Small business means big responsibility: how one “millennipreneur” juggles his roles

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A David Vintage pop-up shop in Detroit. Photo: Joe Murphy

DETROIT — Weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Joe Murphy is the district digital manager at General Motors.

He buttons up his shirt, slips on a tie and leaves his downtown Detroit apartment, heading into the office. After his work day ends, he moves full-time into his position as founder of David Vintage. His company’s website reads, “Haute couture streetwear created in Detroit.”

Murphy is a member of Generation Y, which, according to a report from BNP Paribas, is responsible for an increased number of companies.

Gen Y members born between 1985 and 1995 launched an average of about 8 companies compared to 3.5 for their predecessors.

Like his peers, Murphy has big dreams for his small business and hopes that it will bring prosperity to Detroit and inspire consumers. However, balancing work, school and a small business is no easy feat.

Jessica Bunce, a Program Director within the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University, has also experienced what it’s like to manage a business.

“One of the biggest challenges of managing a business is maximizing sales,” explained Bunce. “A lot of customers just want to get in and get out. They also don’t want to leave with more than what they came in expecting to buy.”

Bunce explains that in order for a business to stay profitable, they need to build trust with customers which will lead to increased sales.

“A degree of trust helps customers open up about what they want and what they use,” said Bunce. “If you’re a good consultant, they won’t feel like you’re trying to just sell them something.”

When discussing small businesses, Bunce agreed with Murphy about doing research. However, she emphasized qualitative over quantitative data.

“The numbers aren’t going to tell you everything,” she explained. “Being out on the sales floor with people every day, talking to customers is the best way to start.”

Bunce also stressed the importance of building trust as a small business owner. “Be involved and be engaged,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, but that’s how you really get to know your customers.”

After trial and error through his previous small business and tech ventures, Murphy has created a lifestyle that works for him, with David Vintage at its center. Spartan Newsroom sat down with Murphy to learn what it’s like running a small business and what motivates him to do it.


SPARTAN NEWSROOM: Why did you decide to start David Vintage?

JOE MURPHY: Wanting to start a business has always been in the back of my mind. I’m into fashion I like designing stuff and I like people rocking stuff that I wear, it looks good on them and it makes them happy. I wanted to establish a brand outside of my previous projects and I wanted it to tie to my family to pay homage to them. The concept of David Vintage was created back in 2012 and finally in 2014 I got the Woodbridge collection made, which are the bike hats, and that’s when David Vintage was born.

SN: Speaking of the name David Vintage, where did you come up with that?

JM: It was back in 2012, while I was in the shower at my place at Michigan State University. I was thinking about a name for my business and I knew I wanted to use my middle name, David, which is also my grandfather’s first name. And I came up with David Vintage. It’s really paying respect to my grandfather and my family. My dad would tell me, “You’re named after two great men,” being my two grandfathers. I sat on that name for a couple years and I knew I wanted to use it for a fashion label.

SN: How would you describe the David Vintage aesthetic?

JM: So, David Vintage has steadily evolved, but what we are today is haute couture streetwear–high-end streetwear. My goal is to make products that last a lifetime, products of quality that are also affordable. It’s a minimalistic look but I have some products that are a little out there. I think t-shirts are easier to do but leather is where I see David Vintage evolving to.

SN: Where do you see David Vintage headed in the future?

JM: From a business standpoint, it’s outside of just design, it’s manufacturing, too. I see us having a vertically integrated system where we are sourcing our own material and manufacturing our own goods. There’s no real clothing manufacturer here in the city and we are the Motor City, there’s so much rich history here from a manufacturing standpoint, and I want to have a manufacturing facility here. That to me is cool, it creates jobs. I feel like once you start to create jobs as a business, that’s real.

SN: Why the connection to Detroit?

JM: My mom is from Detroit but I’m from the suburbs of Detroit – Rochester Hills – and I love that, I will never resent that. Being 20 miles from the city, you have no choice but to know about Detroit and spend time there. Even though you’re “metro” you’re just as a part of Detroit as anyone else. I see some brands that are leveraging the name of the city and it frustrates me because they aren’t really having a true impact.

SN: Tell me more about that.

JM: Detroit companies should employ and support Detroit residents. From a business standpoint, Detroit is hot. Originally, my signature was made without the “Detroit” on it, but now my shirts say Detroit on the front. I want the brand to have an impact on Detroit’s economy and to provide jobs for the residents of Detroit. That is important to me. I want Detroit to be successful, I want David Vintage to be successful and I want to create jobs for people, especially Detroiters. We have a skilled workforce. We got people that can build cars. If I can have people that know how to f—ing build cars, I can train you on how to work this process. So, let’s go to work.

