Chris "Drama" Pfaff has spent his entire adult life under the watchful eye of an MTV camera. In 2007, fresh out of high school, he moved from the suburbs of Ohio to the Hollywood Hills, to become the assistant to his older cousin -- professional skateboarder and soon-to-become reality star Rob Dyrdek. For three very successful seasons, Pfaff thanklessly washed clothes and looked after a miniature horse on Rob & Big, a buddy comedy chronicling the travails of Dyrdek and his 6-foot-6, 415-pound bodyguard, Christopher "Big Black" Boykin. While Pfaff served as the picked-on little brother, the experience served as an unlikely entrepreneurial apprenticeship.
Dyrdek, a serial entrepreneur with ventures ranging from clothing lines to cartoons, gradually took Pfaff under his wing. And when it came time to launch Rob Dyrdek's Fantasy Factory, a (slightly) more serious look at his business side, he gave Pfaff his first office -- and the "mini mogul," as Dyrdek dubbed him, was off and running. Today, four seasons later, Pfaff has become not only a household name in his own right among the MTV set, but a rising star in the urban apparel world, as the founder and CEO of Young & Reckless.
"I'm very proud that my cousin has gone on to be a successful entrepreneur," says Dyrdek, a member of the AOL Small Business Board of Directors. "What any mentor could hope for, more than anything, is that he understands the true value of hard work and dedication. And this has definitely been shown this through the growth of his brand."
Featuring T-shirts, sweatshirts and accessories, Young & Reckless is now sold at major retailers across the country, and has become a favorite of celebrities ranging from 50 Cent to Zac Efron. While Pfaff is the first to admit that he has an enviable, built-in marketing platform on Fantasy Factory -- a tactic he learned first-hand from Dyrdek -- he recognizes that the brand must have relevance beyond the show (as well as the upcoming Ridiculousness, set to premiere in August on MTV). That's why he spends much of his time cultivating the celebrity relationships, chatting up his some 300,000 Twitter followers and cross-promoting through Causin Drama Productions, his budding music label.
For the 24-year-old Pfaff, it's been a whirlwind journey so far -- and he has every intention of staying "Young & Reckless" for a very long time.
I caught an old episode of Rob & Big the other day and realized something -- you've literally grown up on TV. How did this all begin?
The moment I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to move to L.A. So that's what I did. I really moved here with the goal of getting a job at a skate shop and living in a one-bedroom apartment with my brother, which is pretty insane. I remember sitting with my friends before I left, talking about how awesome it was going to be. Like, "Man, we're going to have our own apartment and it's going to be warm all the time and we can just drink and skate." That was making it for me.
What ended up happening is Rob said, "You can move in with me for two months until you find a job at this dream skate shop and find yourself an apartment." That was just a couple months before they started filming the pilot for Rob & Big. What had happened was a blessing from the gods -- the kid that was supposed to be Rob's assistant on Rob & Big called the night before they started filming and said, "Listen, my girlfriend won't let me move to L.A. from San Diego. It's either her or you and I'm going to have to choose her." So Rob literally came out of his room, didn't know what to do -- they were filing the next day. He looked at me and said, "Hey, do you want to be my assistant?" And, at the time, I was an 18-year-old kid fresh out of Ohio, and I didn't even really know what that meant. So I was like, "Um, I guess so? I don't have a car out here, I don't have anything, I don't know my way around. Sure."
So that happened, we ended up getting picked up for Rob & Big, I turned into his assistant-slash-slave and the rest kind of led me to where I am now.
You and Rob are pretty far apart in age. What was your relationship prior to all of this?
Before this, we barely knew each other. We always joke about this. I say to him, "I can't believe you're still my friend after all those years of me being the annoying cousin." He would come to Ohio once a year and I was the annoying little cousin that was asking him to do tricks on his skateboard and asking why he didn't bring me more T-shirts. Just annoying as can be. The funny thing is, now when I go back to Ohio, I have those cousins, and my mom always says, "Remember how nice Rob was to you!"
On TV, people have seen you rise from assistant to CEO. How natural an evolution has this really been?
