“Every good idea deserves a place in the world.” with Sebastian Flores

Every good idea deserves a place in the world. No matter what, someone somewhere will love and believe in your cause if it’s good. The best way to find those people is through networking. I can’t tell you how valuable networking and just knowing the right people has been for me. No matter what, if […]

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Every good idea deserves a place in the world. No matter what, someone somewhere will love and believe in your cause if it’s good. The best way to find those people is through networking. I can’t tell you how valuable networking and just knowing the right people has been for me. No matter what, if you have the willpower and the right connections, you can succeed.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sebastian Flores.

Fifteen-year-old Sebastian Flores is the founder of OctoGifts, a company offering playful DIY cards and keepsakes. Armed with a knack for math and origami, a passion for making, and a cutting machine, he is spreading joy and human connection amidst a pandemic. His patent pending creations, a cross between 3D puzzles and greeting cards, have won hearts in over 20 states. He has appeared on Atlanta Inno’s 25 Under 25 List, VoyageATL magazine’s Most Inspiring Stories, several podcasts, and at Elementary STEM CON 2020.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

My parents are both engineers by training, so my childhood was bound to be filled with creativity. My love of STEM really started as soon as I could walk and talk. Some of my earliest memories involve sitting at the edge of the pool with plastic cups, empty ketchup bottles, and funnels, building elaborate contraptions to move water from point A to point B. At Christmastime, rather than traditional toys and games, my brother and I were given books and building supplies. Our rooms were filled with bins of LEGOs organized by color and piece, and small trinkets rescued from recycled pieces decorated our bookshelves.

I could spend entire weekends transforming cardboard and household scraps into pinball machines, board games, or suits of armor with nothing but a boxcutter, an old cutting board, and my trusty hot glue gun. Needless to say, all recycling in our household was thoroughly inspected before being taken down to the bins.

One of the biggest influencers of my childhood was origami. I think that, originally, my mom got my brother and me into it as a way to keep us busy and quiet on long trips, but it grew to be something I loved. Any time I would be spending more than an hour someplace with nothing to do, the origami kit came with me. This was an envelope filled with probably thousands of sheets of paper of varying sizes, as well as multiple books with detailed instructions on how to make anything from a dinosaur to a spaceship. The possibilities of what a square sheet of paper could turn into fascinated me.

As I grew older, I took up other hobbies. I started swimming competitively, and I became involved in my school’s band program. I stopped doing origami, but that fascination with the possibilities of paper stayed with me. I still use the skills I picked up in my early years today with OctoGifts.

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

We aim to build joy and human connection. These days, a birthday message or greeting comes in the form of a text or a post that is seen once and then deleted or forgotten. Even store-bought, canned cards are read and then tossed in the recycling. OctoGifts creates cards and shared moments that people treasure forever. Our cause is especially important now, during this time of isolation. This year has been tough on all of us. Many people have been stuck inside, either working from home or in online school, without social interaction. We bring people together through fun keepsakes and experiences you can share, even over Zoom.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

As a kid, I always hated store-bought cards. Whenever I could, I would make my own personalized birthday cards with cardstock. I built my favorite card when I was 11. This card was special. It was for a friend who loved candy, and every time he came over, he would find an excuse to go into the kitchen and reach into the candy jar. When his birthday came around, I knew exactly what kind of card I would make him: his own candy dispenser. I looked all over the internet, but I couldn’t find any tutorials on how to make what I wanted. So, I decided I would make it myself. I hunted through the recycling for a few supplies: an old candy box, a paper towel roll, a water bottle, and a clear plastic sheet protector. In a few hours, I transformed them into a candy dispenser card.

I filled it with candy and handed it to him on his birthday, and I will never forget the look of joy on his face. Two years later, I came back to the idea in the form of a heart-shaped dispenser for Valentine’s Day. Since then, we’ve spread joy across the country.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

Ever since I was young, the idea of running a business appealed to me. I would set up “lemonade stands” in our living room and sell cookies my parents had already bought back to them. In the summer of 2018, I opened an Etsy shop to sell art. My one and only customer was my aunt Cynthia.

