The messenger bag Conor Paulsen carries may look like it was made by Gucci or Alexander McQueen, but it’s actually his own creation.
At 22, the University of Iowa junior and CEO spends the majority of his time setting new goals for, meditating on, and attending meetings about his startup business, GentlemenCare, a men's fashion line of high-quality, locally sourced leather goods, such as bags, notebook covers, and belts.
Paulsen’s vision wasn’t just to start a business; he wants to encourage gentleman-like behavior.
"Being a gentleman—the idea is that we are getting back to the things we used to do, like opening doors for people or just doing the right thing. That's definitely what we stand for," Paulsen says.
He founded the business with the help of resources provided by the UI’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC) and the Bedell Entrepreneurial Learning Lab (BELL).
Paulsen's journey has been a long one. A West Branch native, he grew up playing baseball and helping out on the family farm he was supposed to inherit. He knew he had a different calling, though, explaining to his parents he was interested in other things.
"My dad kind of knew, but I didn't have a solid idea of what I wanted to go to school for," he says.
He moved to Chicago in the summer of 2014, after a friend convinced him he would do well in a bigger city. Paulsen had four internships in the three months he was there—one in marketing advertisement, one in the fashion industry, one doing research for a private hedge fund, and another helping with business development for a tech startup.
The internships helped him find his direction, eventually leading him back to Iowa City and the UI as an enterprise leadership major. He initially pitched the idea of creating a men's premium sock label to Lee Miller, a UI alum and marketing and finance consultant.
"He believed in it and took a chance with me," says Paulsen.
However, there wasn’t enough demand for high-end men’s socks.
It was then that Paulsen decided to start GentlemenCare, which he pitched to Jeff Nock, a JPEC lecturer who oversees BELL. Nock gave him the green light on the project in September 2014.
Located in a former fraternity house on Clinton Street, the BELL incubator is a workspace dedicated to students who want to start their own business; it’s supervised by entrepreneurs, financial advisors, and UI faculty.
Nock is one of the incubator’s supervisors. When he isn't speaking to business students, he looks over BELL applications and provides guidance and advice to those admitted.
"We see if they are serious, then we provide them with a mentor, round-table speakers, networking events. We also connect them to legal," Nock says.
The process for admission is simple: Current students are allowed to apply and pitch business ideas as individuals or in teams, as long as each team has one current UI student. If accepted, students work with coaches to refine their ideas and receive advice on financial needs.
Each student or team must show they are making significant progress each semester.
Nock also leads the Founders Club, made up of incubator members that have surpassed the $5,000 revenue mark. Nock worked with Paulsen to help GentelmenCare achieve that status.
Of Paulsen, Nock says, "He started getting really big orders,” adding, “He certainly has the customers and the traction.”
Still, the search for a high-quality leather supplier required hundreds of interviews and extensive research. Paulsen and his team eventually settled on companies in Pennsylvania and Chicago, and the handiwork that goes into the GentlemenCare products is done by Kevin Tompkins, a leather worker in Solon.
It only took four months for GentlemenCare to reach $5,000 in revenue and gain its elite-member status in JPEC’s Founders Club. Once a JPEC member reaches that level, Paulsen says, the entrepreneur is given an elite-member jackets, and their framed portrait is hung on the wall.
GentlemenCare finished 2015, its first year of business, with about $29,000 in sales, and it continues to grow rapidly.
The company has launched a sleek new website, released several promotional videos, and has plans to premiere a women's line, Meredith Wolfe, in the near future. Paulsen is also considering a brick-and-mortar store in Chicago.
"This wouldn't have been possible without my team," he says. "I am so fortunate to have a rock star team and to be surrounded by people just as passionate as I am."
The job isn't without its challenges. Paulsen works hard to find a work-life balance, and his days are rigidly structured because he knows people rely on him for a paycheck. He also says that learning to start and lead a business is exceptionally challenging while he’s still a student.
But he says the effort is worth it as he builds a solid brand, and he knows that success would not have been possible without his own hard work and help from many people along the way.
"Success is the gradual realization of a worthy idea,” he says. “It is not a finish line. If you set a goal for yourself every day, no matter what it is, that's success."