This interview is our fifth in a series of interviews with entrepreneurs and makers, this time with magazine writer, blogger, and photographer Lisa Traughber, the Best-Sister-In-The-Whole-World. Lisa has been published in multiple magazines and also won several photography awards. Our readers may find her move to slash her work hours in order to create very interesting.
Thank you for doing the interview. You have many creative talents and I think our readers will be interested in how you were able redesign your life to shift your time from working to making. You only work 3 days per week and spend 2 days per week creating: writing for magazines, blogging, and doing photography. You made that shift some time ago, and how you made that shift might be very interesting to our readers.
You’re welcome. Thank you for your interest.
You started with writing for magazines and have had several articles published. Tell us a little about how you got started.
I took a week long class a number of years ago that was devoted to writing articles for inspirational magazines. The class was held at the beautiful Glen Eyrie located in Colorado Springs. The class taught me everything I needed to know to properly submit articles for publication.
How were you able to go from 5 work days per week to 3?
I changed job locations within the same organization. The location change was the right time to cut down my work hours so I could pursue other things. The change also gave me more time to spend with my family. The people in administration at the organization were happy because they wanted someone who would be flexible with their hours when they opened the new location.
Was that a difficult transition?
It was a very easy transition. I simplified my expenses and had my mortgage and car paid off, so I had more freedom in cutting down my work hours.
Tell us a little about the focus of your blog.
My blog is specific to nature at the Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin. This includes the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge and the Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area. My blog focuses on wildlife and plants along with talking about photography. My main goal is to share the beauty, creativity, and artistry found in nature.
How did you get started in photography?
I have been interested in photography since I was in high school. I set up shots around the house and took pictures in the yard. Later, two of my favorite subjects were (and still are) my niece and nephew.
You’ve won some awards. What does it take to get to that level?
It takes practice and study. I have taken thousands of poor photos. That part is necessary to arrive at an exceptional photo. I have also taken online classes and done a lot of reading. That has been helpful in learning the technical aspects of photography that can improve a photo. I am still learning and I share mistakes with my readers so they can learn with me.
The blog is something new you added in 2016. How is that going?
The blog is going well. I want to do at least one post per week. This motivates me to get out and shoot regularly. The blog is a wonderful outlet for me to work on my photography and writing skills. I have new readers checking it out every week.
How often do you write?
I write for the blog at least once a week. I also write in a journal occasionally. My focus is on the blog rather than writing magazine articles now. I enjoy the creative freedom that writing for a blog provides. When you write for magazines, you have to follow their writer’s guidelines. You may also receive more rejection letters than acceptance letters. That becomes discouraging. When you write for a blog, you may receive immediate feedback and, in my experience, it has been encouraging. Bloggers are often good cheerleaders for each other.
What have you learned on your blogging journey?
Prior to starting the blog, I took the class “Creating WordPress Websites” through Moraine Park Technical College. It is a 6 week online class. I learned everything I needed to know to get a website up and running. Knowledgeable instructors answered all of my questions. I highly recommend it.
Any big plans for 2017?
I plan to take the class “Writing Effective Web Content” (www.ed2go.com/mptc) to help me to develop my writing skills. I also plan to watch a photography DVD series I purchased a while back to improve my photography skills.
Tell us a little bit about your creative process.
My blog is photography driven. I will go for a drive or hike at the Horicon Marsh and whatever happens to be there that day can become the subject for my blog. I develop the written content from the photos. I try to include interesting, educational content as well as personal insights. At times, I will decide to look for something specific, like macro shots. I may also talk about the process of taking the photo if I think it is helpful for my readers.
What advice do you have for beginning bloggers or photographers?
I recommend taking classes, reading, and talking to other bloggers and photographers. You can avoid a lot of mistakes by learning what has worked for others.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Don’t be afraid to jump in and start your own blog. It is a great opportunity to learn and to meet others who share the same interests.
Thank you, Lisa!
For our other posts in the entrepreneur interview series:
Amazon best selling author Lawrence Colby, write of The Devil Dragon Pilot: Part 1 and Part 2. Colby has finished his draft of his second book, The Black Scorpion Pilot. Stay tuned for another interview with him after the book is available on Amazon.
This is our interview with our fourth entrepreneur in our interview series, Haleigh Heard, owner of S’Cute Petite bakery.
Tell us a little bit about your company.
I am a home bakery which specializes in cupcakes.
What else do you make?
You make other things besides cupcakes.
You made a cake.
I made a cake for a birthday party.
You made a cake for us, too.
Yes, I did. I don’t normally do cakes.
What is your biggest seller?
My biggest seller is my chocolate chip cupcake with butter cream or cream cheese frosting.
Is that the triple chocolate one or is that a different one?
It’s a new one. I’ve improved on it. It’s pretty good, you should try it sometime.
I should. Valentines Day is coming up. Can I place an order?
Sure. If you buy twelve, you get one free.
I’ll buy twelve then. Can you make twelve for us?
Sure, no problem.
How did you get started in baking?
I think I found my passion for baking about 4 years ago. Every Saturday afternoon I would go on Pinterest and I’d find something to bake. I’d bake it and bring it to Sunday School. I’d give it to the people in Sunday school class and say “try this.”
That was probably a ready audience.
