Founder Wesley Balnikker and Mom Take a Walk Down Memory Lane
Describe Wesley when he was younger?
Els: Very energetic, a bit rebellious, self-willed, but always positive. Wesley accepted people the way they were and had many friendships. He was always busy and engaged. School was less interesting to Wes. School was a requirement, but not his favourite place to be.
Why did you not enjoy your school years?
Wesley: I attended school because I didn't know what I wanted to do. So I finished secondary school and continued with another course because I still didn't know exactly what I wanted to become. I just kept on trying things out. But eventually you get to a point when you're a bit older where you finally find a passion. I discovered drawing, designing and creating. This was something I wanted to continue with.
Els: I will never forget that Wesley came home from school one day, looked me in the eyes and said 'mom, I want to become an engineer.' I knew deep inside that that was not a great fit for him, but agreed. 'If that's what you want, then go for engineering,' I replied. After two or three weeks, he was sitting dissapointedly at the dinner table telling us that this was not what he expected and not something he wanted to pursue. I looked at his father and our instant reaction was that we had to intervene and call his school to discuss the alternative options.
After talking to his mentor, they conducted a new test and came back with an answer that later became his calling: Wesley needs to be hands-on and pursue creativity. Based on this result, we had to find a new school three weeks into the school year. He started at a new school almost a month too late, but was very happy being part of a creative community. He had a big smile on his face every since, and I was so happy for him. I remember rushing to the store for artsy supplies. This was so new to us!
Wesley: Drawing, designing, and imagining. Creating has always been a part of me, but I had no idea that there were schools and courses focused on creativity. I suddenly went to a school with subjects like drawing, where you can print posters, learn to work with computers and create animated videos. It all started at this school, that is the cool part. I developed my first creative skills from a young age.
Did you end up finishing your education?
Wesley: Yes, I finished school in The Hague and got my degree in Creative Arts & Graphic Design in Rotterdam. I still did not know what I wanted to become and how to put my creativity to use. I then continued another degree in Marketing and Entertainment Management, which I also completed.
For this last study, I had to find an internship. I packed my stuff and moved to the beautiful island of Curacao and that is actually where BLACK BANANAS started. One printed T-shirt became a hundred, eventually, back in Holland this became a thousand more and the company was born.
Super cool. Els, in what ways have you had to support Wesley with the start of BLACK BANANAS?
Els: I don't know if I had much influence on the success of the business. Wesley always had an entrepreneurial spirit and letting Wesley make his own free choices played an important role. When he wanted to explore engineering as I said earlier, I thought to myself: let him make his own choices and mistakes. Only then will he find his true passion.
We realised very quickly that Wes was not someone who would be able to work for a boss. He is not one to listen when told what to do. We often clashed because I wanted him to do something around the house but he refused and you could see his rebelliousness come through. In the end, again I thought: follow your own path, make your own mistakes and learn from them.
Life was all about trial and error for Wesley. How did this translate to the start of BLACK BANANAS?
Els: Where do you start? You start with nothing. And as a parent you think: yes, pursue your ideas and go for it. And I remember a conversation with him telling him that in the future when I'm 80 years old and you come to visit me for a cup of coffee, I hope you say to me: 'remember when I tried something in fashion and it didn't work out?' Rather than : 'if only I had tried, too bad I did not.' And that's how I felt about it. Just try it.
Wesley: I always felt an enormous amount of freedom in pursuing my crazy ideas. Many parents would find entrepreneurship right out of school tricky. You don't have any savings and you don't have experience, good luck!
Now thinking about it, I recognize that my parents always supported me, whether it would be a great success or not. They always acted as if it would be a great success anyway! That was their mentality, their way of supporting me, and that way I also always believed that BLACK BANANAS would be successful.
Els: Well, it's not only about believing. The truth is, we know how hard it is to become successful. I mean, many want to be professional football players but you know only a few succeed. And you know there are lots of people who want to be models and you also know only a few succeed. People who start a business also again, only a few succeed. And you can try, of course, but there is no assurance.
We did say at the time: don't get yourself far into debt with a huge loan, but build it up. Don't go and borrow thousands of euros from a bank with the chance to find yourself unsuccessful and quitting a year later to be left with that kind of debt.
Wesley: Yes, that was probably the best advice I ever got as a starting entrepreneur. I have only borrowed money from my parents once.
Els: Yes, that wasn't even borrowing.
Wesley: Haha. No?
Els: I remember we were sitting in the backyard and Wesley started talking about his next step: 'If I had 1000 euros...' followed by all of his creative ideas. I said: 'Stop right there. Write down what you would do with that 1000 euros and show me.' So later he came to my husband and me with his piece of paper. We thought: 'Let him sweat, let's see what he comes up with.'
Wes started explaining in detail. Once finished I said: 'well then you should go and do all that.' You do not have that money, but we do so go ahead. But remember: it is not for holidays, it is just for what you wrote down on your piece of paper. I laughed and said that I had become the first shareholder of the company and one day you'll become a millionaire.
Wesley started BLACK BANANAS from home. How did that look like at the time?
Els: Well, in the beginning is was really fun and exciting. Because had only one large Ikea closet filled with some designs of caps and that was really it which he sold from time to time. But then he started creating more T-shirts and the one Ikea closet became two. And then again after a few months, it all became too small. We went on to fill the space in the attic, and had to buy a third closet. But it would never be enough: every week there were more boxes and bags.
Eventually, my house was was filled all the way from the front door up to the attic. Labels, packaging, products, everything. I had one exception: not in my bedroom. Other than that, the whole house was filled from floor to ceiling, it was completely BLACK BANANAS.
At what point did Wesley realise how serious BLACK BANANAS was becoming?
Els: Well, at a certain moment it became too small everywhere. Then my oldest son went abroad for a year and Wesley even moved into his house to fill it up. Once that became too small too, he moved into his first office in the Hague.
After a year he grew out of the office and got a second office in the same building. A year passed again and you finally moved to the current Head Quarters in the Hague.
From the family that helped at the start, came friends that started working with him. Eventually, specialists joined and BLACK BANANAS has become a respected brand in the fashion industry with a team of over 40 people. It will always have a touch of a family business.
The mentality of each and everyone working for BLACK BANANAS today is the same as Wesley's was so many years ago: work hard and work together, and anything is possible.