact in US retail, Buttonsmith is strategising to spread its roots to Europe and other markets. “I believe Buttonsmith will continue to be important for me in the future. I love being an entrepreneur,” concludes Henry.

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