I’d say “Did you like it? Did you not like it? What can improve? Is it good?”
Tell us a little bit about your creative process.
My creative process is pretty much I go on Pinterest a lot. I look at things. That’s how I got my chocolate chip cupcake. I forgot a couple ingredients in the recipe, and I decided to throw a handful of chocolate chips in it. It was probably the best chocolate chip cupcake and everyone was talking about it.
What are some of your entrepreneur lessons learned so far?
I’d have to say, you can never ask too many questions. I’ve asked my Dad a million questions like how should I sell my cupcakes? How to price them? My delivery system? How I should deliver? And then I think, just have fun with your business. You started it for a reason. It’s not a chore you have to do. I think that’s what I thought in the beginning was I had to have the perfect cupcake when I deliver it. It has to be perfect, and when it’s not I had a meltdown. I threw the cupcake away and I started again. That’s just the way my mindset was, that it had to be perfect. Now I’m having fun with my business. I’m getting more opportunities to promote myself.
Just have fun.
Or else, why do it?
Why do it? You have fun, right?
Absolutely. My time in the wood shop is a lot of fun.
Really, have you ever stabbed a finger? Did you ever miss?
I stabbed myself with the jigsaw the other day. It wasn’t too bad. I rinsed it off, slapped a bandaid on it and kept going.
Shake it off, right?
What advice do you have for beginning entrepreneurs?
Have fun. You started your business for a reason. Don’t make it a chore.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I am planning on doing coupons and gift certificates, for things like Valentines Day, Mothers Day, and Fathers Day.
That will be a big seller, I think. Try it. If it doesn’t work, move on to something else. Where can we learn more about your company?
You can can go on Facebook and type in “S’Cute Petite” (click here to go to Haleigh’s business Facebook page). I’m trying to figure out more options.
Are you going to have a website besides Facebook or is Facebook going to be the primary?
Facebook is going to be the primary because you can go straight to Facebook Messenger and let me know what you’d like.
Thank you for your time, Haleigh. We love the cupcakes. Readers, go to Haleigh’s FB page and order some!
For our other posts in the entrepreneur interview series:
Amazon best selling author Lawrence Colby, write of The Devil Dragon Pilot: Part 1 and Part 2
This is Part Four, the last portion of our interview with Mo Johnson, the owner of Better Display Cases. For Part One click here, Part Two, click here, and Part Three click here.
I want to be respectful of your time, I know you’re busy. Last question. Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
One thing I want to say is vets have a big leg up. I don’t know if people understand that. There is a lot to being successful on Amazon and on the Internet. Of course, you need to have a good product. The most important thing of all is your reviews by customers. So that’s super duper important. So generally speaking, people want to help out a vet. That’s what I put on every product we sell, which has a little slip of paper in there explaining who we are. The business was started by a vet. We get a lot of good feedback. You’ve probably seen those things. We just get a lot of good feedback. We have a good product, and we have outstanding customer service. I believe that vet thing really is the difference. The key thing that has put me over the hump. It’s the difference maybe between 90% positive and 99% positive. That difference is everything.
Who doesn’t want to support a vet?
Yeah, all things being equal. On Amazon, the difference between ranking #1 and #10 is everything. #1 gets 90% of the sales, and #10 gets no sales. #2 maybe gets, 10% of the sales. That vet thing is huge and I don’t know if vets really understand that. I just point that out. Especially if you’re competing in a big way. I’m sure people like to help vets locally, too, but I’m not sure there are a lot of vets that sell locally. It’s a good thing. I just stumbled on this, I didn’t know. I’m competing against big sellers all across the country and when the buyer looks at two things all they know about it is “vet” or “no vet.” It’s a really big advantage I think. A lot of people comment on that and say “thank you for your service” so I know it’s a pretty big deal. I know it’s not much of a difference between the good sellers and the outstanding ones, as far as the metrics go. It’s not just Amazon, it’s eBay, it’s Walmart, Etsy, all these places we’re on now. That’s been a really important factor.
If you have more thoughts, send them my way. This is probably going to be a two or three parter, which is good. Thanks!
Mo Johnson sent the following thoughts via E-mail after the live interview:
Hey Jerry, thanks for the interview. Love the blog you are doing — great idea. One thing we didn’t talk about is how we came up with the motto: “display your story”. That happened after I was floored by customers contacting me, sharing very personal stories about how much our cases meant to them. Usually it involved an item that they were displaying that had belonged to a loved one who had passed away. I mean people have called me, literally crying and telling me they wanted me to know that our cases were much more than just a display case. That all really surprised me and changed the way I thought about the business. We weren’t just in the business of creating, manufacturing and selling a product. Rather, it is more about the item the customer is displaying. More about their story. Displaying their story. That’s really what it’s about. We are helping people to display (and thereby tell) their life stories, the things most important to them.
OK, so that’s one thing I wanted to mention. Also, one point of that is that once you start down the entrepreneurship road, you really don’t know where it will lead. So, that’s both scary and exciting.
Another thing, related to that, is I think you and I spent a good amount of time with me dwelling on the negatives of entrepreneurship — the long hours and stress of it. And the impact of that. That’s definitely true and important to understand. I was tired yesterday so thinking more about that side of things 🙂
On the other hand, it is also very rewarding to know that you are building something from nothing to what it has become. The impact that it has on so many people. It may sound corny but in its own way, Better Display Cases has changed the world — for the better. Many display cases we design, make and sell are new and different and never been seen before. Most were things customers asked for. They are being used to display people’s stories that maybe would never have been told otherwise.
