Living

Columbus High student sews, sells bow ties, learns lessons

rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com

His parents gave him a sewing machine for Christmas.

And he asked for it.

And he's 15.

So when friends playfully tease Austin Starbuck, the promising start to his budding business gives him comfort along with cash.

He makes and sells bow ties through his company, Papillon Chic, which means "stylish butterfly" in French. It describes the shape of a bow tie -- as well as the metamorphosis of this Columbus High School sophomore.

Opportunity

Last spring, as Austin's freshman year was ending, the senior who had been selling candy at school told Austin he wouldn't attend the final day of classes. Austin decided to be the substitute. After earning a sweet $30 that day, he was ready for another entrepreneurial opportunity.

"It was just really cool to actually have money and be able to do stuff with it," he said.

Then he saw a "Shark Tank" episode showing a boy a bit younger than him making and selling bow ties. Austin thought, "That looks like it would be pretty fun, and I like bow ties."

During the summer, he found bow tie patterns on the Internet, his mother taught him to sew, and he borrowed her sewing machine.

Austin admits the first bow tie he made, which took him about 45 minutes, was "kind of rough around the edges." But thanks to his perseverance and help from his mother, Monae, and family friend Barbara Meadows, he significantly increased the quality and decreased by half the production time.

Lessons

The sewing lessons turned into business lessons and life lessons for Austin. He struggled during the summer to give his bow ties a store-bought look.

"He thought, when he learned how to do it, that it would be so easy," Monae said. "After a few times, he thought, 'This isn't as easy as I think it is.'"

The frustration was too much, and he gave up his pursuit, until he reunited with his friends when school resumed.

"Kids want money to do stuff," Monae said. "You want to go to football games. You want to go to movies. You're paying for that, in our house at least."

So, in October, she encouraged him to make his bow ties again.

"He did one day," Monae said, "and I didn't even have to help him."

Austin also learned to have his bow ties in stock before he touts their availability.

"At the beginning of the school year, I'd already told people about the bow ties and they told me what their favorite colors were so I could start making them," he said. "Later on, people were like, 'Where's my bow tie?' So I had them on my back, and I wanted money, so I just decided to do it."

When he sold his first bow tie to a classmate, Austin said, "I was really happy and was screaming on the inside but had to keep my composure. I really wanted to give my friend a hug or something."

Monae has seen Austin's self-esteem soar. After he bought a jeans and shoes with the money he earned, she said, "He couldn't stop smiling, and I thought, 'Ah, you get it! You get it!' I like it when my kids have a goal and they want to do something and they're willing to work to do it."

Optimism

As of Jan. 11, Austin had sold 23 bow ties, including four on the e-commerce website Etsy.com.

"Not a lot," he said, "but still hoping."

Part of the optimism comes from the location of those online orders -- Oregon, North Carolina and two from Wisconsin -- so those customers gave him money purely for the product, not because they know him.

When he sold his first bow tie online, he felt his phone vibrate while he was in school. It was a message from Etsy. He couldn't contain himself.

"I was so excited," he said, "I started going pretty crazy in class. My friends were like, 'What is wrong with him?'"

Papillon Chic bow ties go for $30. The Christmas sale price was $25. Austin estimated it costs him $7 to make each bow tie.

Minus the fees Etsy charges, he receives $27.80 for each $30 bow tie he sells online.

Austin offers nine styles. The four that sold online were navy and white plaid, light blue with navy hexagons, red and green plaid, and green and white houndstooth.

The only advertising Austin does is a commitment to be a human billboard for his company. Wearing one of the bow ties he has made every day, he feels like he can conquer the day.

"When I walk down the halls at school, you usually don't see a kid wearing a bow tie at school," he said, "so it turns heads."

His friends thought he had bought the bow ties he was selling. They were incredulous when he disclosed who made them.

"They weren't bashing me a lot," he said. "They were like, 'You're sewing? That's kind of weird.' But when they saw how cool they were, it kind of evened out."

Teamwork

Austin still sometimes asks his mother to cut the fabric for his bow ties. Although she charges him $2 for the labor, Monae laughed and said, "It secretly gets reinvested back into the company."

Monae also photographs the bow ties for Austin's website, and his father, Aaron, helped him come up with Papillon Chic as the company's name, but Austin created the logo by himself through an online app.

Meadows, who owns Amanda Remembered clothing store, mentors Austin's older sister, Brianna, in sewing for her senior project at Columbus High.

To get him started, Meadows gave Austin free fabrics and valuable advice.

"If you mess up," Austin said, "she's like, 'It's OK. You'll learn from this, and you won't do it again. She helped me get over the little failures."

And this venture into the adult world has helped him mature.

"Before being a business-oriented teenager, I was just an average teenager, I guess you could say," Austin said.

"I would spend most of the time on my phone or hanging out with friends. I still spend some time doing that, but now I have more important things to do."

Austin's grand plan for his company is to have his product sold in stores, so "whenever people think of bow ties," he said, "they think of Papillon Chic."

His other activities include soccer, school clubs and church youth group, and he studies the stock market.

He isn't sure of his ultimate career goal, he said, "but I want to own lots of different businesses."

With a last name like Starbuck, maybe one of those businesses will be in coffee.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter @MarkRiceLE.

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