Q&A with DeoBlock Founders
The essential work of an educator is to prepare students for the future as they share time in that particular classroom. Important connections are made each year, during that brief part of the students’ journey. With INCubatoredu high school entrepreneurship, many students continue their startup journey that begins in that classroom, well beyond high school.
We welcome the chance to spotlight these students to share what they’ve learned and overcome, and to celebrate their successes. These young entrepreneurs are building businesses with grit, focus and determination. We caught up with two entrepreneurs who are at a key milestone … Read on!
INCubatoredu Students Five Years Later
In the case of Drake Roberts and Anthony Tamras, 2016 graduates from Palatine High School in Palatine, IL, grit and determination are in full display. Both attended Harper College and DePaul University, majoring in business. I caught up with Tony and Drake on behalf of their business DeoBlock, the very company they founded during their INCubatoredu experience five years ago.
Q: You both took the INCubatoredu course?
A: Yes, we were enrolled in INCubatoredu during our senior year at Palatine High School (2016) with teacher Cliff Watanuki.
Q: Tell me about your business. What problem does it solve, and for whom?
A: Our product is DeoBlock, a reusable deodorizer designed for gym bags and small spaces. While playing sports in high school, we realized that nothing on the market effectively eliminated the odor emitting from our equipment bags. Most products either covered up the scent with a “good” scent or just didn’t work at all. So we set out to solve this problem with DeoBlock in a way that was not only effective but environmentally friendly as well. Current air freshener products on the market use bulky plastic spray bottles or other one-time use plastic packaging.
We found that avid gym-goers and moms of athletes are the target B2C (business to consumer) markets because they experience the same problem we had as high school athletes. However, the segment we have found the most success in thus far is the B2B (business to business) market selling DeoBlock directly to gyms. We can private label our product thus giving businesses the opportunity to purchase DeoBlock as a marketing tool, customer giveaway, or an additional revenue stream for their business. We have pre-sold hundreds of units to multiple gym franchises to date.
Q: What are you working on right now?
A: As a start-up, we move in waves as to what we are working on. Lately, we have been hyper-focused on preparing for the launch of our business and our product into the market—building out sales strategies and grassroots methods of marketing to drive traffic to our new website.
Q: What are your roles within the business?A: Tony: I handle all of the sales and marketing initiatives. I’m always networking heavily and gaining new leads for the business. Making connections and getting people to talk about your product is the most crucial thing you can do in the early stages of building brand awareness. Word of mouth and grassroots marketing have worked well for our product thus far. Selling B2B is a large aspect of our business since we have the ability to customize DeoBlock by private labeling.
Drake: I am the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at DeoBlock. I oversee every aspect of the business. I was responsible for assembling our entire supply chain process to bring DeoBlock to life. I lead product design and manufacturing for DeoBlock along with its refill pod in conjunction with multiple CAD engineers so that DeoBlock works the way it does today. Now, I oversee the entire supply chain process and work closely with nearly a dozen suppliers to ensure DeoBlock is delivered to our customers with the highest quality achievable. Things are constantly changing and evolving in a startup so I devote my time and attention where it’s most fitting at the time.
Q: What’s your biggest challenge right now?A: Fulfillment and inventory management. Our biggest challenge right now is selling through the initial inventory as quickly as possible with the highest ROI. We started a business with a ton of variations and SKUs. We have subscription options and one-time purchase options as well as three different fragrances we offer so managing all those variations and allocating inventory correctly is a huge challenge.
Q: How about the biggest opportunity?
A: The ever-evolving fitness/gym market. Despite the pandemic, which has negatively affected the rapid growth of the gym industry, record number gym memberships are being acquired and everyone is excited to get back in the gym. We strongly believe now more than ever health and fitness will be at the forefront for individuals.
Our product thrives in the gym due to practicality and our private label option. DeoBlock can be personalized and creates brand awareness for the gym. We are excited to ride this wave with the fitness industry and continue to grow alongside it.
Q: What keeps you up at night? Or—what are you most excited about?
A: Drake: The potential this product has keeps me up at night. I am a firm believer in the sky is the limit. Anything you can imagine can be achieved through hard work and dedication. I look back at everything I’ve had to go through to bring this product to market and all the pivots and lessons I’ve learned along the way and I can’t help but feel excited for the future. Everything has led me to this moment and I’m excited to finally deliver this product to the market.
Tony: I’m most excited to partner with some big gym franchises and schools. Most importantly, deliver a quality product that actually deodorizes. Our product is a game changer for our industry. You have to order one and try it in order to fully understand the difference between us and the competition.
"I am a firm believer in the sky is the limit. Anything you can imagine can be achieved through hard work and dedication."
~Drake Roberts, Co-Founder, CEO, DeoBlock, INCubatoredu Alum
How Entrepreneurship Played a Role in DeoBlock
Q: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned through entrepreneurship?A: Tony: Everything costs more money than you think it does and everything takes more time than you think it will.
Drake: The amount of capital needed to bring a product to market is much more than I could ever imagine. We were so beyond blessed to have been awarded $25,000 at the Township High School District 211 Pitch Night. That was the most money I had seen at the time. I thought it would easily be enough to fully launch our product-based business, but I was mistaken. Nonetheless, that grant lasted us for years and there is no way we could have started the business without it.
Q: What are you better at since becoming an entrepreneur and what have you learned about yourself?A: Drake: Although I still have a way to go, I am much better at problem-solving than I was before this experience. I learned that if I want something to get done, I need to do it efficiently and effectively. I learned that being your own boss only sounds fun on paper but is extremely challenging.
