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Life line: 13-year-old Alaskan crafting his own business future

  • Author: Sean Doogan
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 22, 2015

Many middle-school students in Southcentral Alaska spent spring break playing video games, skiing in what little snow has fallen or just enjoying a lazy week away from school. Grayson Davey, an eighth-grader at Goldenview Middle School, spent most of his week off looking for employees.

Davey is just 13 years old, but he already owns a business, Alaska Paracord Designs. With more than $40,000 in sales in three years, Davey is looking to expand and hire people to make his paracord products. The neatly woven bracelets or keychain dangles are made from tough nylon cord. There are many similar designs for sale on the Internet, but Davey's products, which he currently makes himself at his Anchorage Hillside home, hide some unique and potentially lifesaving items.

The fire starter bracelet looks like many other woven bracelets being sold online to outdoors enthusiasts. In an emergency, the bracelet can be unraveled and the parachute cord used in a variety of ways -- to create a shelter or make a tourniquet, for example. But Davey's bracelet is much more than a bundle of cord. Its clasp is also a whistle that can be used to signal for help. When unraveled, the fire starter bracelet reveals not only 17 feet of military-grade paracord, but also a piece of firesteel and a striker that can be used to start a fire. Also inside: 10 inches of waxed jute twine, a waterproof tinder that will light and burn easily.

"When your adventure goes awry, what you have on you is your survival kit," Davey said.

Since he began making them in 2013, at the age of 11, Grayson has sold more than a thousand of his fire starter bracelets and fire bugs, a version that connects to a keychain and contains a mylar signal mirror and exacto knife. The fire starter bracelet retails for $35, the firebug for $25.

Over spring break, he identified two potential employees, and is looking for at least three more. Even though he's not in high school yet, Davey has invested $10,000 in profits into the stock market and put the rest of the profits back into his burgeoning company.

"I want to grow the company as big as I can and at least get enough money for college," Davey said. "And it could end up being my career."

And Davey is not alone in his young entrepreneurship. He is a member of a local Young Entrepraneurs' Academy -- a group of teens who meet with seasoned business professionals for advice and start-up capital. People who work with the group, and other entrepreneur organizations, claim that more and more young people are looking to be their own boss, and not go to work for someone else.

"When I was a student at UAA, the people in my accounting class -- more than 90 percent of them -- went to work for public accounting firms," said Alex Worthen, 29, a local entrepreneurial investor. "I talked at a 400-level class there last year, and most are interested in small business, or starting their own business, so we are seeing quite a shift just since 2008, to today."

Worthen is an investor in the Alaska Accelerator Fund -- the first so-called angel investor fund in the state. The investors hold regular meetings with would-be star-ups to offer advice on the best way to get a budding business off the ground, and may even find the money to make it happen. Investors in the fund said that in today's rapidly changing economy, working for someone else might not guarantee people a future.

"Where's the loyalty?" asked Al Hermann, a UAA business professor and founder of the Alaska Accelerator Fund. "When I started working I thought that I would die with the company after 40 years, that didn't even happen in my day. I moved around. So today I tell my students, 'you want security, you want to do some good things? Start a business.' "

Hermann said even after 40 years in business, he is constantly amazed at the new and potentially viable business ideas being created in Alaska.

"A lot of people say, 'why didn't I think of that?' "

Davey said he got his big idea after a family friend almost died while boating on a local river. The boat overturned, sending the man and his young daughter into the churning waters. After swimming to a nearby island, the pair was stranded for three days before being rescued. They couldn't build a fire or shelter -- all their gear was lost. Davey said that's when he realized that a woven paracord bracelet, embedded with small, but useful, survival tools would have made a difference.

Three years later, Davey owns his own company, and is selling his expanding product line on the web and at several local stores, including B&J's Sporting Goods, in Midtown Anchorage.

"He (Davey) was just coming in to buy fishing gear and he told me he was getting into paracord a lot," said B&J's buying manager, Stewart Valladolid. "And I told him to bring some in. I knew it is a growing niche. And he brought his first sample in and I was absolutely amazed on the detail and the survivability, and the features that he put into the survival bracelet."

That was in 2013. Since then, Valladolid said his shop continues to sell the popular item. But they don't just sell the product, Grayson's ideas have found a number of fans. Valladolid has one, as does his wife and many of the store's employees.

Davey believes the only way he can grow his business and handle bigger orders is to hire people to make his products for him. He was looking into hiring home-bound people who want to pick up work and can learn the intricate weaving pattern needed for the designs. Davey predicts his new employees could make $15-$20 per hour, working part time.

But the entire experience of starting a company, growing it and expanding its sales reach and inventory is more than a money-maker for Davey. It has been a life lesson.

"Entrepreneurship is something they don't do enough teaching about in school, and it's one of the things he seemed to have natural interest in," said Grayson's mom, Lori Davey.

Davey said he doesn't think enough people follow both their dreams, and their ideas.

"If you have an idea that can be a business, just see the different ways you can start it up, and see how you can grow it from there," Davey said. "But it might not be easy. You have to work hard too."

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