Forging success on ‘atypical’ career path
By Krista Habermehl, MA'05
If there’s one thing Travis McKenna didn’t want to do with his life, it was work a regular 9-5 job.
A career in aviation seemed anything but traditional, so out of high school he applied, and was accepted to the Commercial Aviation Management (CAM) program in Western’s Faculty of Social Science.
“I wanted a career that was atypical and I thought piloting was the answer for me,” said McKenna, BMOS’15, “but as I learned more about the industry itself, I discovered there were a lot of factors I didn’t like – from the increased automation of planes to the seniority system.”
Although he carried on with flight training in spite of his reservations, McKenna spent his summers dabbling in various entrepreneurial opportunities with friends: first a painting business, then a car detailing venture and, later, an app endeavour he admits failed commercially.
While those experiences showed him there was money to be made outside of a traditional career path, McKenna ended up taking a job in a corporate setting after finishing flight training.
“Even if you know you want to work for yourself, there’s a lot of external pressure – from your parents, from your program, from your friends. There’s a lot of pressure to go the normal route. I found it very hard.”
It was a repeat concussion injury, however, that forced him to reconsider his options.
“The job (post university) was intense. The hours were long – 12 to 14 hour days sometimes – and I just couldn’t do it. It was really hard on me and at the end of my contract, I had to call it quits.”
This turn of events gave McKenna the freedom to pursue a different path, and he joined a group of friends from Western who had recently launched an e-commerce bracelet venture, called Wrist & Rye. The company sells accessories and markets itself as a “social lubricant company,” tying its product line to names of popular drinks. Its purpose is “to deliver intoxicatingly beautiful accessories that incite social conversations,” according to the Wrist & Rye website.
“When no one was expecting anything of me, I was able to work for myself and make my own hours. I could bring a lot of expertise and knowledge. As my health started to get better, I took on more and more responsibility with the company,” he said.
Today, McKenna is the company’s CEO, a role he formally stepped into in April of 2016. Since that time, he’s worked to legitimize the business, establishing supply line management, inventory, manufacturing, legal and accounting systems.
In addition, he brought the company to Western’s Propel Entrepreneurship – an initiative that provides co-working space, mentorship, seed funding and acts as an advocate for local startups in the community.
McKenna said assistance and expertise from Propel helped the company navigate rough waters and set them up for success at a time when a major dispute between the company’s partners had the potential to implode the business.
“We pretty much have Propel to thank for helping us through the transition. When you’re a struggling entrepreneur, no one gives you respect. Propel helped legitimize the path. Instead of saying I was working on my business, I could say my business is part of an ‘accelerator’ that believes in us and is giving us grant funding. It legitimized it. Even my parents were proud of me.”
McKenna said the financial support Wrist & Rye received, as well as access to a community of like-minded entrepreneurs, through Propel was priceless.
“They held us to our milestones. We learned a ton from the workshops,” he said. “It also gave us a network of people who were doing the same things. People our age, all in different stages of business, but working toward the same thing and going through the same struggles.”
Since the launch of the company, the majority of bracelet sales – in the range of 50,000 – have been online through organic and celebrity marketing. Wrist & Rye has recently landed a wholesale contract, signed with a Canada-wide sales team and is now selling its product in select retail stores. These changes have the company poised to make sales in the hundreds of thousands range, said McKenna.
The company also sells a special bracelet, called the “Mustang,”at The Book Store at Western, which provides students with a $10 Uber gift card when they purchase the product. The goal is to encourage students to make safe choices and avoid drinking and driving.
“We really want to take a proactive stance on students drinking responsibly,” said McKenna. “We’re hoping that if the bracelet is successful at Western and has an impact, we’ll roll out the concept nationwide.”
While McKenna admitted he finds it odd when aspiring entrepreneurs ask for his advice, since Wrist & Rye hasn’t quite attained commercial success, he does have a few words of wisdom to impart: “Start a business when you’re at school. It’s the perfect place. You have a large social network. A test market. School resources. There is no better time than university to start a business.
“The other thing is, don’t wait for that perfect idea. That million-dollar idea is never going to just come to you. Get to work on an idea. Learn a lot. Don’t get emotionally attached and blow all your money. Just start working away and you’ll learn. Then find a job close to, or in a similar field as your idea, so you can get mentorship and get paid to learn.”
Wrist & Rye bracelets are available at The Book Store at Western, or online at wrist-rye.com.