I love collaborating with fellow entrepreneurs like Tim. Not only do they inspire, but there are always some golden nuggets of wisdom in their entrepreneurial journey. In Tim’s case we get two types of wisdom because in his side hustle he has created a website capturing stories of Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) and in his main job helps small companies succeed. Read on!
1) Thank you for your time and congratulations on launching FIRE Stories. Tell us a little about it.
Thank you! FIRE Stories (firestories.co) is a new project aimed at sharing the stories of people who’ve retired early or are well on their way.
Rather than focus on the tactical aspects of spending and investing, FIRE Stories is intended to be a single resource to read more about those who’ve retired early.
2) Where did you get the idea for this business?
This came from solving my own problem.
I had been following the FIRE Community for quite some time. While I find the more tactical advice very helpful, what I really enjoyed were the stories of those who’ve really embraced the concept of FIRE.
What are their mindsets, backgrounds, lifestyles, and philosophies? What were the challenges along the way? And how can I read these in one place?
However, it was time-consuming to find these people and quickly learn their stories and most of all, answer the questions I had for them.
So FIRE Stories has been born =)
3) Have you always been entrepreneurial?
Though I’ve been interested in my own side projects, I’ve been primarily focused on my career and other interests.
I currently work at Sumo.com. I help entrepreneurs and small business owners grow their their businesses. I really enjoyed the work and the team. I love our customers. Also, Sumo is a very fast moving company. So sometimes it feels entrepreneurial to even be here. We move fast.
4) What are some of the habits that have helped you become successful?
Frankly, any success I’ve had is not financial. firestories.co isn’t making any money. The ‘success’ I’ve had thus far is launching a project that (I think) creates great content and I’m excited to work on.
Here are some thing that have helped me:
1. Set milestones – Say, at the end of month you want to do X. Create three blog posts, get feedback on a project, get 1 sale, etc. Set your milestones and be very bullish on hitting these. Make sure they move you forward.
Then carve out the time & habit you need to hit these milestone. My first thought was to tell you to ‘ship something everyday’, but I think that’s wrong. It’s wrong because some days you’ll want to work 12 hours on a new thing. Other days you are sick and tired of it. So work when you have the energy. Rest when you don’t.
But with milestones, you know if you finish X, you’ll be moving forward. Then debrief on those milestones and how you can improve for next time. You’ll work smarter this way.
2. Generate Ideas – Keep thinking of new ideas. Make it a habit. Force yourself to do this every morning. Over time, you’ll begin to spot ideas more easily. It will be second nature. I think that’s why folks who start things tend to start multiple things. It takes time to get into this habit. But once you do, you’ll be spotting new ideas in things you see, what people say, etc.
3. Share! – Create, ship, and share often. If you are not sharing your thing, then nothing is happening. You are tinkering. It’s a hobby. Sharing gets you into the habit of creating new things, not being afraid of feedback and judgment, and will give you much faster feedback on the quality of your ideas and projects.
The business owners we work with at Sumo have given themselves permission to create. Over time, as you create, you will get through your fear by sharing more and more.
5) What advice do you have for beginning entrepreneurs?
I work with business owners everyday. They aren’t special unicorns. Here’s the biggest thing. And I hope your readers take this advice to heart.
If you’ve really not launched anything, started new projects, gotten that freelance gig – if your projects are at 0 – then your problem is shipping. Your problem is paralysis.
You need to get momentum. You need to practice creating and engaging with potential customers. I wrote a post on this here. I’ve made this mistake as well.
A great book is 7 Day Startup, by Dan Norris. Read this book. Then no more books. It’s great, because you get 7 days to create your idea, build the MVP, and ship it.
You need to take the fear out of engaging with people. Here’s a great way to start:
1. Answer quora questions
2. Join forums and niche communities and answer questions, like indiehackers.com
3. Write a blog post. Practicing creating content. Try youtube, medium, etc.
You’ll find it’s not scary. People want to hear from you. Once you get over this hurdle, you need to start _selling_ your thing. Find your product and validate it as quickly as possible. Sell your shirt to 3 friends. Try to get 10 users through FB ads. I don’t know what tactic will work for you – just remember to go as barebones and simple as possible to validate your idea.
