The Carnival Guy
By Melissa BrunnerPhotos by Earl Richardson Photos Submitted by Zach Haney
He is "The Carnival Guy," and, as the 19-year-old owner of an event planning and rental company, and student at Washburn University, the three-ring circus that is his life could rival that of any CEO three times his age.
While most young people were playing video games, Zach was laying the groundwork for his future as an entrepreneur. He would watch CNBC, he said, fascinated by the stories of people like Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. If a company caught his interest, he'd fire off an email for information.
"People would call the house for Mr. Haney and my parents would say, 'He'll call when he gets off the school bus!'" Zach recalls.
His first foray into business came in middle school, when he started selling candy in the hallways.
"Eventually, I got in trouble. It just doesn't look good—people lining up at your locker," he laughs. "That drive to start my own business stayed with me."
So Zach found a gourmet pepper jelly supplier out of Missouri. He tried selling to local grocery stories, without much luck. In fact, he thinks his family only recently unloaded the last of it as gifts.
"I just wanted a business. It wasn't about the money—I just loved the idea," he said. "I guess I didn't realize what my passion was."
Finding the Funhouse
Of course, in the midway of life, finding that passion—that sweet spot where work could be called fun—can be as confusing as a hall of mirrors.
Zach's peek into the future came in fourth grade when his parents helped him take up a collection of items for the Topeka Rescue Mission. He delivered them himself.
"It was the first time I saw what a person's impact could be," he said.
The experience inspired Zach to continue volunteering. He founded the group Teens Taking Action when he started his freshman year at Shawnee Heights High School. Zach wanted to facilitate a way for more teens to get involved in the community and he wanted to do projects with the Topeka Rescue Mission. The mission staff suggested a carnival for the children who lived there. The catch—they wanted it to take place in October. It was already September.
Zach went to work. What did the seniors think of this newbie trying to reinthem in with so much enthusiasm?
"I didn't have the nerve to get up in front of the high school, so I had to go back to middle school to recruit eighth graders to volunteer!" he admits.
The carnival was a success, and Zach made an important discovery.
"I found out I love planning events," he said.
Becoming the Ringmaster
A year later, Zach went to work planning Teens Taking Action's second carnival for the mission. He soon realized he wasn't finding exactly what he needed for the type of event he hoped to stage.
"I wanted clean equipment, great customer service and, if it was a [nonprofit] organization, I wanted some kind of discount," Zach said.
At age 16, he sat down to write a business plan, and Kansas Carnival Supply, LLC—doing business as The Carnival Guy—was born. Zach purchased a cotton candy machine and a snow cone machine, then subcontracted with a church that owned inflatables. He later invested in a bounce house and, today, owns seven inflatables and offers 50 different party services via a network of subcontractors, including face painting and balloon artistry.
The growth of a company can present some unique challenges when you're a teenager. Most people's workday is Zach's school day. His mother became an employee, functioning as his office person. All those inflatables? Until recently, they were divided between the garages at his parents', grandparents' and aunt's houses.
"Luckily, we all live on the same street," Zach quipped.
He recently got to the point where he is able to lease warehouse space in the Forbes Industrial area.
Without a Net
As word spread about his services, Zach found himself planning corporate events for hundreds of people with a budget of thousands of dollars—even after they learned the guy to which they were entrusting their success was still in high school.
"That spoke volumes to me that there is faith in teenagers," he said. "There were some that said, 'Do we need to speak to your parents?' You can talk to them all you want, but I'm the one who's going to be planning your event. Still to this day, there have been some that don't realize I have the manpower, the equipment to do what they want to see."
Still, he admits he did a bit of jumping without a net. He did not have a lot of money saved up so he needed to find other avenues to get equipment. He didn't think about insurance at first and he had to research contracts. Plus, he had to develop the art of saying no.
"Customers would say, 'Do you have a photo booth?' and you want to say yes, but then you'd have to go scrounge around and find things," he said. "You agree sometimes to too many things. You have to learn to say no and give no excuse—just say no."
