Our next Guest Blogger in this series is Randy Pinson.
Randy Pinson is an internet retail cowboy and successful business owner who makes a living by selling inventory that other companies can’t sell for themselves. With years of online retail success under his belt, his latest endeavor is the new Rockagator brand of outdoor products. We should also mention that Randy is the charismatic front-man for the Davis County/Salt Lake County/Utah County-acclaimed band The Atomic Thunderlips.
My first bit of advice to anyone who has the entrepreneurial itch is, “don’t quit your day job . . . yet.”
I say this not to discourage them from following their dreams but hopefully to instill the reality that dreams are typically built slowly, often sidetracked, frequently doubted, and produce very little income in the early stages of development. The biggest mistake entrepreneurs make is that they underestimate their immediate cash-flow needs. When I got started in my business I piggybacked off of a steady paycheck and also married a very smart lady who brought home a good salary. Our bills were paid. Once I had become comfortable with my business and felt proficient with the necessary skill sets, only then did I remove the training wheels.
I FIRED THE INTERVIEWER
During my second year of business school it became apparent that my employment in the Pager industry was reaching the end of its functional lifecycle. I was faced with a decision: try to make it on my own by selling stuff on eBay, or fill out an application and start working for eBay. My risk-averse personality opted for the latter.
I made the trek to a hiring agency and stood in line, took personality and typing tests and sat through a strange group interview with other eBay applicants. When I finished the process, they told me I would be contacted in about two weeks with news on the job. In the meantime, I decided to test the entrepreneurial waters while I waited to hear back from eBay. With a $2,000 Hilton American Express credit line, I purchased some stuff from overstock.com and began re-selling it on eBay. I treated this like a full-time job for two weeks, and by the time eBay’s hiring agency called to offer me a sweet job in the blooming field of customer service, I figured I was already making as much hourly from home as I would be working for them. I fired the interviewer.
Making this decision didn’t come without a tall glass of self-doubt. Being able to show up to a desk and have someone hand you a paycheck every two weeks has its virtues. When you swim in the office space, you get benefits, free pizza and Pepsi on Fridays, health coverage, retirement and security. It is what every eager, wet-nosed college graduate longs for: acceptance and validation for all of their hard spent money. During my early college years and even during some of the early stages of my entrepreneurial campaign, I desperately wanted free pizza and Pepsi. eBay had such a cool corporate culture. They named their boardrooms after pop-culture references and had a fuzzy-faced, real-life mascot that started as eBay’s first customer service rep and spawned into an eBay cult icon that wore jackets so sparkly that it would make Liberace blush.
eBay represented, for me, the “times of plenty” and I wanted what they had. Momentum was building with my own business, but I was still putt-putting along selling odds and ends from an unfinished bedroom in my basement. I couldn’t help but look at the other pasture and wonder if I was fooling myself. Was I missing out? At this stage of my business, being my own boss was not as glamorous as it might seem; I’d say it kind of bit the big one.
A wise Englishman once said:
“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes
Well you might find
You get what you need.”
If someone were to ask me as a college freshman what I envisioned my career to be in 5 years, it certainly wouldn’t be selling a mix of La Perla lingerie, wireless internet ports and German language-learning software. Yet there I was, selling this hodge-podge mix of products and getting what I needed: steady (while unconventional) security.
I worried frequently what would happen if I ran out of stuff to sell, but it never happened. There was always something. Soon it became a fight over which products I would buy and which products I would turn away.
Last year, fourteen years from conception, my business had 1.5 million dollars in sales across multiple online marketplaces. All from a guy who charmed his way through high-school and barely passed college accounting while many other seemingly-more-qualified business people have perished on the plains of the Internet equivalent of the Oklahoma land rush. This begs the question: How did I survive when the others did not?
I didn’t survive fourteen years in this business by being Magic Johnson. My approach to business has been much more John Stockton-esque. My growth was steady and deliberate. My risks/gambles were very calculated and conservative. I found holes in the competition and exploited them to my benefit, and my shorts were very short.
Ok, maybe that last bit isn’t true.
All in all, my business strategy has always been very flexible and adaptable to changes in the marketplace. What started off as strictly an eBay business has morphed into an Amazon.com business with a touch of eBay and a few other marketplaces. The businesses that didn’t survive the land rush of the Internet fell to an inability to adapt to the changing marketplace.
What does it mean to be flexible? It means to be prepared to toss aside any preconceived and idealized notion of how you thought your business would run. You can develop the perfect system for selling your product, but a simple marketplace rule change or fee change can render your business model obsolete overnight. When marketplace events like this happen, many businesses throw in the towel. Others plan on these changes happening as a rule of thumb and survive.
Even though my core business has done well for many years, I still haven’t thrown all my eggs in one basket. In my regular business routine I found that there was one line of products in the marketplace that was underserved (meaning lots of demand, not enough good product) and decided to create another business just to manufacture these items. That is how my second business, Rockagator, LLC was started. In business strategy class, your professor would call this type of move a ‘vertical integration.’
I’m brave and all, but – like I said – I’m calculated. I was eager to move forward with this new endeavor. I didn’t, however, just start a new business on a whim without a way to sell it or without prior knowledge of market demand. I already had both. I had sold similar products for years with measured success and if I created my own product, I already had a company that could sell the products for me, my own company. With Rockagator, our first run of waterproof backpacks were mostly sold via my original online retail business through Amazon.com, even though we also have a separate Rockagator.com website.
Rockagator is still in the infant stage of business development, but I am very optimistic with the early success we have experienced. In fact, we’re currently sold out, and should be getting a new load of our version 2.0 waterproof backpacks right about the time that this blog post gets published.
YOU GET WHAT YOU NEED
There is a lot to love about being my own boss. Earlier, I outlined some of the cons and challenges that come with it. Most of that entrepreneurial-adversity comes during the early stages of a business when one is relegated to eating beef stew from a can for three years while running down a dream.
Once you have put in the work and done your time, you might start to reap some of that measured, quantifiable success. Now you get to experience the exciting luxuries and benefits of being your own boss: more money, more time, more flexibility, and more ability to give back.
Even though it might be natural to feel that I accomplished everything that I have through my superior skills and charm, in reality, there is the final element of success that I haven’t addressed. It can go by several names: good fortune, luck, divine providence . . . .
Whichever term you prefer, it is healthy to remind your successful-self that you are basically a winner in the lottery of life and should remember to pay it forward when possible. I am not so successful that I have been able to give out cars on my own TV show, but giving back is something I try to do, and I hope to be able to do it on a larger scale as things continue to grow.
The waves of success and failure have washed over me in varying degrees over the past fourteen years. With each wave I rarely got exactly what I wanted or expected. But with a little patience and flexibility, I seem to get what I need.