Regarding ideas: A challenge I had is ‘where do I get my idea!?’ Well, as I said above, keep thinking of ideas. Find products and businesses you like and figure out why they are working. Is there a way to improve it? Is there a different angle you can approach it that differentiates it from others?
For firestories.co – I noticed lots of niche interviewing sites. I read lots of FIRE content. I couldn’t find interviews. So I took the niche concept and applied it to this area.
6) Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Yes, my biggest epiphany is this: If it’s really easy, it’s likely not worth it. What is hard is rewarding – both in your personal growth and financially. The obstacles you face are the purpose. It should be hard – otherwise why is it worth even doing!?
On the other hand – have fun. Work hard. Welcome the challenges and push through them. But overall, enjoy what you’re doing and have fun. That’s the real value for entrepreneurship for me – you get to pick your job!
So if your project isn’t fun. If you’re say, writing lots of code, and you find you don’t like code, then change it. If you’re not sure what you like, set milestones for projects to help you figure that out.
To summarize – don’t quit when it gets tough. But don’t be miserable either. Enjoy the journey.
7) Where can we learn more about FIRE Stories?
Head over to firestories.co! I try to get 2 new interviews per week. Also, send me a direct message on twitter. I’d love to hear your feedback on the site, answer other questions, and see what you’re building!
Click these links to see our other posts in the entrepreneur interview series:
Amazon best selling author Lawrence Colby, writer of The Devil Dragon Pilot:
Many thanks to fellow entrepreneur Tim Pittman for the recent article about Traughber Design in FIRE Stories. Mrs Woodworker and I hope some of the wisdom we’ve gained in the past several years might be of use to you. If you have any questions, FIRE away in the comments section.
Congratulations on launching your first startup. Tell us a little bit about Impeesa.
Impeesa Coffee and Tea was a venture created by three other friends and myself. We are all Boy Scouts. The concept behind it was to create a market for a product that we enjoyed that we were passionate about and that had a purpose. That product being coffee and tea, two things that in the high velocity environment that we were raised in, this kind of area, coffee and tea for a lot of people are a relief and an energizer at the same time so that they cultivate a lot of productivity and efficiency. We are people that really like to get involved really heavily and really quickly. We decided to create a marketplace for something like that. The purpose we brought in, is related to the term Impeesa. Impeesa was how the Matabele in South Africa referred to Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of Boy Scouting. The translation was the “Wolf that Never Sleeps,” so you can probably see the coffee reference there. Being Boy Scouts we’ve all gone through National Youth Leadership Training which is a spectacular opportunity for young men to go in and really understand what leadership really is. We decided that with this marketplace we had created with something we really enjoyed, that we could also create more opportunities for youth to pursue that National Youth Leadership Training. So, we decided to really round off Impeesa as an opportunity to raise money for scholarships for National Youth Leadership Training. That was the main goal and why we started Impeesa. Something we enjoyed. Something we were passionate about that we could make a purpose out of.
You talked about creating a market. How did it go?
All in all, this was probably our most successful failure, is how we refer to it (both laughing).
I’m sure you learned a lot in the process.
Exactly, that’s what it is. We got to the point in our journey of the red and black line where we were finally coming out of the red and we decided to reinvest back into coffee. That’s when things kind of went downhill because that’s when the startup hype died down. That’s something that we had known was going to happen. We tried to account for it and we to market for it. We just didn’t do it overtly successfully. Everything we learned was so much more valuable than any penny or dime that we could have made. That’s what we enjoy the most looking back on it. We said from the beginning, if we don’t make a dime out of this we will probably have had a more valuable experience than most people our age do.
It was a heck of an education. It was almost a mini-MBA.
It’s a mini-MBA. We threw ourselves into it and we didn’t do great, obviously, which is why we’re putting it on hiatus so we can focus on going to college.
