Smells Like School Spirit

On a Shoestring

What: Printer cartridge retailer
Who: Paul Sowinski of Top-Notch Computer Supplies Inc.
Where: Sterling Heights, Michigan
When: Started in 1998
How much: $5,000

When Paul Sowinski got hooked on attending computer shows in high school, his dream of becoming an entrepreneur arrived in the form of toner cartridges. Self-help books like Brian Tracy's Maximum Achievement: Strategies and Skills That Will Unlock Your Hidden Powers to Succeed (Fireside) and a loan from his parents sent the 18-year-old on his way.

Working out of his home, Sowinski bought two computers, phone lines and inventory. His inkjet and laser toner cartridge company, Top-Notch Computer Supplies, was profitable from the start-and the teen entrepreneur was suddenly flush with cash. "My friends always had money because their parents gave it to them," says Sowinski, who made $40,000 his first year in business, doubling it the next year. "When I started making money, I was like 'Ohmigod.'"

Initially indulging personally and professionally on frivolous items, Sowinski, now 23, has since reformed his spending habits. "There was a lot of waste that I overlooked," he says. "I feel like I matured a lot." Eliminating three cell phones and changing his business phone carrier cut expenses, as did breaking down the daily cost of each potential purchase. "Now I look at everything as a potential profit or not," says Sowinski, who estimates 2003 sales of $500,000.

With Sowinski's vision of a million-dollar company on track, his new goal of $100 million is plausible given his passion for business and lean operations. "I wanted to learn by error," he says. "I've made all the errors you can make. When [I] cut costs, that's money in my pocket. Every dollar counts now."

-April Y. Pennington
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This article was originally published in the December 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Smells Like School Spirit.

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