The core of their business model is that for each pair of boxers they sell, their venture promises to donate underwear to Tanzanian children in need. Both have been diligently working on this project while keeping up with their studies on the side. As Thom describes it, “IBA is fun, but just like in other studies, you probably have quite a lot of time to do other stuff on the side.” Both partners have dedicated three years to the project and believe there is still more work to be done.

The Fundraiser

Graciëlla van Hamersveld

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‘In a way, my start-up is a huge intellectual puzzle’

Why do students establish their own companies? And how do they turn their business ideas…

The idea that launched Boxrs4ALL initially dates back to when Thom and Spijk were only 16 years old. Their school announced a fundraiser to finance a trip to Tanzania, with the main goal of the trip being charity and volunteer work. “The school said that we had to collect 55,000 euro. Our group was made up of no more than 25 students and we set up fundraisers, auctions, tournaments and Easter markets”. Eventually, after half a year of fundraising, the students were able to reach the goal and embarked on a three-week journey to Arusha– a city just kilometres away from the Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain.

Part of the school’s mission was not only to do volunteer work, but also to create open discussions with local students to address local problems – something Thom acknowledges as being an important catalyst for the initial idea for Boxrs4ALL.

No underwear

However, an unspoken issue clearly presented itself to Thom and his fellow students while playing a simple match of football. “We were picking up a football in one of the dormitories when we saw a guy showering with two buckets of water and then putting on his pants without any underwear underneath them.”

What could perhaps be seen as no more than a trivial encounter in the shower actually represented a bigger issue. While speaking about hygiene and health with the Tanzanians, the Dutch students saw a perfect opportunity to discuss what they had seen in the dormitories. In this conversation, Shedwick, a local student, revealed that not wearing underwear is the reality for a significant number of students.

Risk of infections

“Initially we didn’t think it was a problem, that it was simply cultural – just their way of doing things. But it turned out to be a financial choice. They chose to not buy underwear because you don’t see it anyways”, Thom recalls after his return from Tanzania.

As soon as they both touched down in the Netherlands, Thom and Spijk decided to do some research on the subject. The numbers they found were quite staggering: “We found about 100 million people worldwide don’t have money to buy underwear, but they would buy underwear if they could afford it. Another issue was that not wearing underwear increases your risk of infections, sexual dysfunctions, and in some cases leads to social isolation.”

Donations to Tanzanian children

During a conversation in a pub, both entrepreneurs rather impulsively decided to do something about this issue. They planned to design underwear and sell them with a share of the profits heading to a Tanzanian textile worker. For every pair of underwear ordered, another one would be made and donated to Tanzanian children. Boxrs4ALL – a business with social welfare in mind – was born.

Since they were still in high school at the time and had no prior experience whatsoever in managing a company, Thom and his partner felt they needed a clear direction. At the moment they only had an idea, a logo and a simple design on paper. That was when Thom decided to jump at an opportunity that presented itself: a pitching competition at the European Youth Event organised by the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Image credit: Sanne van der Most

Levi's and Puma

Thom reveals he had some initial stumbling blocks to overcome before his first big pitch for Boxrs4ALL. “I was wearing a hoodie while the other 6 finalists were all wearing suits. One of them had even raised 400k in investment before, and I was like ‘Hi, I’m Thom, and I’m going to make underwear’– sort of like that. I figured that an idea on its own does not make you an entrepreneur. The way you present your idea is in part what makes your idea successful”. Despite his nerves, he was still able to beat the other six finalists and win the pitching competition.

The evening after the pitch they were contacted by two newspaper outlets in the Netherlands and received messages on Facebook from potential customers wanting to buy their underwear – even though production hadn’t started yet. Also contributing to their success was being unexpectedly contacted by two Production Managers working for Levi’s and Puma, after having pitched their idea again in a competition hosted by Rabobank. This led to a revamping of the original product design. More successes followed, such as winning Rotterdam School of Management’s ‘I WILL Award’ last May, and successfully selling most of the first round of orders.

Options for women

Thom is also convinced that there are still more challenges to overcome, and acknowledges some limitations to the project itself. For example, most of the customers have been business men in suits, since the two all-black designs of the underwear are ideal for formal attire. Options for women have yet to be featured, but those also pose problems, since women’s underwear requires careful design and a varied selection to meet different preferences.

“Right now I think we are in a situation where we either make or break. We want to risk it all at the moment, the question is if we are going to be fully successful or not. It’s not about money – we have the opportunity to make such an impact that losing money may even be worth it. I think part of entrepreneurship is that you accept the fact that you can fail so badly, but still see that as a success.”

Thom holds a strong conviction that entrepreneurship is the key to solve most problems we encounter and this is a central feature of the project. In fact, encountering problems can be good catalysts for interesting ventures ideas: “I think in essence entrepreneurship is all about solving a problem. When compared to governments, businesses are essential to solving these problems because they create the most impact while being as efficient as possible.”