At 14 years old, Nam Ho sat in a freshman biology class at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, scratching scribbles into a notebook. His friends always asked him to do graffiti designs on T-shirts for them. Artsy, Ho was handy with a spray-paint canister, often painting canvases in his garage. His mother is a computer engineer and his father is a quality assurance manager. Living in the Silicon Valley, they’re surrounded by innovation.
Ho sat trailing off during a lecture that his parents would have wanted him to master. They wanted their son to be a doctor or an engineer. As class continued, Ho doodled in his notebook. Messing around, he spelled his name backwards — Oh Man.
Cue the trumpets: an entrepreneur is born. Three and a half years later on July 15, 2009, Nam Ho would found the Oh Man! Clothing brand, starting his entrepreneurial career as head of an urban streetwear company.
Lucky for Ho, his parents are 100 percent Vietnamese, and provided him a surname of Vietnamese origin — Nam. Had his name been Bao Ho or Vinh Ho, Oh Oab and Oh Hniv wouldn’t have been cause for celebration. Oh Man, on the other hand, would become his brand.
At 16, Ho sat at a cubicle for 40 hours a week at a summer internship for a finance company. He would use his paycheck to help fund his first inventory investment.
“[That internship] was terrible,” Ho said. “I watched people twice my age get laid off. I don’t want to be in that position. And working in a cubicle sucks. I would hide and research clothing, garment fabrics and printing techniques.”
As a freshman at UC Irvine in 2009, Ho entered the prestigious Paul Merage School of Business as a business administration major with a specialization in marketing, boasting a 2000 SAT score and a 4.19 GPA. After growing up wearing brands such as Obey, LRG and Stussy, he started to wear T-shirts with a simple design, the word “Oh!” with an effect that mimicked paint dripping off of the dot in the exclamation point. Ho designed the logo with digital markers. He then took a photo, uploaded it and digitized it — Oh Man!
It all started with three designs and an $800 investment to order 150 shirts. He still has a few extra larges in his closet from the summer 2009 launch. But it took hard work to start making a profit. Ho flew up to San Francisco on one of his first weekends of college to attend a vending show, sold merchandise, gave free shirts away and flew back for Monday classes.
Now two months away from graduation, Ho has developed a network of friends known as the “Oh Man! fam” and a clientele driven by social media marketing efforts. He’s served as a SPOP staffer twice and has been a student services intern for two years with ASUCI, both positions allowing him to branch out and share his company with his UCI market.
“I’m a normal dude and I don’t think highly of myself. I’m fascinated by the love and support I get,” Ho said. “I’m just a student who decided to give clothing a shot.”
“A lot of people think you can make hella money off of a T-shirt company,” he added. “People come back and don’t realize it’s hard. If you’re in this industry for money, you’re not going to make it. You have to legitimately enjoy it.”
Inspired by P-Diddy and Marc Ecko, Ho began wearing Sean John and Ecko in elementary school. Ho’s Oh Man! brand isn’t intended to be worn by celebrities — it’s for the common adolescent, targeting those between the ages of 16 and 30.
“I design things that I would personally wear,” Ho said. “When I make a design, I’m co-signing it myself.”
Ho aspires to improve his designs every day. From the “Oh!” logo to his featured logo — a sun, star and a moon, it’s a daily and nightly process of evolving, as Ho often stays up late into the night creating new designs and catching up with his company.
“The sun, the star and the moon represent time and infinity,” Ho said. “Everything I design has a story. One T-shirt is called ‘Forever Young.’ On the front is a couple at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) holding hands. On the back it says ‘Forever Young’ with a lotus. The idea it is that when you first get into a relationship, you’re in the honeymoon phase. It seems like in every relationship it reaches a point where you start to argue and experience resentment. It encourages you to stay forever young and remember the loving, honeymoon phase.”
While Ho’s “Oh Man! fam” is loyal and they often purchase clothing from his new collections, he refuses to consider himself a salesman.
“I don’t want to be that guy who walks up to people and says, ‘Yo, buy my stuff,’” he said. “I want my products to sell themselves.”
Recently, Ho’s parents have started to warm up to the idea of their son owning a T-shirt business after seeing an article in USA Today’s college edition featuring their son as one of five inspirational stories of college entrepreneurs. Ho was also invited by the Undergraduate Business Association at UCI to speak as part of a panel at PASS (Pilipino-Americans in Social Studies). In walked three entrepreneurs who graduated from the UCI business school. Some were in their thirties, all were in suits, and the three of them were chatting about their MBAs. Then comes Ho, wearing a T-shirt.
“One guy was talking about graduating in 2004, and then I told them I’m still an undergraduate,” Ho said. “They looked at me like, ‘Who is this kid?’ After I connected with the audience of my peers and they found out about Oh Man! it was a completely different story. That was cool.”
From Louis Vuitton to Guess, plenty of clothing brands are succeeding. With a humble approach, an education in marketing and a creative artistic style, Ho is already ahead of the game. For him, it’s more than being a bookworm, it’s having experience that matters — and knowing how to please his targeted consumers.
“There are the people who do the safe jobs and make money, but there are also clothing brands out there that are thriving,” Ho said. “No matter what genre, there’s a bunch of brands doing well and turning profits.
“All of the success has been a blessing. I don’t want to go back to a cubicle.”