Then & Now: Boyd Venture Challenge Winner, InHouse GFX

InHouse-SlideAs is the case with many entrepreneurs, Tony Smith’s path to graphic design and what would become InHouse GFX was somewhat indirect, beginning in high school.

“In high school I wanted to start a website called The Young Successors that connected young entrepreneurs so they could network and save money by leveraging each other’s talents,” Smith said. “But since I was in high school, I didn’t have money to pay for marketing and graphic design, so I tried to convince a friend to teach me Photoshop. He didn’t really want to teach me, so I ended up going to YouTube and watching tutorials instead.”

Smith picked up the basics pretty quickly, often looking at other graphic design pieces and trying to replicate them. While his initial website idea never really got off the ground, by the time he got to college, he had developed a broad Photoshop skillset.

“While I was in college, I started to pick up odd graphic design jobs. People would be like, ‘Hey, can you design this flier for me? I’ll give you $35.’ That was good spending money, and it just kind of went from there. I started doing fliers for parties and events – just little stuff – and I really liked it,” said Smith.

After he had established himself as an on-campus freelancer, he was contacted by the friend from high school who had declined to teach him Photoshop a couple years earlier. He was also doing similar work and suggested they team up.

“He was doing fliers and t-shirts and outsourcing the t-shirts. That’s when I suggested we add photography and web design, do it all in-house, and call it InHouse GFX,” said Smith.

As luck would have it, the company the friend had been outsourcing t-shirts to went out of business, and the pair were able to come up with $10,000 to buy all the equipment. They did business together for a little while, but it wasn’t long before they hit hard times and ended up liquidating most of the equipment and parting ways.

At that point Smith took over, rebranding the business and rebuilding it from the ground up.

“I was pretty well known on campus, so a lot of people came to me. I picked up a lot of the scrap orders – people that had gotten turned down because they ordered too late or whatever – but I took their orders and did a good job, and they remembered that and came back to me,” Smith said.

Smith’s first contact with the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI) came through Tom Graves, ACEI Operations Director.

“I was looking for advice on campus and got connected with Tom through word of mouth. I first got involved with Vol Court, where I competed and took second,” said Smith. “After that, I competed in Boyd Venture Challenge. The judges just destroyed me– it was like Shark Tank, and I just got ripped apart by their questions,” he laughed.

However, he wouldn’t be deterred, using the judges’ comments and feedback as a starting point to compete again the next semester.

“The first time I was in the Boyd competition, I pitched an app idea that I wanted to do through my company, not the company itself, and they destroyed me,” he said. “I learned a lot through that experience and realized that I needed to work on my presentation and my confidence, and have a better understanding of my brand. Also, I think part of my success the second time around was due to the fact that I wasn’t just presenting an idea, I was presenting something already in motion with real customers.”

Smith was awarded $12,500 in the Fall 2012 Boyd Venture Challenge. He used that money to purchase two new iMacs and design software for his business. He also used part of it as a down payment on a delivery truck and funded an advertising budget.

That money helped get him and InHouse GFX to where they are today. Now, InHouse GFX is a full service brand development and marketing agency offering graphic design, screen-printing and web development. They’ve also recently expanded into ecommerce, doing short runs of t-shirts and selling them online. Just after the first of the year, InHouse GFX moved into a larger office space in West Knoxville, and they are currently looking to add additional staff.

“We’ve really grown a lot recently. Last year we had a 60% growth in revenue, so I’m really excited about our momentum going into 2015,” Smith said.

With his company on the rise, Smith has some solid advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs whose shoes he was once in.

“Do what you love. Make a business based on passion, not money. When you’re doing what you love, you’re always trying to make it better, and people respect you for it and can see that in your work. The reason I can give such a good product is because I care so much about what I’m doing,” he said.

The application deadline for the Boyd Venture Challenge is midnight, Friday, March 27. For more information, visit http://tiny.utk.edu/Boyd15.

For more information on InHouse GFX and their services, visit http://www.inhousegfx.com/.

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