I just got back from a 6,000 mile woodworking expedition to the Korean Furniture Museum in Seoul and learned several valuable entrepreneur lessons I’d like to share with you. OK, maybe that’s a stretch. We went to Korea for my day job and had some time to kill before our return flight and took the opportunity to research some woodworking designs. The mission’s intent was sound, but it quickly took some interesting turns. Here are a few lessons learned from the expedition:
Lesson #1: Surround Yourself with Positive, Like-Minded People
Given our government-mandated return flight time, we had some time to kill in Seoul, so I figured I’d tour the Korean Furniture Museum for some design ideas. The Lonely Planet Guide for Seoul recommended it and it seemed interesting. One of my colleagues, Rich Davis (see interview with him here), tagged along since we are both on artisan journeys: mine in woodworking and Rich’s in photography. Our first task was to figure out the Korean subway system. I’d ridden it a few years ago, but was a little rusty. Fortunately, the digital kiosks had an English option and we were able to quickly purchase a couple tickets and be on our way. A couple subway stops later we got off and started walking toward the museum which the Guide said was on a beautiful hilltop location. It was a pretty warm day and as we climbed, and climbed, and climbed we realized we weren’t seeing any more signs for the museum and were lost (more on that in #2 below).
At this point, Rich could have started cussing me out, but he understood it was all part of the journey. If I hadn’t had him along, I might have thrown in the towel and headed back to the subway station. That’s why it’s important to surround yourself with like-minded people. They will encourage you to keep pressing on.
Lesson #2: People Want to Help You
So there we were, lost in Seoul, but we saw a police “box” which is an extremely small outpost for a policeman or two to stand in. I figured “what’s the worst that can happen” and went to ask for directions. The two Korean policemen were extremely young, maybe around 18, and I had no idea if they spoke English. Luckily, even though they didn’t think so, their English was very good. One of them even drew a map on my guide book to the museum. We followed his map and ran into another police box. The policeman there gave us the final directions and we finally made it to the museum.
I’ve traveled to at least two dozen countries and have found that people, in general, are very friendly and are willing to help you out. This is a good lesson for entrepreneurs: if you are stuck, ask for help.
Lesson #3: Never Quit
We got the museum and asked the security guard about tickets. He made a chopping motion with one arm against his forearm. He was either a Seminoles fan or something was amiss. He was on older gentleman who didn’t speak any English and flagged down a co-worker. She told us the museum was closed! According to the guidebook, we were there during normal hours, but apparently they were going through some renovations or something. Rich and I laughed it off and starting heading back down the hill. We went back to our hotel and rehydrated with a couple of cold ones. Rich was able to climb the hill near the hotel at sunset and snap some cool time lapse photographs from the old city wall, so the day wasn’t a total loss.
This could have been a very disappointing afternoon, but the way we looked at, it was just one event in a very long journey to create. In addition, we’re likely to go back to Korea again next year and can give it another shot.
There you have it: surround yourself with like-minded people, ask for help when you need it, and never quit. And by the way, if you are ever in Seoul, please let me know how the Korean Furniture Museum is ; )
(Thursday night) We got kicked out of the house! Given that we’ve been banished, it seemed like an opportune time to update the blog. Some of you have asked “Jerry, what’s up with the blog?” Well, it’s three things. First, I’ve been busy keeping the world safe for democracy in my day job. Mrs Woodworker won’t let me retire, so we have 23 more months to go. Second, Traughber Design has been swamped with orders, which is a good thing. Third, we’ve been getting the house ready to sell so we can continue our minimalism journey. That’s the reason we got kicked out of the house tonight: our realtor told us to beat it for the open house. That actually turned out to be a blessing since we caught up on our Five Guys addiction and it gave me some time to update you on the happenings at Traughber Design.
As far as those commissions, many thanks to Lisa Love for the furniture repair commission, Jeremy Wood for the woodturning commission, and neighbor Dave Strong for commissioning two home base footstools. Dave also commissioned some baseball bat stools which we’re working on. And a huge thank you to Dr Steve Ford for his gun cabinet commission (see our first post about that commission here). Speaking of which…
The picture above shows the glue up we did today attaching the face frame of the gun cabinet to the cabinet itself. Believe it or not, it took almost 40 hours to get to that point. The cabinet involves over 70 pieces and it took some time to carefully select each piece to match grain and avoid knots in the raw boards. In order to maximize efficiency, I cut all the 70 pieces at once so I didn’t have to keep switching back and forth between tools later. Not that it wasn’t fun, though. I enjoy letting the wood talk to me and tell me what each part wants to be. It’s also important to finish sand certain parts before gluing since they won’t be accessible once they are glued together. When finish sanding with three grits (80, 120, and 180) it takes some time. Be sure you are not sanding where the joints glue together, however, or you won’t get a solid bond. In the next step we’ll cut the two back panels which consist of black walnut plywood. After that, we start working on the base molding and crown molding which will be three carefully routed pieces glued together in an intricate pattern.
