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.
Today after 30 years of work I am declaring my freedom! Yesterday was my last duty day. Does that mean I’m not going to “work” any more? No, but we’ll be 100% focused on entrepreneurship at this point and seeing where that journey takes us. Are you still “working” if you are an entrepreneur? That’s a good question. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.
Here are 5 lessons we learned along the way that may help others achieve FIRE.Truth in advertising here, I was in the military and have a pension. The Retirement Police may quibble about whether that is RE or FI or both, but since we have freedom of action now, I’m calling it FIRE. That’s the beauty of FIRE, you get to frame the situation.
Lesson #1:Seek the wisdom of those smarter than you. Read books. Buy a cup of coffee for a guy 20 years older than you that has his act together and seek his advice. The Good Book says in Proverbs (Proverbs 11:14) that there is victory in an abundance of counselors. You don’t have to figure all of this out on your own. I was very lucky when I was first starting out because I ended up in a carpool with some investing savants. These guys were about 20 years older than I was and probably didn’t realize it, but were essentially giving me an advanced class in investing every morning and afternoon as we commuted. You’ve got something just about as good called Reddit where you can ask the crowd just about any question. If you’re wondering where to start, check out the subReddit on financial independence here.
Lesson #2:Save 10% of your gross starting with that first paycheck.When I started out as a second lieutenant, one of my co-workers kept bugging me to invest in this thing called an “IRA”.”I thought “why would I want to toss away $2000 towards something (retirement) that was so far away?”Luckily, those gurus I mentioned earlier convinced me of the errors of my ways.They gave me much wisdom then Mrs Woodworker and I started maxing out both our IRAs.
Lesson #3:You may think you can pick winning stocks, but you’re probably lying to yourself.Instead, invest in low cost index funds and watch dividend reinvestment work its magic.My personal favorite is the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index.If you’re wondering how much of your portfolio to invest in stocks, if you are in your 20s, I’d invest over 90% in stocks. That will give those early investments decades to power you to FIRE. Many people incorrectly say that when the market is down you are losing money. You are only losing money if you sell at that point. Over the long haul, the market has always recovered.
Lesson #4:Bloom where planted.No matter what job you are given, be excellent at it.People will notice and you will be given more responsibility.That will lead to promotions and more income. When I was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, the squadron gave the new guy (me) the SNACKO duty. For those not in the know, that means one of my additional duties was to keep the snack bar stocked and handle the money. I tried to be the best SNACKO the world had ever seen and created a schedule of fundraisers during times I knew the squadron would be hungry. The leadership noticed that revenues went up and that the snack bar was always fully stocked. That, along with keeping my nose to the grindstone in other areas led to more responsibility.
Lesson #5:Think carefully about WHAT you want to do and WHERE since this will determine your FIRE date.My wife and I kicked this around for about around 5 years until we settled on moving to a state (there are 19) that doesn’t tax military retirement.In addition, the state we are moving to has a much lower cost of living than our current state.It’s much easier to achieve FIRE in a low cost area. Think about your FIRE vision looks like and where you might need to move in order to achieve it.
I hope that helps you achieve your FIRE goals. Best of luck on your FIRE journey! I’d also like to give a shout out to Mr Money Mustache for his prolific guidance on how to live frugally and also Doug Nordman at The Military Guide for his military-specific advice. Thanks guys!
OK, off to the woodshop…I’ve got a commission to knock out…
Ah, the entrepreneurial road is a long and bumpy one…my grand plan to ramp up Traughber Design at the end of calendar year 2018 did not survive first contact with the enemy. As I’ve written about before, Mrs Woodworker and I are winding down a 30 year military career, while continuing to ramp up this business (see post Why Did I Write This Blog About Woodworking and Entrepreneurship). The community has been very supportive and we’ve had at least half a dozen requests for work in the past few months, BUT life had other ideas. We were a little short-handed at the unit in 2018 so I had been working a double load which meant very little, to zero wood shop time : ( It has been a mad sprint to complete everything required for military retirement. I’ll write about that transition soon.