That’s what I was getting at when I mentioned before that I work all the time. That’s true. The business is on my mind pretty much all the time (unless something more urgent replaces it) — but my mind is always wandering to what we can do better and solving problems. And, I have piles of notes and calendars and audios — all with notes of ideas I’ve had that I wrote down or recorded and need the time to go over again and implement. I also have a never-ending flow of emails and online blogs, audios, articles, etc — all with ideas, tools, etc that can improve the business in one way or the other.
Right now I’m initiating a huge change that hopefully will put all our selling channels on one place where we can change all listings from one central locations if we want to make changes and also keep track of inventory — and also do shipping. Part of that is negotiating a better deal with FedEx — anyway, all that is a long story, but just a small example of the kind of things I’m always working on. Many things you try don’t work. So, it’s not a straight line. Which is part of why the process of innovating and getting better is never ending. Each one of those things involves not only the technology but the people and the partners and all the issues that go with all that.
Then, as a small business owner I’m also building manager (yesterday just before you got there, a pipe burst that I was dealing with). I’m chief technology officer (anything breaks, my problem). Chief tax officer (have a part time accountant, but I still have to gather all the info for her which is the most time consuming part). Custodian (thinking of hiring a cleaning crew, not sure if worth the money). Head of HR. On and on. There’s no substitute for the owner. Only the owner cares like an owner.
Theres nothing as hard, or rewarding, as starting and building a small business. So, there is not enough time in the day to do all I would like to do. Which is why, there’s never a spare moment because I always have good stuff I could be doing. That’s the working all the time piece.
But, importantly, I don’t think of it as work at all. It’s just me. It’s who I am and what I do — as much as I can. There’s almost no where I’d rather be than in my office, “working”. So, I both work all the time and not at all — if that makes sense. It’s very cool to wake up every day and know that your time will be spent building something of your own — rather than something that belongs to someone else.
Another thing — I mentioned how being a vet is a big advantage for me. The other thing that has really helped is that I have little competition. The reason for that is that my business is a terrible business in many ways. When I started, I mentioned those groups I was part of that were looking at importing from China. I mentioned my idea to them. Unanimously — everyone said it was the stupidiest idea they’d ever heard. “Of all the things you could import from China, why pick something so large, expensive to ship, and so likely to be damaged in shipment — nightmare.”
I replied: “yes I agree, show me something else I can import that has the same profit margin”
So, I gave it a shot (by the way the profit margin has turned out not to be as great as I thought when I started, but still, fortunately, it’s good) .
Really that is a common thread in the business. Most of the important things I’ve done that have proven to be really successful were things I was told not to do.
1. go into the acrylic display case business 2. sell them on Amazon 3. make cases without mirrors 4. make cases with silver risers (in China they told me “no body like silver; everybody want gold” — this is what I began to tell you at one point yesterday — if one of my competitors wanted to do something like sell with silver risers — first they’d have to convince their supplier to go to the manufacturer and then the manufacturer would have to agree to make them. Plus, the big supplier in the U.S. is HUGE and orders millions of cases many months in advance. So, probably won’t even listen to a small seller. We are small, nimble, responsive, willing to take risk. We cut out the middle man and design/manufacture ourselves and sell direct to the customer.. Anyway, China was wrong. Lots of people want silver risers. 5. make cases with black risers (see 4 above)
So for me, it’s truly been the road less traveled that made all the difference. Well, that should about cover it I think. Again, thanks for the interview. Talk to you later
Sorry, one more thing, then I’m done.
I didn’t talk much about all the customization work we do. I’d say about half the cases we ship require some major customization — changing riser color or mirror or turf, etc. You probably had the impression we just ship what we receive from China. But, because we have soooo many options, it doesn’t usually work out that way. Which is a huuuge challenge.
Many thanks to Mo for not only his time during the original interview, but also taking the time to document and send his thoughts after the interview. I don’t know about you, but I learned a lot listening to his story of success!
This is the Part Three of our interview with Mo Johnson, the owner of Better Display Cases. For Part One click here. For Part Two click here.
So how was that transition going from the military to being an entrepreneur? Although, I suppose you always were one, weren’t you?
That’s why it’s hard. I never really decided to be one. I never finished that story of how I got into display cases. I always had the idea of being an entrepreneur. I applied for other (government) jobs and none of those panned out. In retrospect, I spent a lot of time applying for jobs. I guess it was a waste of time. So I was separately doing different tracks. I’m not crazy; it’s not like I said I’ll never work for the government. It wasn’t like that. It just happened. I had a website which might still be up called Zero Risk Internet Marketing, and I was going to help small businesses improve their internet marketing and get paid for that. My zero risk concept, which I still think is a good concept, but it didn’t work for me…that’s what I was saying, things that work you invest more, and if they don’t you’ve got to quit. My concept with that is that I would work for free for people, but we would split the profits of whatever sales I was able to increase. Obviously there is a real problem with tracking that. How do you know what your impact was on a sales increase? I never really solved that problem. I worked for a couple people and helped them out, but they never paid.
