Student DJs from Dover make the cut at conference
Aaron Thomas is not short on confidence.
The accomplished business owner believes he has what it takes to build an empire, and he wants to do it here, in York County.
He just has to graduate first.
Thomas, 18, is still in high school.
A senior, Thomas and his business partner, junior Tyler Hess,17, are student-entrepreneurs enrolled at Dover Area High School. The duo beat out hundreds of international young professionals in April as finalists at the DECA International Career Development Conference in Nashville, a competition pitting future business leaders against each other for scholarships.
The aspiring mogul did not bring home any money for college. He did, however, cement his goal of someday owning 20 businesses.
“If you talk to any of my parents or my girlfriend or my other friends, they say that I am a workaholic, that I eat, sleep and breathe business," Thomas said.
Competition: DECA stands for Distributed Education Clubs of America and is a high school and college-level competitive business club for students interested in pursuing a future in business, Dover teacher and DECA adviser Loni Kress said.
She has worked closely with Thomas and Hess over the last year and has seen the DECA program at Dover grow from 11 students in 2015 to 49 students this year.
"It's very exciting stuff, and the kids are motivated by it, so it's pretty great," she said.
The program operates under five pillars: business administration, finance, hospitality and tourism, marketing and entrepreneurship.
Thomas, Kress said, falls under the tier of the latter.
Business: Thomas started his business in 2010, at 13 years old, as a mobile DJ company. Thomas Mobile Entertainment has since ballooned into a full-blown entertainment company.
“We grew into a much larger entertainment company. Presently we do photo booths, mobile DJ/emcee, live sound, lighting designs, installs. I was always one of those kids that wanted to learn how to make money, but employers aren’t going to hire you at 16 years of age. So I was kind of looking at ways of doing it myself," he said.
Hess coming on board two years ago took some of the pressure of of Thomas and allowed him to focus more on the business aspect of running a company as he ceded the day-to-day operations to his new partner.
“It is important in any business that you have both bases covered. For me, I am very good on the microphone, I am very good interacting with people, doing the background business things," Thomas said. "Whereas Tyler’s knowledge is where the music is. He is very well-versed in all of the genres of music. With him being a DJ, he knows how to read a crowd, he knows what kind of music they want to hear, and he is very good at the music aspect."
Growth: To qualify for the international competition in Nashville, Thomas and Hess had to first get through the district and state level competitions. Going into districts, the two entered the competition under the hospitality and tourism pillar. Their success — the duo placed first — spurred them on to the state level competition, where they had to step their game up to compete. The higher level of competition required that they put forth a business model and growth plan as part of their presentation. They did so, and again the pair placed first.
"It’s (quickly) growing to where, to be honest before the state conference I was still thinking of this as a side thing, like is this really viable, but getting first place at state kind of opened my eyes, and I saw this does have potential, that not just myself and my family are believing in the business plan, the business model," Thomas said.
Hess, Thomas' sole employee and friend since fifth-grade, explained how the young men adjusted their thinking going into the international competition,
"One of the biggest things we hit on during our presentation is how invested we are in doing this and how the outcome is looking. One of the things we did, we had a revenue page showing from 2010 to now, and in our 'this year’s' and 'next year’s' revenue levels, we showed the ones we had at the state conference, which was about a month before the (international conference), and we had that crossed out and showed how much more revenue we’d gained in only that month, and it was like $4,000 more for this year and almost $3,000 for next year," he said.
Thomas plans to attend York College next year with a concentration in entrepreneurship and innovation. Hess, a year behind, is so far undecided. But both plan to continue growing their business as they matriculate.
Dover: Chuck Benton, director of career education and academic services at Dover, champions the entrepreneurial spirit of all of his students. He oversees the implementation of programs such as DECA and encourages students to chase their dreams in business and their respective career choices.
The school is a normal school by any other means, Benton explained, but it has 10 Pennsylvania Department of Education-approved vocational programs that prepare students for careers in business and industry, including marketing, in which Thomas and Hess are enrolled.
Benton said the two have been actively building their DJ business for a couple of years now. At the DECA conference, teams had to present business and marketing plans to a panel of mock-investors — actual business owners there to evaluate rather than to invest financially — to demonstrate how they intend to grow their businesses.
The groups had to present twice, once early in the morning and again later in the evening, before teams were whittled down from a pool of 130 to the top 18. Of the 18 finalists, 10 went on to win.
Back home, Benton kept up with what was going on in Nashville and spent time tweeting updates to Dover parents, teachers and friends.
“Everybody was excited,” Benton said. "We are all proud of our kids."
Support: In addition to the faculty at Dover, Thomas said his parents have been supportive as he has grown his business. Although, not financially of course. If Thomas wanted to be in business, they told him, he was going to have to finance it himself.
"When I first started back in 2010, I said, 'I love music, I want to start doing this, I want to start making money, will you support me in this endeavor?' And they said, ‘Yeah, of course. But is up to you to raise the finances, it's up to you to get that capital.'"
He did so by mowing lawns, shoveling snow, building up a savings account. Then he made his initial investment.
“I don’t know if at that time they thought I was serious and would follow through with it, but over these last two years it has been really cool to see their support, and I know that they take pride in the business as well just seeing what I have created and how I expanded it to the point where it is at today."