My hats off to you, because a lot of people talk about starting a business. You’ll probably hear that a lot in college, but very few will have done it, especially in high school.
Definitely, when we started initially talking about it, we weren’t just talking about it. In our heads, the minute we brought this up, we knew we had to do it, because everybody talks about this, but never does it. That was probably our main motivation, not only creating the opportunity for scholarships, but also just doing it. What’s the point in talking about it if you’re not going to do anything about it.
You talked about when you started getting into the black. I think a lot of people don’t understand how hard entrepreneurship is. There’s the hype in the beginning, but then it’s just hard work. Can you talk a little about that. If you continued it, what would you do differently or what would you continue to do?
It is so much work getting out of that initial investment. It was all personal investment. We all contributed about $200 in each, so that put us down about $800 total. Just getting up from that number was such a challenge. Just paying off that overhead. We rode that startup hype really, really well. If we weren’t full time students in high school we probably could have had the capacity to ride that startup hype right out of the red. Being high school students we didn’t really have the capacity to focus full time on getting a quality marketing plan. About January or February we started thinking about when our next step should be after the startup hype was over. That was our frame of thinking. We tried to anticipate what we were going to be as a brand and how we were going to market as a brand. We had a really solid plan. It just didn’t work. I think that’s the most important thing that we learned. You can plan for whatever you want, but it might not work. Your plan might not be the best even if it’s eight pages long and you have your headers and your bullet points. Your plan might not work and you have to be ready for that. That’s something that as full time students we couldn’t necessarily do. And definitely to anybody reading this don’t discourage yourself by your circumstances. Don’t think because you’re a full time student you can’t have the capacity to plan effectively. We thought that our plan that we had put all this thought into would work and it didn’t, necessarily. Things that we could have done differently…definitely just anticipating the credibility of people and utilizing a lot of those quality resources. Everybody is going to say that they will buy your product.
How many actually buy it?
Probably 20-30% of people actually buy the product. Everybody wants to be part of this cool new thing. Nobody wants to spend money, though. I started getting into a lot of Facebook groups where people were like “this is what you’re doing wrong, this is what you’re doing right.” People with experience not only running tea businesses, but tea snobs. The tea snobs were probably the best resource. Your black tea is definitely not worth this much. Don’t sell it for that much. You might sell more. There are quality resources, things like Facebook groups. Tea Mavens, I think, was one of them. You jump into one of those and suddenly you have this wealth of knowledge that you as a high schooler definitely could not have. When it comes to our industry, food and beverage, tea and coffee, those experts, those snobs, were definitely great resources because we know when we were wrong. They liked to point that kind of thing out. You can put all this thought into a marketing plan and try to get around that startup hype, but at the end of the day your best resources aren’t going to be that plan or the points of that plan, they are going to be the people who know what they are talking about. And they want to help you out because you’re a young kid and they want to show off their knowledge.
It’s a win win. Where did you get the first idea for the business?
The four co-founders were Josh Rigby, Keenan Murphy, Hart Lukens and myself. Josh and Keenan…and we tell this story to everyone because this is how it actually happened…they had just gotten out of a movie at Potomac Mills. They were in the bathroom and Josh yells from one stall to Keenan “Hey, if we started a business, what would we sell?” And at the same time they both say “coffee!” They are coffee addicts without a doubt. For fun they wrote up a quick operating agreement. Why not do this just for fun? So, I’m sitting in AP Literature one day with Josh and I see this operating agreement. I’m like “Dude, what’s this?” Because I recognized Impeesa from the name of the National Capital Area Council for NYLT camp. “Impeesa Coffee? This seems really cool” I text Keenan. I asked him if there was a way to invest in this. He said “no, it’s an LLC.” “But, if you want in, you can buy in.” I’m like “OK, why not?” If we’re going to talk about this, we need to do it. We actually looked at the numbers for coffee and realized how expensive coffee was going to be. Josh and I said we need the money for coffee. How are we going to make the money for coffee? So, Keenan shoots us both a text with a tea wholesaler that has like a 12,000% turnaround. You could buy this stuff for almost nothing and sell it for any amount that you want. He said this is how we are going to make money for coffee. A few days later Hart Lukens and I were talking, and he wanted in, too. You’re part of our solid group of friends, of course you’re in.
