Do You Have the Courage to Start Your Own Business? Military to Entrepreneur – More Insights from Mo Johnson, Owner of Better Display Cases

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?

Better Display Cases
Better Display Cases

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.

That would be great.

We can put the URL in the post.

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…

 

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