Some of the most successful startups in the world were launched in garages. For Mike Zhang, his first foray into entrepreneurship was in a middle school computer lab.

MIKE ZHANG, 25

The Drip Club, a Lincoln Heights online store selling vaping products

Employees: 45

Financials: Raised about $1 million from friends and family

“I bought and resold video games on eBay as a fun way to make extra income,” said Zhang. “As I got better at selling online, I realized that starting an e-commerce business could generate enough income to help my parents with a down payment for their first house.”

Zhang, a bona fide serial entrepreneur at age 25, is the son of Chinese immigrants. He said he was motivated by the sacrifices his parents made in order to give him a better life. By the time he was a freshman in high school, he had launched his first company, Airsoft Megastore. The e-commerce retailer sells airsoft action sports equipment, such as plastic BB guns, to consumers, including law enforcement and the military for tactical training. It was generating $20 million in annual revenue when Zhang sold it and exited in 2012.

He’s taken some of those funds and invested them into his latest endeavor, Drip Club. After following the growing trend in vaping, two of Zhang’s best friends thought there was tremendous potential in the technology in effectively getting people to ween off of cigarettes.

Jonathan Hong and Andrew Tsai – both 29 – created the online branded consumer goods company, and asked Zhang to join the team first informally as an adviser. He joined full time last year as chief executive after investing $100,000 of his own money and securing $1 million from friends and family.

The challenge has been taking everything he learned at Airsoft in managing the quality and culture of the business while scaling – and doing it all on an accelerated time line.

“We went from Jonathan and me sitting together working to hiring 40 people in less than two years,” said Zhang.

Their goal, he said, is to put a sizable dent in the 6 million deaths associated with combustible tobacco each year.

Contrary to traditional business advice to avoid working with friends and family, Zhang’s secret to success has been close collaboration with mentors and friends.

Mutual respect has led to strong relationships in business and in his personal life.

“The greatest lesson I’ve learned is the importance of finding and working with people who are a lot smarter than you,” Zhang said, “and to pick the best of the best in terms of your management team.”

— Kristin Marguerite Doidge

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