Many people dream of inventing a product and growing rich.
Inventor Alex Shlaferman, 20, founder of Vante Toys, has already done it, and not just once, but multiple times. The first time he was only 15.
And 2014 will be another milestone year, he says. He expects his consumer-products company, founded when he was 16, to do about $10 million in revenue.
His venture has been so lucrative, that he now owns his own factory in China, employs nearly 50 people, and is in negotiations for a reality show based on his insane life.
From $100,000 to ~$10 million
"A few years ago, I was 16 and running my company out of my bedroom, using my parents' credit cards. My first year in business I filed taxes for $110,000. Before we knew it, we hit $1 million and then $3 million. We've been growing by 300-400 percent every year," he says. Last year, revenue was about $5 million but if he hits his hoped-for 2014 holiday sales, "We expect $10 million in sales this Christmas."
He now employs seven people in his hometown headquarters in Brooklyn and another 48 in China, "40 full-time laborers, and a management staff about eight" at a factory that he owns, he says.
"Everyone on my salary, all the equipment is ours. It cut our costs in half. If I buy something from a contract manufacturer in China for $1, it means they are building it for 50 cents," he says.
But it's also an issue of quality.
"When dealing with China, there are quality control issue. With contract manufacturers, you never, never know what you are getting," he says.
The star of this current success is a product called the Wallet Ninja, which is like a flat, credit-card shaped Swiss army knife, with 18 tools.
Wallet Ninja is sold on Amazon now and is scheduled to be in many major retailers this Christmas like Walmart and Walgreens with lots of TV commercials, too, Shlaferman tells us.
We made him prove his claims. He showed us some order forms for Wallet Ninja that we promised not to share. It didn't verify the company's annual revenues, but it did show big sales of the device for a two-week period around Father's Day. If sales continue on that pace, his $10 million claims could prove true.
And this isn't his only successful product. He's been selling his first hit product, a boomerang toy airplane called the Super Looper, since age 16. He and a friend took their invention to the Toy Fair that year where it got coverage on CBS News and other media outlets.
Here's the CBS story on him.
Before he knew it, he was swimming in orders, hand assembling the airplanes in his living room.
Thinking back on those days, he says, "The product was absolutely terrible." Making toys by hand is no way way to run a business, he learned.
Vante Toys also makes a number of other low-cost toys he says.
Career Began At Age 11
Spend a few minutes with Shlaferman and you'll find him charming, earnest, and full of chutzpah, all in a thick Brooklyn accent.
Part of this is his age. Part of this is his "pitch man" personality. But part of it is that he's actually got nearly a decade of career experience.
He created his first product at age 11, describing it today as a downright awful magic trick.
"I made a DVD that taught you how to levitate. I found a guy on Craigslist to film in my room with a bed sheet. Just me and this guy from Craigslist. I can only imagine if my parents came home, what their reaction would have been," he laughs now.
But his marketing scheme was brilliant. He sold it over the internet and "I priced it so high, $100, it got people talking. I sold 100 copies in a week. I was 11 years old and I made $10 grand and my parents had no idea," he says.
At age 15, he spent a summer working for a family friend traveling around country hawking kitchen goods and other wares at fairs. Through that experience, he met a guy in the toy business who was manufacturing products in China. Shlaferman went to work for him asking endless questions about China and the manufacturing business.
From those jobs, he saved up $30,000 to launch the Super Looper. But he had more ideas, some not as successful.
"In the toy business, you can go through $25,000 like water in the sink. Money started disappearing. I came to parents and told them I needed money. I come from the most regular parents that parents can be. But they believed in me and they gave me $3,000 and their credit cards."
It worked. Shlaferman found a way to get the Super Looper manufactured. He started pitching it to stores.
"I'm like 17 years old, trying to get in the door with Toys R Us, and major retailers. No one wants to talk to me. I made two contacts, Toys R Us and Bed Bath & Beyond," he says.
The Toys R Us was the first to help him out and sign a contract.
"The buyer of Bed Bath & Beyond hated me at first, thought I was the most annoying kid, calling every freakin' day," he laughs. She wouldn't call him back so he went over her head and pitched her boss who signed a contract.
"They put the product in store and it was a blow-out hit. A top item for entire season. That buyer loves me now. She texts me funny things every day. That’s how the world works," he says.
Alex Xander the partier
Young, flush with cash and full of bravado, Shlaferman did what any teen would do. He bought stuff, like a Maserati ...
... which he quickly sold. And then he bought a monster truck.
And he threw epic free parties under his social-media name Alex Xander.
The parties became known as the "Xander Experience" where 1,000 people would show at a last-minute location. Some were in warehouses or empty fields. One rager was held on the Manhattan bridge, an escapade that shut down the bridge and landed him a couple of nights in jail and some misdemeanor charges.
That party also landed him an appearance on "Howard Stern."
"All events were free, I paid for them out of pocket. I'm in a better position than most of people my age. I'd like to think they'd do the same thing for me," he says.
Shlaferman skips college, grows up
Many 20-year-olds are in college, but at age 19, after seeing the cost of tuition, Shlaferman opted out.
"I got accepted to NYU," he said. "My sister went to NYU. She's a lawyer now, but she's also $250,000 in debt," he says. "I never stop learning but the issue of college is that the value of degree is so inflated."
Shlaferman has no plans to get a formal degree, though he's not discouraging others from doing that. He feels he already knows his career, he says.
But he's also growing up.
The parties are basically over and he's turned his attention on physical fitness. He spends his time traveling and training for endurance races. He's working on an Ironman triathlon. That's a serious race: a 2.4-mile swim, 100 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile marathon run, back-to-back in one day.
He's also saving money to buy his parents a nicer house, he says. "I used to think partying was so fun and crazy. Not so fun and crazy any more."
Next up could be his own reality show, he says.
"I was really opposed to it in the beginning. I don’t want some drama-filled" show, he says. But the network (which he wouldn't name) has him convinced it will be a real show about his real life, which between work, China, and training is crazy enough.