How many founders were there?
There were four total founders, including me: Josh Rigby, Hart Lukens, Keenan Murphy, and me. After we brought Hart on board is when we really got into the swing of things. We really decided to buckle down and make sure this happened. We felt cool. You feel cool starting a business. We had this down. After a swim banquet, we all had the operating agreement, these crazy 17 page long contracts with each other because it was an LLC partnership. We had them in our hands ready to go. That was December 14th when we officially filed all our paperwork that we needed. We had our EINs (IRS Employee Identification Numbers) and all that. So that’s the weird wonky journey that led up to that. We didn’t really have a plan in place. We just had the idea of “Yes, we are partners in business. We’re not entirely sure how that works yet.”
Let’s talk about FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America) a little bit. You were the President of FBLA. How did FBLA help you with the business, if at all?
It definitely did. What we were doing with coffee and tea…we’re sitting in Starbucks right now. People who want coffee don’t necessarily want coffee. They want Starbucks. They want Keurig. People want their tea from a particular place. Creating a market was kind of creating that market, creating demand for our product, was something that we really needed. Especially if we’re starting off with tea. So FBLA was more of a social experience than anything else. You’ve got a lot of skill building in there, but more than anything else when you walk into an FBLA conference you’re shaking hands, and you’re learning how to interact with people. That interaction with people who already have a heightened expectation of what is supposed to be going down was probably the best skill I learned in FBLA. Keenan was a member of FBLA, too. Josh was for a short spell. So learning how to interact with people and how to really sell yourself taught us how to sell our product. You definitely want some of this (product). This is something you want to be a part of. We’re a bunch of dumb young kids starting a business our product, come join us and tell everyone you love it. Definitely the social scene of FBLA helped teach Keenan and myself how to sell something in a setting that’s very fast-paced. And high school is especially fast-paced. If you want to sell something in a hallway, you don’t have much time: “we just started this business, check us out.” Sitting in a classroom you’ve got a five minute break between Powerpoints. I started a business, you should try it and check out our mission. I think in FBLA there were definitely skills that we learned when it came to business plans and marketing. The social scene behind FBLA helped us to sell ourselves.
What are some of the habits that you would say have helped you be successful?
Communication. A big theme at National Youth Leadership Training is communication. It’s kind of a running joke that NYLT is a camp for talking (laughs).
That’s a useful skill.
For sure. Communication is something that initially we were really great at. As we got further into running Impeesa, we started getting distant from each other and that’s when problems started arising. We started getting really stressed and upset with each other. That’s because we stopped communicating. Later in the game we started communicating again. That’s when we decided to chill for a bit. Let’s put Impeesa on hiatus. Communication was probably the best habit we had. Whenever there was a problem, immediately we were in a Google hangout. We were trying to plan a business meeting. We knew if we were all on the same page, we could do anything we wanted. Communication, definitely. And then we made it a habit to vote on everything. Nobody operated outside of the group. Every purchase, as annoying as it was, we had a poll in our Facebook group chat and voted “yea” or “nay.” If it’s “nay” then we deal with the consequences. Everything was a group effort. That’s what made us so successful was that we were all on the same page. Successful in our eyes as far as consistently learning and getting out of the red a little bit. Communication is everything in my opinion. That was our best habit. When we really started to get stressed with each other and not like each other so much it’s because we weren’t communicating. Communication, without a doubt, was our biggest strength.
What advice do you have for beginning entrepreneurs?
It depends if you are going into a parternship…always be on the same page. Expectations are everything. Going into management and having experience with management in my current job and Impeesa you learn that managing expectations is the only way to really accomplish a task. Because if everybody is not expecting the same thing, if somebody has a misunderstanding of what they are going to get out of this or what we are working towards, they are going to be operating in a completely different plane than us. Communicating with each other and being on the same page and respecting each other’s time and schedules. As high school students and Boy Scouts we all play sports. We all have jobs.
