The majority of people who vape or have friends who vape will be aware of Afinix liquid. It is monopolising the vape juice market and is arguably the most popular liquid amongst young adults. However, what most people won’t be aware of, is that it was set up by Seby Clement, who at the time was only 18 years old. In an exclusive interview with Seby, he shared with me the difficulty in starting a company self-financed and with limited industry contacts. He illuminated the impact on his mental health, the isolation he felt during the first year of development and the instrumental role his father played, both as a mentor and a business partner.
Seby first thought to set up a vaping company after visiting a family friend in America, at the age of 15, who worked in the industry. He explained how he had ‘always been involved in small business ideas’; clothing brands, Depop and selling anything he could get his hands on had taken his interest from a young age. Upon returning from the States, he began to look into the the vape market. He said he ‘used to take exeats from school and go with my dad to fair trades’. He laughed in recollecting the shock on people’s face seeing a 15-year-old asking about quality and chemical make-up of their products, ‘you could see they were thinking, who is this kid?’. Seby began to take the idea more seriously but had to wait until he was 18 to launch. During those 3 years he had difficult conversations with his father. Understandably so, Seby’s father was worried about him abandoning higher education in pursuit of a small business idea; he remembers times when his father pushed him to ‘finish school’ and that he was ‘too young’. This is understandable of course; most parents would be hesitant to allow their son to leave education and start their own company. I asked Seby if his father ever raised questions about the morality of a vaping company, he replied; ‘there were difficult conversations’ and his father made sure ‘I was aware of the health implications’. The young entrepreneur persisted and at the age of 18, he launched Afinix. He also started university.
I think people will be surprised to hear that Afinix was an entirely self-financed company. From his small side hustles, Seby had ‘cash saved up, but it was not a lot’. It was not smooth sailing, however, the whole venture almost collapsed in the first few months of starting up; ‘we lost half our budget because of our first trial launch’. Having spent the best part of a year finding a lab, a factory and approved liquid providers, the first batch came in and was then quickly sold. ‘I was super excited, our first shipment went out and then BANG, we start getting the worst reviews’ he seemed frustrated, ‘you’ve got the lab, you’ve got the space and the liquid is trash’. Afinix had entrusted an approved liquid supplier to be the producer of their vape juice, and it had failed. The liquids were poor quality, terrible reviews were pilling in and the consumers’ faith in Afinix was deteriorating. ‘I closed down the whole website’, he told me as his face fell. It was almost as if the memory of it is still difficult to think about. From that point on Seby realised he didn’t want to rely on external producers to be the backbone of his company, ‘we need to make our own… It took us another year after that’.
All of this was, of course, very time consuming, so in 2019, Seby dropped out of University to focus exclusively on Afinix. I asked him how much of a personal gamble this was and if his nerves held up throughout the process. He laughed, ‘everyone either rushed off on a gap year or gone straight to uni, they were all doing something.’ Our conversations’ casual tone suddenly evaporated, and it appeared to be painful time for him to recall. “I was in a freefall, I knew no one, no contacts, no customers.’. Financially he was in trouble, ‘my dad wasn’t laying money on the table, it was my thing and my responsibility.’. He continued, ‘It was very overwhelming’, I asked him if he felt alone, ‘Yes, I had my dad to guide me, but you feel very lonely.’ It is hard to put yourself in Seby’s shoes at this point, he had lost half of his equity to dodgy suppliers, and whilst his friends were on gap years or in university, he was scrambling to revive his dying company. This was a long period and one that must have dragged by, ‘it was a year of setting stuff up, things going wrong and feeling isolated.’ The pandemic has brought a level of loneliness to all of us at some point or another, whilst we can now sympathise with the feeling of disconnection from friends and family, it is hard to empathise with the situation Seby faced. He had two serious challenges; losing touch with friends and a collapsing career.
The relationship between Seby and his father seemed very important. It is clear his father has played an elemental role in both mentoring and guiding him through business. When asking him about who is biggest mentor was, without a moment’s hesitation he replies, ‘definitely my dad.’ Seby appointed his father as Co-Director of Afinix, I wanted to know whether this decision was made for his ‘business experience’ or instead ‘respect for all he’s done for you.’ ‘Both’, he replied, ‘he sent me through school, he supported me, he is my dad.’ He then chuckled and admitted ‘he was also loving it, getting so gassed about everything’. The cliché expression, don’t mix business with family sprung to mind and so I enquired whether this had been an issue, he agreed that it is a difficult line to find, ‘there are arguments, but everyone argues, it is never a big problem.’ This was an extremely poignant moment of the interview, Seby and his father have clearly developed a professional relationship through Afinix, but there remains a deeply personal connection that has been seemingly untouched by this past 2 years.
