DALTON, Ga. — Slouched at his desk in the front row of math class, 18-year-old Cole Calfee listens as his statistics teacher talks about companies that don't pay taxes.
A classmate smacks the Dalton High School quarterback on the back and looks at Cole's buddy Robert Hardaway: "They almost went to jail for tax evasion," the classmate said to the teacher.
Calfee and Hardaway laugh. Last year the two friends and football players had to learn how to file a 1065 form in a two-day rush after getting an emailed warning from the IRS.
That was just one of the firsts for the new business owners, who had started their own company from nothing more than their fondness for bow ties and a sketch on a napkin.
Now, the 18-year-olds and two other friends -- all chums since kindergarten -- churn out thousands of dollars in profit sewing their own bow ties and selling them along with T-shirts, hats and visors under their Bowtie Brand logo.
And with the help of a New York manufacturer, their company will expand this year and start to offer silk bow ties.
"It's been really rewarding to see an idea turn into something you can hold and see," Calfee said.
While their friends cut grass and flipped burgers for extra cash, Calfee, Hardaway, Cole Townsend and Sam Wilson schemed all summer in 2011 to find a creative way to make money.
First, the teens bought a Sea-Doo personal watercraft and then tried to turn around and sell it at a profit. But they earned only $10 when they sold it back to the guy they had bought it from the next day.
They thought about inventing, but the ideas were all stupid, Hardaway said.
What about designing clothes? Cole Townsend brought the idea to Hardaway:
"Dude, we need to start a clothing line, that's where it's at," Townsend told his friend.
The teens already wore checkered bow ties inspired by Calfee's dad, who loves to wear them, and they started thinking about how to market them. On a napkin at a cafe in Rome, Ga., Townsend sketched a striped bow tie, which the boys turned into their company logo, which they called Bowtie Brand.
Online they searched for a sewing machine, then drove to Atlanta to buy it -- a 1953 Singer manual machine.
"We got thread, and a needle and some fabric and started sewing and tried to make something in the shape of a bow tie," Hardaway said. [The first tie] was awful. It was terrible."
But they kept practicing, and eventually they got good enough to make an entire tie in 20 minutes, which got the teens badgered at school.
"Naturally, you get a lot of flak," Calfee said with a laugh.
Thanks to online marketing, orders started to come in from all over the country for the $38 ties with names like Pink and Green Charleston Seersucker, The Firehouse, The Squire and The Washington, all in bright checked or striped patterns.
Students, friends, football players all bought ties.
Even assistant football coach Jim Bennett bought one.
"At first I thought it was a joke," Bennett said. "[But] they will be successful whatever they set their mind to do."
So far they have sold about 75 ties and hundreds of hats and T-shirts. They've just sold out of their winter line and are planning their spring sales.
But their business is doing more than putting money in their pockets.
Last spring, when the teens started making a profit, they pledged to give away 10 percent, first to their church, then to nonprofit organizations and missions.
"Our company is based on Colossians 3:23, 'Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men,'" Calfee said.
Some people say the company will dissolve when its founders get to college. But the four partners talk about expanding, one day looking at investors or even going on ABC's "Shark Tank," a TV show where millionaires invest in companies with good ideas.
Calfee, who is still deciding whether to major in pre-med or business, said they hope to take their company nationwide wherever they go to school.
"We've got to have a bigger vision than just the Southeast and be able to take it to the next level," he said.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...