My first “real” business venture is OctoGifts. The trigger for me was the same as what I assume most people start businesses for: money. I needed to save up to buy a drum set, but, being 13, I couldn’t get a traditional job. So I thought of starting a business. Then it only came down to what to sell. Nobody was buying from my shop except my aunt, though, so there was something missing.

I brainstormed what I could do, and the card I made for my friend came to mind. He had loved it so much, so why wouldn’t other people? Using recycling scraps to fill every order wasn’t the way I wanted to do things, so I set out designing a version of the card I could mass-produce.

Using PowerPoint as a design software, I created all the pieces I would need and printed them out on white cardstock. I spent a few hours cutting out all the pieces and gluing them together to make my first prototype. It had its flaws, but I had proven I could do it. I spent about a week perfecting my design before listing it on my Etsy shop and asking my mom to make a post about it on Facebook. Within 12 hours, the machines I had listed sold out. I put up another batch. Again, they sold out. Granted, it was mostly to my mom’s friends, but a sale is a sale. Since then, I have created versions for multiple holidays and DIY kits, and now have my own e-commerce site.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

In the summer of 2019, my mom and I started going to classes at the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) in Atlanta. As part of the program, we went through the process of customer discovery, which involved speaking with potential customers, like parents, to find out how their families celebrate birthdays and other special occasions, and what kinds of hands-on activities they enjoyed. We spoke with over 100 people about DIY kits, greeting cards, and the kind of things they like doing with their kids. Based on the data we found through customer discovery, we decided to switch our business model from selling fully built cards and marketing them as keepsakes to mainly selling DIY kits so that families could build the machines themselves. For us, these kits fit the issue we are trying to fix in the world better than the pre-built machines, and we wouldn’t have found them if we hadn’t gone through customer discovery.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

In the summer of 2019, I had the opportunity to serve on an entrepreneurship panel at a STEM summer camp for middle schoolers. The camp was sponsored by MantisEdu, Atlanta Public Schools, and the United Negro College Fund. I was the youngest person on the panel and I was sitting alongside adults, all of them leaders at their own respective companies. At first, I was nervous. I thought it would be hard to be up there, speaking in front of people around my age, but it ended up being one of the highlights of my summer. I shared my experiences with OctoGifts and how I used STEM to design the machines, and afterwards, everyone flocked to my table wanting to see the examples I had brought and ask me questions. I left the building that day feeling like I had inspired my peers.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

It was May 2019. My mom, dad, and I were preparing for the Makers Market at the Decatur Arts Festival. Since part of our business is creating personal gifts, I figured it would be a good idea to bring our cutting machine so we could make custom vinyl stickers right there for customers. I had spent the past month or so building machines in our basement to sell at this festival. This was before we were selling them as DIY kits.

The night before the festival, I gathered all the supplies I would need: the machine, my laptop, vinyl sheets, and cutting tools. In the morning, we left for Decatur. When we arrived, we set up the table with our banner, products, and the cutting machine. I was unpacking the supplies when I noticed something missing: the mat that the vinyl sits on while it’s being run through the cutting machine. Naturally, this is pretty important. So, there we were, an hour from home with no way to use the cutting machine and therefore no way to sell custom stickers. The nearest craft store that carried them didn’t open until after the festival started, so buying another one wasn’t an option. Luckily, Irm Diorio (the executive director of Decatur Makers, the maker space that was hosting us at this festival), came by to check on how we were doing. Embarrassed, I needed to ask if they had a mat we could use. They did. It was old, worn out, and beat up, but it worked.

I learned two lessons from this mistake: always double-check everything, and selling online is a thousand times easier than selling in-person.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

When I hear the word cheerleader, one person comes to mind right away: my mom. Without her, many of the things I have accomplished with OctoGifts would not have been possible. From the very first day I started, with her Facebook advertisement to her friends, to today, where she runs the business with me, we have been partners. Choosing one story from the hundreds of ways she has helped push me is a challenge, but one in particular stands out to me.

