College student’s ‘audacious’ travel gear business takes off

Jan. 28, 2021

By Jill Callison, for Sioux Falls.Business

When Jamie McGowan started his business, he relied on advice he had learned in his college classes: Find the buyer first, and then find the product.

And in a way, the senior at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell became his first buyer when he went in search of a new travel bag while waiting for a delayed flight to leave the Denver airport. He hesitated before spending $115 on the new luggage because the quality did not seem to match the price, but McGowan ended up making the purchase.

Within a month, he had regretted it.

“The zippers were getting stuck, and the bag was coming apart,” McGowan said. “I thought, well, that’s one-hundred-fifteen bucks down the hole.”

McGowan, then a sophomore at DWU, already knew he wanted to start a business. He had emailed multiple ideas to a professor, but none of them felt right. In the spring of his junior year, he was assigned the book “The Riddle” by Andrew Raleigh. It encouraged him, he said, to “think conceptually” rather than think differently and to find his “Eureka!” moment.

That statement took him back to his sophomore year and the faulty travel bag. That disappointment led him to create the online site Audacia, which offers affordable, durable duffle bags and, as of this year, backpacks.

McGowan is not his first student to start a business, said professor Ryan Van Zee, who teaches entrepreneurship at DWU. Several hundred students have done so since he started at the college six years ago. McGowan stands out, he said.

“He’s a great leader,” Van Zee said. “He’s the guy who can get up a wall that most people can’t. And he’ll put his hand down to bring others with him. He has started a successful business, and he will tell everybody they can do it too.”

Young entrepreneurs like McGowan benefit from today’s technology, Van Zee said. With technology, the point-of-sale system is free, the website is free, and social media will publicize the startup. No longer must a startup business amass at least $10,000 before putting a plan into action.

For the business finance major to put his plan into action, he needed to find a manufacturer. He knew he wanted to start with just one product — one that he could focus on and make sure it was perfect. In doing that, he followed the advice of another DWU professor, Todd Muehler, who tells students: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

The travel bag was McGowan’s first bite. He contacted several manufacturers in the United States, and “they kindly told me they didn’t want to work with me,” McGowan said. Eventually, he entered into an agreement with a manufacturer in China that offered him a basic design that he could alter to his own preferences.

“I wanted to make sure the bag was going to be sturdy enough to take the strain of travel,” McGowan said. The White River native has taken it on multiple trips, both in-state as he travels back home and to see grandparents near Martin and on longer trips to Arizona and Wisconsin.

Then, McGowan began offering it to others. To spare himself the need to juggle inventory, he chose to offer it only online but with the promise of speedy delivery. It was an auspicious start — until last March when the novel coronavirus pandemic changed people’s travel patterns.

“He found a great group of buyers with his travel bags,” Van Zee said. “He found them one month before COVID hit. So the travel bag got shot up a little, and he moved to backpacks.”

“I tried so many different strategies,” McGowan said, recalling the first bleak months when travel came to a near standstill. “For two or three months, I didn’t make a single sale out of it.”

That has changed, but the backpacks take up much of his focus now. McGowan has contacted several schools about the virtues of his waterproof backpacks when students transport their school-issued laptops to and from home. McGowan’s sense of style appeals to students and adults, Van Zee said, and he has received compliments on the Audacia backpack he carries around campus.

McGowan put the same kind of thought into his company’s name that he did in designing the travel bag and backpack. Audacia’s tagline is “Travel audaciously,” and that’s how McGowan wants his clients to feel.

“I thought, how do I want people to feel while using this bag, and ‘bold, confident, fearless’ came to mind,” he said. “So I plugged those into Google and found synonyms, and the word audacious came up.”

He started playing with the word, putting it into other languages. When his mind went to Latin phrases and when “audacia” came up, he knew he had found the right name.

“I immediately fell in love with it,” McGowan said.

After McGowan graduates this spring, he expects to find a job in his field while continuing to promote Audacia. As the business grows, he will pursue finding a warehouse and stocking inventory so orders can be sent out the same day.

Van Zee praises the online advertising that McGowan has created for his company and has no doubt that Audacia — and McGowan — will thrive.

“I’d like to work for him someday,” he said.

Take a look at Audacia’s website here.

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College student’s ‘audacious’ travel gear business takes off

Thanks to persistence and a quick business pivot, this college senior’s travel-related business is definitely going places.

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