SN: You talked about how some businesses are capitalizing off of the name of the city without helping the city. How is David Vintage different?

JM: So, I’ve always felt the need to give back. That’s my responsibility as a human, to always pay it forward. I think that’s just being a good person. DV partnered with the Hantz Foundation and they work with Southeastern High School, right here on the east side of Detroit. One of the classes they teach at Southeastern is an entrepreneurial course and I was a part of that series. I was in there for about a month, coming in once a week and talking to students about entrepreneurship. There, I met a young man named Martinez who is from the east side of the city. So all of last year, we employed Martinez. He’s 20-years-old now. He ran the shop, helped me at Dally in the Alley, and now he has his own small business. That to me is cool. We’re having one-on-one interactions and I’m letting him know the process of managing your business, it’s like a mentorship. To see him starting his own thing is legit. I’m over here asking him if he wants to work and he’s like “Nah, man. I have clients,” and that to me is so cool. We also plan to help support budding entrepreneurs in the future.

Joe Murphy, founder of David Vintage. Photo: Ann Gordon

SN: I know you also have a nine-to-five job. How is it balancing that with David Vintage?

JM: It’s hard. I’m the district digital manager at GM, getting my MBA at Wayne State University, and I’m trying to grow my small business which is really like a second job. I’m not going to sugarcoat that s–t. It’s f—ing hard. I thought about that like, “What’s the realest s–t I’ll say today?” and that’s it. That it is not easy. The realest thing I can say to anyone who wants to be an entrepreneur is to make sure you’ve got the stomach for it. You’re going to be pulling long nights. I’ll start staining shirts at midnight, won’t get finished until like 3 a.m., will have to drive back down to Detroit by 7 a.m., get inventory organized, get a nap in, and then get up and go sell. Sometimes I have to do my homework at the events, too.

SN: How do you find time to have a social life? And not feel guilty that you should be working on the business?

JM: Oh, there’s always guilt. DV is my baby. When I go out and have fun, I’m like, “DV is at home crying right now,” you know what I mean? I have a website that’s not finished right now. I said I’d be done by the 6th, I’m not done. And I also have an exam tomorrow, I want to do inventory tomorrow, it’s a lot. I want to work out and stay fit, too. I try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise in. You have to be all for your business but you also have to take care of you because if not, you’ll burn yourself out.

SN: You’re describing how difficult it is to balance all of these responsibilities, has there ever been a moment when you wanted to just walk away from the business?

JM: No, not at all. For one, I’ve invested way too much into this. Two, I believe so strongly in this brand and what the company is doing. It would be a disservice to stop now.

SN: But you’ve had discouraging moments?

JM: Yeah! We were recently at this sneaker expo at Cobo Hall and we totally missed our sales target. We dedicated time to do the staining and a lot of the shirts weren’t stained properly so we couldn’t sell them. It was a slow day; I set up all by myself because my mom was out of town. Typically she’s my roll-dog. People call her Mama Vintage. I was there all day from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. It was an accumulation of things. A lot of resources had been depleted and wasted. Yes, that was bad, but from these outcomes, you want to grow and evolve.

SN: So, what would be your advice in terms of establishing a small business?

JM: People don’t read. You need to read! If you plan on starting a business, you need to research. That’s the biggest thing. You also have to know the demographic of the area where you want to establish your business if there’s going to be any elasticity with your pricing, what you can and cannot charge. But even before that, have a great concept.

SN: And our first idea isn’t always our best idea.

JM: Exactly. It’s easy to say but it’s hard to do. Is what you’re doing already being done? Can you do it better? I had a previous website that I wasted two years on. It was legit, we had more than 50 interns, but I knew that if I was going to really grow David Vintage, I couldn’t have both. For the longest time, I was like, “I can do all of these things. I’m going to be a great photographer and a videographer, I am going to do all this shit,” but you’ve got to be really good at something specific. Then you need to make sure you’re in the clear from an intellectual property standpoint. Establish your limited liability company (LLC); that takes the liability off of you if your company is sued. And make sure you’re always planning ahead.

SN: That must take a lot of self-motivation.

JM: Yeah and you’ve got to want it. There’s some country song that says, “How bad do you want it?” and that’s always in my head. Do you want it for the fame and notoriety? Do you want it for the money? Or do you want it so you can have an impact on the community and the economy? That’s cool. That’s making a difference.


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