LAKEWOOD RANCH — Sam Vrinios has trouble taking teenage life seriously, and it’s hard to blame him.
That’s because, at 15 years old, he operates like a veteran businessman.
Sam, a sophomore at Lakewood Ranch High School, started Imagine Customs, which retrofits and customizes Xbox 360 game controllers and is approaching $1 million in sales, out of his parents’ garage two years ago.
Last year, he moved Imagine Customs to a storefront in a Lakewood Ranch shopping plaza, where Sam and four full-time employees, including his father, Pete, build, organize and ship the controllers to gamers across the country. Now, the media is taking notice.
A June article in the East County Observer’s sister paper, the Gulf Coast Business Review, drew the attention of Dan Vega, an entrepreneur, speaker and author who runs his own Alabama-based ABC show, “Tuesdays with Dan.” The show airs on MyTV 35 and WEAR ABC 3 and showcases successful entrepreneurs, who share their stories and reveal business tips.
Vega invited Sam on the show Nov. 26, when they filmed a spot in front of a live audience. The segment will air on an undetermined date.
Sam and his father drove eight hours to the Caribe Resort in Orange Beach, Ala., for the shoot.
“Filming was a great experience,” Sam said. “Successful people like that are my type of crowd. I don’t connect well with kids who are my age. I want to talk about business.”
Sam is also in talks with Jamie Hammond, an executive producer at Biz Kid$, a half-hour PBS affiliated and Emmy Award-winning television series, in which kids teach other kids about business. The show’s crew travels to various locations in the United States to film young entrepreneurs. Sam and Imagine Customs will be featured in Biz Kid$’s monthly newsletter, and the teen is pushing to get on the show.
Born in Champaign, Ill., Sam’s story started when he founded Imagine Customs after he saw a YouTube video of someone who had personalized an Xbox controller.
That night, Sam spent hours tinkering with his controller.
Sam researched what kinds of paints and color schemes to use that wouldn’t damage the controllers. He also learned how to change some of the internal components.
Pete Vrinios home-schooled the teenager before Sam entered public high school. Sam’s mother, Jaime, is a national sales director with Mary Kay.
In the last few months, Sam has depended on his staff to build the controllers and work on the technical side while he focuses on growing the company.
Zach Brown, a 22-year-old former foreman at a landscaping company who also helped out at his family’s Bradenton-based funeral home, Brown & Sons, started work at Imagine Customs two months ago.
A former competitive gamer, Brown read Sam’s story in the Gulf Coast Business Review and pitched himself to his potential boss seven years his junior. Brown was hired a day later.
“It’s not weird at all working for a 15-year-old,” Brown said. “It’s not like I am talked down to. If anything, it’s rejuvenating working with him. What we do at Imagine Customs has been done. I admire Sam for taking an old idea and turning it into a profitable business.”
With Brown on board, Sam stays hands off and focuses on boosting the company’s social media presence.
Imagine Customs boasts more than 17,000 Twitter followers and 113,000 YouTube subscribers.
“Social media is the cheapest way to market your business,” Sam says. “I always thought it would be pretty easy when some said it would be hard. It’s all about how you reach out to followers and make them feel you’re worth following.”
Around 2 a.m. from a computer in his bedroom, Sam, who spends less time in the office as he juggles school, football, track, friends and his business, designs new promotional codes and tools, such as his recent Cyber Monday sale.
Balancing it all, Sam admits it can be hard to relate to the high school environment.
“Sometimes it is kind of funny because there are business teachers (at Lakewood Ranch High School) who will try to tell me to do something and I’m like, ‘I don’t really want to do that,’” Sam said. “A lot of kids in school think it’s cool what I’m doing, but some take it for granted. I’m not really worried about what people think of me.”
Soon, Sam says the storefront in Lakewood Ranch will open for retail.
The business now is online only at imaginecontrollers.com, where customers can make their own controllers or fill out a form to renovate a used one.
The retail component will be outfitted with an iPad linked to a television, through which customers can customize controllers from the store on the Imagine Customs website, Sam said.
Sam says he wants to franchise the company someday and expand to reselling in Best Buy and GameStop.
“Being small has no advantages,” Sam said. “I would love to make millions a year off of this. But the first two years of a business are always stressful, and it’s tough to make a profit.”
Like a savvy private investor, Sam eventually hopes to sell Imagine Customs or sell some of its stake after studying neurosurgery and playing football at the University of Florida.
“I hope to stick with Imagine Customs as long as I can,” Sam said. “I have a lot to get done.”
Contact Josh Siegel at firstname.lastname@example.org