Edwin Mendez-Rodriguez poses with his brand apparel in front of the Nebraska Union on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Conventionally, businesses start with thousands of dollars and major fanfare. Then again, not much is conventional about 5am:Hustle or its founder.

At 17 years old, Edwin Mendez-Rodriguez bought 10 rubber keychains shaped like shoes and sold them to his friends for $3 apiece. The initial investment? A whopping total of $10 — as much as he could afford. 

“If I started with $1,000 instead of $10, I would probably be in a different spot,” he said. “I'd be a little bit further ahead down the road, but I started with 10, and so I kind of had to build off of those 10.”

But Mendez-Rodriguez, a Grand Island native who is now a fourth-year management major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is plenty far down the road already, especially considering his humble roots. 5am:Hustle is a rapidly expanding apparel brand with a popular Instagram. Mendez-Rodriguez resells big brand names like Jordans and Yeezys and has also begun selling apparel with his own branding.

Mendez-Rodriguez named his business 5am:Hustle because of a promise he made to his father. 

“In the eighth grade, I promised my dad that when I started a business I was going to name it after him,” Mendez-Rodriguez said in an interview with the university. “5am comes from the time that my dad has to be at work — he works insulating pipes, which is basically a construction job. The hustle part comes from what he did while my daily life was struggling and what he continues to do for us to this day.”

Mendez-Rodriguez struggled to grow the business at first because no one would take him seriously at 17. 

“I felt kind of embarrassed just because, I don't know, I was kind of doing something that a lot of people don't do,” Mendez-Rodriguez said. “And so it took me a while for me to be like, ‘Oh yeah, this is my business. This is what I do.’”

If he had fully embraced his role as an entrepreneur, Mendez-Rodriguez said he feels as though the business would have started off faster. It took a whole year to get his first online sale.

But Mendez-Rodriguez has always had unconventional dreams. In second grade, when other students wanted to be doctors or famous athletes, he told his teacher he wanted to be an architect. He did not know what an architect was; he was just fascinated with skyscrapers.

While in middle school, his family went through hard times. His mother got injured at work, so his dad spent long days at work, picking up extra hours to support his family, Mendez-Rodriguez said in an interview with UNL. After seeing his family go through this, Mendez-Rodriguez’s dreams changed, and he found himself interested in the world of business. 

“Coming out of the situation, I just felt like there was something bigger and better I could do in order to make sure something like this wouldn’t happen to my family again,” Mendez-Rodriguez said in an interview with UNL. “Not just my family; I didn’t want anyone to go through circumstances like that.”

Through all of the challenges of starting a business and being a student, Mendez-Rodriguez has stayed motivated by something his parents told him: “Sometimes you're not going to get your way; you're not going to get everything you want. But the important part is that you try, and you learn from it. And you just gotta move on because life just keeps going.”

People surrounding Mendez-Rodriguez have seen the work he has put into the business. 

“Edwin has always worked really hard on his business, even while attending school and participating in extracurricular activities,” Abigail Carrera, Mendez-Rodriguez’s girlfriend and a senior broadcasting major at UNL, said in an email. “I've been able to see the kinds of things he does for his business, such as being a vendor at multiple events in Nebraska and surrounding states and even making his products. Seeing his business — 5am:Hustle — reach so many people all around the world is so amazing.”

Mendez-Rodriguez said he does not know what the future looks like for 5am:Hustle. His dream is to still be working on the business and maybe even open up a storefront one day. Either way, he hopes to be able to work alongside and help other people starting their own businesses.