While projects like Steve’s are drying, I flip over to the second project, in this case the baseball bat stool. Thanks to Jacob Hummisch for his engineering prowess on this one. We jerry rigged a frame to hold the bats in place and to get the angles right for the stools. Now I just need to drill the holes and dry fit everything together. With any luck, I’ll post an update with pictures when that stool is done.
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
We just made another deal last weekend to make some baseball bat themed footstools and bar stools, which was terrific. Then I did the math on our total backlog and it’s over 100 hours! Remember, this is a part time gig until I retire (Mrs Woodworker won’t let me retire) and I can only comfortably do about 6 hours per week in the wood shop, especially given work travel. That means my backlog works out to about 17 weeks or 4 months, which is too long for my taste. Why? Because there are a few other commissions I’ve been discussing with potential clients that I’d really like to build. They look like really fun projects. Doing these new deals is not about bringing in new business, but about making things that are interesting. How does an entrepreneur manage their backlog when it gets too big? Read on!
#1: Throttle Back on Marketing, But Not Completely
An entrepreneur needs to maintain the flow of business, because the backlog could be gone at some point. We always want new business walking in that door, but not too much or quality will suffer, or we’ll have to turn away too many clients. To give you a specific example, you may have noticed I’ve started to tweet here and there with some updates on what is going on in the shop (follow us at Twitter handle @TraughberDesign). I could be tweeting a lot more, but decided to just tweet occasionally until we’ve worked off more of that backlog. We also have a Pinterest account and could be doing a lot more other on the social media front with apps like Instagram. At this point, though, we need that time in the shop.
Something else to start thinking about is what is your ideal backlog number? That number could be in hours or number of projects to ship, or some other metric. Then work towards that metric you’ve set. Over 100 hours is too much right now for Traughber Design, but once I’m doing this full time, that number may be too low if I work a 40 hour week in the wood shop. What’s the right number for your business? Have you thought about that? You want enough of a backlog to keep yourself gainfully employed for a while, but how long? How frequently does new work typically come in the door? As I mentioned earlier, this backlog will take me 4 months and I can estimate pretty well how much new work we’ll get in that time period. That will determine how much effort (or not) we spend on marketing. We’ve already had 4 commissions this year and it’s only February so we need to manage the incoming and outgoing flow.
We just talked about investing less (time) in marketing, where should the entrepreneur invest?
#2: Invest in Capital Expenditures that Make You Faster
Maybe buying tools should always be the default answer! One can never have enough tools, I suppose, unless you’re traveling a minimalist journey as Mrs Woodworker and I are. But what do I mean by “buy more tools”? I mean to look for opportunities where a tool or jig will make you faster or more efficient in whatever your creating enterprise is. To give you an example, I anticipate we may be making a lot of the baseball bat themed foot stools and bar stools. Is there a tool I can buy that will speed up production while maintaining or improving the quality? Is there a jig (a specially made apparatus to hold pieces in place to make cutting/sawing/drilling/etc. easier) I can make that makes positioning the bats easier to speed things up? Yes, of course there are. I’ve made one prototype foot stool from three bats and can see the value in making a jig for the bar stool to precisely align the bats and drill holes for the cross pieces that will hold the bats in place in the stool. If I make the jigs now, we’ll reap the benefits in the long run with time savings on every piece.
So we can speed things up with capital expenditures, but how about allocating our time wisely?
#3: Reallocate Your Time
As I wrote about earlier in the post Get Out of the Rat Race: How to Manage the Transition from Career to Maker, entrepreneurs have tremendous freedom to decide where to focus their efforts. That’s one of the reasons we start these journeys: freedom and creativity. Not only is it about allocating time after the day job is over, but occasionally an entrepreneur will run across some “bonus time.” There was a bit of serendipity with this holiday weekend. We had planned to go cross country skiing in West Virginia, but the snow forecast was abominable. We cancelled and went out with friends at least one night, but that freed up the entire weekend for some making every morning. I’m the lark, or early riser, in the family so I naturally get up to write a little then hit the wood shop before every one is up. Then we spent the rest of the day together. I try not to work in the shop late in the day because fatigue and power tools don’t go together. I’d like to keep my fingers. If you are an entrepreneur, look for opportunities like that to do a little extra making. For you, would that be early in the morning? Stealing some time during the day? Late in the day? Using a portion of a holiday weekend?
