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From zero to $1M in two years: UM entrepreneurs tap branding market at 19 years old

MLive Ann Arbor logo MLive Ann Arbor 9/21/2020 By Dana Afana, mlive.com
a man standing in front of a building: Zuplift co-owners Mitch Sherr, left, and AJ Gilbert pose on the University of Michigan Diag on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2020. © Jacob Hamilton | jhamilt3@mlive.com/mlive.com/TNS Zuplift co-owners Mitch Sherr, left, and AJ Gilbert pose on the University of Michigan Diag on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2020.

ANN ARBOR, MI -- It took two years for two 19-year-old university students to make $1 million.

AJ Gilbert and Mitchel Sherr kicked off their entrepreneurial ventures in 2016 by selling “Elite Pockets" silicone cardholders to friends and businesses. After gaining traction, the duo began creating more promotional products for businesses during their freshman year at the University of Michigan, thus developing Zuplift, a customized promotional branding business for companies, events and organizations.

Now in their second year with Zuplift, the duo reached more than $1 million in sales.

"We started it from nothing...it took a lot of hard work but we’re passionate about putting our customer first. Going that extra mile to deliver what they need, which isn’t always easy, but we were able to slowly build a loyal customer base and develop a local reputation, and overall, a great service,” Gilbert said, who is in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. Their top vendor is Quicken Loans, which his father Dan Gilbert founded.

“Most of our clients are in Detroit. One of our missions is to become the promotional products in Detroit,” Gilbert continued. We started with a strong presence in Detroit by landing Quicken Loans Family of Companies, and expanded to a few other clients outside such as the IVF...Cranbrook Academy of Arts. There’s a few law firms and dental clinics as well."

The coronavirus pandemic halted business operations from clients holding events and giveaways and having to cancel orders. But the UM students brainstormed new ways of keeping Zuplift running.

“When COVID first hit, we at first were a little worried. A lot of our business pertains to events happening and a lot of event giveaways, and a lot of those events got canceled, so a lot of our orders got canceled,” said Sherr, who is a UM business student. “We started to focus on employee care packages and appreciation packages for all the hard work they’re doing and maintain the same efficiency during these tough times from working from home. That has more than quadrupled our sales during that period by shifting our focus.”

Another one of their aims is to ease the process for clients. Anyone interested in ordering branded gear has to fill out a short form describing the order, a change from how similar companies handle their business, such as finding “thousands” of pens, which Gilbert calls an “exhausting” experience for customers.

“The first thing we noticed was how complicated and outdated these other companies' ordering processes were so we saw another opportunity,” Gilbert said. “It was back-and-forth emails...we thought we could simplify that."

Beyond the local market, the duo are longing for a national presence.

“Our main focus right now is becoming a promotional hub for Detroit. We feel like it’s definitely overlooked in a lot of aspects, especially the promotional product experience. Our goal is to get not only Detroit but the whole country and even more, the world,” Sherr said. “A goal of ours is to break not only top 50 distributors but top 20 or more would be a good goal for us.”

However, as young entrepreneurs balancing school and creating “the next big promotional company,” the two faced challenges among clients.

“We had a lot of trust and credibility issues that we had to develop and work around with at first, and had to prove that when these big companies place huge orders, we can get them done right and get them done on tight deadlines,” Sherr said. “We worked through it but it’s stressful at times.”

Despite any difficulties that arise, Sherr and Gilbert are determined not to quit and advise young entrepreneurs to readjust and reevaluate their business plans if they face any turbulence.

“You take failure with a grain of salt. You learn from it and you do better next time. Just don’t quit,” Gilbert said.

“At the end of the day, if you have an idea and you’re putting 110% effort in what you’re doing and it’s not working, there just may not be a market for it,” Sherr said. “If you’re not trying hard and it didn’t work because maybe you didn’t put the effort in, it just leaves room for other entrepreneurs or other hungry people to take that and run with it. It’s really just dedication at the end of the day.”

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