I can see that would be a problem.
It was, what do you call it, a non-profit situation. So I was helping a lady, she was doing a website to help vets start businesses which is kind of, what’s the word?
Ironic? (both laughing)
That was me (a veteran), but she didn’t want to pay me. So I stopped that project. If you went to that website it looked pretty good and I never made a penny out of all that effort. I had a few months there where I still had government pay. At that point I decided I’d be a realtor. Not a bad idea. Maybe that would have worked out well. I have a website called PWCVA.com which I used to put a lot more effort into. It’s all local in Prince William County. So my idea was I would use that to market and be known. I would focus on representing military buyers, which is a great, great market if you can get ’em, because they are easy: they have guaranteed income. They can get the loans.
You can link up with USAA and their transition program.
They move a lot, so it’s high churn. All that sounded really good. I’ve always really liked real estate. I loved visiting houses and seeing what they’re like. I love that, actually. It was kind of fun for me. So that was what I was going to do. And I was beginning the process of studying for the real estate exam. One day, I don’t know why, for some reason, I searched Google for NFL Fatheads. I used to rank high for that search term with SECSportsfan. I think I was just curious. At that point I had given up on the idea of making money on the Internet. That’s impossible. And up popped somebody’s store on eBay. Like #2 or #3 in Google. I was like wow, that person’s doing pretty good. They’re getting a lot of good searches. Wonder how they’re doing it. So I went to their store. I wouldn’t have ever pursued anything except I would have figured well, somebody just got lucky. Maybe they put a lot of money into it. Maybe they know somebody. Maybe the New York Times wrote an article about them and that’s why they’re ranked. Who knows. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, except the guy who owned that page, I knew. He used to be a partner of mine. So I was like, if he can do it, I can do it. I know him. Right at that moment I had picked up the phone, and I called Fatheads. I said I want to sell Fatheads; how can I become a distributor? Luckily I got Lindsay Fraterolli. That’s the person I talked to. She signed me up, and she gave me a lot of tips along the way. I never would have made it without her. I started selling them on eBay, and it worked. I sold a lot of Fatheads that Christmas. That was December 2013. I had no job. I had nothing going for me. I did this thing with Fatheads. I was just amazed. I had tried so hard and gone through so much and it had just all just fallen apart really. They had a cash register. It used to go ka-ching, ka-ching. And I was just amazed. It was ka-ching, ka-ching. Ten, fifteen, as it got closer to Christmas is was twenty times a day. To me, that was amazing. I was making, I don’t know, ten or fifteen bucks on each one. You add that up it’s a few hundred dollars a day.
Not bad. Not bad.
The only limit was they had limits on the eBay account. They had limits on how much you could sell. I would hit that limit every day and kept calling them every day and ask for exceptions. They kept trying to make it better. Once that happened, it was working. That’s it. I was on to that. One thing leads to another. I started selling Fatheads on eBay. I started selling football helmets on eBay. I found a guy who was a distributor wholesale. All this stuff I wasn’t buying, I was just getting the sale and it was drop shipping. Fathead was shipping it. I was making the money. I was selling a good bit. Growing, growing, growing. Then in January, eBay called me out of the blue and said “Hey, we see you’re selling sports-related stuff, do you have any display cases?” I said “What are you talking about?” They told me “People put collectibles in display cases, and we have a lot of demand for them and not a lot of supply so can you help us out?” I said ” I don’t have any, but I’ll look into it.” I looked around a lot. I tried to do the same thing I was doing with Fatheads and football helmets. I tried to find somebody I could buy them from and resell them. I just couldn’t really find anyone. I had a hard time with that. At the same time, I was looking for the next thing. I was in a lot of Facebook groups at the time. Somehow, I was involved in people talking about importing from China. That was big. It was just starting back then. The idea is you buy stuff in China, import it, resell it. I was already trying to figure out what I could do. It sounded like a good idea. Then I get this call from eBay out of the blue. I know there’s a good demand for it, and not much supply. It’s a pretty credible source if eBay is calling you.
Seems like a no-brainer.
I searched on Ali-Baba for display cases and lo and behold, and I didn’t know this, but China makes all the display cases in the world, for the most part. I got a couple samples from a couple different people. I ended up selecting a company to go with. That’s a whole story in and of itself. Part of the way that worked, I bought an ebook online from someone that had been an importer all their life. They wrote an ebook about it and they put in there if you buy my ebook I’ll help you out personally you can contact me with any questions. It’s pretty scary, the first time you’re sending somebody a $30,000, $40,000 check and you have to trust that it’s going to come. That’s a big deal. That’s why I’m saying, I was very fortunate. There are many places along the way where I was lucky. That’s why I wouldn’t tell someone to be an entrepreneur. I know where I’m at and it’s a good place, but it’s a risky place and could still fall apart. I know the stress and difficulty. That’s why I wouldn’t tell somebody to be an entrepreneur. You’ve got to be lucky. I chose one, but I wasn’t sure, there was something questionable about the payment they were asking for. I had this guy with the ebook and he looked into them assured me they look credible and go with them. And it worked out. They’ve been great. They’re a great partner. They make a great product and stand behind it if there are problems. I just haven’t ever had any problem, and obviously that’s crucial. So that’s how I got into display cases. So I still sell those, those are my three products. The display cases are the growing part of the business, because I can control it the most. I design them myself. All the cases are things I made up. I didn’t just copy someone else’s. I got generally speaking, ideas, but I set the measurements; they’re mine. No one makes them exactly the way we do. Once we started going then it’s been the feedback from the customers and also my employees who’ve come up with a lot of great ideas. That’s what’s really propelled the company. First it was just the basic products, which by the way at first, I stored in my house and shipped then from my house. Then I got a storage facility, Dumfries Self Storage. At first I started with one storage facility, when the first container from China came, it’s not going to fit in there. Luckily, and again I keep saying this word, it just so happened, because usually that place is full. They had another storage place right next to the one that I had already got open. So I was able to that day to go down and get both of them, and I needed both of them and so we filled up both of those storage places. I worked out of there for about a year, I guess. No electricity, no heat, no lights. That was difficult, in retrospect. That’s why I always, when ever people complain here, I’m like…
This is ten times better.
