Maddy Maxey is determined to be perpetually caffeinated. It's a strategy integral to her success. “I think it’s important to have coffee with as many interesting people as you can. As your network grows, it gets easier to receive input on your business ideas,” she says. “I have three coffee meetings today, which is great because I happen to love coffee.”
Maxey is an idea-generating machine. Interested in fashion, she began taking sewing classes at 8 years old and landed a summer internship with Tommy Hilfiger at age 16. Maxey graduated from a San Diego high school in spring 2011 and went straight to Parsons The New School for Design in New York City on scholarship, determined to be a fashion designer.
It wasn’t too long, though, before school started to bore her. She quit after one semester and, in spring 2012, launched Madison Maxey, a custom-made line of women’s blazers. Also interested in computer programming, Maxey taught herself to code and came up with the idea for a software company that would help speed up the garment-making process, by turning a photo of a customer into a pattern that would fit that customer perfectly.
Now all she needed was money. She was granted a Thiel Fellowship, where she received $100,000 toward her business goal and agreed not to go back to college for two years. Today, at 20 years old, she is working hard to make her dreams of fashion innovation a reality.
How did you develop an interest in fashion?
My dad was 6’6”, and he had to sew a lot of his own clothes while I was growing up. I found that interesting, so I decided to take sewing classes when I was young and it just went from there.
When I was in high school, I made a commitment to sew one garment per week, just to learn. I made costumes for school plays, and a few times girls hired me to make their prom dresses.
Why did you decide to quit Parsons after one semester?
I enjoyed school, but realized that the experience I had in high school and during internships was the same thing others were going to college for. They were learning things I’d already spent hours reading up on at night when I was younger.
How did you decide to start Madison Maxey?
I went to a private school, so we had to wear blazers. None of them fit me the way I’d hope they would, so I thought about making them better. Madison Maxey dissolved in January 2013.
Why isn’t the company still around?
Production was pretty tricky. Making custom pieces in the U.S. is really expensive. I didn’t want to outsource, so I went to Chinatown in New York City and asked around to see if there was anyone who made clothing. No one would talk to me. It was a struggle.
The price point was just too much. And I wasn’t selling to my peers. The blazers were meant for older women and it was hard to break into that market. Plus, I had a co-founder who was still in school and our priorities drifted apart.
How did you become interested in the Thiel Fellowship?
By mid-2012, I’d become interested in technology and how it could change the face of fashion. My sister told me about the fellowship and I immediately wanted to be part of it. During the application process, I pitched a concept called Meld, which is an enterprise software system that would optimize garment manufacturing. Basically, someone would be able to take a photo of a customer and translate that photo into the perfect pattern for the customer’s body.
I was granted the fellowship on May 9 and love it so far. Fellows are not allowed to have outside jobs, which is great because it allows us the freedom and time to work on our projects.
How is your fellowship project going?
Well, I can’t really talk about the specifics, but basically I’m working on getting the technology made for this product. I’ve found another company that is working on similar things. They have the tech know-how and I have the fashion know-how, so we are talking about working together on this project.
In the meantime, I am trying to be a better computer programmer, so I’m planning to launch a new project called Crafted in mid-August, right before fashion week in New York. Crafted will be a digital content site for upcoming designers and factories. It will provide information about starting a fashion business. I’m hiring writers and designers now. It is really exciting.
Taking off time from college can be seen as a big risk. Do you recommend other young entrepreneurs do the same?
I think it really depends on your track record, the way you learn and your motivation to do things on your own. I believe that if you're ambitious, hardworking and snappy, you will be successful no matter what. You might fail, but you will learn so much in the process. Life is about experience and sometimes it makes sense to give yourself four years of time—instead of debt—to work on whatever you want to do if you are destined to be successful anyway.
Read more interviews with inspiring entrepreneurs.
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