At times, Zach finds the hardest person to say no to is himself.
"When you're an entrepreneur, you have all these different ideas," he said. "I'd call myself a serial entrepreneur!"
The problem is, once you start juggling, you risk getting too many pins in the air at once. With The Carnival Guy finding its legs last summer, Zach tossed a shaved ice business into the mix. He figured he already had equipment, he just needed a spot.
"I'd never rented a building before, and there were repairs that were needed and fees to pay and the marketing involved," he said. "It definitely was an experience that made me realize I didn't want to be stuck in a snow cone shack for hours a day.
The business closed before the summer was out.
For a short time, he also tried an online commerce store that he acquired from a woman in Oregon. He says he quickly realized it was more than he could handle.
"I try not to get too hard on myself," Zach says thoughtfully. "I look at ways I can correct it. I always look for another opportunity to not say it was a failure, but to say I can take it in another direction. Failures are never fun.
It's watching the pins fall, he says, that's taught him a valuable lesson.
"Eventually, you have to narrow your focus. If you have all these things taking up your time, you won't be successful at it," he said. "You could consider this my sport. You aren't always great at basketball—you
have to practice. I wasn't going to make a basket every time. I had to find something I was good at and cared about, and that evolved into a party rental company."
Even at the age of 19, life has had a way of adding perspective, too.
Zach describes his family as very close. In June, both his grandfather and his uncle passed away on the same day.
"It really hits you that what does all this matter if you're not there for your family?" Zach said.
It may have seemed even more real because Zach had survived a health scare of his own. The night before the final day of his sophomore year of high school, he went to bed with his heart beating so rapidly, it was visible beneath his shirt. He thought he'd sleep it off and go to school because he had a test to take. Feeling light-headed, he went to the school nurse, who clocked his heart rate at 170 beats per minute and sent him home. By the time his parents got him to the doctor, it was 300 beats per minute.
He was sent to Children's Mercy, where more tests couldn't pinpoint an exact cause. Zach spent months trying different medications and, that December, underwent a procedure called cardiac ablation, aimed at stopping the episodes of rapid heartbeat. He says it has helped somewhat, though not stopped them entirely.
"You can either get bitter or better," Zach said. "I can complain about my condition or I can say I'm going to get better. I'm going to have a healthy heart. I realize I really need to de-stress my life."
Part of lessening the stress, he says, is realizing he cannot do it all.
"There are times you feel like you're running in circles," he said. "It's okay to ask for help. Create a team to help you because you can't do it all on your own."
Tricks Up His Sleeve
Still, Zach believes some of the stresses in his life will lead to a better place. He believes investing time in a degree at Washburn University is providing valuable networking and learning opportunities. He attended a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day conference in New Orleans and will visit the Clinton Global Initiative Institute in Spring. He also won a grant competition last fall, earning capital for the carnival business—or perhaps a new idea.
"I want the degree, I want the education," he said. "I know I'll stick with it, even if I have to take a little time off."
What tricks might he have up his sleeve once that degree is in hand? Public speaking might be a start. Zach recently published his story in the book, "The Teen CEO." It's led to invitations to speak at conferences around the state and region.
"There are young people out there who want to start a business or organization and don't know where to start," he said. "Young people really have the best situation to start a business, to start a cause. At least as a teenager, I had my parents to fall back on. You're still going to have a roof over your head. Later on in life, you'll have other people to worry about."
The Carnival Guy, he says, continues to grow. It now is a three-fold service of equipment rental, event planning and event production. One day, he may offer franchise opportunities. He would love a larger business where he could create jobs. He even aspires to be involved in job creation in a different way.
"I have a passion for politics, so, one day, I would love to serve the state of Kansas if I could," he says.
No matter what he pulls out of the hat, Zach says, he wants to do things in the community that inspire people.
Editor's note: After this interview, Haney entered the race for the District 4 seat on the Topeka City Council. He faces Jonathan Schumm, Les Parrish and Christina Rondash, with the top two vote getters advancing from the March 3 primary.