We did; however, have 5 commissions in 2018 and broke even, which is a pretty good result in my book given that we essentially closed the shop in the second half of the year and turned down about a half dozen commissions.
Never fear, this month we will be able to pursue entrepreneurship full time AND we will be looking for another property, ideally one with a heated shop. Doing finishing work on wood has proven to be a challenge in the current shop which is in our garage. If we want to operate 24/7 in all conditions, we need a climate controlled shop. For example, today it’s 12 degrees outside this morning. Brrrrr! I still plan to bundle up and try to gut out at least an hour in the shop, but could do more work if the shop were heated. Not to worry, if it’s one thing that woodworking teaches you, it’s patience!
We hope you had a stellar 2018 and are off and running on your 2019 resolutions!
Back in Afghanistan, my pal Steve Patoir and I would commiserate about woodworking from time to time and one of the things we’d talk about was “the pivot” for some of the woodworking guys we’d run across. For example, we heard about the “Bunk Bed Guy” who had started out making all kinds of things, then made a bunk bed which was so popular that everyone began asking him to make bunk beds. Then there was the “Shadow Box Guy” who ended up exclusively making shadow boxes. Am I “The Corn Hole Guy”? I always try to keep a spare set of these corn hole sets in the shop in case a client wants to buy a set for a party or something and we are all out so I just made another one (see picture) this week. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being The Corn Hole Guy since I enjoy making them and hearing clients talk about how much fun their party was with some good old fashioned bean bag tossing and friendly competition (if you’d like to make your own set, check out the plan at our post The Cornhole Plan, or How to Jazz up your Next Party). This small project is relatively quick to make, and shouldn’t take more than 3-4 hours to build.
Speaking of small projects, I was talking with a potential client this week about making a table, and she said she thought her project might be too small. Nothing could be farther from the truth! I love these small projects, because they bring almost immediate gratification and you can see the results of your work in a matter of days or weeks. Corn hole sets fall in that category since I can easily crank out a set in a week (we do have to allow for several consecutive days of glue-up). Some of our bigger projects have taken several months and it requires a lot of patience to wait to see the results of our handiwork.
Or then again, maybe I’ll be the “Jewelry Display Guy.” Did you see Christy Dewitt and Nomades on Fox and Friends Friday morning? If not, check out the clip here. Nomades just ordered three more displays and I picked up the walnut at a couple wood dealers yesterday for that commission. We’re off and running.
Corn Hole Guy. Jewelry Display Guy. It’s all macht nichts to me. I’m glad for the work. Bring it on!
Getting back to corn hole, if you have a party coming up, these things are great. Swing by the wood shop and you can pick one up. We can always make more.
We turned down two commissions this week. Is that how to start a business? Am I crazy??? Maybe so. My pal Derek Sivers who wrote Anything You Want says that when you are starting a business you should say “yes” to everything, because you can’t afford to be choosey. On the flip side, he says that entrepreneurs are creating their own universe with its own set of principles, and why would they do work that doesn’t align with those principles? Don’t get me wrong. One of those commissions was a large refinishing project which I very much wanted to do, but I’ve already told about a half dozen people I would do their kitchen table, bookcase, entertainment center, etc. and there isn’t much time left in the year. The other project was for six dining room chairs, but those chairs would have required upholstery which is not really my thing, and would require a lot of hand carving which is not currently my thing. I guess the good thing is knowing here in year #4 of Traughber Design what “my thing” is. I guess it’s time to start saying no.
Another one of those principles was to migrate to a business that didn’t require a lot of commuting. I’d like most of the work to be in the shop rather than on site, because after 11 years of commuting in DC during two Air Force tours, I’d rather not sit on I95 any longer. Clients can come to the shop and pick up their pieces, which preserves my new 5 second commute to the garage. Yes, I still have that lovely I95 commute because this is a side gig for now (I wrote about this some in the post Reflections on 2017…Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Traughber Design!), BUT my retirement papers were approved (hurray!) and we (I use “we” because military service is a TEAM sport as Mrs Woodworker will attest) are within 1 year of official retirement and 8 months of terminal leave.
