Tyler Rockett isn’t your average college student. The Swampscott native is in his first year at Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh, juggling the demands of adapting to college life, all the while running his own business.
During the summer after his senior year of high school, Rockett’s father purchased a new boat, which he named “Skebenga,” a South African word meaning “bandit,” an embrace of his heritage having grown up in South Africa. As a gift, Rockett decided to make a few T-shirts to celebrate the occasion for himself and his family.
Then, as the Rocketts wore Skebenga apparel around town, they began to get questions about where they got the clothes and where others might be able to buy them. It was then that inspiration struck for Tyler.
“I decided to make a lot more designs, I bought a domain and made a website and kind of expanded, the product catalog, more designs moved into hats and mugs and other things and it just kind of developed from there,” he says.
Now, Skebenga has an Instagram following of more than 700, and Rockett is running the business out of his dorm room. Most of the apparel is fishing-themed, fitting given Rockett’s Swampscott roots and his affinity for the water. He explains that fishing has been a way for him to connect with his father and younger brother, and he felt that there was a dearth of fishing-specific clothing brands in the area.
Rockett’s favorite part about growing up in Swampscott, he says, was the fishing, and being out on the water.
“My favorite place to go is when you walk down Phillips Beach and you climb up on the rocks, I will just go up on those rocks. It’s extremely quiet. I’ll bring a fishing rod and I’ll just catch stripers off those rocks,” he says. “It’s really important to me, it’s just a way for me to like get away from everything.”
In fact, Rockett achieved his personal best off those rocks — catching a 46-inch striper.
Rockett designs the products himself, beginning with simple pen and paper as he sketches out a rough idea before moving on to photoshop and eventually sending the design off to a manufacturer he partnered with. He says he hopes as the business grows he’ll be able to take over producing the clothes themselves.
For now, running manufacturing and design while balancing a full academic workload would be “extremely difficult,” Rockett says.
“Looking towards the future … it helps with profit margin when I print them myself. And I can also be 100 percent sure of the quality of what I’m putting out when I’m manufacturing them myself,” he says. “That’s something I’m looking forward to shifting back towards in the future.”
Rockett is studying business at Carnegie Melon, and he says he’s always been interested in entrepreneurship. Skebenga is the first business he’s started that’s actually taken hold.
“Since middle school, I was always starting businesses and selling things and business has always been something I’ve been extremely passionate about,” he says. “I’m definitely glad to see that one of these businesses I’ve started has kind of materialized into something successful.”
Sales thus far are “pretty good,” Rockett says, though they dipped in the winter as the appetite for fishing and boating decreased. Since the brand launched in June, Skebenga has grossed $1300. He says he keeps prices low in an effort to make his clothes accessible, meaning that for now Skebena is less about making money and more about “seeing people where my clothes,” Rockett says.
“When I see somebody wearing something that I made, it makes me really happy,” he says.
Skebenga’s most popular design also happens to be Rockett’s favorite — the tuna wave design, which shows a curling wave and a contorted tuna along with the words, “Skebenga Apparel Co.”
While running a business from his dorm room has proved challenging, Rockett says it hasn’t been a chore.
“It’s a fun way to escape my schoolwork to keep running my business, a lot of it is online,” he explains, adding that his dad and younger brother have been a huge help in making sure Skebenga still runs while he’s in Pittsburgh.
As Skebenga grows, Rockett hopes to branch out beyond Swampscott and Greater Boston into the fishing community on the east coast writ large. Friends of his from college are already angling to join the business, with the goal of introducing Skebenga in Florida.
“The dream for me is to expand it to be a big fishing brand,” he says, explaining that he draws inspiration from the brand Salty Crew. “One thing we’re going to do in the future is we’re going to start donating a portion of our proceeds to charity.”
“Obviously, that’s a big part of a brand that’s centered on fishing and the ocean is environmental conservation,” he says. “It’s extremely important.”