At the ripe old age of 19, Andre Schellenberg is already a seasoned entrepreneur with seven years of experience under his belt, which made him a shoo-in for this year's NZ Entrepreneurs’ Organisation’s (EO) Global Student Entrepreneur Award.
He's got big plans for Flexed, a gym and bodybuilding brand born out of his passion for the fitness industry that he founded in April this year.
"When I was 15 I was overweight, really unhappy, and I joined the gym. It took me over two years maybe to finally understand diet, nutrition, things like that. I saw how much that changed me both physically and mentally, and I guess I came to the realisation that the gym is actually like business.
"You really have to commit yourself. At the gym, if you're not doing the proper diet and nutrition, you're not going to get that body. In business, if you're not going to knuckle down and put all your effort into it, you're never going to get the business where you want it to."
Schellenberg describes himself as someone who lives and breathes business - "I go to sleep thinking about business and wake up thinking about business".
His entrepreneurial journey began at age 12, where he held the position of 'tech angel' at his intermediate school, helping teachers use computers and occasionally fixing up the machines.
"I had a massive lightbulb go off in my head - why didn't I actually use this to make some money?"
So he did, stripping, building and selling computers. He then started buying and selling items on TradeMe, and later augmented his online trading ("all kind of small time stuff") with two part-time jobs.
"On my 18th birthday I incorporated my first company importing consumer electronics, mobile phone parts etc. From running that I was able to then get enough capital to start Flexed this year."
He also has a new clothing line in the works, set to be released this month that will be aimed at an international market.
"I'm aware of SEO and I use Google Analytics, and I've been amazed at how much traffic is coming from international addresses. Even most of my competition in New Zealand, the majority of their orders are going overseas."
When you operate in a niche market, he says, it's a mistake to limit yourself to New Zealand buyers alone.
"Why would you not go overseas?"
It's been a hectic few weeks for Schellenberg, between the awards and his end-of-year university exams, so the news hasn't really had time to sink in just yet.
What has going through the pitching and judging process taught him?
"I've never had a business mentor, so I've come to the realisation through this that if I really want to achieve what I want with the business it will be a requirement," he says.
"At the end of the day we are all the future of New Zealand ... I think it's great there is the EO to help younger people."
His advice for other young entrepreneurs?
"Don't listen to anybody who says you can't do it. You have to have an extreme trust in yourself and not let anyone's negative comments get you down. People always bring up age, but age is just a number.
"Don't be afraid to ask for help, and look for a mentor.
"Don't force yourself to become an entrepreneur just because of money. I don't think you can try to be an entrepreneur – you're either an entrepreneur or you're not. But there's more to being an entrepreneur than money and ultimately if you're not actually very happy doing your business then really, I don't think you should do it."
Tomorrow he's off to Washington DC where he'll spend two days competing against other student business owners from around the world for the grand title.
Judge Tony Falkenstein, CEO of Just Water and communications chair of EO NZ, said it was Schellenberg's confidence and solid business plan for growth that impressed the panel.
“Part of our role as entrepreneurs and business leaders is to recognise and nurture young entrepreneurial talent in New Zealand; Andre showed great initiative and drive – his enthusiasm and maturity in business are certainly something to celebrate and reward."
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