Many college students dream of one day starting a successful business. But for Austin Thomas, his dream of starting a company has already resulted in over $20,000 of revenue — and he’s only a junior.
Austin, a supply chain management major, has always wanted to go to a big school and knew the sense of community at Penn State made it the perfect fit for him.
“Everyone is so close-knit,” Austin says. “Being a whole town of college students, [Penn State] is like no other.”
Aside from managing typical college coursework, Austin is also the founder of Jerpa Jeans, a clothing company that creates jeans — and many other products — that are lined with sherpa. With plans to segment into a clothing line, something like Jerpa Jeans has never been done before.
“Whether it’s sherpa jackets in the winter or even just jeans shorts for the summer, there’s only ever really been the jeans that are lined with wool and fleece, ” Austin says. “Just from a consumer preference standpoint, sherpa has been huge with the jean jacket. And just seeing how big that was, I thought why not create jeans with sherpa?”
After seeing a lot of his friends wearing thermals under their jeans at football tailgates, Austin was inspired to try lining pants with sherpa. Wondering how — what is now Jerpa Jeans — would look, Austin sampled a bunch of products from China in September of 2018. But with those first few samples, the idea was there, but the whole package wasn’t quite there.
“Like you’d be warm outside, but you’d be sweating inside,” Austin says. “So then, I had to keep sampling to, kind of, find out which size of sherpa, color of sherpa and type of sherpa would be warm outside but also comfortable inside.”
In order to get to the next step in developing Jerpa Jeans, Austin had to start thinking about market strategies.
“I can have the greatest and best idea, but I really needed to have a plan as to how I’m going to get it out,” Austin says. “Whether that’d be social media or whether that’d be word of mouth, [you have to] just think of how to get that out.”
Austin took to companies such as goPuff and even Tinder’s ambassador program for inspiration when it comes to finding marketing strategies. Jerpa Jeans’ own ambassador program started off with Austin posting to Instagram, asking if anyone was interested in helping out.
“A bunch of people texted me, and I reached out to some people,” says Austin. “Eventually, we started out with around 30 ambassadors.”
After about two months, Austin wasn’t seeing any growth from ambassadors who weren’t posting on Instagram or pulling in any sales. So after restructuring and finding ambassadors that were passionate about Jerpa, Jerpa Jeans started to gain traction with students from colleges such as Maryland and Ohio State — who were looking to become Jerpa ambassadors themselves.
“We started expanding and now we’re at Syracuse, we’re at Ohio State, we’re at Maryland, we’re at Indiana and we’re at West Chester,” Austin says. “All of a sudden, it’s like we have ambassadors at all these different places, and most of these kids are passionate about it. So now, it’s really going to grow. I think once that got started and the foundation was laid down, the growth started to be exponential.”
When it comes to Jerpa Jean’s initial growth, Austin attributes this success to Bradley Kraut, a freshman communications major. Austin says that Bradley has sold around 50 pairs of jeans just by himself.
“I was able to sell Jerpa successfully to students, because I made everyone that bought a pair of jeans, joggers or cardigan feel a part of the Jerpa community,” Bradley says. “For every in-person sale at Penn State, I would toss them their Jerpa gear with excitement and record it. I would then post and tag them to my Instagram story.”
With this marketing strategy, Bradley’s Instagram followers were interested in purchasing Jerpa and being a part of the Jerpa community.
“It also showed my following, that was skeptical about buying the product, that people were consistently buying Jerpa,” Bradley says. “Seeing a long Instagram story every day of more and more people buying the product, definitely made people more inclined to purchase.”
Austin feels as though Bradley has been really helping when it comes to spreading the word about Jerpa Jeans and putting the product out.
“He really took it to another level,” Austin says.
Jerpa Jeans, which first launched just six months ago in October of 2019, just passed $20,000 in revenue. Although there’s a fair share of expenses like trademarking “Jerpa” and becoming an LLC, Jerpa Jeans has had exponential growth since its launch. But when it comes to creating such a strong work ethic, Austin has learned a lot from his family.
“My ethnicity is Indian, so my parents came here when my Mom was 13 and my Dad was 20,” Austin says. “I feel like any time you come from a different country, one of the things you need to have is a work ethic and a strong grind to really make it. Especially with [Penn State], we have career fairs [and] all these resources to land a job, but when you’re coming from a different country, it’s like you’re really on your own.”
Austin lives by his parents’ wise words, “If you’re going to be a janitor, own the janitorship. Whatever you do, give it 110%.”
Austin, who also walked onto Penn State’s basketball team, believes that through basketball, he learned what it means to have a good attitude.
“Life is going to throw hurdles and adversity at you, and it’s really about how you respond to that,” Austin says. “In real life, school’s going to throw hurdles at you [and with] exams on top, how are you going to respond to that? How do you respond to adversity and what’s your attitude towards that? Having a strong attitude can really get you through anything and having that mental capacity can really get you through anything that life throws at you.”
If you’re in college and you have an idea, Austin says to go for it.
“When you’re in college, think about how I had to network to get a guy like Bradley or [had to network] to get different friends at different universities,” Austin says. “But once you’re in the corporate world, your network just isn’t really there like it was in college. So if you have the opportunity to start something in college, you really have all the resources to expand — especially being at a university like Penn State, where there’s so much help from professors and other resources.”
Starting a company in college can be hard, especially for those who fear judgment from the outside world. But for Austin, the reward was worth the risk.
“People shouldn’t pull themselves back, because of the fear of judgement from their friends,” Austin says. “Sometimes, you might shoot an idea and it gets shot down by everyone. The only way to see the growth that I’m seeing now is to come out with it. If I never came out with it, maybe another company would come out with Jerpa Jeans. If you have an idea, go through with it and once you go through with it, give it your all.”