Tony: I’m better at problem-solving under high-stress situations and delivering my concepts across different audiences with ease. I’ve learned through feedback from others that my actions have positively affected their lives. My passion for the product radiates and has motivated some people to take a chance with their crazy idea or passion in life. It feels good to know I’ve inspired someone by just having high ambitions and sticking to my vision. I see other people’s journeys with a different lens after taking the path of entrepreneurship. I’m able to embrace my struggles and successes, because most people don’t get the opportunity that we got at such an early age.
Q: Rank these in order of importance for an entrepreneur: tenacity, intellect, creativity
- Tenacity: This is the most important trait of any entrepreneur. If one does not possess tenacity and drive, they will not be able to overcome the many, many obstacles thrown at them throughout the startup process.
- Intellect: It is so important to understand objectively what needs to be achieved and accomplished in a startup setting. Things are constantly changing and having the ability to conform or adjust to these changes is extremely important.
- Creativity: I’d say creativity last because you can still be a great entrepreneur without having a ton of creativity. If you possess the other traits more, I believe you are in a better position to be successful because those are the traits you cannot necessarily outsource. If you lack creativity, there are so many resources for you to go and get inspired or people that can help along the way from a creative perspective.
A: Tony: Same: Tenacity, Intellect, Creativity.
Q: What would you tell someone considering entrepreneurship in high school?
A: Go for it. Entrepreneurship is risky and exploring it while you don't have much to lose is definitely worth the lessons it can teach you along the way.
Q: How does entrepreneurship benefit non-business students?
A: I think it’s beneficial for anyone to get out of their comfort zone and receive constructive criticism. Entrepreneurship really builds your character and shows you how well you can perform under pressure. Your patience and stamina get tested the most. It teaches you how to problem-solve.
"Entrepreneurship really builds your character and shows you how well you can perform under pressure...It teaches you how to problem-solve."
~Anthony Tamras, Co-Founder, Head of Sales, DeoBlock, INCubatoredu Alum
Q: Have you had an actual ‘Aha’ moment in entrepreneurship?
A: Drake: Yeah all the time! I think an entrepreneur will go through many ‘aha’ moments—it's part of the learning process. One of my aha moments was when I realized we’d be able to private label DeoBlock with other businesses’ logos and expand our business model.
Tony: The culmination of thousands of people that have given positive feedback on the product is the ultimate ‘aha’ moment. The most amazing aspect of this feedback is that it comes from CEOs and other business owners with a lot of experience. And that feedback began way back in INCubatoredu with our mentors and coaches.
We have plenty of positive feedback from everyday consumers but getting a ‘pat on the back’ from highly respected and successful individuals validates we’re on the right path.
Q: What was a ‘win’ from the pandemic for you or your business?
A: Drake: The pandemic gave us time to take a step back and make crucial pivots in the way we structured our business and its strategies. Sure, things became delayed from a supply chain perspective, ultimately delaying the launch of our product. However, the pandemic gave us the opportunity to fine-tune our pricing structure and develop even more sales strategies. I firmly believe that since the pandemic affected our gym market so much, that it will bounce back quickly and ultimately give our product the surge it needs to launch.
Q: What makes a good entrepreneur?
A: Always learning from your failures and your successes. Never burn bridges. Always seek new opportunities not only for sales but for networking which can lead to sales opportunities. Someone who absorbs criticism and is able to pivot. You can’t get too attached to an idea or process.
Q: How about a good entrepreneurship class?
A: One that challenges and inspires students to actually go out and get in front of professionals and gain feedback on their ideas from real people that can be honest and constructive with them.
Q: What’s your favorite story about your journey?
A: Drake: One of my favorite stories about this journey is an observation my Mom made about my character in relation to my business. It was the last day of our failed Kickstarter campaign and I was devastated. I took the night to reflect on how things went and set up a meeting the following day with one of my mentors to talk next steps. That morning I rushed past my Mom through my kitchen to get to that meeting. Later, she told me how proud of me she was for continuing to persevere and push to achieve the ultimate goal—bring DeoBlock to market.
Tony: There’s too many to count but I have one that really stands out personally to me. After securing extra funding ourselves, we still needed an investor on board to finance the rest of our start-up costs. After pitching to numerous individuals, we kept getting denied. Not because of the product itself, because each investor wanted more validation from our market.
Since these investors wanted proof, I dove straight into the gym segments that we always pitched as having great potential. While still enrolled full-time at DePaul, I mapped out gym locations in the Chicagoland area and started cold calling. Once I’d get a manager or owner on the phone, I’d convince them to give me some in-person feedback on the product. At this point in time, I had very rough looking 3-D printed DeoBlocks in an ordinary white box and refill cartridges with an outdated design.
After visiting many locations of multiple gym franchises, I got owners to pre-order the product and sign a contract that established a quantity and price per DeoBlock that they were willing to pay. In just a month and a half, while being a full-time student and working part-time jobs, I secured pre-orders from over 50 gym locations between Illinois and Indiana. Every owner placed an order because they used the product for a week and said it actually deodorized their gym bags and offices.
This gave me all of the confidence in the world. We took these results to the next investor meeting and closed the deal. At this point, I was certain DeoBlock would be a game-changer for our industry.
Entrepreneurship in High School is for Everyone
Entrepreneurship-based curriculum and courses aren’t just for business students or those interested in running a startup. Entrepreneurship creates opportunities and fosters attributes in young people that help create confident, resilient, and creative individuals. The effect the COVID-19 pandemic had on education led to a surge in high school entrepreneurship and we look forward to featuring more stories from young entrepreneurs like Tony and Drake.