Getting a Head Start in the Real World

Elias Shakkour

Most Colgate students wait until after graduation – or senior year at the earliest – to consider the ways in which they can apply the skills with which a liberal-arts education will have equipped them. Senior Brandon McKenzie does not fit that description. A savvy entrepreneur and a budding intellectual property lawyer, McKenzie has already begun three different companies along with his best friend Lane Goldberg, a junior at Cornell University. McKenzie’s most current undertaking is Bongo Tees, a successful online T-shirt store. Bongo Tees is a subsidiary of Goldberg McKenzie LLP, McKenzie and Goldberg’s third company, which was launched in December 2005.

Soon after McKenzie arrived at Colgate in the fall of 2002, he was “dissatisfied by certain abstractions in certain courses.” Having considered a concentration in economics, he was frustrated by the inapplicability of theoretical courses, ones that analyzed peanut butter and jelly with graphs and curves but glossed over or failed to address the real-life applicability of such an approach. Tapping into his mother’s skills as a graphic designer and the enthusiasm of his likeminded friend, McKenzie taught himself graphic and web design and began a “mildly successful” clothing company with Goldberg.

Although the company was difficult to sustain and did not enjoy a long life, primarily because McKenzie and Goldberg launched it with no experience or startup capital, the duo nevertheless emerged with valuable entrepreneurial gains as a result of the experience. Above all, McKenzie turned into something of an intellectual property law expert as he soon found himself fighting a rigorous legal battle against a North Carolina-based company that tried to steal McKenzie and Goldberg’s trademark.

Without enough funds to hire an attorney, McKenzie had to fend for himself. He learned the ropes of the legal system, working his way through the mazes of legalese and carefully reading abstruse legal text to attempt to exploit the wording to his advantage. McKenzie found the experience exhilarating, enjoyable and rewarding, although exhausting and time-consuming.

Furthermore, McKenzie had made a name for himself in the business world. He soon established important contacts, and he eventually began a second company, a corporate branding solutions firm specializing in print and web design, in 2004. Although this new company was more lucrative than its predecessor, McKenzie and Goldberg soon realized that their legal knowledge, albeit significant, was, in McKenzie’s words, “too limited to be effective.” He realized that in order to defend against competitors capable of using the arcane language of the law to potentially threaten his business assets, he would have to learn more about the legal system. Currently, the branding firm still exists, but it is primarily run by Goldberg, while McKenzie continues to handle client relations.

While abroad in Spain in the spring of 2005, he and Goldberg bounced around ideas about what lessons they could learn from their previous experiences. Among other things, they asked themselves where they had gone wrong and where they could go with what they had.

Their brainstorming led to the decision to start a quality line of clothing with a targeted audience in mind. They wanted to make clothing that they would buy, and not, as McKenzie put it, “marginal, mediocre stuff.” Their vision came to fruition when Bongo Tees was born. By the time the company was launched, the wealth of knowledge and experience that they had acquired in the previous couple of years was evident.

This time, they did have startup capital: among other things, McKenzie sold both his motorcycle and his car. Additionally, their design skills had been refined and perfected, they had gained much experience dealing with manufacturers, and their knowledge of the legal system had been expanded.

That summer, McKenzie had taken some law courses at the University of Pennsylvania, where he learned about business law. They also worked harder on advertising and public relations for this new company than they had for the previous two.

Bongo Tees currently produces T-shirts in various colors and with various artistic designs on the front. Successful and thriving, it boasts a chic website ( where the different T-shirt designs can be viewed and shirts can be ordered. McKenzie has even recruited fellow Colgate students to enrich the website with photographs of models. Seniors Bill Hoelzer, Emily Cobb and Elizabeth O’Leary posed as models, while seniors Shinae Lee and Rachel Scott served as photographers. McKenzie has also distributed T-shirts to various retail stores in the Northeast.

Nevertheless, he is thinking about the future. Not surprisingly, McKenzie has plans to pursue a degree in law, which would occupy too much of his time and energy to permit him to properly manage the business. As such, he and Goldberg are in the process of liquidating their inventory; a few weeks ago, McKenzie’s shirts were for sale at the O’Connor Campus Center, and he plans to continue selling them on campus throughout the semester.

Also, he and Goldberg are considering the possibility of selling the rights to the company and their designs. In that case, they will take a hiatus for a few years and consider how they can build on the strong foundation that they have established as entrepreneurs. If they decide to dive back into the clothing business, they will probably design high-end fashion apparel.

In any case, McKenzie has certainly made giant strides as an early entrant into the real world. Along with the valuable experience that he gained in both business and legal know-how, he has learned about the convergence of theory and practice, and has concluded that application of theory is the way to go.

“The best way to learn anything is by doing it,” McKenzie reflected. As an English major (he has long since dropped economics), he seeks to look beyond the superficial or theoretical lessons that a novel or other literary text teaches; rather, he asks himself, “Ultimately, what am I learning and why?” and tries to discover ways in which he can apply what he learns while analyzing literature to his practical ambitions and goals.

Looking for subtexts and hidden meanings, for example, is an exercise that he has found to be useful and necessary to understand who and what is around him, especially while belaboring convoluted and turbid legal texts.

McKenzie has extended this philosophy to other areas of his life. For example, he has applied his designing skills in various ways here at Colgate. He has engaged in publicity campaigns for the Harry C. Behler Debate Society and the Student Lecture Forum, and he also designed the senior class T-shirts.