As we’ve written about earlier, if you don’t have enough time you can always pull out that time creation machine we wrote about in the post Time is not Finite and make some time.
#4: Enjoy the Ride
When you run across a “problem” with a backlog like this, it’s important to step back for a minute and do a couple things.
One thing is to pat yourself on the back for having a backlog in the first place. Remember when you started as an entrepreneur? You had zero backlog and were just hustling for revenue. Now that you have one, congratulate yourself. Mo Johnson, the owner of Better Display Cases, discusses that more in our entrepreneur interview series.
Are robots going to put you out of a job? What should you do about it? Alec Ross recently came out with a book titled “The Industries of the Future” where he writes about the coming disruption due to robots and artificial intelligence that got me wondering “what does this mean for entrepreneurs and woodworkers?” Will robots replace us all? Let’s take a look. I’ll give you three entrepreneur strategies to survive the robot invasion based on some of the prognostications in Ross’ book.
#1 Make Your Own Job
Some folks may think the widespread adoption of robots is in some far-off future, but Ross says “Japan already leads the world in robotics, operating 310,000 of the 1.4 million industrial robots in existence across the world.” As you can see, the robots are already here and there will only be more. We’d all better think very carefully about the career we have or the career we want, because it may not exist in the future. For example, about a year ago I went on a trip to Japan. My buddy and I went to a restaurant to grab a bite and when we walked in there was a kiosk facing the door with large buttons with pictures of entrees on them. We picked what looked good, plopped in our yen, and the machine spit out a ticket. We sat down and a few minutes later, a human delivered our food. There were only two staff in the entire restaurant: the food-deliverer and the cook. That restaurant model already exists in other countries and is on its way to the United States. All those workers at McDonalds and Burger King may be soon be gone.
Ross talks about this move to automate: “Boiled down to economic terms, the choice between employing humans versus buying and operating robots involves a trade-off in terms of expenditures. Human labor involves very little ‘capex’ or capital expenditures–up-front payments for things like building, machinery, and equipment–but high ‘opex,’ or operational expenditures, the day-to-day costs such as salary and employee benefits. Robots come with a diametrically opposed cost structure: their up-front capital costs are hight, but their operating costs are minor–robots don’t get a salary. As the capex of robots continues to go down, the opex of humans becomes comparatively more expensive and therefore less attractive for employers.” Almost every business today is doing the cost/benefit analysis of whether to make those capital expenditures comparing the cost of humans versus robots. As the cost of robots come down, more humans will be replaced.
It is clear that many of traditional jobs will be going away, which is all the more reason to start preparing for the robotpocalypse. Ross writes “How much harder will it be to get a first job? How about a second?” One of the ways is to make your own job, as Mo Johnson did at Better Display Cases, Lawrence Colby did in writing his first book, or some of the other entrepreneurs did that we are about to profile in this blog. Mo and Lawrence are each earning some good $$$ because they decided to make their own jobs, but that requires some solid planning and execution.
I recently ran across an article in Popular Woodworking that is another great example of creating your own job and is also a good model for people transitioning out of the military. The story (click here for link) called “End Grain: Marine Corps to Shop Floor,” talks about Grant Burger’s journey from Marine to full time craftsman. Grant knew he was getting out of the military and created his own job, by using his education benefits to attend a furniture making school in Boston. Now he is selling rocking chairs that cost more than $2000 each and are absolutely beautiful. To see some of his work, check out Grant’s blog here.
This automated, robotic future is not something to fear, but is a fertile playground of opportunity for the entrepreneur, as we’ll see below.
#2 Go Microentrepreneur With The Codification of Money, Markets, and Trust
“But the codification of money, markets, payments, and trust is the next big inflection point in the history of financial services. Understanding what it means for your and your business will be important regardless of whether you are a plumber or the CEO of a fortune 500 company.” Entrepreneurs need to embrace these changes or run the risk of being left behind. Ross goes on to profile Square, the company that created the attachment you can use with a tablet to swipe and process credit cards: “From its inception, Square has been about enabling the kind of small-scale transactions…Its approach has been to try to eliminate the costs and complication of standard credit card transactions.” This creates a tremendous opportunity for woodworkers, or any craftsman, for that matter. Many of my fellow woodworkers sell their pieces at arts and crafts fairs. With tools like Square, any entrepreneur can charge a sale anywhere at any time, such as at craft fairs.