Recently, with the holiday season, we’ve needed to produce more kits at once than in the past. To meet the demand, my mom helped me create a system to produce pieces and package them at the same time in the most efficient way. By using this process, we were able to reduce the time to package each kit from start to finish by about 40%, just by eliminating bottlenecks that slow the whole process.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

My mom has a friend named Beth whose mother, Mary, turned 96 in June. Normally, her family would have organized a get-together so everyone could celebrate with her in person. After all, it’s not every day you turn 96. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, an in-person birthday bash wasn’t possible. Instead, Beth decided to organize a birthday celebration by having everyone flood her mother’s mailbox with birthday cards and wishes. We sent a custom OctoGift that said, “Happy 96th birthday, Mary!” Later, Beth posted a picture of her mom on Facebook grinning and holding her OctoGift! It was a screenshot she had captured during a Zoom call. Beth wrote me to say, “Thank you Sebastian for creating a gift that is making my mom smile and laugh!” She said that even as an adult, her mom got such a kick out of it. It makes me happy to know I helped make Mary’s 96th birthday still feel special despite the circumstances.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Wear your mask and practice social distancing. One of the problems we are trying to solve is social and emotional isolation during the pandemic. We are trying to bridge the physical gap between people that this pandemic has created, but ending the pandemic should be the main concern. The sooner it’s over, the sooner everyone can see their loved ones in person.
  2. Send thoughtful, handwritten messages. Nowadays, a greeting is simply a text message or a post. In this time of disconnectedness, it is much more meaningful to take the time to handwrite a message to someone you care about, or call them.
  3. Set limits and take the time to be with people you care about. OctoGifts DIY kits are designed to bring people together over a shared project. One of the best ways to bond with someone is just to spend time with them, doing things both of you love. OctoGifts can be that something, but it’s not the only way to bond with your loved ones.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. It will take up a lot of your time. As with any commitment, you will need to invest a lot of time. There have been days where I have spent hours in the basement assembling products, when I would rather be somewhere else doing something else. You need to be willing to invest the time required to see real results.
  2. Reinvesting profits is always worth it. When I first started, I was cutting pieces by hand. It took about 30 minutes to cut out all the parts I needed for one machine. Once I had saved up enough money, I invested it in a cutting machine that took the time to cut parts down to about 5 minutes. Recently, we’ve invested in a die cutter and dies that can cut pieces even more quickly.
  3. Selling online is always better than selling in-person. Not only can you reach more people more quickly, it’s less of a hassle to make transactions. At one of the arts festivals I went to when I was just starting out, I sold about $250 dollars’ worth of product in 8 hours of work. In contrast, when selling online, $250 could be passive sales from one weekend, and they can happen in my sleep.
  4. If you start a business with people you live with, set boundaries for work hours. Otherwise, any time is work time. My mom and I could be in the car on the way home from swim practice at 9:30 PM and she’ll bring up an idea or a question. The only way to have a break from work is to create one yourself.
  5. Find a separate space to work in. This could just be a room in your house, but it makes it a lot easier to compartmentalize and focus on what you need to. We have a room with all of our supplies and everything we need to fill orders, so when I sit down to make kits, I know I won’t be distracted by the TV. It also makes it easier to stop thinking about work when you aren’t in the designated room.

YouTube video: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Every good idea deserves a place in the world. No matter what, someone somewhere will love and believe in your cause if it’s good. The best way to find those people is through networking. I can’t tell you how valuable networking and just knowing the right people has been for me. No matter what, if you have the willpower and the right connections, you can succeed.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

If I could, I would have lunch with Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft. Not only did he start one of the most successful tech companies today, he’s now using his power to help people around the world through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He is a great example of how people can make a real difference in the world, and someday, I aspire to be like him. If I could, I think having a conversation with Bill Gates over lunch would be a great experience.

How can our readers follow you online?

Website: www.octogifts.com

Email: [email protected]

Instagram: @octo.gifts

Facebook: @OctoGifts1

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