We’re not aiming to be a Rockefeller with Traughber Design (see our post Lessons Learned from John D. Rockefeller on Life, Entrepreneurship, and Woodworking) but make just enough to get by on military retirement (by the way, if you are making that transition also, I highly recommend Doug Nordman’s site The Military Guide on military transition and financial independence. He also has some great content on how to start a business). Given our current backlog of projects, making a go of it shouldn’t be an issue.
On to more positive things, like saying “yes”! We just completed a four sided jewelry display (see picture) for Nomades Collection in black walnut this week and are pretty happy with the result. You may have seen two of our recent Facebook posts on this. This was an evolution from the two sided version we profiled in the post Traughber Design and Nomades Collection Team Up! Some of the new features are:
100% more display space. The original display had two vertical jewelry trays back-to-back within a wooden frame. While the two-tray model is perfect for a smaller store, this one has space for three trays and a fourth side with posts to hang bracelets and bangles (I don’t know what bangles are, but they seem to be popular with the ladies). This allows for twice as much jewelry to be displayed.
A slot for brochures. This was trickier than it looks. The lazy susan bearings have to be reached from underneath to screw them in, so we had to make a removable bottom to be able to access the holes. It killed me to use metal fasteners for that removable bottom since we always strive for 100% wooden joinery, but I couldn’t see a way around it. At least the fasteners are not visible. I’m still noodling around on ways to access the lazy susan without the removable bottom and metal fasteners. If you have any ideas, leave them in the comments below.
Well, we sold out of the corn hole games, so I need to go tell the elves in the wood shop to get busy! Now, that’s how to start a business…
Santa was very good to us this year. He brought several terrific books on woodworking that were highly recommended by some of the current big names in woodworking. One of these tomes, “The Book of Five Rings”, is a popular strategy book written in 1645 (available at Amazon. Click here for the book), which you wouldn’t normally think of as an entrepreneurship and woodworking book; however, the author and samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, talks about working with wood in his strategy analogies which can be very helpful for entrepreneurs and woodworkers.
So who was Musashi? He was the founder of the Niten-Ichi-Ryû-School of sword fighting and fought sixty duels, the first when he was 13. Obviously, someone who fought that many duels with swords and survived, to such an age, is someone that might be worth listening to. They just might have some skill and wisdom.
“The five ‘books” refer to the idea that there are different elements of battle, just as there are different physical elements in life.” I’ll share three relevant concepts to the entrepreneur and woodworker here.
Become Proficient With Your Weapons (or Tools)
Musashi’s thoughts on artisanship and strategy are particularly useful:
“The Way of the carpenter is to become proficient in the use of his tools, first to lay his plans with a true measure and then perform his work according to plan. Those he passes through life.” Musashi then goes on to talk about the importance of training with weapons every day in order to become proficient. Likewise, the craftsman must build up many hours of hands-on experience to become proficient. Along those lines, I’m finding my current set of measuring tools are not up to the task as I continue to become more accurate. For example, using the English system with 1/16 inch increments is just proving to be inefficient when I have to continually add or subtract 1/4, 1/8, 1/16 inch etc. It’s much easier to do everything in the metric system which increases accuracy because there is less chance of making an adding or subtracting error. In addition, a millimeter is finer than 1/16 inch which increases precision even more. That’s why I’ve been gradually acquiring metric rulers and squares and using them more often.
“Like a trooper, the carpenter sharpens his own tools. he carries his equipment in his tool box, and works under the direction fo his foreman. he makes columns and girders with an axe, shapes floorboards and shelves with a glance, cuts fine openwork and carvings accurately, giving as excellent a finish as his skill will allow. This is the craft of the carpenter.” Musashi brings up a great point here. It is so tempting to keep working away on a piece when you know you should stop and sharpen the tool, but who wants to stop when you’re making progress and having fun? In the long run, it will take less time to take a break and sharpen that tool.