“Square and its competitors are trying to reduce friction in the marketplace. They are trying to dial down the complication and the tens of billions of dollars spent in the form off credit card fees, exchange fees, or the cost of lost transactions…” As we wrote about in our post on Clausewitz, entrepreneurs are continually trying to overcome friction, and companies like Square will only help. The CEO of Square “believes that Square is part of a larger trend refocusing the economy toward bottom-up innovation. He explains, “one of the reasons we started this company, from a personal standpoint, is this trend toward more local experiences. So I think the fabric of the neighborhood and how online is pointing to more offline local experiences is a very, very interesting trend.” As we wrote about in our posts on Community and the post on Reflections artisans can thrive in this environment.
“Anyone can pick up a device they already own and suddenly become a powerful commerce engine in that particular area.” This could also be useful for entrepreneurs involved in services such as Uber drivers or freelancers doing work on sites like TaskRabbit. Ross goes on to say “But as with other mass infrastructure deployments, like railroads in the 19th century, the full potential of the network is borne out only when other entrepreneurs layer their creativity and commerce on top of it.” He also says “I think of the sharing economy as a way of making a market out of anything and a micro entrepreneur out of anybody.”
It is the golden age of entrepreneurship. Let’s take a look at the third tip to survive the robot invasion.
#3 Go Local, Then Global
Robots will thrive where there are many automated, repetitive tasks. Even as artificial intelligence gets smarter, there will be opportunities for entrepreneurs. “With coded markets available to even the smallest vendors, a trend has arisen that pushes economic transactions away from physical stores or hotels and toward individual people, as they connect either locally or online.” Today, any one of us can process credit card transactions using companies like Square, as mentioned above. This is incredibly freeing and allows anyone, anywhere to process payments. Along those lines, Ross writes: “Though the world’s major cities are fueling the global economy, one does not need to be in an alpha city to succeed. In fact, Internet technology allows people to be almost anywhere and operate a successful business.” An entrepreneur couple I’ve mentioned previously (see Pure Living for Life) runs a blog, YouTube channel, Instagram presence, Twitter presence, etc. profiling their move to off the grid living. They started on a bare piece of land in Idaho, but technology allowed them to create this multimedia presence to document their off grid journey. Come to think of it, if they have Internet are they off grid??? They started local and are now global.
Another concrete example of this starting local then going global is one of my favorite woodworkers, Marc Spagnuolo, The Wood Whisperer. Marc started locally building commissioned furniture, but then realized the amazing potential of the Internet. He started teaching fellow woodworkers via his blog, then videos on his website. He now has a global empire and operates globally via his blog, videos, DVDs, etc. Woodcraft Magazine just ran a great profile of him. Check out the article here.
This concept of starting local then going global has been a good model for Traughber Design. We started custom woodworking locally and the blog is now read around the world, in 33 countries at last count.. It’s interesting to look at the metrics and see what far-flung countries are reading it.
We’ve covered a lot of ground today. Follow these three keys and you’ll be well on your way to surviving the robot invasion:
#1 Make Your Own Job #2 Go Microentrepreneur With The Codification of Money, Markets, and Trust #3 Go Local, Then Global
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 is the third in our series of interviews (see bottom of post for links to the other interviews) with successful entrepreneurs, in this case, Mo Johnson, the owner and CEO of Better Display Cases.
Thanks for the interview today. Like I said, this is the fourth interview, probably the third that we’ll publish. We have a couple more in the queue here. I really appreciate your time.
Sure. Thanks for coming.
So, tell us a little bit about your background before you became an entrepreneur.
Well, I’ve always been an entrepreneur I would say. Going way back to when I was a kid I would deliver newspapers and, you know, did different things. I started a janitorial business which was the first real business I started. That was while I was in college. I did that for awhile. I had a lawn care business. Anyway, I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak, I suppose. Along the way, I went to law school and became a JAG and did a 20 year career in the military. After I retired from the military and I’m doing what I’m doing now…doing the entrepreneurship thing full time.
Awesome. Where did you get the idea for this business?
Well, so that just kind of happened. I retired from the military in 2013. I have to back up a little bit. During my last years in the military I was already trying to, you know, have a business on the web. What I did then was I had a website. I started with SEC Sportsfan. My idea was when I retired I would just be a blogger like you and do that full time and write stuff that I enjoyed writing. Hopefully people would enjoy reading it, and the website would be popular. More people would read it. And they’d click on ads. I’d make money. Life was good. That was the plan. And I would love to do that now, by the way (laughing), if I could.
I saw the blog and I was encouraged you had a Green Bay Packers article on there.
The sports blog.
The SEC Sportsfan one?
The article about Eddie Lacey associated with Better Display Cases?