You have no idea. They’ll say we’re not going to have space for the next shipment. Believe me, we have space.
We’ll figure it out.
The things I did, no employee would ever do. Everything had to be stuffed in there. I didn’t have enough space. I’m not stupid. I know what stuff sells the most. I’d put the stuff that sold the most in front. But still, every once in a while a customer would order something that was way in the back. So my choice was either to pull everything out, or I would take my shoes off and climb on my stomach like a snake and go all the way to the back. I would be sweating like a pig coming out of there. I just remember all that. That’s helpful when you are growing to look back where you were and give yourself a pat on the back and realize how far you’ve come. You have to enjoy the ride. Otherwise it’s no fun at all.
It seems like the business is doing really well. You have a couple employees I met on the tour, and then you talked about a vacancy, and there’s a lot of turnover. How do you deal with all of that? That’s one of the challenges, right?
Yeah, that’s one of our biggest challenges is keeping employees. I have two great employees now and we had two other great ones. They were missionaries and they were called by God into the mission field.
You can’t really argue with that.
I can’t compete with that. I lost them. We’re just trying to replace them. There was so much we could do when Wayne was here. He did a listing on Indeed, I think it was. It was a great listing. Better than I ever could have done. I wouldn’t have thought of how to present the job in such a positive light as he did. We got flooded with applications. I was shocked. I always thought we would have a really hard time finding anyone. We got hundreds of applications. That was a lot of time to wade through that and talk to people. We went through that whole process. We picked somebody. He didn’t work out. I had to fire him, actually. We went to the next guy. It took awhile to figure out that he wasn’t going to work out. Then I got rid of him. Then we brought in our second choice guy, he was still available. He was great. Then his family moved to Arizona. The other people have not been so good (laughing). They just didn’t like the job, I guess.
You said some people don’t want to work. Which is kind of surprising.
Some people don’t. Everyone has a different story. Hopefully I’ll find somebody good. That is the biggest challenge by far. Honestly, there a lot of options. That’s one of the nice things about having a business: you have a lot of options. We could ship more to Amazon. We could change things so that we ship everything just to Amazon and we have Amazon fulfill our individual orders. They already do a lot of that if you have Amazon Prime and we have the products there, they come from Amazon. Right now, we’re so far behind. We got wiped out over Christmas. Everything got sold. What happens then is we have the listings both ways, you can buy them Amazon fulfilled if they have them, or we ship them. Right now we have nothing there in stock which means everyone is buying direct from us. With one guy, basically, and me helping, we’re doing all we can just to fulfill the individual orders. We need somebody to work full time on shipping to Amazon so we can get caught up. If we ever did get caught up, and we got everything in to Amazon then we could change things and have Amazon do everything and fulfill individual orders. But that costs a good bit. I would rather hire someone and do it from here. It would be more cost effective. We already have a warehouse, the facility. A lot of people don’t. Some people do this stuff in their home office sitting in their underwear, they have nothing. Some people, believe it or not, buy stuff from China they ship it direct to the Amazon warehouse and all they’re doing is sitting on the computer passing money around and telling Amazon what to do. Our product requires a lot more attention, I think. That would be hard for me to imagine.
Maybe one of our readers is looking for a job and they can contact you.
I’m trying to transition everything to Made in the USA and I hope to be able to do that this year. I’ve been working with a guy in North Carolina for a while and gradually having him make more and more of the cases. I’d love to be 100% “Made in the USA” by the end of 2017.
Stay tuned for Part Four, the last section of our interview with Mo…
This is Part Two of our interview with Mo Johnson, the owner of Better Display Cases. In this part of the interview Mo gives indispensable wisdom for anyone launching a business. For Part One click here.
I got a few interviews on some websites that were kind of biggish. I never made it to ESPN, but I was making a name for myself. But then along the way Google changed the rules and it became much more difficult for an independent website to rank for those kind of search terms. I don’t blame Google. When I started, a lot of people didn’t think the Internet was a big deal, so it was easy to compete if you just knew a little bit you could rank very high. So I just learned a little bit, in retrospect, and I probably thought I was a genius. It was just a few simple things I was doing. First of all you have to search for a keyword that is profitable, and you know, by the way all this stuff applies today to what I’m doing now so it’s worth talking about. So the first thing you want to do is find search terms that a lot of people are looking for, but there is relatively little competition so you can do well. You also want them to be profitable so product stuff is really good. Where were we?