Develop Correct Strategy
“The comparison with carpentry is through the connection with houses. Houses of the nobility, houses of warriors, the Four houses, ruin of houses, thriving of houses, the style of the house, the tradition of the house, and the name of the house. The carpenter uses a master plan of the building, and the Way of strategy is similar in that there is a plan of campaign. If you want to learn the craft of war, ponder over this book. The teacher is as a needle, the disciple is as a thread. You must practice constantly.” Probably the most important step in designing a project is to listen to your client (we talked about that in our last post, Traughber Design and Nomades Collection Team Up!) and question them to understand what their vision is. The next most important is to think through your strategy before shaping a single piece of wood. This will save much time in the long run. We see this continuously in woodworking. It is imperative to have a strategy and plan for piece. For example, without a cut list the woodworker will continually be shuttling back and forth from teh wood shop to the wood dealer. I solid plan and cut list will ensure one trip for material and more time spent on the craft.
Another tie to strategy is that the enemy’s actions require the good strategist to adjust. Likewise, the woodworker needs to adjust their strategy as the work progresses. I recently finished a serving tray for Mrs. Woodworker. We got a fine piece of mulberry from fellow woodworker, Jacob Hummitzch (thanks Jacob), and when Mrs Woodworker had seen the raw board (see the post , the original dimensions we had discussed were out the window because the mulberry has so many interesting patterns in it. What I thought was going to be a simple rectangular board finished with a food-safe oil, is now going to be much different. Mrs Woodworker wanted to keep at least one live edge, so then I had to think of a different finish to preserve the live edge. In addition, we followed the circles of the grain at one end, versus making 90 degree corners. The woodworking strategy needs to be adjust to the wood, just as a military campaign strategy needs to be adjusted to conditions on the battlefield as Musashi writes. For more on this read our post about Entrepreneurship, Woodworking, and Clausewitzian fog and friction.
Musashi’s thesis is that “a man who conquers himself is ready to take on the world, should need arise”. This is very useful advice for entrepreneurs. If someone wants to scale up their enterprise, they need to get their personal leadership skills in order to be a good boss. Leadership in an entrepreneurial enterprise is the same as leadership in the military, according to Musashi: “The foreman carpenter must know the architectural theory of towers and temples, and the plans of palaces, and must employ men to raise up houses. The Way of the foreman carpenter is the same as the Way of the commander of a warrior house.”
“The foreman carpenter allots his men work according to their ability. Floor layers, makers of sliding doors, thresholds and lintels, ceilings and so on. Those of poor ability lay the floor joists, and those of lesser ability cave wedges and do such miscellaneous work. If the foreman knows and deploys his men will the finished work will be good.” In many cases, the supervisor can do the work, but should he/her? In doing the work themselves, the supervisor is taking away an opportunity for subordinates to develop.
“The foreman should take into account the abilities and limitations of his men, circulating among them and asking nothing unreasonable. He should know their morale and spirit, and encourage them when necessary. This is the same as the principle of strategy”
I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into a Samurai’s view of woodworking and entrepreneurship. Check out the book, when you get a chance.
We are very excited about a collaboration we just started with a jewelry company called Nomades Collection to build displays for their retail locations. The five founders have a fascinating origin story and I recommend checking out their website here. During our discussions during the build, a few design principles reinforced themselves and I thought I’d share them with you. First, I’ll talk about the design then about the design process.
A contrast in colors
The sky was the limit when it came to wood color, but the more we talked about it, the more a darker color made sense because the jewelry on the display is silver in color. The black walnut gives a nice contrast to the silver. And as you know, that’s probably my favorite wood at the moment as you saw in the black walnut gun cabinets we’ve made (read out post: Our First Commission of 2017! Black Walnut Gun Cabinet).
