After his father developed the famous at-home fitness gym, Bowflex, Caleb Shifferaw went on to create a successful brand that also helps sustain Ethiopian schools. Here’s how he’s utilizing credit cards to create beautiful products while making a difference.
Caleb Shifferaw hails from entrepreneurial royalty. His father, an Ethiopian immigrant, developed Bowflex, the enormously successful at-home fitness gym. The art of invention was so valued in his home that his punishment for misbehaving was to come up with new creations.
Designing products soon became second nature. By the age of 20, Shifferaw launched D.C.I. (Design Create Inspire) – a unique, high-end leather goods company. The company was based off an idea Shifferaw’s father had in 2014, right before he passed away, for an iPhone case wrapped in the finest Ethiopian leather.
“At that point, I was done slacking off, done drinking and done partying,” says Shifferaw. “My dad was handing me a golden opportunity wrapped in a shiny red bow. I knew it was up to me to continue his legacy. So, I got straight to work.”
In 2017, Shifferaw launched his first product: those very iPhone cases, and they were an instant hit.
Since Ethiopia is Africa’s largest exporter of leather, and his ties to the country are deep, Shifferaw wanted to find a way to bring that region’s high-quality leather to the modern market. Feeling confident, Shifferaw used the proceeds from the phone case sales to design and launch other products – including his latest, a luxury duffle bag made entirely of Ethiopian leather.
“During this time, I partnered with a longtime friend to ensure the strides we were making at D.C.I. gave back to communities in Ethiopia – particularly the younger generation,” says Shifferaw. So, they partnered with WEL Nonprofit and have been sending 5% of every purchase to the African organization to help build and sustain schools in rural towns.
Credit cards have been helping Shifferaw manage the many costs of D.C.I., and he looks forward to more accounts that will help him even further.
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Can you talk more about your start with D.C.I.?
The beginning of the business consisted of a lot of coffee, late nights and overdrawn accounts! Creating a product was easy, finding a factory to manufacture it was the hard part.I had to teach myself how to use Alibaba (a platform for global wholesale trade) to negotiate with factories. I spent countless hours on YouTube learning how to navigate through the site. It took me almost four months to find factories that would manufacture our phone case.
Since our design was complex, I had the injection mold done in Shenzhen, China, then had the molds shipped to the leather facility so they could be wrapped by hand. We now have four factories that we work with.
I managed to hit $10,000 in preorders on the first launch. That allowed me to visit my factories in Ethiopia and China. However, given the constant cycle of new iPhones models, we were back to square one as soon as production finished.
That’s when it hit me: I needed to make more universal products that wouldn’t be phased out every year. So, I did what I do best, I went to the drawing board. I designed a new collection of minimalist wallets and keychains. I launched them in the summer of 2018, and they sold out in less than two weeks.
While I experienced the highs and lows of D.C.I., I was also taking every gig I could to fund and fuel my vision. I was driving for Uber and Caviar deliveries. Still do.
Were there any unexpected expenses that threw you for a loop?
Yes, the surprise cost that caught me off guard was definitely shipping. By the time our first product finished and was ready to ship, I had about $213 in my bank account.
Shipping from China to the U.S. is expensive. It cost over $2,000 and that was, unfortunately, money I didn’t have. Luckily, I was privileged enough to tap a resource who believed in me: my mom. She helped cover the exorbitant fees.
And then there was marketing. I didn’t know it would cost so much. What you spend on ads doesn’t convert into sales immediately so you’re blowing a lot of money in the beginning. So far, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on it, but it does add value to the business in the long-run.
How have you been using credit cards?
The only cards I was approved for were the Journey Student Rewards from Capital One and the Credit One Bank® Platinum Visa® for Rebuilding Credit. I’ve been using them to run operations. I usually charge my website, email marketing, Facebook ads and Adobe platform.
Right now, we are on calm waters. The business is only in debt by about $2,000 – which is not bad. The Capital One card is a cash back card, and I put the money I earn with it to my bill.
I was always taught if you have the money, buy it, and if not, don’t. However, I would say I am not the most fluent when it comes to credit cards and understanding how rewards can work for your business. I’m quickly learning the power it has to unlock access – in a responsible way.
My goal is to bump up my credit scores so I can qualify for a really good travel card. I want to use miles for business trips because I travel to and from Ethiopia so often. I’m keeping track of my credit scores and watching them rise. I’m good with my payments and get them in when I should, at least 85% to 90% of the time.
What is the present and future of D.C.I.?
This past summer I launched the Zoma Weekender bag. We did roughly $4,000 in orders within the first four hours! In total, I raised over $8,000 in preorders. The customer feedback and demand for the duffle bag surpassed my expectations and we recently sold out of one of the colors.
The company is slowly expanding. We’ve received amazing feedback after the Zoma Weekender launch. It’s looking like a great year for us. I recently brought on a partner, who just graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM), to help me design the women’s collection – which will be launching this summer.
Our future plans are to expand into retail stores and double our marketing budget. More access to capital will allow us to do that.
Any advice for other entrepreneurs?
I would tell them not to quit. It gets overwhelming, lonely and stressful. But if it was easy, everyone would do it. Every time you take a loss or hit a brick wall, take a step back and just breathe. Learn from it and move on. And most importantly, stay consistent! Every failure that I have gone through has taught me a valuable lesson in business and in life.
Regarding finances and credit, if you borrow money, pay it back as soon as possible. You need to create a schedule for repayment. But also know that you can’t predict everything, so make sure you have a cushion – funds you can draw from in case of an emergency. Oh, and stay on good terms with lenders! It doesn’t matter if it’s your family or a bank. Learn how to communicate with them.