It’s hard to believe, but it wasn’t so long ago that high school graduates in these parts tended to follow a predictable trajectory, going on to a four-year college (and often graduate school), followed by a long career in finance, the law, medicine or publishing. But that’s changing, as more and more young people sidestep corporate America to take the path less traveled and pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. We’ve tracked down three Greenwich High School graduates who are on the leading edge of this trend, foregoing the security of a salary and benefits, to launch their own companies. They are a diverse lot: a multi-platform media company, a gourmet food truck and a chic travel shoe. Each has one thing in common: founders that are passionate, inspired and willing to go the extra mile to see their start-ups succeed.
THE POWER OF POSITIVITY
In 2014, Matt Dajer was twenty-two years old, a McGill University graduate, and the founder of a small clothing company in Montreal, struggling to make ends meet. Today, he is living the life in a six-bedroom home in Venice Beach, California (complete with two editing studios in the backyard), a rising YouTube star, and cofounder of Yes Theory, a multimedia production company specializing in travel and lifestyle content. “Sometimes I wake up and think, What the hell? A year and a half ago, I was living in a one-bedroom apartment with three other guys, sharing a bed and a couch. It’s very surreal, still,” he says.
As a kid growing up in Old Greenwich and then Riverside, Matt said he never spent much time thinking about his future. His “aha” moment came during his freshman year at McGill, when he read Richard Branson’s autobiography, Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way.
“It was life-changing,” Matt recalls. “It made me realize it was up to me to make something happen in my life.”
The history major came up with several business ideas, all of which “flopped almost instantly,” he says. One that had staying power: Heart City Apparel, a line of street-art inspired T-shirts. “We were quite successful. We partnered with twenty to thirty artists and charities and raised thousands of dollars.”
Seeking to raise his company’s profile, Matt teamed up to shoot a promo video with a friend he’d met in a marketing class. “Thomas had his own YouTube channel with 100 followers. I thought we could do cross promotion.”
After graduation, they vowed to keep the partnership going. They conceived an idea they called Project 30—a monthlong series of videos capturing them doing things they’d never done before, things that would take them out of their comfort zone. It was part luck and part timing that led them to two more creatives: Derin, who hailed from Turkey, and Ammar, originally from Egypt. The foursome spent a month documenting their exploits. “We had so much fun, we decided to put everything else to the side and commit 100 percent to making YouTube videos,” Matt says. They named their new venture Generation Y Not and spent the next year pursuing their passion.
It was a bold step. Even their friends questioned their sanity. “We were broke. Our parents were screaming at us, ‘Are you out of your mind?’” Despite the chorus of naysayers, they stayed true to their vision. To make ends meet, Matt spent down his savings and Thomas got a part-time job at a clothing store. Slowly, Generation Y Not’s subscriber base inched upwards. From 100, to 1,000, eventually hitting the 3,000 mark. In October 2015, the foursome was featured on the front page of Reddit. “Our world got bigger,” Matt says. And then Snapchat called. Or more specifically sent an email: Do you want to move to Venice Beach and get paid to make videos?
“We thought it was spam because it was so vague,” he says. “At that point, we were getting a lot of random emails from production companies.”
Turns out the folks from Snapchat really were interested in Matt and his pals. They were invited to make an audition tape for a travel show to be aired Sunday evenings. Matt and company came up with a truly outlandish idea: shoot a holiday card with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. So off they went to Ottawa, crazy Christmas sweaters in hand.
“They wouldn’t let us into his office,” says Matt. “So, we waited. And he had heard of us so he came out eventually, and we shot some footage of him wearing a Santa hat and then had a big group hug.” The video went viral; Snapchat was impressed; and just like that, the days of scrimping, saving and living in a one-bedroom apartment were in their rearview mirror.
When they moved to LA, Matt and his partners renamed the company Yes Theory, a name that reflects their mission to “say yes to life.” Today, with over 300,000 subscribers, they are juggling multiple projects from their home office in Venice Beach. Their new travel show premiered on Yes Theory’s YouTube Channel this past summer. “We want to be the go-to travel show on the Internet,” says Matt. “We feel there is a huge lack of good content for people our age and younger. They are not looking for classic travel shows or advice.”
