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By Michelle Kolvan www.dreamitseekit.com
Let’s be clear: Max Novak likes to have fun. And his fun usually means performing wheel grabs, 360’s and a variety of other tricks with his BMX bike. But to the fifteen-year-old, high school sophomore from Oakland, California, fun also means playing tenor sax in a select jazz band at school while launching and building a brand of street wear clothing that he already envisions will be his ticket to a life without office cubicles, suits, bosses and mandatory work hours. Since founding EXCLMTN (pronounced Exclamation) earlier this year, Max has already managed to produce two batches of clothing and get his custom-designed t-shirts and sweatshirts into 510 skateboarding, a popular skate shop in Berkeley, as well as a hip clothing store in Oakland. He is carefully crafting the Exclmtn brand and is working to build a devoted following in the street wear industry. And along with it, he has already mapped out a clear strategy for the future. “I want to grow the brand, get experience, get it into more stores across the country and grow as a person,” Max says, reflecting on stores in San Francisco and Ann Arbor Michigan that he has tried to pitch his brand to in person. His self-belief is so strong there’s no questioning where he’s headed in life. “I think that starting now enables me to grow it slowly so that by the time I’m in college, the brand will hopefully be able to sustain itself and give me the experience I need to be involved in the skateboarding street wear industry in a bigger way,” he adds. “I know I don’t want a typical white collar job – that scares me.” Max, now a slim, amber-eyed brunette who seems to never stop going, discovered his attraction to art in first grade, after undergoing bilateral leg surgery as a result of a mild case of cerebral palsy caused by complications at birth. Given that he was stuck in double leg casts and couldn’t run around like other boys his age, Max started gravitating to something he could do with his hands, and was soon creating cartoon characters and other art (one of his comic strips
was chosen for the Stanford Anthology for Youth.) His entrepreneurial side was already kicking in by the fourth grade when Max made a clay slug in art class and realized he and his friends could make some quick cash by starting a slug production line and selling them at an upcoming craft fair. But his art teacher taught him a life lesson: she said she would only donate supplies if the proceeds went to charity. So Max chose Children’s Hospital Oakland, where he spent the first three months of his life living in Intensive Care and undergoing many surgeries. The excitement of creating something of his own and then exchanging it for money left a lasting mark: in two years, Max donated hundreds of dollars to Children’s from the slug sales alone. This year he plans to donate a portion of his Exclmtn profits to the hospital as well. By the time Max hit seventh grade and fell into the skateboarding and BMX bike scene, he was an avid doodler, taking a sketchpad and pens with him everywhere he went. He began thinking about launching a street wear brand and began playing around by spraypainting his original designs onto tshirts in his back yard. Soon he was experimenting with Photoshop and by the spring of his ninth grade year, Max had already come up with the name and logo for his brand. He took a few of his initial designs to his parents who agreed to give him seed money to launch the business (Max had to successfully sell out the first batch of shirts before they would fund the second order.) Then it was a matter of finding a silk screening partner, deciding on the right fabrics for his designs (some required tougher cotton than others) figuring out how to produce the custom EXCLMTN labels for his clothing and learning where to have the labels hand sewn into the collars. Max, who says he doesn’t know of any other kid his age that has launched their own brand, chalks up his ambition, in part, to a fear of getting lost in the masses.
“I think I’ve always wanted to avoid anonymity – that has always scared me,” he says in a tone that suggests that at fifteen, he was starting to run out of time. “I’ve always wanted to either be known for my project or something I create – even if to a small audience – but for something that sets me apart. And since playing sports well wasn’t really possible, Exclmtn became the thing I want to be known for.” With an award-winning journalist for a mom and a renowned commercial kitchen designer and consultant for a dad, Max has always been encouraged to go after his dreams. But he admits that his drive might also be connected to years of serious medical problems. Max was born with a birth defect of the trachea and esophagus that has required a total of 15 surgeries, most of them when he was a baby and toddler. The mild cerebral palsy that caused him to undergo bilateral leg surgery when he was six still renders his hands stiff, keeping one of them from closing completely. It also means a lifetime of medication and ongoing surgical procedures every few years. “I think maybe my medical experiences have encouraged me to be more brave, to go for things when they come, even if they’re daunting,” says Max. “I think skateboarding and BMXing has also helped – the idea that you need to just go for it and not think about the consequences or focus on the fear. ” Along with his drive, Max possesses a fearlessness that evades most adults. But it only takes talking to him to understand that he’s gifted not just with the creativity of an artist but also with the savvy of a businessman. With his dad’s introduction, Max has managed to get the commissions to design staff uniform shirts for two Michelin-starred chefs in the Bay Area. It’s an honor he’s earned by meeting multiple times with the chefs and working through many iterations of designs to meet their high expectations.
On his web site, Max describes EXCLMTN as a clothing company centered on aesthetically pleasing designs “rooted in modern and street art but also highly influenced by street wear, skateboarding, and the California lifestyle.” He says his designs are based on a wide variety of influences and views EXCLMTN as an amalgamation of things rather than revolving around a single concept. It was his determination to avoid been pinned to a specific theme that drew him to the name EXCLMTN, which he believes resonates with the street wear industry but has a broad reach. After only his first test batch of clothing, he already knew enough to expand to sweatshirts in his second run because he heard people referring to EXCLMTN as a t-shirt business and didn’t want to be pigeonholed. Now, prior to his third production run, Max is planning to add hats into the mix to further diversify. Ask him if he plans to build an ecommerce business to increase his profit margins, Max is quick to say he would love to, but that he alone has built his small website while maintaining straight A’s, and it’s difficult to learn the ropes of online marketing. So, when that becomes overwhelming, Max does what comes naturally: he knocks on shop doors wherever he travels and asks them to consider selling his designs. Max might not be a wiz at Search Engine Optimization, but he knows how important it is from a brand perspective to have his clothing line in reputable skate stores – even if it means squeezing his margins. Max knows he’s got a long road ahead and that achieving his dream will take a lot of hard work and persistence. But he’s also conscious about maintaining a balance and doing what he loves in life, which is what caused him to launch EXCLMTN in the first place. “Ultimately, it’s just about having fun and being able to do the kind of creative work I want to do while still enjoying myself and living life,” explains Max. “I care about Exclmtn. And I would like it to do well and maybe even do good things for other people. But there are more important things in life. For me, it’s about being able to do what I want to do on a day-to-day basis and enjoying it. That’s the best part.” ### Note: This article first appeared on www.dreamitseekit.com, a story blog about people who doing what it takes to turn dreams into reality.
Learn more about EXCLMTN. Visit: www.exclmtn.com or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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