I guess Wayne must have written that. That was one of our ideas. Wayne was my Internet marketing guy and did that. So I started that (SEC Sportsfan) in 2006. I got passed over for Lieutenant Colonel, and I don’t know if we even want to put this in.
Maybe we’ll edit that out.
Maybe we will. Maybe we won’t. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it.
That’s probably a key point.
It probably is. Of course it is.
That probably spurred you to do all this.
I’m sure. Probably. Of course. I had something to prove, you know. I’m going to be more successful than any of you. Whatever, I don’t know. It certainly changed my focus. I knew I was going to be getting out of the military. I started being really interested in the Internet. I’ve always wanted to start a business. Then of course the Internet was big and looked like it was actually going to be a real thing. Actually, the way that started, I wanted to get sell on eBay, so one of my co-workers was looking for a gift that she needed for somebody. She wanted to get them a little Tennessee mascot. So she had a hard time finding it. So I was like maybe I could start a business helping people, or selling sports-related gifts on eBay. I bought some products and tried to sell them on eBay which didn’t work well at all. While I was starting that I was looking at other things and then I became interested in the idea of building a content website, blogging, and having traffic coming to it, and then you get money from the ads or from selling products related to what your customers that visit that website are interested in.
And that worked really, really, really, really well. Really took off which I guess is what got me excited about it and that’s the way things go. If it doesn’t work out, you’re not going to be excited and you’re going to move on. But that worked so that motivated me. I would stay up to 2, 3, or 4 o’ clock in the morning working on my website. There was a lot to learn. There was a lot to do. It takes a lot to do that. The SEC Sportsfan website did fantastic and went from nothing at all to at one point I was making $5,000 per month from my website.
Wow, that’s really good.
Because I was ranking high in Google for product search terms like Dallas Cowboys Fathead. Of course it was SEC Sportsfan so it was more SEC I mean that was what you were more likely to rank for so you’re better off focusing on that. All kinds of product keywords related to SEC teams.
So the $5,000 was people clicking through ads on your site?
About half of that was Adsense, so ads, people clicking on ads. The ads are going to be more valuable and you are going to make more money if they are product-oriented. I ranked for all sorts of things. The things that make money are products. If people are selling stuff they are willing to pay a lot for a click on a product ad or product search term as opposed to just anything.
So I was also an affiliate, if you’ve heard of affiliate marketing. It’s where you sign up with a company and you sell their product with a simple thing like a click. I signed up with Fathead, with Amazon. It’s the same thing. It’s an ad on my website. People click on it. If they buy something, I get a percentage. With Fathead it was 15 percent.
Through all of that, the first thing was getting the traffic which is a whole thing in and of itself, the content, the images, and everything. Then the selling happens and then you make money. At the peak, I’m talking Christmas, I had some months where I made $5,000. Maybe on average it was $1,000, or something, $2,000. For a couple years.
But still, that’s pretty good.
And the way it was growing, my goodness, it looked that would really work. Like I would be able to retire and just do that.
I was Mo Johnson of SEC Sportsfan.
This interview was so in-depth that we broke it into multiple parts. Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Mo Johnson where he hits it BIG with his next venture: Better Display Cases.
For our first entrepreneur interview with best selling author, Lawrence Colby, click here.
For part 2 of our interview with Colby, click here.
For our second entrepreneur interview with photographer Richard Weldon Davis, click here.
The Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers have had an unbelievable run of 9 straight years going to the National Football League (NFL) playoffs. This is a testament to the leadership of the organization and the team’s principles, which are applicable in life and entrepreneur philosophy in general. This season didn’t end the way Packer Nation had hoped this year, but getting to the NFC Championship game was quite an accomplishment, especially considering all the injuries the team had this year (they experienced a lot of friction as we wrote about earlier in our post on Clausewitz). Here are some lessons we can learn from The Pack.
Take a Chance Occasionally on a Big Play
There is a play in football called the Hail Mary, where in a desperate bid to score points with limited time, the quarterback heaves the ball downfield into the end zone hoping one of his receivers will catch it. Most quarterbacks will never successfully complete a Hail Mary at the professional level. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Pay Packers have completed THREE, the last during a playoff game against the New York Giants. Many teams in that situation would just kill the clock with only a few seconds remaining, but somehow the Packers seem to convert those slivers of time into points more than other teams. In addition, Aaron Rodgers will create more of these Hail Mary opportunities by causing other teams to jump offsides with an offbeat cadence, which generates a “free play.” Since flags are thrown for the offside, he has the opportunity to continue with the play or accept the penalty. He always tries to throw a bomb downfield for the chance to make a big play during these offsides calls. How can this Hail Mary and offsides philosophy help us in life and as entrepreneurs?
