While being a Student-Athlete at the University of Michigan, entrepreneur Niko Porikos founded iTough Accessories in his senior year, where he sold thousands of cases while finishing off an impressive four years, both academically and athletically. The senior walked at his graduation with a degree in International Studies, with a double minor in Entrepreneurship and Greek, was selected as a member of the University’s Entrepreneurs Leadership Program, and earned a certificate in Sales and Marketing from the University’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, just weeks after he competed for a National Championship, finishing his college athletic career competing in the 2018 Frozen Four tournament. I got the chance to interview him during what may have been the busiest time any student could possibly have.
What inspired your entrepreneurial spirit?
I think that growing up in family businesses, and seeing how things are built from the ground up really taught me some valuable lessons. Seeing interactions every day from my parents with with customers, suppliers, employees, and their work ethic gave me some fundamentals that have definitely helped me in the business world. The thing that I loved about entrepreneurship early on is that you’re in charge of your own destiny. If you want to succeed, its up to you to make it happen. Nobody else can get in your way unless you let them. With that being said, I also love the risk of it, you can either play it safe and work 9 to 5 or risk it and bet on yourself so you don’t have to do that. I love working hard, but hate feeling stuck. I can’t see myself sitting in a cubicle all day, but I also love staying busy so I feel like it’s a natural fit.
Are there any things that you’ve learned from Hockey that has helped you in entrepreneurship, or vice versa?
Definitely. I think that even though they are so different fundamentally, the skills and strengths you need to be successful in both are very translatable. Work ethic, obviously, but you need that to succeed in pretty much everything. I think networking, knowing how to interact with others, with teammates and coworkers, or coaches and other CEO’s. Having confidence and not being afraid to take risks, I’d say are two more that are pretty crucial. Knowing how to deal with adversity, problem solving, and creativity are a few more that are pretty translatable.
Why iTough? What about iPhone accessories made you want to do this?
My first company was started a few years ago, and was called CustomizediPhones.com. I started by fixing and customizing iPhones and iPads for friends and family, and then it took off where I was working on devices from all over the world for some pretty cool people and celebrities. As I got older and had to move away from home to play Hockey, I had less and less time to work on the devices and didn’t want to risk hiring others to work for me where I couldn’t be fully invested in the business. Seeing how many broken phones there were out there, I wanted to start a business that helped fix that problem at the source, without needing hours of labor every day, where I could help thousands of customers in a year, versus a couple hundred. I wanted to offer a custom, affordable solutions that can be available to every iPhone user. That’s where iTough was born.
How did you balance it all? It seems like a lot the past four years.
I guess I was just so busy, I never really realized how much was going on. I didn’t really have time to think about what I was doing because I was busy doing it, if that makes sense. I had some awesome friends, teammates, and professors that helped out a lot along the way that have helped me grow on the ice, off the ice, and helped grow the business. If I had a bad day at the rink, or a tough day in class, I always had an out. I spent plenty of late nights using that energy working on iTough. I had a nice balance, that kept me busy.
What were some challenges?
The biggest challenge by far was not being able to promote the business personally. Being a NCAA athlete, we have a lot of rules that we have to follow. I couldn’t ever promote iTough as being my own company, none of my current teammates, or friends on other teams could either. Past teammates and friends that aren’t current NCAA athletes however, were able to. So that helped, but that was the biggest obstacle by far. Its going to be nice to be able to promote my own companies once I’m done.
What’s next for you after Graduation? Hockey, Entrepreneurship, or both?
We’ll see. I love Hockey, but I’ve really loved taking the entrepreneurial route. If I were to continue playing professionally at this point it would most likely be overseas in Europe or in the minor leagues here. It would be much easier to do both if I stayed in the America, but I haven’t been able to be fully devoted to my business yet, so this summer coming up will be when I’ll know for sure. I’ll have some time to think about it once our season is over, but for now I’m just focused on school and playing for a National Championship.
What’s your biggest weakness?
(Laughs) I’m not sure what you’re looking for here, but I love sweets. Any kind of dessert I would count as a weakness. If you’re looking for something I’m terrible at, it’s video games. All of my teammates play Fortnite, and easily the worst player on the team.