We went with some gentle round overs (quarter inch) on the vertical frame and spinning base with a little more ornamentation on the fixed base at the bottom. On the fixed base we went with a 3/8 inch round over and 1/16 inch shoulder since the base is farther away from the jewelry and wouldn’t detract from it. The routing adds a little pizzaz, but doesn’t draw the eye too much.
Low center of gravity
These displays will be sitting on countertops and need to be rock solid as the displays are spun. Given that, we went from thinner at the top to thicker at the bottom to keep all the weight low to stabilize the display. For example, the vertical frames are only 1/2 inch, then we thickened to 3/4 inch on the spinning base, then a full inch thick at the bottom.
The Design Process
This is probably the most important step. In this case, the client was way ahead of the game and had a digital drawing of what they were looking for. That was a great starting point, and this is where you can add value: by explaining which features are driving the cost so they can make informed decisions about which way to go. Some things look great on paper, but can’t be manufactured easily, if it all; however, there are almost always alternatives.
Some other questions you need to ask are:
What is your product all about? Is it a premium product, bargain item, something else? This will drive the quality of the materials and how many features you include in the piece. What does the piece need to do? How would you like it to look?
The thing that kept me up at night on this particular project was the mechanism that allowed the display to spin. It needed to spin freely and also last for years. We were initially thinking of having the spinning frame turn on a dowel. That would require waxing or oiling the dowel, but given that the displays will be all over the country, requiring regular maintenance was not a good plan. This is where the crowd came in handy. I pulsed a couple of my fellow woodworkers (read more about plugging into artisans in the post Entrepreneurship and Woodworking Require a Community) and they both suggested a lazy susan mechanism. Speaking of which…
We tried a small two inch square lazy susan bearing set, which just didn’t give enough stability and went with a large 9″ round bearing set from Triangle Manufacturing on the frozen tundra of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The wider stance of 9″ versus 4″ made a big difference and minimized wobble. Remember when we wrote about failing fast and failing cheap (click here to read How to Fail Fast and Fail Cheap in Woodworking, Entrepreneurship, and Life)? The bearings weren’t terribly expensive and it was worth it to burn through a couple and find the right one.
We’re in the process of iterating on a four sided model now that will also have display space for bracelets and bangles, so I’m sure we’ll have more to follow! Stay tuned…
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of our clients, friends, and family! Traughber Design just delivered its final sale of 2017 last week, and we thought this was a good time to thank our community of supporters and reflect on the past year.
This was our third full year of operation and the business is now profitable! We invested quite a bit in tools the first year, and we continued to build our client base the second year. This year we delivered 17 commissions (plus one pro bono project) with a wide variety of projects and have 1 commission in progress in the shop.
Traffic continues to grow to the blog and we have had over 2,800 unique visitors and 5,900 page views. We’ve published almost 60 posts now and have many more ideas for posts in 2018.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned over this 3 year journey is persistence. Most small businesses fail, and I wonder how many were on the cusp of success if their owners had just kept at it. Speaking of which, I’m grinding my way through David McCullough’s 1100 page biography (called “Truman“) of Harry S. Truman and the President’s persistence when everyone wrote him off is absolutely stunning. Check out this passage from the book which references a Newsweek poll of the biggest writers of the day: “Of the writers polled, not one thought Truman would win. The vote was unanimous, 50 for Dewey, 0 for Truman. “The landslide for Dewey will sweep the country,’ the magazine announced. Further, the Republicans would keep control in the Senate and increase their majority in the House. The election was as good as over.” As we all know from the history books, Truman won the election in 1948. He never gave up. The same goes for a small business; you have to believe you are going to win, just as Harry S. Truman did in 1948.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, please continue to support your local artisan ecosystem. Local small businesses are all tied together and a dollar spent with Traughber Design flows to other businesses, like hardwood dealers, tool vendors, glass manufacturers, etc.
Looking forward, soon the Air Force will be kicking me out after 30 years of service, and I’m excited to pursue Traughber Design full time. I will be on terminal leave at the end of 2018, and we will see what other exciting commissions come our way.
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.