First of all, what long bombs can you throw in your entrepreneurial ventures? Think about what one thing would make your idea just explode. What is it? As entrepreneurs, we have to be smart with small bets that cause big payoffs. We have to ensure those small bets won’t bankrupt the company or damage our cash flow too much, just like Aaron Rodgers with those “free plays.” He has nothing to lose and everything to gain. More importantly, the Packers practice those plays continually so that when it’s game time, they are ready. Rodgers practices that offbeat cadence to draw defenses offsides and the entire offense practices the Hail Mary play just in case they need to try it in a game. As an entrepreneur, the philosophy of trying the big play occasionally should be in our DNA. We should continually be asking that question of what is high payoff, low investment and throw that long bomb.
Maybe you’re at the point of thinking about starting a business. What is that first step? Take it.
Don’t Listen to The Haters
Mike McCarthy is the coach of the Packers, and has been for some time. This fall, the press was insinuating his head may have been on the chopping block this season after the Packers had four losses in a row. Had McCarthy suddenly become stupid after all those seasons of success? He berated the media during a press conference and told them he was a successful NFL coach and gave them some of his perspective. Personally, I didn’t think the Packers would make the playoffs at that point. They looked terrible during the losing streak. But Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers didn’t listen to the doubters. Aaron Rodgers said they would need to run the table to make the playoffs (meaning win the rest of their games), which they did by winning eight games in a row, including playoffs. Not to mention, they knocked off the #1 team in their conference (the Dallas Cowboys) in the playoffs on the road.
Along those lines, entrepreneurs can’t afford to expend any energy on haters or doubters. There isn’t enough time. The Minimalists talk about this some on their podcasts. They talk about how you can’t change your friends, but that you can change your friends. Their meaning is that you can’t change some people, but you can change who you spend time with. Why hang out with people that don’t support your vision or aren’t encouraging? Who else talks about dealing with doubters? Taylor Swift.
My daughter is a big Taylor Swift fan. We went to Taylor’s 1989 Tour concert here at Nationals Stadium a while back. I was probably the oldest Swiftee (Swiftie?) in the stadium that night by far, but we had a great time. Taylor sang a song called “Shake it Off” where she sang about how the haters are going to hate and that we should just shake it off. That’s wise counsel from Ms. Swift. Entrepreneurs: shake it off.
Everyone on the Team is Valuable
No matter what their job, everyone in the organization is valuable. Earlier in my career, I worked for a two-star general who gave me some sage advice. He talked about how the 2-striper (a junior Airman) fixing the water pipes on an Air Force base at two o’clock in the morning was probably the most important person on the base at that moment. His point was that every last person on our Air Force team was valuable. The Green Bay Packers follow the same philosophy. They have been injury-plagued this season and lost their #1 running back (Eddie Lacey), #1 cornerback (Sam Shields), and #1 receiver (Jordy Nelson). Their philosophy is that the younger guys need to step up and that every last player has to do their part, even if they are not a starter.
The Packers also consider the community to be part of the team. When there is a large snowstorm in Green Bay, the team asks the local community to turn out and help shovel snow at Lambeau Field, and the locals love to do it. The consider it to be their team. Along those lines, the Green Bay Packers have a unique ownership structure. They are the only NFL team with shareholders and are publicly owned. I bought a share of the team some time ago and consider the Packers to be my team since I’m a shareholder. The team makes us feel part of the community by making share ownership seem like a big deal, even if the shares can’t be traded like a real stock.
Well, I hope that’s given you something to ponder: go for the big play, don’t listen to the haters, and embrace everyone on the team. I wish you the best of luck on your entrepreneurial journey. It’s a great ride.
Before we launched Traughber Design, I put a lot of thought into what kind of company I wanted. I wanted a company that gave back to our clients via high quality craftsmanship, but also wanted some of the profits to flow to its employees (currently an Army of One) as well as the community. I wanted that entrepeneur philosophy to be embedded in the company DNA from the very beginning. The first 2 years of operation we invested heavily in tools and ran at a loss which I had fully expected, but here in year #3 we are going to turn a profit and it’s time to put our money where our mouth is and execute the vision we had at the beginning. So this year we are going to invest a portion of our profits in the local community. A percentage of the proceeds from our first commission has been set aside to sponsor a sports team at the local high school. As future commissions roll in, we will disburse that same percentage of our revenue to other causes.
