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What’s a party without a few rockin' set pieces? Chicago startup Castle Party Rentals is hard at work making sure you’ve got everything you need for your next big bash. Dan Stanek started the company out of his parents’ garage in high school and grew it into a full-scale rental service: Castle Party rents out furniture, arcade machines, bars, AV equipment, and countless other things to trick out any party venue.

We sat down with Stanek, who talked with us about discovering entrepreneurship in high school, Chicago’s obsession with mechanical bulls, and his company’s interesting new direction.

 

 

What is the back story behind Castle Party Rentals?

Castle Party Rentals was a venture that I started back in high school. I was applying for colleges and my family didn’t have a lot of money to pay for college so I was going to rely on academic scholarship -- there were various scholarships for citizenship or community service or different outreach. There was a huge bulletin board at the advisors office at the high school.

My mother actually scheduled an appointment and made me go in there to talk to my counselor about opportunities. One that kind of appealed to me was a hands-on thing. Rather than write a paper on how I’m such a great citizen, it asked me to create a business plan, an idea, put it into motion and report back to in three months and complete an application.

That was for the McKelvey Foundation and it’s basically a young entrepreneurial organization that awards a $40,000 scholarship to young entrepreneurs who start a business. I won that back in high school. That helped pay for school, obviously, and also allowed for some resources to grow the business.

My family owned a bounce house -- not a very commercial-grade one, more like one from Walmart, not anything that I would rent out to customers nowadays, but back then it worked. I would rent it out to people in the neighborhood. I’d print out fliers and post them on the bulletin board at Jewel and people found out about it through word of mouth.

 

 

As I saw that response was going up, I was able to afford to purchase a professional bounce house. One turned into two and two turned into four and eventually I got so many of those. I branched off into different markets: tents, tables, chairs, etc. The special events industry is so large that there are so many different avenues that you can go into and now I’ve pretty much gotten into everything.

I started out running it from my garage. The bounce houses do take up a bit of space so we had a three-car garage and the minivan that was the delivery vehicle. Eventually we added our own trucks and our own vans. Everything was originally done by my dad and I.

Eventually it picked up and we needed to hire people -- we’re still hiring people to this day. My dad and mom quit their full times jobs. My dad was an electrical engineer and my mom was a nurse. Both of them are now streamlining different branches of the business: my mom handles the office and my dad handles the warehouse and I handle everything with operations.

When did you know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

It’s kind of always been an interest of mine. As far back as high school I wasn’t very familiar with the term “entrepreneur” or “entrepreneurship.”

As a young kid I remember I loved selling lemonade on the driveway. I loved selling seashells on the driveway I’d brought back from vacations. I would even pick fruits and vegetables from our garden and try to go sell them to the neighbors.

I think I had the entrepreneurial spirit from a young age. I probably didn’t know it or know the term associated with it, but having a few extra bucks to spend always pleased me. It didn’t scare me to go out and sit in front of the driveway for five hours and sell only two cups of lemonade or go door to door and get turned down.

 

 

I think it was naturally there the whole time. I didn’t really know that I was entrepreneurially minded but it kind of fell into place. Once I got into school and took an economics class or something like that I think the term came up a little bit more and I found out about the scholarship.

I finished top ten in my class and got into a good university, so education was always important, but I was always more hands-on. I liked to go outside and do something rather than sit inside and watch TV with friends all day.

I wanted to go out and try it. It was more interesting for me to actually do something than just to read about something. It’s more rewarding for me.

Have you rented any services to celebrities?

There are a lot of times when you’re working with celebrities you don’t work directly with them but you’ll have a celebrity featured at one of the events. We do a lot of Jenny McCarthy’s events -- she’s one of our celebrity clients. I don’t really follow sports but I know that there are a few basketball players that are clients of ours.

There are a lot of corporate galas that we do in the city where people come in, buy a plate and dinner for $500 per person, and you always have celebrities that are going to those events. We’ve had some national TV recognition. We were on a reality TV show called Pawn Queens, so that was kind of exciting.

What’s renting right now that’s really trendy, really popular is lounge furniture. It’s basically very modern, very trendy furniture that you would use for a social or corporate event, for weddings. That’s probably been the hottest rental item in the last year.

The other side of the business, in attractions and entertainment, the mechanical bull is always one of the most popular ones. Chicago really likes the Western themed parties.

 

 

If you could have one superpower which would you choose?

I don’t know if there’s a superpower to extend the clock more than 24 hours a day, but lately, being in school and trying to run a business, there don’t seem to be enough hours in the day.

If I had to go with a normal superpower, I would probably pick flying. I’m always running around, driving around from the city to the suburbs -- this meeting, that meeting, that event, this meeting. Chicago traffic is terrible and I feel like I could get a lot more done if I could fly.

What advice would you give to any beginning entrepreneurs out there?

I always say you’ve got to be passionate about your idea to the point where your passion drives you to work on the idea. You really can’t have someone trying to force you to join an entrepreneurial product. You really have to believe in the idea.

Basically what I hear from talking to a lot of young people at conferences about entrepreneurship is that they don’t have enough money to start a business. My business essentially started from no money whatsoever and there are resources out there: you can get funding and there are scholarships.

There area so many resources now that there weren’t back then. They have conferences in Chicago for high school kids, for college kids, and they have groups outside of school to meet with other young entrepreneurs. Basically anyone who’s an entrepreneur -- they’re probably the most open people to talk to when it comes to a business idea.

At one time they were in a young entrepreneur’s shoes, where they didn’t have a lot of direction on where to go or how to do something, and even to this day when I have an idea I talk to somebody and they say, “I know this person who’s working on a similar idea or in a similar field who could help you with this.”

Don’t be afraid to ask questions is what I always say, because most entrepreneurs are very open and they really respect young entrepreneurs or people who are just starting out with an idea or anything like that.

There is help out there. They just have to go out, reach out, and look for it.

What does 2013 have in store for Castle Party Rentals?

We’re opening a brand new facility right now. It’s going to be three times bigger than our current facility, which we’ll still keep open. We’re finalizing it right now. We’re going to be bringing new attractions in -- a lot of high tech attractions -- and also a lot more of the furniture options.

The side stream business of Castle Party is importing products from overseas. Not only renting but we’re looking toward having a distribution business so other rental companies who need to buy tables or chairs or linens will be able to buy those through us.

Some of the supplies are going to be used by Castle for our own business but some of the other ones would be used for other companies. We’d essentially open up a sales division for Castle.

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