Texas Tech University

11-Year-Old Entrepreneur's Journey Continues After National Startup Competition

Kay Boren

September 9, 2019

Fort in a Box startup, Texas Tech supports community

It's September, but Christmas time is already very much on the mind of Daniel Jones. Unlike most 11-year-olds, he's not thinking about what gifts he wants. Instead, the West Texas startup entrepreneur is focusing his hustle on how to meet holiday season demand for the product he invented and sells online.

Jones is the founder and CEO of Fort in a Box. He says he got the idea to make a kit for building larger, more sturdy and stable structures for blanket forts after buying a kit for his twin sister, Leah. "She didn't ever really use it because it was bad," he says. "I spent all my money on it and got really disappointed with it." He designed and developed a kit of his own. Each includes 12 heavy cardboard beams (like those used for furniture packing) with bolts and grommets that can be connected, stacked, or used individually as supports.

Before and after the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce's Young Entrepreneurs Academy 

Jones launched his company thanks to his participation in the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce's 2018-2019 Young Entrepreneurs Academy. The 30-week program for middle and high school students focused on how to form businesses from their ideas and pitch to investors.  Students learned invaluable life and business skills through experiential lessons and interactions with leaders in education, business, and the community. As a community partner with the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce, the Texas Tech Innovation Hub provided meeting space, access to mentors, and curriculum support. The impact may be best demonstrated by the 17 startups formed as a result of the program.

Leah Jones participated in the program with her own separate startup business idea. Daniel and his sister developed their respective business plans in the program. Both were awarded their full funding requests by the local investor panel.

Daniel helped raise community awareness of the value of youth entrepreneurship when he won the Saunders Scholarship Semifinalist award and advanced to the national competition in Rochester, New York in May 2019. News and social media coverage of the competition brought Jones and his startup plenty of attention. Fort in a Box got 18 pre-orders for kits in its first two days. In his business plan, Jones's initial monthly average sales projection was 15 kits. He says, "After coming home from New York, we had to get to work on making products!"

Help from the entrepreneur ecosystem 

Parents Mike and Amy Jones and the siblings' sister Keely pitched in to help with financial matters and production. Jones says, "I hired Leah to help me fill pre-orders because she is a really hard worker and I didn't know how long my mom would keep working for hugs. But when we realized Leah was spending more time working on Fort in a Box than her own business, we decided it made good sense to make her a partner." Daniel grins as Leah responds, "I would have helped you even if you weren't paying me. To a certain point. Then I would have stopped and said I needed to be paid."

During his time working with community mentors through the entrepreneurship program, Daniel found the value in leveraging their experiences to solve problems. So when sales and production for Fort in a Box were placed on hold because of a material supply problem, he sought expertise and advice from a community network of entrepreneurs. He says, "Getting the cardboard beams in a smaller quantity that we need is hard because when you order them, you get 3-thousand or they have an entire truckload. And we make the kits in our home." Jones and his sister talked about the dilemma with members of the local 1 Million Cups program community at its meeting at the Hub in August. Jones says, "The purpose of my presentation was that I mainly wanted help with that. And I got some. For now, we're keeping pace with the orders but we need to gear up for the Christmas season."