We all have time, talent and treasure. Some of us have more time than money, while others have more money than time. If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, have you thought about giving your time, talent, and treasure directly in your community, if you are not already?For example, in our local church we have a ministry called Helping Hands of Grace where we serve dinner to the homeless on Friday nights during the winter when the need is greatest. Several other churches sponsor different nights of the week. What we are finding is that those service nights at our church get signed up for very quickly by the various small groups in our church. People want to help their fellow man and are being intentional about serving on those Friday nights. Events like those are a great opportunity to give your time to others. If you would like to serve by giving your time, consider contacting your local homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or church for opportunities.
Earlier, we wrote a post about John Rockefeller and his keys to success. One of the things we didn’t write as much about in that post, was his struggle after he become very wealthy to find his way in philanthropy. Setting up a foundation to distribute wealth was a new thing back then and he had to basically invent the model which is used today by some of the large foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Rockefeller established the Rockefeller Foundation, but had a difficult time deciding how it should be run, who should get the funds, and how to ensure the receiving organizations had a sustainable model. One of the first large efforts he started was establishing the University of Chicago, but he fought with the leadership because they weren’t broadening their donor base and weren’t (Rockefeller felt) being frugal. Rockefeller didn’t want the receiving organizations to be solely dependent on his foundation. Of course, when he was a young man he didn’t know he would have this “problem” of distributing extraordinary wealth, but now that we have his example and the example of others, we can incorporate this thinking about giving early on when we craft our entrepreneur philosophy.
It is up to each person to consider what is appropriate for them. To whom much is given, much is required. If you’ve launched an entrepreneurial venture, have you thought about who your stakeholders are and who should benefit if your venture is successful? Should it be solely you? Your employees? The community? All of the above? In what proportion?
I think some of the most important questions a founder can ask themselves are:
“Why am I starting this enterprise?” “Who are the stakeholders?” “How can I support them?”
In addition to philanthropy, an entrepreneur should give back to its employees. I did another of our entrepeneur interviews last week (we’ll be publishing that interview soon), this time with the owner of Better Display Cases, John Johnson. He is giving back to another group of stakeholders, his employees. Here is a veteran who just retired, started his own company and already has two employees and is looking for a third. Business is booming and he is giving back to the community by providing good jobs here in Northern Virginia. BTW, if you’re looking for work, contact him at his website here.
Another great example of giving back to employees is Dan Price, the CEO of Gravity Payments. Dan is a very thoughtful guy and was troubled by the stories from his employees of struggling to get by in a high cost city. He was making over $1 million per year and thought it was unfair that he had it so good, while his employees were struggling. He decided to set a “minimum wage” of a $70,000 annual salary for every employee including himself (you can read all about it here in Inc. Magazine). The reason he picked $70,000 is that studies have shown $70,000 will meet most families’ needs and your marginal happiness does not increase much above $70,000 no matter how much you make. As you can imagine, his employees were shocked and overjoyed. They were so ecstatic that they bought him a new Tesla last year which you can read about here.
My point is, in both Johnson’s and Price’s cases they have thoughtfully considered who the stakeholders are in their enterprises.
So we’ve discussed giving of time, talent, and treasure to two groups of stakeholders, the community and employees, but not much about the third, yourself. This goes back to that earlier question of why you’re starting the enterprise. Are you seeking a certain level of income? Self-fulfillment? Something else? In my opinion, if you take care of your clients, employees, and community, your needs will be taken care of organically. Those stakeholders will support you, if you support them.
These philosophy discussions are best had before launching the venture or early in its development, because once it’s launched you are going to be unbelievably busy as I saw at Better Display Cases this week. John and is two employees are really hustling to fulfill orders and have boxes stacked from floor to ceiling in the entire building. They receive large shipping containers from China monthly and race to unload the containers and deliver their products to all their customers. John’s time to have these philosophical discussions now is extremely limited.
Along those lines, seek out mentors who are farther along the entrepreneurial path who can share what they’ve done. It may not be exactly the correct path for you, but will help clarify your thinking (check out our blog post here on Stoic philosophy for more on clarity).
Several years ago when I was going through a military course, we had a reading about Admiral James Stockade, who won the Medal of Honor for his actions during 8 years as a Prisoner of War during Vietnam. In the article, Stockdale was describing the mission where he was shot down over North Vietnam and talked about how he was flying along at hundreds of miles an hour, had to eject, and realized he was suddenly entering the world of Epictetus. I had never heard of Epictetus and thought how significant it must be that in that moment, of all the things that might have been going through his head, Stockdale was thinking of someone named Epictetus. Intrigued, I started to do a little research and found that Epictetus was a Greek philosopher who belonged to a school of philosophy called Stoicism. I wanted to learn more and during one of my business trips, found a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses in a used bookstore. The Discourses are lectures written down by one of Epictetus’ students. I don’t agree with everything in the Discourses, but there are some useful concepts for designing our lives, entrepreneurs and woodworkers in Stoicism. We can learn much from studying philosophers. As Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. We can get so caught up in the tactical details of life that sometimes we don’t step back to ask the question of whether what we are doing is even important. Shouldn’t we be continually asking that question?