I wanted to find out more, as I believe many young people do, about how one even goes about starting up a business. ‘Where are your factories and how hard was it to set them up?’. Seby smiled, ‘setting up a factory is a ball ache.’ He described the painstaking, bureaucratic process he had to go through, ‘We looked in the United States, Russia and all over the world’. There were also significant financial commitments involve, ‘you have to agree to sell X amount, if it doesn’t sell, you’re stuffed.’ This was a real moment in the development of Afinix, it was a ‘scary jump’. The upfront costs were enormous and took a ‘huge proportion’ of what he had saved up. Afinix products, luckily, did sell, alongside his compatible products and disposables, a lot of attention was given to their 50mg bottles. I pushed Seby on this, ‘50mg production in the UK is illegal so how are you managing to do it?’. I was surprised by his answer. He articulated to me the complex legal web of consumer rights and imports, ‘we are not actually based in the UK, consumer rights law means it is basically up to the consumer and they hold the responsibility.’ He then went on to criticise ‘big dogs in the industry’ that produce 50mg liquid within the UK and are acting, according to Seby, ‘illegally because they are producing 50mg within country.’ Whilst Seby has to pay up to ‘$850 in shipping fees’ per shipment to get his product into the UK, established players in the industry, through legal loopholes, are able to produce within the UK and thus bypass costly shipping expenses. ‘Prices go up, political issues like BREXIT, taxes, they are all part of our adjusting costs’, he certainly made a point to note the special treatment large brands are granted and their deep pockets that give them a step up in the market.
The conversation moved on to the general direction Afinix is heading, ‘we are actually in the early stages of developing a sister company’ Seby explained,’ we will be looking into the weed-pen industry, especially the CBD market.’ Seby believes that the diversification of the vape market will enable him to both counteract the increased presence of big tobacco companies in the vape market as well as the preferential treatment some vape producers get. He seemed conscious of the recent transition by tobacco companies, from cigarettes to vape. He pointed to the financial might of ‘Phillip Morris, a billion-dollar company that owns Marlboro and 130 other companies’ Seby believes that in order to beat them, he has to get into the market early and establish a large consumer base. He is convinced that by 2025, Phillip Morris will have fully transitioned from traditional cigarettes to vapes. Off the back of this discussion, I thought it was necessary to get his opinion on the health costs of cigarettes and vapes, ‘how comfortable do you feel branding vapes as a healthy alternative to cigarettes when they are far more accessible, I have seen people vape during lessons at school.’. He took a surprisingly neutral stance, ‘they are both as bad as each other’ he said, ‘in terms of chemicals it is certainly the healthy alternative to smoking. Cigarettes have thousands of chemicals whereas our vape juice is made up largely of 5 components.’ However, he acknowledged the accessibility of vaping, ‘it all depends on use, people may be vaping more but if you compare the overall picture, I am confident that vaping is better for you than a cigarette.’
I was curious to know more about Seby’s opinion on the health aspects of vaping, especially the long-term effects that are yet to be discovered; ‘vaping is a young industry, the long-term health defects are yet to be seen’. His rebuttal was interesting, he pointed to the ‘positive research being conducted by the NHS’ and that ‘the NHS has thrown their weight behind the vape industry’. Afinix’s stance rests on the verdicts of the NHS and their research; if it gives the greenlight then it is a conscience free business. This, for me, was the most interesting part of the interview. I asked Seby ‘would you let your child, at the age of 16, vape?’ He immediately replied, ‘I would tell them to F**k off.’ I laughed, ‘Why? You run a vape company?’, his face looked fairly stern, ‘I am representing a company, the main policy of which is ensuring that our products go to adults and adults alone’. I pushed him further, ‘so this is a brand issue rather than a health issue?’, ‘no’ he replied, ‘a health basis as well, that is the law, he is not old enough.’ Seby had presented me with an interesting paradox, he admitted to smoking and vaping at the age of 16, claiming he was ‘a bit mischievous’, and now runs a vape company and accepts that some of his product gets into the hands of teenagers; but the idea of his child vaping at 16 was something he strongly opposed.
Seby perceives Afinix as a luxury brand. He described how the market lacked a ‘shic’ brand and that the vaping industry was prime for a ‘lifestyle brand’. He talked of looking at Dan Bilzerian, gambling professional, CBD oil tycoon and CEO of Ignite as a source of influence for Afinix marketing. ‘I love seeing the Ignite brand on Bikinis’. Seby is highly impressed by the American entrepreneur, who uses social media influence and sexual advertising as a vehicle in which he promotes his brand. I jokingly asked, ‘Do you think of Dan Bilzerian as you in 20 years’ time?’ Seby grinned cheekily, ‘hopefully’. Whilst the prospect of a luxury lifestyle is exciting, there are serious issues with vaping that could pose challenges on the road to luxury and wealth. ‘The latest John Hopkins study shows that in High School students, nicotine addiction has increased by 900%, how do you feel about your contribution to this growing epidemic?’. Seby paused, this was clearly something that had played on his mind; ‘I mean it is our job to make sure that Afinix contributions to that percentage is as close to zero as possible’, he paused again, ‘teenagers are rebellious by nature, if they want it they will get it, but it is not good, we do not want underage people using our product, then again, we know how teenagers behave, they want to try this they want to try that.’ It is a difficult conundrum for Seby and Afinix, they do not want adults giving a teenager their product, but at the same time Seby is aware that this is out of his control and all he can do is ensure that his company does not sell directly to anyone underage.
Afinix has an extremely exciting future ahead. Seby started young and is incredibly motivated and excited to see where the company goes. Seby and his father’s relationship stood out to me, both personally and professionally. Afinix will grow and continue to enter new markets, the potential for weed legalisation and the exponentially increasing popularity of CBD oil seems a ripe market for Afinix to move into. I for one will enjoy watching this company evolve and seeing where it lands in five year’s time.