Alaska’s young adults start up the state’s future
Casey Conner (above center) is the founder of 907Boards.
Photo courtesy of Casey Conner
Starting businesses isn’t how most people spend their teenage years, but for some Alaskan teens, businesses they started in middle school and high school are continuing to grow and thrive.
There’s Mike Dunckle who started Mike’s Music in Eagle River more than two decades ago when he was twelve.
Grayson Davey was inspired to launch a line of wearable survival gear after two friends nearly died of exposure following a boating accident.
Kyra Hoenack was serving on the board of a local outreach group for homeless teens when her good idea blossomed into first one business, then two.
Casey Conner founded 907Boards after building his first longboard in middle school shop class.
And there’s Tyler Arnold, who at twenty-three-years-old has already started two tech businesses, sold one, and is on track to roll out his third startup later this month.
Davey attributes some of his success to lessons learned at the Anchorage Chamber’s “Young Entrepreneurs Academy.” He was one of five young entrepreneurs who graduated from the eight-month program this year. The program also paired him with a mentor from the University of Alaska Anchorage College of Business and Public Policy.
More than 1,300 teens in grades seven through twelve have completed the Young Entrepreneurs Academy nationwide.
“That really kicked it up a notch,” Davey says.
Alaska grown entrepreneur Tyler Arnold at the entrance to Columbia University in Upper Manhattan, New York City.
Courtesy of Tyler Arnold
Tyler Arnold used $400 from his sixteenth birthday to start “Tyler Systems” in 2008 during his junior year of high school. He launched SimplySocial in May 2012 with a pair of international partners and sold it in June 2015 to a Manhattan advertising agency.
Arnold’s latest rollout is “Circa Victor,” which he describes as a software suite that helps political organizations make strategic decisions about campaign expenditures. He said he will be working in the political arena through the 2016 election.
He owes his success to his Alaska mentors, Arnold says—earlier investors like Allan Johnston, who was one of the first people to invest in Arnold’s first business, Tyler Systems.
“I’m thankful for all the mentorship and support I received,” he says. “Without that, none of this would exist.”
Johnston helped create the Municipality of Anchorage 49th State Angel Fund in 2012. He’s also the founder of a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit corporation called The Entrepreneurs and Mentors Network, Inc., which helps foster mentors and potential business Angels.
“I don’t know anyone who is more committed to creating new entrepreneurs,” Arnold says.
Arnold also is taking a business course at Columbia University to complement his active learning experiences. For now, his focus is on building business systems and finding individuals interested in changing the world, he says.
“I’m very excited about the company I am working on now,” Arnold says.
He says he would like to see Alaska become a player in the intellectual property world as a means to diversify its economy, adding, “We should be planting those seeds now.”
Alaska Survival Bracelet, packaged (left) and product components before assembly (above), is one of the products designed, manufactured, and sold by Grayson Davey’s business Alaska Paracord Designs.
Courtesy of Grayson Davey
Alaska Paracord Designs
Like most kids his age, Grayson Davey, fourteen, struggles to manage his time.
But what sets this South High School freshman apart is what devours his free time.
Davey was eleven in February 2013 when he started Alaska Paracord Designs with $300 and a business idea aimed at saving lives. Now he has nine employees and is on track to make $40,000 this year from his part-time business, his dad, Trent Davey, says.
“He could easily make it a full-time job,” Trent says. “We’re trying to find that balance between school and being an entrepreneur.”
The fledgling enterprise designs, manufactures, and sells survival gear bracelets and key fobs with tools built in to start a fire in the wilderness, lash together a shelter, and catch a fish or two for dinner.
It got its start three years ago when Grayson sold his Alaska Survival Bracelets online, at the Spenard Farmer’s Market, and at a three retail outlets. This year, he joined the Made In Alaska program and expanded to sell his items at retail outlets across Alaska and directly at several Anchorage craft shows.
Grayson assembled each paracord design himself until March 2015 when he began hiring employees to help him with assembly in order to expand his market. Now he has a nine-person crew assembling the products using his custom materials. Each week, he picks up the finished items, pays the employee, and delivers more supplies, Grayson says.
Grayson completes the final step in each piece and does a quality check at the same time, he says.
He was already designing paracord bracelets before an accident a few years ago that stranded a friend and his daughter on a gravel bar on the Skwentna River. They waited for help for three days without food, shelter, or any means to start a fire after all of their survival gear was lost when their boat flipped in the river and sank, Grayson says.
The accident gave Grayson the idea to modify his paracord bracelets to include a few bits of essential survival gear—a firesteel, striker, and tinder. So Grayson, with advice from his dad, a former fighter pilot with extensive survival training—set out to create a new kind of wearable survival gear.