Instead, says Matt, they are looking for authenticity and spontaneity. He recounts the time Yes Theory went to Mexico City, where they convinced a club owner to let them get up on stage. “They put us in the VIP room and then on stage with this huge Mexican rapper, and there we were rapping in English and Spanish to this confused crowd. It was insane. Stuff like that does not happen if you script it.”
In September, the guys traveled to Nicaragua for the first Yes Con, a five-day gathering they created for upwards of forty people from around the world. The group spent time building homes for an impoverished community and then two days discovering the coastal area. “It’s the first step in making this a physical movement, not just a virtual one,” he says. “Our goal is for Yes Theory to be the next authentic media brand that tells incredible stories based around the lifestyle of saying ‘yes’ and taking risks.”
As for all those naysayers? “Our parents are now our biggest fans,” says Matt.
Swizzler Food Truck
As a kid growing up in Old Greenwich, Jack Zimmerman played a lot of team sports, including football with the Putnam Generals. Even now, fifteen years after the fact, one game stands out: “I scored a big touchdown and the ref came up to me afterward and said, ‘Hey, Jack, you sell the hot dogs, too?’” At the time, the comment was just a reference to his multiple talents. But these days, the twenty-five-year-old does, in fact, sell the hot dogs. And not just any hot dogs.
Three years ago, Jack and two friends embarked on a mission to change the playing field for one of America’s most underappreciated foods. In the process, they developed the Swizzler, a grass-fed, all-beef hot dog whose distinctive spiral cut is not only a great platform for toppings but also provides Instagram-worthy photo ops. Jack and his cofounders took their dog to the streets, launching a food truck in Washington, D.C., in 2014. Since then, the young entrepreneurs have catapulted to the top of the city’s packed food-truck scene. This past summer Swizzler was named D.C.’s Best Food Truck of 2017 by the readers of Washingtonian magazine.
The Greenwich High School grad didn’t set out to become a hot dog connoisseur when he entered Wake Forest University in 2010. He wasn’t even much of a foodie. In 2012, he and his pals, now partners, Jesse Konig and Ben Johnson, were just looking for a way to raise extra money to attend the World Cup in Brazil. They hit upon the idea of a making and selling a gourmet hot dog and partnered with a local bar on campus. “We weren’t satisfied with the quality of food on campus,” Jack recalls. “The challenge for us was taking a thing people think they know and reinventing it.” At the same time, they heard about a contest sponsored by Wake Forest’s business school, in which participants were invited to launch a venture over a three-day period. They set up on campus and the reaction from the student body was off the charts. “Our professor told us we were the most successful venture in the history of the contest,” he continues. “We realized our concept might have more potential than just airfare.”
They spent senior year crafting a business plan (for which they earned class credit), raising seed money (including a small grant from the school), and figuring out where to set up shop. They considered several locations before settling on D.C. “There is an up-and-coming food scene,” Jack explains, “And we had a great support network of Wake Forest grads.” They hooked up with Union Kitchen, a food business accelerator, with a commercial kitchen facility and home to about seventy-five small businesses, and launched their first Swizzler truck at the much-hyped Truckeroo Festival. Swizzler developed a loyal following right out of the gate. “We call our customers the Swizzler Tribe,” says Jack. “They are tagging photos, posting on Instagram. They have taken our brand and gotten us to the next level in D.C.”
They come for such crowd-pleasing favorites as the Leonardo Dog Vinci (homemade pesto, mozzarella, grape tomatoes and a balsamic glaze), the hand-cut parmesan truffle fries, and custom toppings (aka sauzzes). “We make all our toppings in house,” says Jack. “We even ferment our own sauerkraut.” Another key ingredient working in Swizzler’s favor? “We put a lot of effort into thinking through the flavor profiles,” he adds. “For instance, the Buffalo Soldier dog comes with a wacky list of toppings—blue cheese slaw, fried onion strings, Franks buffalo ‘sauzz’—but when you put them together they make sense.”