You guys are busy.
Super busy. It’s so hard to find time. There were times we just got frustrated with each other, and decided we cannot function like this. When you try to cut someone out of the picture it doesn’t work. We just stopped doing that. If you’re looking at a partnership, be a good person within your group. Respecting the fact that these other three guys who literally run our company just as much as I do are people, too. They have schedules. They have expectations. They have a way they want to operate, so let’s make sure we’re all operating the same way. Compromise. A lot of the time we didn’t need to compromise because we did communicate so well. But it really comes down to communication and expectations, I think.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Starting the business isn’t the hard part. So just do it, but be ready to fail. Be ready to be wrong because that’s the most important thing you’re going to do. Is fail and be wrong. That’s where you learn to be right.
And that’s OK. Failure is OK.
That’s the best thing. Succeeding is pretty great, too (laughing).
Where can we learn more about Impeesa?
You can visit our website which we’re kind of revamping for our hiatus so it’s information-based. www.impeesa.us is where you can learn a little more about us. Just bear with us as we reconfigure it so it carries more information.
This is the 10th installment in the series of our entrepreneur interviews (see links at the bottom for our other interviews). In this interview, we talked with successful inventor Deane Elliott who has already sold one business and was recently awarded another patent.
Thanks for your time and congratulations on getting your fifth patent. As we were talking about earlier, that’s quite an achievement. Not too many people get a patent in the first place. Tell us a little bit about your fifth patent.
So my fifth patent is hunting related. It’s called GutCheck and it’s an indicator for application to an arrow. Basically, to allow the hunter to determine if the arrow has been exposed to acid. More specifically, if the arrow has gone through the stomach portion of the deer.
How did you come up with that idea? That sounds pretty novel.
I was hunting with a friend of mine named Jeff. He had a super steep shot at a deer, maybe 8 yards away. He shot it and he thought that thing’s dead. The way that it ran around him he had no indication that it was not a fatal shot, but it ran quite a ways out of his sight. So we tracked and we were having a hard time finding a blood trail. Eventually we did find the deer and its stomach had been cut open by the broadhead. I thought there has got to be a way to tell if an arrow has passed through the stomach or through the entrails of a deer. Basically that got me thinking along the litmus paper lines…but chemistry is not my strong suit, so I went to a friend of mine who is a patent attorney whose brother is a PhD chemist. I proposed the concept to him. He identified the materials and found a way that we could prove the concept and make it work.
You’ve obviously been very successful in being awarded patents. What is the secret to getting a patent through the system?
I think the primary thing is having a search done. That’s what I do for a living. That’s been my main career for the past 30 years. A lot of people don’t know where to start, but I think the process starts with having a search done and having it done professionally. A lot of people go onto Google patents, or other sites and feel like they’ve done a comprehensive search. A searcher that does it for a living has a different way of doing a patent search. So having the search done professionally is really the foundation of getting a good patent, because then the patent attorney has what we call a prior art, the known prior that he has to weave around in order to craft the application so that he can file a good application.
How did you get started being an inventor? Would you call yourself an inventor?
(laughing) I think so. You know, the word entrepreneur is an interesting word. I think at some point when one crosses over from being an inventor to making money then they can legitimately call themselves an entrepreneur. I’m definitely an inventor. I’ve been reluctant to call myself an entrepreneur, but then my wife reminds me that I had a patent search business for a number of years that I was able to grow and sold it successfully so I think I can say I’m also an entrepreneur.
You’re definitely a successful entrepreneur if you were able to sell a business that was a going concern.
Right. Absolutely. Inventing with me starts like a lot of other people by identifying a need. My first two inventions were in the golf industry. I invented a system for confirming ball position relative to the golfer. That was a problem I struggled with and still struggle with today. I came up with the idea of painting lines in front of the golfer on the ground with lasers and then placing the ball at the intersection of the lines. The hunting ideas have been sort of the same thing. More or less have to do with identifying the problem then coming up with a fix.
