It’s no wonder that the January 21st College of Business Roundtable reminded me of the 1980s recruiting commercial for the U.S. Army that bragged, “We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.” Ashton Clark and Ryan Clark, featured speakers at this “Twenty-something Leaders in Business” event, sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers, are not in the military but indeed embody this concept. The twin brothers and business partners have accomplished more in their eight years in business than many people do in an entire career.
As children, Ashton and Ryan worked as models and were featured in ads for companies such as Sears. They performed typical chores around the house but did not receive an allowance from their parents. The lack of spending money prompted them to start a snow removal business, i.e., shoveling snow for neighbors. In the “off season” they ran a lemonade stand. Both are fairly typical youth ventures, but what set them apart from their friends were their focus on customer satisfaction and the fact that they diligently saved their money. Their jars of coins gradually turned into jars of dollars.
As Ashton and Ryan matured, they became very interested in technology, particularly electronics and computers. While other kids were out playing, they could be found in the library reading about PHP scripting language. At age 13, they started their first internet company, Circuitbreakerz.com, where they purchased computers and then resold them on ebay for $2,000 to turn a profit. Unfortunately, the profit became a loss of $10,000, when one of their sellers scammed them and never delivered the computers they had purchased. However, they utilized their tech skills to earn back the money by re-tooling other computers and selling these for a profit on ebay.
When they were 16 years old, Ryan and Ashton started an online customized shoe company called LudaKicks.com. They came up with the idea while trying to think of a product that everyone needs and realizing how fellow high school students loved wearing a variety of shoes to showcase their personal fashion. Ashton and Ryan offered 2,000 different products, which they shipped from overseas factories and warehouses directly to their customers. In 2006, LudaKicks was the largest customized shoe company on the internet. The most time-consuming part of the business was to add each product and its description to the web site, which the brothers and partners did themselves. The teens also provided excellent customer service with toll-free support, live chat and instant email replies. They even snagged the rapper Smitty to perform a custom theme song for their phone line greeting. LudaKicks still operates today on a fully automated basis, featuring over 400 brands and 500,000 products.
Around the time they launched LudaKicks, Ryan and Ashton participated in the LEAD program for business. This innovative and extensive summer program selects outstanding students and encourages them to pursue business as a profession. Ryan and Ashton were able to visit the Intel Company in Costa Rica and get a first-hand look at a multinational tech company.
Since high school, the pair has been busy creating other internet ventures to join LudaKicks. One of them is 247Mixtapes.com, to which paying a monthly fee of $10 gives members the ability to access and download music that is normally offered only on promotional compilation CDs. Another subscription-based offering is AlphaPMS.com, a web tool used to manage projects, delegate tasks and track work productivity.
One of Ashton and Ryan’s ventures was inspired by their experiences on the University of Illinois campus. It’s common for student groups such as fraternities and sororities to organize events that require admission fees and tickets. However, collecting cash for these functions can be a hassle. The Clarks started UTicketIt.com as a way for event organizers, even those setting up large conferences, to bypass cash and sell tickets online. They can also use the site to better plan their events by handling RSVPs, special food requests and discounted pricing, as well as to collect statistics about exactly who signed up and attended the events. In the future, the Clarks plan to expand the service to be utilized by convention planners with up to 10,000 participants.
WeParkChicago.com allows drivers to reserve parking spaces online. The service saves customers time, as it enables them to know exactly where they will park without having to drive around looking for an open spot. It also saves them money by offering discounts just for booking online. Ashton got the idea from a similar company he became familiar with while doing an internship in New York and was inspired to bring it to Chicago.
As if this weren’t enough, Ashton and Ryan also have a few more ventures under their umbrella group, appropriately dubbed Dynamik Duo, Inc. Ashton’s love of playing the piano inspired View2Play.com, a web site offering virtual video-based music lessons for all instruments. DigaText.com allows its members to send and receive mass text messages to and from cell phones. Finally, Hostivo.com is an online design agency that produces web sites and provides hosting services that communicate creative and compelling messages about customers’ brands.
The Clarks have learned many lessons throughout their tenure in business, chief among them is to never give up. They recall being featured in 2006 on the front page of the Chicago Tribune’s Business section, likely the first African-American teenagers to have this honor. It reinforced their desire to pursue their dreams now. Many people have asked them why they don’t just wait until after college to be entrepreneurs. Ryan’s response is consistent: “Why wait to pursue your dreams? If we had waited, someone else would have done it and we would have lost out.” And to those who wonder why the two of them continue to stay in school, they point out how being at UIUC has enabled them to meet CEOs and other top executives, and given them connections to various alumni and those who can provide mentorship. Being enrolled in the Hoeft Technology & Management Program has helped them bridge the gap between business and engineering, an important trait in their line of work. Ashton and Ryan have also honed their management skills by serving in leadership roles on campus. Among many activities, Ashton is the President of the National Black MBA Association, and Ryan is President of the Minority Leadership Group.
During a Q&A session after their presentation, the Clarks provided more insight into their story. When asked how their family had been involved when they started their first web company, they responded that their parents actually provided fuel to pursue their endeavors simply because they initially didn’t believe the boys could do it. Ashton and Ryan also revealed that they get legal and accounting advice from freelancers, who are usually willing to offer consultation for less money.
A Roundtable attendee was curious to know why the Clarks chose to attend UIUC over other institutions. Ryan recalled how during a campus visit Avijit Ghosh, then Dean of the College of Business, made a point to speak to Ryan directly. Ryan got the feeling that this was a closer-knit school than the others they were considering, which greatly appealed to him.
Another question addressed a common hurdle for twins