Business has been so good that this past summer, the trio added a second truck and catering services to the mix. They now have six full-time employees and in mid-September, they launched a pop-up restaurant in Northwest D.C., where they debuted burgers and homemade fried chicken.
With success comes added responsibilities and more time spent behind a desk, rather than in the field. But each of the founders manages to spend a day or two every week on the truck. “My favorite thing is sending out an order,” Jack says. “I watch as they open the box and their eyes light up. They tap their friends on the shoulder. Heads nod. That sort of reaction is what drives me every day. If we can continue to do that, we’ll be fine.”
WHERE YOU CAN FIND SWIZZLER FOOD TRUCK
BEST FOOT FORWARD
CHRISTIAN & KILIAN ROSIER
Christian Rosier and his younger brother, Kilian were traveling around Thailand in 2014, when they discovered the perfect shoe: “It was lightweight, easy to pack and versatile enough to go from beach to bar,” he says. The only problem? “It was not very high quality. I thought we could make a better product.”
After the trip, the University of San Diego graduate returned home and started a job in New York City working for a real estate development firm. But he kept thinking about the shoe, which he thought could be a “cool side project.” His brother agreed.
As Christian discovered, it’s one thing to have a good business idea, quite another to bring it to life. “I had no idea where to begin,” he says. Luckily, he had some good role models: His mother Kat is an interior designer; his dad, Thierry, had owned a custom wallpaper and fabric business, among other enterprises. Plus, he had Kilian, an avid photographer and skilled videographer. Though still a student at McGill, Kilian was involved from the outset.
After much research, the brothers found a manufacturer who did custom private label work in New York City, and they hired him to help develop a prototype. That was the beginning of a year-plus relationship that was fraught with missteps and empty promises. “It didn’t end well,” Christian says. “But we did manage to get a great fitting shoe, three prototypes and lasts [the mold that determines the shape of a shoe and how it will fit].”
But without a factory to produce the shoes, the process couldn’t move forward. The Rosiers were on the verge of putting their dream on the back burner, when they got a lucky break. A friend of their father’s introduced them to a young man from Thailand who said he might be able to help. He took three samples back to Bangkok. “Six weeks later he called me and told me to get on a plane,” Christian says. They met with several factories, and eventually selected a small, family-owned operation just outside of the city. “I don’t think any of this would have happened without that meeting. It was a little bit of luck and a lot of perseverance.”
Still, there was one more step. Before investing in a lot of inventory, they wanted to make sure they had proof of concept. They had a lot of footage from their travels throughout Asia, and decided to create a promotional video for a Kickstarter campaign. Christian moved out to San Diego in January to set up their home base. In February, Patara (a Thai word that loosely translates to auspicious or good fortune) launched on Kickstarter. In March, they closed the campaign after only forty days, and raised $74,000—three times their target goal. In June, Kilian graduated from McGill and began working on Patara full time, going back and forth between Connecticut and California. “The last couple of months we’ve taken all the feedback from our Kickstarter backers and customers and are putting that energy back into the design process,” he says.
Though they are co-creative directors, the brothers wear many hats—Christian handles relationships with suppliers, while Kilian is focused on marketing. “Since we have different styles, we help each other keep the vision in check and not stray too far out of our lane,” Kilian adds.
Available in three styles and a variety of fabrics and colorways, Patara shoes are shaping up to be everything the brothers imagined—and more. Stylish and easy to pack, they are produced in limited runs, and are handmade using the most sustainable and eco-friendly products available.
“We partner with artisans and weaving collectives throughout Asia, India and South America,” says Christian. “We support fair-trade practices throughout our supply chain.” Though they experimented with shared pop-up stores this summer, they are now concentrating on direct-to-consumer sales; Facebook and Instagram accounts for 90 percent of their web traffic. An integral part of their mission includes giving back to charitable causes—in August, 10 percent of sales went to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. In September, Patara partnered with several California brands to support the relief effort for Hurricane Harvey victims.
As for the future, the brothers say they are firmly focused on the present. “The long-term goal is to grow as a sustainable travel brand,” says Christian. “But for now, we want to make one thing really well before we move on to anything else.”
WHERE YOU CAN FIND PATARA SHOES