I don't want to say completely a natural evolution, that these things just came to me, but I've always been this type of person. Like when I was younger in Ohio, I would make skate videos with all my friends and sell them to the local skate shops. So I always kind of wanted this hustle and wanted a business, but didn't know what it meant or what it would be. It all came together and it came from watching Rob and watching the people around me and learning the game. But when I moved to L.A. from Ohio, if you would have told me, "In six years, you'll have a clothing line, be on TV, have a production company, all that stuff," I would have laughed in your face and said, "Where's my job at the skate shop?"
What's been the biggest takeaway from this experience thus far?
All in all, I would say the most meaningful thing is simply work ethic. That's something that I originally learned from Rob and I kind of saw from the people that he's around. Learning that you truly have to dedicate your life to whatever your passion or dream is -- that's what it takes.
As Young & Reckless expands, what's your strategy?
We've already built a good foundation. Thank God we had the show to kick off all of our marketing and all of that stuff. It was huge, but my biggest goal every single day when I wake up is to make sure that I'm letting the world know and letting all these kids know that Young & Reckless is bigger than me. I don't want it to be a Drama merchandise company, I don't want it to be something that kids only buy because they are fans of the show. It truly is -- the operation itself is way bigger than me, and the mindset, the culture that I want to create behind it is a lot bigger than me. As far as where I want it to go, the sky's the limit. I don't have any dreams of creating this ultra cool-guy exclusive expensive brand. That's not what I'm in it for. I'd like to create a brand that's very accessible at a very low price point that still has that same cool factor as these other brands. I think somebody that does it flawlessly is Nike. They are everywhere, but at the same time, they are leading the game in cool points, so I love the way to they juggle that.
This is a "factory," but you're obviously not making shirts here. What does your operation look like?
The operation is actually relatively small. We have an office right down the street, luckily. I would say there is total of maybe 15 people at this point. That's a big thing to me too -- not letting it get too big too quick internally, cause that's a good way to screw yourself. If people aren't communicating and you're not all on the same wavelength, it just isn't going to work. It's a small office, a small amount of people listening to aggressive rap music all day trying to make dreams come true. We come up with all the designs, we do all that stuff in-house, all the printing is done at a printer and then shipped directly from the printer to the stores, so we don't have a huge stock. Our only stock is for the online store.
What do you think is the biggest disconnect between "TV Drama" and "CEO Drama" that people don't see?
I think there are a million disconnects, to be honest. Due to my role on the show, people think that I'm borderline brain-dead a lot of the time. People think that I'm really stupid, that Rob must be doing this for me. So a lot of people just aren't really familiar with how a business runs. I think the biggest disconnect is that I am now 100 percent on my own and it is a real company. I'm a real business man out here, guys, believe it or not. We play it down a little bit because there is nothing cool about sitting in meetings on TV.
Fantasy Factory is funny and entertaining, but a lot of people don't stop and realize it's fundamentally a show about business. And in the process, it's become a pretty brilliant promotional tool for your brands.
I have to give 100 percent credit for the whole setup of the show to Rob. He's the one who came up with it and it's absolutely genius. Luckily, now I have my own brands, I am blessed enough to be able to use this outlet that he's created to promote. Any show that involves one of my companies or brands is, I would say, 80 percent my concept because I think we are both on the same page. He is very good at cleaning up stories and he's very good at finding funny details in things that aren't necessarily funny. And bursting into singing and aggressive rapping. A perfect example to me is last season. We did an episode about Young & Reckless, and at the end, I had to jump out of a building to prove that I was young and reckless. The whole rest of the storyline was my idea because it was all stuff that was going on with the brand. But he came up with the genius idea of leaping out of a building.
Did you know you were going to be doing that? If I remember correctly, you looked pretty surprised when you got there.
Yeah, I was! What they do to me is horrible, even though I've been doing this now for four years and I always tell them to stop. They hide storylines from me. So I literally will just show up one day and they are like, "Oh, hey, you're going to have to jump out of a building." They do that because it does keep my reactions extremely real. But at this point, man, just stop and show me, please -- let me pretend to be scared, please!
In addition to the promotion on the show, you're very active on Twitter and Facebook. What's your advice to other entrepreneurs about social media?