That being said, Stoicism seems to be enjoying a resurgence these days. Some of the more popular Stoics are Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. Epictetus was born a slave, taught philosophy in Rome, then was exiled to Greece. Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher and advisor to the Emperor. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor who wrote the Meditations on Stoic philosophy. It’s important, though, when someone declares “Stoicism says” that you take that with a grain of salt. Each of the Stoics has a slightly different take on things. If you’d like to read more, I highly recommend The Daily Stoic.
There are three principles of Stoicism that I think are very relevant to lifestyle design, entrepreneurship, and woodworking.
Clarify our perceptions
Many times what we perceive is going on is not what is really going on. For entrepreneurs it’s especially important to think about what data you need to gather to tell you if you are on track to your vision. Sometimes entrepreneurs analyze the data that’s readily available, rather than what’s important. The important data may be difficult to get, but is not usually impossible to develop. If someone asks you “how is your business doing?” how do you you know rather than just saying “fine”? For example, if you are writing a blog it’s important to install at least a couple plugins that gather metrics to let you know how you are doing. The blogger needs to look at the data to find out what ground truth is. They tell you exactly how many users there are every day, where they are coming from, what they are looking at, etc. For example, if someone asks me how the blog is doing, I’ve got the data and it’s clear this blog is growing. This month’s traffic is on track to be double last month’s. In addition, we can see that the hits from search engines are increasing, which means the search engines are finding us or we’re writing about things that more people are interested in, or just having more published posts is drawing more search. We’ve made mistakes with the blog such as running into a photograph interface issue between WordPress and Facebook, but it’s clear we are on the right path. We wouldn’t know that if we hadn’t decided which data to collect to clarify our perceptions.
Another aspect of clarifying our perceptions is to control our thoughts, which is especially important for entrepreneurs. I think over the past 2 years, I’ve gotten much better at banishing negative thoughts about what could go wrong. This is a skill any small business owner can exercise and develop. For example, I noticed that most of the time these thoughts are late at night before I’m going to bed or in the middle of the night. Knowing that, if one of these thoughts rears its ugly head, I can say to myself “oh, it’s late and I’m just tired” and let the negative thought go.
As the famous French philosopher Montaigne said “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened” (see brainy quote.com. Why dwell on something if it will probably never happen?
Act reasonably and wisely
In an earlier post, I wrote about failing fast and cheap which aligns with acting reasonably as the Stoics recommend. An entrepeneur probably shouldn’t do an experiment that would bankrupt the company, but should instead place small well-thought-out bets. For example, many entrepreneurs following a strategy of doing A/B experiments. This means “A” is the current method and “B” is an experiment trying something new. If “B” is successful, you switch to that method even if it’s only an incremental gain. If “B” wasn’t successful, you default back to “A” then dream up some more A/B experiments. Over time, these incremental gains of the “B”s that worked will add up to big gains. It’s important to not agonize over “failed” experiments, but to consider that you learned something in the process. Make sure you know how much you want to pay for those failed experiments ahead of time to cap your risk.
The third Stoic principle is related to the second.
Know what is in our control and what is not
This is one of the most fundamental Stoic principles. Epictetus says at the most basic level, all we can really control is our will. That’s why Stockdale referenced Epictetus when he was shot down. He realized that if he was captured, he would be in a test of wills with his captors, which he was…for 8 years.
This relates to entrepreneurship as well, especially blogging. One of the most successful bloggers right now is Maria Popova who has 5 million readers per month and writes a blog called Brain Pickings. I’ve listened to interviews with her and done some reading of her blog and she shares some terrific points on successful blogging. One thing she emphasizes is to write for yourself. This is within our control as the Stoics would advise. Popova’s point is that we shouldn’t chase an audience. We won’t be interesting if we try to write what we think most people will like, rather than what we are really passionate about. In addition, we’ll likely lose interest if we are constantly writing about what we think others want to read rather than what really interests us. Readers can tell if a blogger is passionate about something.
This also relates to woodworking in that woodworkers should focus on the task as hand; it’s in our control. We can control the level of craftsmanship in our project as we’ve written about previously in the post on the Soviet gulag and the post on glue, but have limited ability to control external factors.
It’s important to be present when we create which is something I have not mastered, but am always striving for.