How you got started with the idea for the business.
Google sort of changed the rules so for product search terms. I wasn’t really adding a whole lot of value for the most part. The only thing you had to do to rank high back then was find the keyword, put it in the title, put it in the first paragraph, put it in the last paragraph, maybe in the middle, put it in the meta tag which is a simple thing. I was using a particular website builder. You are telling Google what the keyword is that you are focusing on. You need to put that in the description and also the meta title. It was good to have an image or two that again use that keyword you have all this stuff going on in the page that tell Google this page is about this keyword. At that time, that was all you had to do. It didn’t really matter if it was a quality page or not because nobody else was doing this, so you could easily rank at the top. But Google got a lot smarter and they look at a lot more factors. The truth of the matter is, for the customer honestly it’s probably better for them if they are looking for Alabama Crimson Tide football to go directly to Amazon or directly to the eBay listing rather than going through my page which honestly didn’t really add a whole lot of value, you now what I’m saying? I understand why Google did it. But whatever, it happened. All I’m saying is my traffic went from way high to just nothing, or almost nothing. So that went away. So I struggled a bit to try to make it work. Eventually I pretty much gave up. I still have that website. I still have SECSportfan. It still makes money, but not enough for me to spend much time on, unfortunately. So that is kind of a downside of what Google did, because there were probably more quality sites back then, because there was more reward for it, in my opinion. You need to be a big company that can invest a lot of resources to make it a high quality website for there to be any return on your investment.
So how did you transition to display cases?
So eventually I kind of dropped that idea and around and about that time I had to come up with something different. I was retiring. By the way, I applied for government jobs, and I would have been very happy to receive a government job. If I had, that’s probably what I would be doing. I would be driving up to DC and sitting in a cubicle and doing the government thing and that would be okay. Might be better.
It doesn’t sound like you’d be very passionate about it, though.
No, I wouldn’t be passionate at all. That’s what you give up. Now that I’ve been on the other side, that’s not a bad deal. I mean, being an entrepreneur in my experience has been very hard. Very hard. I can’t overemphasize that. And very risky. And I’ve been very lucky, very blessed, but there is no guarantee. A lot of things that could happen that my business is ruined. Every day you have to worry about that as an entrepreneur if you own a business. If somebody wants to hand me a government job at $100,000 guaranteed money, not much stress, not even much work, I’d want to talk about it you know what I mean (laughing), for the good of my family. You have to understand, I have a lot of…
You have a big facility here, over 5,000 square feet you were telling me when you took me on the tour, and something could happen. You could have a fire, act of God, who knows. There’s some risk.
The more concern is my selling channels like Amazon. Right now I have a fantastic relationship with Amazon, better than ever. Amazon has improved things, I think, so that they are not as arbitrary. If you were to search on the Internet something about, I don’t know, “seller stories with Amazon”. There are all kinds of horror stories. I have a friend who lost his account on Amazon, mostly because of things that were not his fault. It’s not right. That’s scary. Amazon has just recently done some things. I was afraid, see this is what I was getting at with the stress thing. He lost his account in November, early November, I was afraid I might. We had some of the same issues. It wasn’t real clear even what the issues were. We still don’t even know why he lost his account. He just lost it. Part of it probably was some things he was doing that I’m not doing. He was selling MLB licensed products, and I guess he shouldn’t have been. He bought the MLB licensed products, but Football Fanatics which is now called Fanatics apparently has purchased the rights to all MLB licensed products and they told Amazon all these people shouldn’t be selling. Now there are all these lawsuits because this doesn’t seem right. All these people bought legitimate products that they were selling so it doesn’t seem right that they can be told retroactively told sorry you no longer have a right. There are some legitimate issues there. It’s all being fought out in court. In the meantime, though, my friend lost his Amazon account. Now he had some other things going on, I think. My only point about this whole thing is it’s uncertain, and it’s stressful. That’s kind of what I was getting at there.
Luckily, on the way, I was also worried about some shipping issues at the time. I was getting all these red flags on my account. Your shipping is late. That’s a whole another issue about Fatheads shipping that I rely on and that’s another problem. That’s another reason that I would just assume get away from Fatheads because I have to rely on their shipping when its late it reflects on me, and again, I could lose my Amazon account. Turns out there were some issues Amazon was not tracking things correctly so really it was more Amazon’s fault.
A couple weeks later, while I was in the middle of this stressful situation, I got an E-mail from them saying “congratulations, you’ve been selected as one of our top sellers, and you are now in a special program”. I was assigned to a special account and given a somebody who would help me with any problems that I had. I did have some problems at that time. See I told you with this interview, I could talk all day.
It might be a two parter here. We’ll see.
Direct me another way. I don’t know. Anyway, we were talking about #1 product, right?
Tell me about the #1 product.
So my #1 product was banned from Amazon.
Banned from Amazon.
