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Sunday, October 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Job Market
Two UW grads are 24 and already in charge

By Joanna Horowitz
Seattle Times staff reporter

Nicolay Thomassen, left, and Jeff Becker, right, are 24 and the owners of Kotis Design in Seattle. In the background is employee James Upchurch, 22. .
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It might have been the Airheads. Or maybe the keychains. Then again, there was the concession stand.

Jeff Becker caught the business bug during elementary school, selling candy at baseball games, then, later, right out of his locker.

But now, just over a year out of the University of Washington School of Business, his company, Kotis Design is doing it the right way: office, computers and employees (two, plus his business partner).

And he projects they'll bring in $700,000 this year designing, printing and shipping fraternity and sorority clothes, college apparel, corporate uniforms and other items such as water bottles and pens.

Becker is a rarity — a business-school graduate who goes out and starts a business. He was on a short list of recent UW graduates to do that, a list supplied by the university's media-relations office.

Becker said most of his friends from college chose the traditional 9-to-5 route, working for someone else. But he was up for a challenge, even though he said he could have easily gotten a regular job.

He said he works upward of 70 hours a week, thinks about selling shirts constantly ("If I see someone wearing a shirt, I want to see their tag"), and sometimes forgoes his paycheck to make sure his two full-time employees and his business partner get theirs.

On your own

Demand: There's always a need for businesses, but finding the right one for your market is the key. In 2000, there were 550,100 new businesses. But 584,500 small businesses also closed, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, though not all closures were due to bankruptcy.

Pay: Don't expect much to begin with, but there is great potential for growth, if things take off. The latest average annual income for small businesses is $1.9 million (that's the whole business, not just the owner), according to SCORE, a nonprofit business-counseling Web site. But most small businesses fail in the first year.

Benefits: Freedom: You are literally your own boss. Also lots of room to grow, the chance for creativity and the opportunity to put your fingers in every part of the company.

Drawbacks: Long hours with little pay when things are starting up; having to deal with every problem that comes up because you're the boss; paying for your own health insurance and other benefits, and a chance you might fail.

Training: Locally, the University of Washington Business School and the Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University are good places to check out. Community colleges and business schools also provide basic instruction, and there are opportunities for young entrepreneurs to study at least 1,500 colleges and universities, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes entrepreneurship.

— Joanna Horowitz

But for him, it's worth it, and Becker said that starting your own business right out of college is a good option that many recent grads don't consider.

"After my senior year in college I didn't know what to do, I had no job ... so I went to Europe for a month and a half. When I came back I said I'll try this."

"I feel like friends complain about their jobs all the time and they're not complaining because they're working too much [or] they're not being paid enough," Becker, 24, said. "They're really complaining because they get no satisfaction out of their job. Every single thing I do, every single decision I make directly impacts me, and that's an unbelievable feeling. I go home, I feel satisfied."

Becker says this from a meeting table in his sparse office, bachelor pad-esque with its mini fridge, George Foreman grill and piles of clothes (up for sale, though, not waiting for the laundry).

He is intense with a nervous energy that pours out in spurts. He trips over streams of words then stops short, waiting for the next thing. Usually it's another call on his cellphone, which vibrates at least five times in an hour.

He is guarded about divulging secrets about how his business is run but says keeping your mouth shut about some things is good business advice.

He reluctantly agrees to say how much he's making right now (about $30,000 a year: "enough to get by"), how much he put into the business to start ($25,000 earned in college by selling T-shirts for a print company, plus a small bank loan), and how much he'd like to be making himself ($500,000: "Is that too much?" he asks, laughing). He won't say exactly how his products get made or how many he's sold.

But he will say this: "Any normal average Joe person can start a business.

"There's a big concern, like it takes a lot to start a business, but in reality, like go read a book," he said.

Of course Becker did more than read a book before starting Kotis Design last year. (He said he chose "Kotis" because it's a derivative of the Greek word, ktizo, meaning the act of creating.)

Becker, who grew up on Mercer Island, was encouraged by his parents to get involved in business, and he got a degree in entrepreneurship from the UW.

His dad, Sandy Becker, is the chief financial officer for Radiant Research, a clinical-research company in Bellevue and many of his connections helped Becker. His mom, Ruth Becker, used to own a tennis store on Mercer Island and print T-shirts. Now she also sells promotional merchandise for bike events.

But Becker said a key to being successful, even if you have no business experience, is finding someone who does. His partner, Nicolay Thomassen, is an artist who in college wanted to start a design business but wasn't sure how. Together Thomassen, 24, and Becker combined skills to get Kotis off the ground.

All you need, he said, is a unique idea and some startup money (how much depends on the kind of business).

Though getting things started while still in college is also a good idea, he said, because you'll have more freedom and less expenses (especially if your parents are footing the bill for studying like Becker's did).

The real challenges start when things get rolling. Becker has to pay for insurance, rent, licenses and employee benefits and health insurance, essentially out of his pocket. If anything goes wrong, he's the one who has to fix it.

"Everything I do's a challenge — how much I should charge, how should I deal with a customer, how to deal with employees, how to deal with hiring people, what supplier should I use," he said.

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Becker even struggles over such questions as: "What time should I be at work" or "Should I go out tonight?"

But when he's asked about the hardest part about his job, he gets quiet and calm for the first time.

He said it was hard to decide if he really wanted to take the risk and it's hard when things come up that he doesn't know the answer to, but there's nothing big because, he says, "I love running my own business."

Becker doesn't do it alone, which he said is also a really important thing to remember. He said he has good employees, attracted by pay of $10 to $15 an hour.

His brother Daniel, 22, and still in college, and fellow UW graduate James Upchurch, 22, both work with him.

But he also has a variety of mentors, people he's met though friends, his parents and by attending fairs and events.

These are people who can give him legal advice, accounting help or just general business guidance.

"Ask around ... Everybody knows somebody," Becker said. "There's a lot of people out there who want to help you, who want to feel like they've done something good with their life ... They have answers, I mean, there's no point in reinventing the wheel."

One of the most important lessons he's learned is he has to be realistic about failure.

"I am prepared to go bankrupt ... I don't want to, I don't have any intention to, but I am mentally prepared to go bankrupt," he said.

"I definitely think it's worth taking the risk. If you're prepared to fail but also really want to succeed, then do it. But if you want to work until five o'clock and go home and not think (about the job), starting a business is not for you."

As he gets up from the table, he says he's worked 33 hours in the past two days.

It looks like maybe he hasn't shaved since the beginning of that marathon.

But everything he does, he says, is for the future when he can be at a point "where I don't have to worry about money."

And then he can look for the next challenge.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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