I cannot stress enough how important social media is. I think a lot of massive businesses, still to this day, don't believe in it and still keep trying old ways and cannot figure out why it's not working. It's absolutely insane to me. Our entire business, our marketing entirely -- other than, obviously, the show -- is built on Twitter and Facebook and our website. We don't do print ads, we don't do commercials. We haven't even considered that because our reach is so much better with social-media outlets. As far as my personal Twitter goes, it is very important to me to have a balance because as much as I want to tell those 300,000 people to buy this new T-shirt, if you do that every single day, people are just going to un-follow you or stop reading your tweets or just not care. You can definitely overdo it. I try to balance being funny and being personal.
What does "Young & Reckless" mean to you?
I didn't want to do a brand with just a random name and expect people to buy into it -- I wanted to create a culture or some sort of bigger message for kids to follow. And after months and months of just racking my brain, "Young & Reckless" is what I came up with. Young & Reckless can mean anything. A lot of people think it means illegal activity. Not necessarily, but a lot of it is very reckless. My mom called me the other day and said, "Chris, I just wanted to let you know I was reckless today." And I said, "OK, Mom, what did you do?" And she said, "I put three scoops of sugar in my cookies instead of one." And I said, "You know what, Mom? You're reckless." So, really, the overall message to me with Young & Reckless is your mentality of living outside of the box and letting go a little bit, not caring about all the rules at all times.
Where does your music fit into this?
I spend close to an equal amount of time on it. Young & Reckless runs a little bit more traditionally, as opposed to the music business, which is all over the place and you're always in here super late at night. The other massive difference in the music business is that nobody cares that I'm on TV. It means absolutely nothing. Now, with the clothing, I was able to put it on an episode and instantly have sales. With music, it doesn't really matter what I do, because it is purely based on talent and product and connections. Sometimes it's really frustrating because I'll have a great day with Young & Reckless and feel like I'm on top of the world, then I'll have a couple bad calls on music and feel like a kid back in Ohio. But at the same time, it's great because it is a real, real passion of mine, and I do believe that when it properly comes back around and pays off it will be rewarding in a very different way, because it was 100 percent built outside of everything else.
What's the craziest thing you've been involved with on the shows?
Getting attacked by sharks. Even though I personally didn't get bit, it was the scariest thing of my life because we did not know how to scuba dive. We had a 20-minute training course in this little kiddie pool and then they are like, "Alright, cool, let's go" and took us out in the ocean. All of a sudden, you're surrounded by like 50 sharks. I've never had to just let go of fear and logic as much as I did that day.
And what's the craziest thing that never made it to air?
One day, on Rob & Big, when I was still the 19-year-old stupid assistant, I came upstairs and the dog cage was sitting in the middle of the kitchen with the door open. Somehow, Big Black and Rob convinced me to crawl in it. They said, "I bet you can't fit." So I said, "Alright, let's see where this goes." I climbed in, they instantly closed the door, locked it, took me out to the edge of the pool and sat me on the edge. I thought there was no way -- I'm fully clothed, cell phone, wallet, like, "OK, guys, this is funny, now take me out." As I'm screaming, they push me into the pool, so I hit the water, freaking out and it didn't really get to me until I hit the bottom of the pool.
Long story short, I got to the point where I said, "I've got to take a breath and it's going to be water, this is it, this is how I'm going out -- in a dog cage." And right as I took my breath, Big Black lifted me above the water and set me back on the edge of the pool. It was one of the scariest things ever. They wouldn't let us air it because it was too easy to recreate. A kid could have done it at home. It was one of the funniest things we ever shot. They were running around talking about Deadliest Catch and pulling up the crab box. Man, it was amazing.
You mentioned your mom earlier. Do you think you can stay young and reckless forever?
I think that you can. That story about my mom is the perfect example. Like I said, I do believe that it's a mindset and not "Oh, I spray painted on a wall, I'm reckless." You can be a senior citizen in a nursing home and give a couple extra pushes in your wheelchair down the hallway and be reckless, run from the nurse for a second, whatever. It is just a mind state about letting go, having fun and living life your own way -- and you can do that until the day you die.
Name: Chris "Drama" Pfaff
Company: Young & Reckless, Causin Drama Productions
Location: Los Angeles
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 7/14/11.