Banned from Amazon. Gone. Deleted. The reason for that it had MLB in the title. It said MLB. It’s not. It has nothing to do with MLB. There’s no logo on there. It was just to help the customer understand that if they had an MLB baseball bat it would fit on the display. It had MLB, something else, something else, all these key words. Totally stupid. But Amazon, they are this big huge company they send a notice “get rid of MLB”. Zoom. Hundreds of thousands of listings with MLB in them are gone. So I went from selling 20 of those per day (pointing to baseball bat display on wall), #1 product, very profitable, to nothing. And I had hundreds of them because we were getting ready for Christmas. So I had sent hundreds of them to Amazon. They were sitting in the Amazon warehouse and I’m paying storage fees every day. What am I going do? I’m losing money. But maybe they’re going to reactive it. They tell you to go get permission from the MLB to sell it. I went to MLB. Of course it takes weeks, and eventually they did send me a reply “Oh, we’re very sorry for this problem. We never complained about your listing. I don’t know why Amazon did this. Please let them know we have no problem with your product.” Of course, that took about 3 weeks before I got that E-mail back. By then I had already fixed the problem because of my new guy who was assigned to me and he was able to sort of intercede because he works for Amazon. It took him about 10 days to talk to different people and whatever he had to do to get that reactivated. So we just got rid of the term MLB. So that’s back up. Then, and not just that one, we had about ten products like that. A lot of baseball stuff. All our baseball stuff had MLB in it so were all thrown off Amazon then it was all reinstated. But when that happens you’ve lost sales history, now, so the product loses it ranking. You know, there are a lot of factors that Amazon uses to rank products but the most important one is sales velocity. So if you’ve lost your sales, you’ve gonna lose your…
You start all over again.
So we were down at the bottom of the page. And so I had to do a lot of things. But now it’s back stronger than ever and hopefully we won’t have any more problems. All this relates to a whole bunch of things, including the stress on an entrepreneur who is the owner who is responsible at the end of the day. If you’re an employee and the business goes bankrupt you just go find another job. It’s not such a big deal. One of your questions was would you advise someone to be an entrepreneur. No. No. If you can get a good job that isn’t stressful. Now, there are a lot of rewards from being an entrepreneur so I also wouldn’t say don’t be an entrepreneur. And really I can only answer that question ultimately probably on my deathbed looking back and we’ll see. I don’t know. If I become a millionaire because of it, then yeah, it was great. For every millionaire I’m sure a hundred people fail.
We will continue this interview in Part Three. Stay tuned for another post…
This interview is part of a series of interviews with fellow entrepreneurs. Our first was with a best-selling author. In this interview, photographer Richard Weldon Davis shares some of his methods and secrets to success. Read on!
How did you get started in photography?
I was on vacation with my wife celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary about 6 years ago. We hired a photographer to take pictures of our vow renewal ceremony. I started asking the photographer about the camera as I had become intrigued with the idea of buying a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera (think digital version of a 35mm camera). I bought one when we got home and I started taking pictures using the automatic mode, allowing the camera to make all the decisions for me. For the most part I was disappointed in the shots. They just weren’t coming out the way I envisioned them. This went on for a couple years and I didn’t use the camera much.
During a visit to some old friends, both of whom are excellent photographers, I asked for help. They both worked with me to show me how to take pictures in manual mode and select the Shutter Speed, ISO (think film speed) and Aperture myself. They patiently explained what selections to make for which shots I wanted. They also showed me the basics of photo editing in Lightroom, a program from Adobe related to Photoshop.
With this new information in hand I began to experiment with the 3 sides of the exposure triangle (Shutter Speed, ISO and Aperture) to get different shots. I’m still learning every day, but now I make the camera do what I want instead of allowing the camera to decide. In order to understand the exposure triangle, think of the camera as a room (that’s actually what the word means in Latin!) and the lens is a window. To illuminate the room, you open the window. How long the window is open is the Shutter Speed, how big the window is is the Aperture and how much light you have is the ISO (sensitivity to light). So for an action shot of kids on the soccer field, you want a very quick Shutter Speed to freeze the action. For a night photo of stars, you want a long shutter speed to gather more of the starlight for your shot.
I was lucky enough to go on one of your shoots as your “assistant” and it was impressive to watch how much effort you put into getting just the right shot. Tell us a little bit about your creative process.
I really enjoy landscape photography. You and I were in San Francisco for work and I really wanted a nice shot of the Golden Gate Bridge while we were there. In general, the best times of day to shoot outdoors is the period of twilight early in the morning at dawn or late dusk when the sunlight takes on a blue hue. That’s why I dragged you to Baker’s Beach an hour or so before sunset. I was hoping for a nice blue effect right after sunset. It turned out pretty nice and I appreciate you humoring me hanging on the beach dodging a random nudist.
I’m also a big fan of night photography. I love the way different lights are captured by the camera; from the starburst effect of streetlights during a long exposure to the streaks of red and white lights from cars driving by to capturing the stars that outline the Milky Way galaxy, I really enjoy longer exposures (can’t get that shot in light polluted DC!).
No matter your shot, the key to photography is understanding and harnessing the light, whether it is sunlight, a flash, or starlight travelling for thousands of years to light your scene.
I’ve begun to dabble with portrait photography and that is fun as well. Again it comes down to light.
What lessons learned do you have for other budding entrepreneurs?
