From Side Hustle to Serious Business

Age is just a number when it comes to running a successful business, and nobody knows that better than Ben Lenikman ’21 and Natey Ruzell ’22. Both have turned their hobbies into profitable enterprises with some help from the Entrepreneurship course at USM.

As a 15-year old, Natey Ruzell ’22 enjoyed going to Milwaukee Bucks basketball games with his friends, where he would collect autographs on players’ trading cards. He never intended to sell the cards, but one day he was bored and posted them to his Instagram account to see what would happen. A customer reached out to Ruzell, asking if he wanted to make a trade. “I had no clue what I was doing, but I started doing more research and realized there was money to be made, so I was like, ‘Okay, sure’ and I did the trade,” said Ruzell. From there, he was able to sell the card he received in the trade and use those profits to buy more autographed cards from different players. “It opened my eyes to the sports card market and the capabilities that cards had.”

Natey Ruzell ’22 holding an autographed Kobe Bryant card he picked up at a show in Dallas. The card contains a piece of Bryant’s game-worn jersey from the 2012 season, and there are only four others like it in existence.

Ben Lenikman ’21 also uses social media to grow his business of re-selling high-end, hard-to-find  sneakers like Air Jordans and Yeezys by Kanye West. He opened a retail location on Brady Street in Milwaukee in November. Both students were enrolled in the Upper School’s Entrepreneurship course taught by Nikki Lucyk, director of innovation and academic technology. The course, which Lucyk developed, was created after the completion of the Lubar Center for Innovation and Exploration in August 2017. “As we began developing our curriculum for the space, we held focus groups and spoke with parents, alumni, and entrepreneurs,” said Lucyk. “We listened to all of their ideas and ultimately decided the Lubar Center couldn’t just be a place to make stuff. There had to be a purpose for making the things. That’s how the Entrepreneurship course evolved.”

Ben Lenikman ’21 pictured with inventory for his store, SoleMKE, on Brady Street in Milwaukee.

In the course, students study the business model canvas and lean start-up method and apply those methodologies to their own business. Or, if they don’t already have a business, they work to identify a need in the marketplace. But coming up with a viable idea for a business is hard, to say the least, and for students who can’t think of something on their own, “I try to connect them with a company or ask them to do something for a company,” said Lucyk.

In the Entrepreneurship course, students might not always land on a correct answer, and they need to embrace ambiguity. “I call these kids the Googlers,” said Lucyk. “They’re nontraditional, nonlinear thinkers. They understand they’re not going to get the right answer right away. They’re going to have to go through several iterations to find the ideal solution. They might not be jumping through hoops to get As, but they know how to think creatively, find elusive answers, network, and connect. They work to develop their emotional intelligence so they can nurture relationships in authentic ways.”

Natey Ruzell ’22 pictured with his cards at a trade show in Clearwater, Florida.

Like all business owners, Ruzell and Lenikman had to adjust their plans because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lenikman had to build relationships with new, out-of-state suppliers and Ruzell was impacted by falling prices when professional sports were shut down and people started panic selling. “The market always drops in the off-season, and the way I looked at it, COVID just created an early off-season,” said Ruzell. “I just watched the market, and when the cards stabilized at their low point I went all out and bought a ton. Since then, the prices have been creeping up every week.”

For Ruzell and Lenikman, the course has improved their businesses. “The course has helped me a lot,” said Lenikman. “I write down my goals and what I need to work on, and Mrs. Lucyk pushes me to complete my goals.” Added Ruzell, “It’s been, by far, my favorite class at USM. It helped my business a lot, being able to advertise better, learning how to market my product better—and just being in the space with other people who are also interested in being an entrepreneur is really fun.”

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