In addition to the $35 survival bracelet, they also developed and sell the $25 “Fire Bug” keychain that includes a firesteel, knife-grade scraper, Mylar signal mirror, waxed jute, and an X-Acto blade. The newest addition to the line-up is the $45 Fish and Flame, which includes everything in the Fire Bug, plus an Alaska fishing kit including hand-tied flies and braided fishing line that can double as a snare—among other uses, Grayson’s father Trent Davey says.
To use any of the three survival tools means untying the paracord to get at the items inside. That means after you use your Fire Bug or survival bracelet, you can use the components again, but it’s a one-time use tool.
Grayson has a solution for that, too.
Mail the kit’s components to Alaska Paracord Designs with the story of how you used it and they will send you a replacement.
“These products are a great for anybody spending time in the outdoors,” Trent says.
The idea is to carry a few items that could aid surviving for twenty-four to forty-eight hours, he says. Similar survival products don’t include tinder, Trent says, so the father and son team designed a way to weave a wax coated length of jute into the designs that still burns even when wet or in sub-zero temperatures.
As a test, they took the prototype bracelet Trent had worn for more than a year and submerged it in water for two days before taking it out and starting a fire with it, Trent says.
“That’s a big deal if you are wet and cold. You need to be able to get a fire going now,” he says. “Everything that is in there, we know it works.”
Thanks to his membership in the Made In Alaska program, three of Grayson’s Fire Bugs also will be included as ornaments on the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C., this year.
Kyra Hoenack, founder and manager of Steamdriven Boutique in Wasilla.
Courtesy of Kyra Hoenack
Kyra Hoenack, nineteen, took a circuitous route to become the founder and manager of Steamdriven Boutique, a Wasilla shop that upcycles clothing, hats, and jewelry and provides work opportunities to homeless teens.
She was fourteen or fifteen and a student at Burchell High School when she joined the board of MY House, a grassroots group formed to provide a hand up to homeless youth ages fourteen to twenty-four in the Mat-Su Borough. At Burchell about half of the student body is homeless. Districtwide, the Mat-Su Borough School District reports 850 of its students are homeless, though Hoenack estimates that number is likely higher closer to 1,200.
At first, the MY House Board considered vetting interested community members with available rooms and connecting them with homeless teens. Teens would stay for a few nights, or a few weeks, before moving back to the streets, Hoenack says.
That’s when Hoenack spoke up. She told the adult board members their novel housing model was doomed to fail.
Teens don’t want to live in a stranger’s home, she says.
“I wouldn’t like that,” Hoenack told the board. “It would make me uncomfortable to stay in someone else’s home. I would feel like I was invading someone else’s space.”
So the board put together a new approach. It leased a building to house a drop-in center to connect teens with employment, healthcare, and case management services. A third of the building was leased to a car detailing company started by teenager Ben Beach, a third was the drop-in center, and the remaining third housed the Gathering Grounds Café, which is managed by Hoenack’s brother, Kurt, twenty-two.
The café helps support the drop-in center financially and has trained thirty-seven teens during its first two years of operation, Hoenack says. Of those, thirty-six have moved on to better jobs and safe housing, Hoenack says.
“We are pretty proud of that,” she says.
Some of the upcycled merchandise at Kyra Hoenack’s Steamdriven Boutique in Wasilla.
Courtesy of Kyra Hoenack
The MY House Board followed her lead again last year when she suggested the non-profit could upcycle its excess donations and sell the items in a small steampunk boutique. “Steampunk” updates Victorian-era fashions by melding it with modern goth and punk styles.
Since that time Steamdriven Boutique has grown to employ four teens, including Hoenack, who manages the business. The idea is working as planned. The business is turning a profit and a couple of her staff members have already graduated to new opportunities, she says.
In addition to job training, the boutique also provides clothing vouchers to clients and a revenue stream that also supports the outreach program, Hoenack says.
An ongoing expansion will double the floor space in the shop and add an office for Hoenack and a classroom where teens can learn sewing, design, and other skills used in the upcycle process.
The inventory is all donated, except for a few steampunk accessories, she says.
Her leadership was honored this year as Spirit of Youth award winner, which included a $2,000 scholarship. For now, Hoenack says she is happy managing the shop and helping to steer the homeless youth outreach program as a voting board member. Though somewhere down the line, she says, she would like to earn a degree in social work or human services.
“I haven’t found anything else I enjoy more than being here and part of a good working team,” Hoenack says.