I’m not much of an entrepreneur yet, but for those exploring photography with a DSLR camera, the equipment is secondary, you need to shoot in manual and learn how to make the exposure triangle work for you. It helps to look at photographs online where the artist has listed Shutter Speed, ISO and Aperture so you can dissect their shot and figure out how they did it. You can also find great resources online to better understand your camera and its functions. Don’t be discouraged if your shots don’t look as good as those you find online, just keep shooting. Figure out what kind of photography you like and how to differentiate yourself from other photographers.
Also, what’s a good link where we can buy your prints?
Thank you for doing a follow up interview and congratulations on achieving Amazon Best Seller status! Your book, The Devil Dragon Pilot, is now #1 in its category (Aviation) on Amazon. That didn’t take very long, so your book must be very popular. There was a lot of interest in the first interview and we received several follow up questions. Here are some of the questions from our readers.
“I would enjoy hearing more about his writing process. How did he keep motivated to get up at 4:00 am.?”
Getting up that early is relatively easy for me. I had a job at the Pentagon a few years ago where I had to be at work no later than 6 AM. I also had to read four or five newspapers every morning, scan all the news websites, and then be ready to intelligently discuss the world events with a senior Defense Department official. With no emails to answer, no one asking questions, I can crank out a lot in an hour or so in the morning. I also fit in marathon training, and just completed my eighth race. You’d be surprised what you can do.
“Did he ever deal with writer’s block?”
Running helps me think through storylines. Sometimes I will use Dragon dictation, an app for my phone, and talk into it while I am driving. Plus, driving through Washington DC enables me to see the real world buildings, which link to the storylines. For example, I’ve visited Georgetown University this weekend, and now that’s in the next book titled “The Black Scorpion”. I find if I change the scenery, I don’t get writers block.
“How did he come up with his story?”
The idea was brewing around in my head for a while because I couldn’t find anything that focused on someone in the Air Force Reserve. No movies, no books. Therefore, I created Ford Stevens, our hero pilot from Air Force Reserve.
“Has he always had an interest in writing?”
Yes, I have written and published a few military related articles in different professional military publications. This was my first attempt at a novel. I am an avid reader, reading both fiction and nonfiction, and always have been since a kid. Now on to novel number two!
(Jerry) I’ve got a few questions of my own. What advice do you have for beginning entrepreneurs?
I like to try different things that perhaps people have not seen or done before. Sometimes I will connect a service or product from one industry, and connect it with another. I will see things in different countries across the world, and wonder if it would be a good idea in the United States.
The creative thinking aspect and entrepreneurial spirit really thrills me. For example, I started my company Mach278 when I came up with an idea for colored surgical sponges. The sponges, if ever manufactured, would help solve the severe problem in medicine of preventing retained surgical items. The concept of colored surgical sponges is a cross between patient safety and aviation safety.
What is next as far as events for marketing the first book?
I’ve done a variety of print and web interviews, podcasts, and have had plenty of friends utilize social media. I also have an upcoming book signing at the Marine Corps exchange, Henderson Hall, Washington DC, on Dec 17th. There is also plan in the works to do book signings at Barnes and Noble stores in Northern Virginia.
Can you tell us anything about the second book and when it might be released?
Book 2 is titled “The Black Scorpion” and will feature many of the same characters from the book one. Ford Stevens, Emily Livingston, Mark Savona, and the rest of the crew will be back. It will be a story of human endurance and survival, related to aviation. Super exciting. It will be out summer 2017.
With all of your readers help, I am now ranked #1 on Amazon in Aviation.
Thank you for your time, Jerry. I appreciate your support very much.
Colby’s story is an amazing example of grit as we’ve written about previously. Can you imagine? His book was just released around Veterans Day and is already at or near the top in several categories on Amazon. If he can do it, imagine what you can do?
If you’d like to check out the latest and greatest for Devil Dragon marketing events in your area, click on Colby’s blog here.
So this is your first book and it’s now up on Amazon. First of all, congratulations. It must have taken a lot of time and effort.
I am honored to be on your site, Jerry. Thank you for asking me. And thank you for your kind words on my book, the “The Devil Dragon Pilot”.
The time and effort required was a lot if you look at it from a big picture point of view. I wake up pretty early every day, no later than 4 AM, and wrote about one or two pages every morning for a year. Some days would be editing, while other days were content related. I never had enough time!
How does it make you feel to finish your first book?
A great feeling! It makes me think of a few small grains of sand that don’t pile up to much, but a lot of grains of sand make an entire beach. Just a few pages a week turned into a pretty large book a year later.
What were some of the entrepreneurial lessons learned?
For most tasks I have attempted to conquer, someone before me has accomplished it already. There are books and websites devoted to nearly any subject. Doing the proper due diligence and research is a must, and writing a book for Amazon is no different. My lesson learned is to continue to go out and find experts, and learn from both their mistakes and wins.
I also realized that it was virtually impossible to do alone, like many things in life. I had great friends that were able to help me with content, editing, layout, and character development. These are crucial to getting a book across the goal line.
Any insights you can share on your next book?
Book 2 is titled “The Black Scorpion Pilot” and we will fly again with our main character, Air Force Reserve Captain Ford Stevens. It will be another thrilling adventure in aviation, espionage, and human endurance and survival. I am about one third complete, and excited to finish in the coming months.
Where can we learn more about The Devil Dragon Pilot and your upcoming books?