A lot of people at the age of 20 are still deciding on what major to declare. Hell, some 20-year-olds don’t even know whether they should be in college. Alex Shlaferman doesn’t have either dilemma — he pretty much knew what he wanted to do at 15 when he was traveling around the country to various state fairs peddling whatever he could get his hands on and making up to $8,000 a day, and a year before he founded his consumer goods company, Vante Toys, which is home to his star invention, the Wallet Ninja, an 18-in-1 tool that is flat and fits in your — what else? — wallet. Now, at 20, he’s a millionaire and owns a Chinese factory that employs 48 people.
To Shlaferman, however, the millions and the Chinese factory and the Maserati and monster truck he’s owned aren’t really big deals — they’re all just signs that he’s living life, taking chances and having adventures. They are means to an end and not the end themselves.
So, need more evidence that Alex Shlaferman is a cool, if not downright extraordinary, guy? Here ya go: under the moniker of Alex Xander, Shlaferman is known for throwing gigantic, flash mob-style, free-for-all parties that see up to a 1,000 young partygoers converge last minute in a warehouse, a field or even the Manhattan Bridge, whose rager landed him a couple of nights in jail. Oh, and the parties are free — Shlaferman pays for them out of pocket figuring he’s just doing a service to his peers, who he likes to think would do the same if they were in his shoes. Yeah, I’d say extraordinary.
On top of everything else, the 6-foot-2 Shlaferman looks like a CW heartthrob, is training for an Ironman triathlon and is debating an offer to star in his own reality show … Needless to say, he piqued my curiosity enough for me to reach out and ask a few questions.
You started your first business venture when you were 11. What were you thinking at the time?
I wasn’t thinking — I just wanted to make some money. I was crazy about magic tricks and needed money to buy the various DVDs, gimmicks and props that were out on the market.
So for that first business, you began selling a DVD that taught people how to do a levitation trick. You found a guy to film it in your bedroom from Craigslist without your parents’ knowledge … were you aware of the risks?
That’s the best part of being young that we lose as we get older — being naive and gullible thinking that there are no repercussions. It’s still important to think that way in a more channeled, disciplined manner. The older we get and the more exposed we are to the world, the more we start to rack our own brains about the decisions we make, essentially mindfucking ourselves into not doing something. It takes balls to make things happen. Ask anyone that’s made money — you have to do whatever it takes.
What was your home life with your parents like growing up?
Great. My parents were always very loving and supporting of whatever I wanted to do. Their biggest thing was that no matter what path I decided to take I was always a good person first.
Do you consider yourself a prodigy?
I am just a kid who didn’t listen to what people told me and did what I wanted. It’s a lot simpler than people make it out to be.
Why, specifically, toys?
I am not in the toy business; I am in the consumer good business. We develop and manufacture products that are sold worldwide. People will always buy things. It’s a business that has no roof. Like an artist makes music to put on the radio, I make products to put on shelves.
So you threw some massive, free ragers under the name of “Alex Xander.” What’s the best and worst thing that’s ever happened at one of these free-for-alls?
Best things were people that have been in relationships with for years because of my parties.
Never had a worst moment.
You’ve owned a Maserati and a monster truck. Which was more fun?
Both are fun in their own way. Depends on my mood. Getting something even more fun now.
When you hit on women, at what point do you hit them with “And you should see the Chinese factory I own …”
I don’t. I actually like to pick up women in really old cars to see their reaction. I want to be around people that like me. I don’t get impressed with houses or cars. I do get impressed with people who have lots of depth, texture and great energy
How did you come up with the idea for the Wallet Ninja?
Out of a need to create a multi tool you could have with you at all times without actually needing to take something extra with you.
What’s your definition of success? Is it having a lot of money?
Like one of my great friends and mentors once told me, at the end of your life, it’s not about who had the most money but about who had the best life. Don’t miss any opportunities, adventures, experiences; they are things money can’t buy and will never be able to get back. I hate money, but I love what you can do with it. Money isn’t about never looking at a bill; it’s about looking at the bill and never worrying to pay.
Why skip college? Do you think other people should generally think about skipping college?
College is for people who don’t have a plan and need help deciding what they want to do. It’s also for people interested in specialty professions in law, medicine, etc. Everyone has their own unique story and path; what I do may not be right for you. I only skipped college because I’ve known exactly what I wanted to do with my life since I was 16. Time in college would not have helped me reach my goal.
So you might have a reality show soon, but if you had to choose someone to play you in a movie about your life thus far, who would it be and who would direct the movie?
Adrian Grenier, directed by Jerry Weintraub.
What would be your best advice to other entrepreneurs in their teens and early 20s trying to get their garage-based business off the ground?
We live in a world where everything exists; be conscious of that. If we stopped developing/evolving today, we would have everything we needed for the rest of our lives. Every basic human need is met and available at your local gas station. Literally EVERYTHING exists. Fifty years ago, when there was no such thing as dishwashing soap, it was too easy to make money. Every year that goes by it becomes more and more difficult. Be conscious of this and innovate in a way like no one else. Don’t do the same things as everyone expecting different results. Only the strong will survive in today’s business world. You must get incredibly creative with your approach. Persevere. Never stop. Don’t listen to anyone. At the end of the day it’s your life!