Photo courtesy of Casey Conner
Alaskan entrepreneur Casey Conner started 907Boards two years ago when he was fourteen. This summer—with his family’s help—he opened a full-service shop in Anchorage offering skateboards, longboards, safety gear, apparel, training, and a community meeting space for science, business, and math class as well as youth groups and weekly Friday Pizza Nights.
During the school year the sixteen-year-old divides his time between running 907Boards and his responsibilities as a sophomore in high school.
“With the help of my parents, I wanted to share the love that I have for boarding while giving kids a safe place to do homework, play foosball, or just meet up,” Conner says.
He’d never skated before when he made his first longboard in shop at Hanshew Middle School during his eighth grade year. He set up the board, learned to ride, and just kind of fell in love with it, Conner says.
People are generally more familiar with skateboarding—the kind in the Tony Hawk video game series—than longboarding, Conner says. Both types of skateboarding are means of transport, but from there, the sports diverge, he says.
Skateboarding is focused on tricks, while longboarding’s focus is speed. But people tend to paint all skaters with the same broad brush that assumes every kid with a deck tucked in their backpack is up to no good.
When he walks around with his board, Conner says, he deals with those stereotypes, too. That’s partly what’s behind his Longboard4Change branding effort to remake the image of longboarders in Alaska and around the world.
At first Conner was designing decks and graphics, sending them outside to be pressed, and doing custom setups in his garage. When he took his boards around to local skate shops, only one guy would even talk to him and no shop would sell his boards for him, he says.
That’s when his mom, Lisa Conner, suggested they open their own skate shop and specialize in longboards.
“Our family is fortunate to be able to support Casey’s dreams while giving back to the community,” she says. “The business model is simple: provide first class products and customer service while providing a healthy environment for kids to spend time.”
Today his 907Boards with his custom graphics are available at his Anchorage shop. Or, Conner’s graphics are on some Omen Longboards, he says.
“We are definitely the longboard store for Alaska,” Conner says.
In the near-term, his goals include continuing to improve his longboard skills and learning as much as possible about business and the industry. Long-term goals include competing nationally, expanding his shop’s product lines, hiring employees, and, eventually, open more retail stores.
Conner also offers longboarding lessons at his shop’s indoor training facility, which includes a half-pipe. Skaters use the ramps for practicing tricks, but Conner says the two gradual slopes on the pipe are perfect for introducing new students to the sport, like a bunny hill for beginning skiers.
Conner is a student at an Anchorage charter school that also uses the Boardroom at 907Boards to host the science class, a math tutor, and various other student clubs and groups.
“We always wanted to have that training facility and a place for meetings and groups and stuff,” Conner says. “We wanted to offer an inviting family-friendly place where people of all ages could learn about the sport.”
While it probably is not a good idea to buy a $10,000 musical instrument for most twelve-year-olds, that is the origin of Mike’s Music in Eagle River, now in its twenty-first year of business.
Sharon Dunckle says her son, Mike, got his start by renting and selling new and used instruments his father helped him recondition. Gradually the store expanded to offer a full line of band and orchestra instruments and supplies.
When the shop opened in 1994, it was the only place between Wasilla and Anchorage to buy a violin string, she says, recalling an instance where she’d driven Mike to Anchorage for a $2 string.
For now, Mike lives in Seattle and has sold the business to his mother, Sharon. He still does training sessions at the shop when he is in town, but isn’t involved with day-to-day operations currently, she says.
“I never ever expected to still be doing it,” Dunckle says. “I was just trying to help my kid out.”
The shop wouldn’t have been possible without suppliers who gave him credit and an opportunity, she says.
“They took a leap of faith with him,” Dunckle says. “And they have been our main supplier of violins for twenty years.”
Adults need to listen and give credence to young people with big ideas, she says.
“Any time you have a young person with that entrepreneurial spirit, we need to be supportive,” Dunckle says. “They won’t all succeed, but there is always that one out of a thousand or a hundred thousand.
“It is important.”
She’s not a musician herself, but she is a huge supporter of music for people of all ages and skill levels. It’s never too young to encourage music, she says.
“When parents come into the store with little kids—some of these kids come in at four or five and are practically drooling over a guitar or violin—I really encourage them to let them try,” Dunckle says. “If you can afford it, let them try.”
Mike was in sixth-grade when he told his mom he needed a violin that was better than he had; one he could grow into. Using the profits from his music business, he purchased a violin from luthier John Osnes in 1998.
“We all have to do something for a living,” Dunkle says,“but art and music, that’s the stuff that makes us happy.”
Heather A. Resz lives in Wasilla. She’s told Alaska’s stories for nearly twenty years.
This article first appeared in the January 2016 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.