Have you come up with an idea to make golfers hit the ball straight yet?
(both laughing) No.
Tell us a little about your creative process. You talked about how you invent to satisfy a need.
So the process is that I identify a need that affects me personally and then I start thinking how can I solve this need or make a better way of doing something. I start sketching. Often times I’ll go right away and put something on paper so I don’t forget. But sometimes I forget and then I come back to it. Being in the industry I have a search done. Usually I do some searching myself just to make sure there’s not some patent out there that someone is going to find in 10 or 15 minutes. So I do a cursory check, and then if I don’t find anything I’ll send it to one of my researchers to have a search done.
What are some of the habits that have helped you be successful?
That’s a good question. With regard to patenting, or in general?
Just in general. Tactics in your day, your week, or your month?
Prioritizing is important. I wear so many hats with regard to my current position. And then trying to fit in so many of the other aspects of inventing and being a husband and all those things. Identifying those things that are most important and allowing some of the things to wait to another time when I can dedicate some time to it.
What are your entrepreneur lessons learned so far? Either from when you had a business before or in doing the patents?
One thing I notice is that people tend to glamorize the term a lot.
For sure. Maybe it’s what they call survivor’s bias. You tend to only hear about the winners and not the losers.
I think it’s harder to own a business, for instance, than some people might understand. It takes discipline. A lot of people that I encounter tell me they could never work from home, because of the distractions and the discipline it takes. I can focus more and get a lot more done. Discipline is definitely an important part of success, I think. And then, being reasonable in expectations, and emotionally separating yourself from a particular idea. When I got the first golf patent I thought that the industry would knock on my door. They would come to me. They would want to license or buy the patents. That didn’t happen. They were obtained in 2008 right before the crash.
How long are the patents good for?
Give or take 20 years. You can keep renewing them by paying maintenance fees. I’m still keeping them alive. I’m not sure I’ll pursue them. It’s interesting to know you hold a piece of patent history.
What advice do you have for beginning entrepreneurs?
I would say be realistic in your expectations. It’s one thing to get a patent. It’s another thing to go into production, sourcing, and actually setting up a business around the patent. I wouldn’t suggest building a business based upon one invention or one device. Be well rounded and continue to create a portfolio of things. If that’s your niche. If it deals with a particular product.
So the patent is just the beginning, not the end.
It’s not the end. My preference would be to license. That’s always been my desire: to create a product, have someone see it and then be interested enough to offer a licensing deal. You don’t have to deal with manufacturing at that point, sourcing, getting it out on shelves or any of that. I’m told that many inventors make the mistake of over asking when it comes to licensing, basically wanting the potential licensee to put way too much out way to early without proving that there is a market. At least in my case, I haven’t really gotten down to negotiating a license yet. I am talking to some people with regard to GutCheck.
Speaking of which, what’s the next step for GutCheck?
So, I’m currently speaking with custom ink manufacturers. The material that changes color upon exposure to the acid is a body of materials that’s commercially available. It’s just a powdered dye that has to be mixed in a way so that the viscosity, dry time, cure time, all that is usable in different printers. If we go with an inkjet printer I need to make sure the ink is compatible with that particular print head. I would prefer to identify a source that would print it on the label or media and do the whole thing. I could pay them per label or per run, as opposed to setting up an actual print shop and printing these things myself.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I think on the whole I would say that inventing and entrepreneurship should be fun. It’s a journey. If you can’t enjoy the entire process, it may not be for you. So find a way to enjoy the process, and understand that it will have challenge all along the way. And try and enjoy the ride.
Where can we learn more about GutCheck and your other ideas?
Probably e-mailing me would be best. It’s email@example.com.
Alright, that was fantastic. Thanks.
That was fun. It will be interesting to see what it looks like in print.
Click these links to see our other posts in the entrepreneur interview series:
Amazon best selling author Lawrence Colby, writer of The Devil Dragon Pilot:
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?