Buying in China and selling in USA. The New American Dream

Hi r/entrepreneur I’ve followed this sub for quite a while, I enjoy the (rare) good posts, and I’d like to tell my story and hope you takeaway some useful knowledge. I was a 2009 college graduate, so I didn’t even have a chance to join the workforce in any meaningful way. Entrepreneurship is just natural to me and I hope I can sustain it over a lifetime

My entrepreneur journey began selling football tickets during college at U of Florida. Imagine an 18-year old white kid standing next to the veteran scalpers and hawking tickets. It was the best experience I could imagine. I think of it asĀ rejection therapy Learning to not be afraid of a ‘no’ is a very important part of being an entrepreneur. After college, I started buying and selling tickets online using TicketMaster and Stubhub. Selling tickets could be its own thread, it’s such an interesting space. There are fortunes being made buying tickets to in-demand events online. It’s just rather tedious (imagine entering 50,000 captcha phrases a year) Also, scalping tickets online doesn’t provide ‘value’ to anyone. I read the domain parking thread today and it makes me proud to be making money by delivering value, not withholding it for profit.

I grew tired of tickets and decided to visit a friend in China. I stayed for 6 weeks and bought some watches to bring back for gifts. One watch was especially cool and people asked about it everywhere I went. I got back in touch with my friend in China (who was just teaching English at the time) and he traced it back to a supplier. I thought I needed an investor/partner so I contacted the only rich guy I knew and he gave me $4,000 to be my 50/50 partner. I ordered 800 watches for $3 each, and paid some guy $3,000 to make me a website.

Lesson 1 DON’T SPEND MORE THAN $300 ON YOUR FIRST WEB PRESENCE

I scrapped that site in less than a month and built my own on Shopify. If you can operate your facebook page, you can setup a Shopify account, it’s stupid easy. I set the price at $65.

Lesson 2 PRICE HIGH

It gives you so many advantages. Better customers, less returns, room for wholesale/distributors, and a higher perceived value. Anyway, I created a fun brand around this. We did fun photoshoots, ran contests in the community (facebook ads were really cheap back then), and we really gained some customers. In a stroke of good luck, I got in touch with a Groupon rep and they agreed to run a deal for my watches. I was one of the first products to run on Groupon. (Remember, Groupon was mainly for services like spas and meals at the time) This went well initially, and they slated me for a Black Friday national deal. They sold 7,000 of my ‘deals’ in 3 days. Turns out my supplier back in China was just a trade company, and he couldn’t pull off a deal of my size on his ‘credit’ He almost completely screwed up the whole deal, and it was literally one of the lowest points of my life. In the end, I fulfilled about 70% of the orders successfully, and the other 30% basically told me I ruined their Christmas and got refunds. Funny thing was, Groupon still paid me out the entire amount even though there were almost 2,000 really upset customers (an omen that Groupon did not have their house in order and had their own crash coming) This company was calledTIKKR by the way. The site is still up but I’m not really in business anymore. I might try to revive it someday. But I could see the writing on the wall. There were at least 50 companies I knew of that sold the exact same watch, including Walgreens which sold it without a brand name for $4.99. I dropped my price and got what I could out of it, but I needed a new idea. Also I had returns and warranties like mad and it cost me a ton of cash, the watches were just cheap…

I honestly don’t remember how it came about, but I became aware of bamboo sunglasses being a thing. I was approached by my China friends to start something together. We were hanging out in Chicago that summer (2012 I think) which happened to be Groupon headquarters. I had a friend who worked there, and he got me access to their sales floor so I just kind of hung around and bothered people until I found the girl who sold fashion accessories.

Lesson 3 To get that big break, sometimes you just have to hang around until something happens to you. Not sure if that really qualifies as a legit ‘lesson’ but whatever.

I got her to agree to run us on a national scale. She told us to prepare 10,000 units for sale. I don’t know how, but we got $180,000 together between 3 partners . The China guys, the Groupon insider, and me. (Actually I do know how, I used my TIKKR money with a big boost from Bank of Mom. Hi mom!) The China guys handled production, I handled branding, marketing, and everything else and the Groupon guy was the Groupon guy. I came up with Woodies (and I even bought Woodies.com for $4,000 from some Canadian dude who was selling hockey stick chairs) The idea came from the old Woodie station wagons where the frame was made from wood. I rented a few cars for the photoshoots I was obsessed with Ashley Sky at the time and I had the crazy idea to hire her for a photoshoot. I contacted her people and to my amazement, she was only like $600 for a day and she had 100k instagram followers! I figured we would make that money back with one post from her. The Groupon sale went live and we sold like 4,000 instead of 10,000.

Lesson 4 Be optimistic in general, but be realistic when it comes to forecasts.

I can’t remember how many times I had a deal setup where I was like, yea I’m going to pay off all my student loans with this deal. It was usually mildly successful, but after all the bills were paid off, I wasn’t as far ahead as I thought I would be. It reminds me of the Old Man and the Sea. You land this HUGE deal, but by the time you drag it to shore, a bunch of little things have brought it back to size. Overhead, customer service time, returns/warranties, new orders, customs fees, shipping really add up. So with that ‘poor’ sales showing, the China guys ran into their own cash-flow problems. Groupon guy and I were forced to buy them out basically. But we had a real business with real customers and we were rolling. We now had $140,000 capital base after paying off the China guys, not enough for a big order, so I noticed Kickstarter was really blowing up, and thought I could bridge our cash-flow with a blockbuster kickstarter campaign. This is where things get pretty interesting. I got it in my head I wanted to hire Kendall Jenner for this campaign. Somehow I tracked down her modeling agency and eventually her direct manager. They quoted me $100,000 for the day. I created a Pinterest board and sent it to her and asked if she would do it for $25,000 plus a bunch of incentives and they said YES! I was completely thrown off and not sure what to do. I ran some projections and thought that I could make up most of that money if we raised a lot of kickstarter money. I hired Ashley Sky,Damaris Aguiar, Kendall Jenner, Aygemang Clay, Lyall Aston photographed it, Sagette Van Embden videoed it, Lina Palacios styled it, Mary Guthrie was hair and makeup. It was a giant production. I couldn’t believe it. I flew everyone out to Malibu, CA using Southwest Airlines buddy passes! Imagine Ashley Sky and Damaris Aguiar (so hot) standing at the Southwest ticket counter like wtf is standby? I’m over here sweating bullets hoping we don’t get stuck in New Orleans and I look like a fraud. Actually I fought those type of feelings a lot during this period.

Lesson 5 Don’t ever put yourself down.

Entrepreneurship is a crazy, improvisational dance. Sometimes I would look around at my competition and think they had it figured out, they were following a plan, they were ‘professionals’ and I was just doing my best to pretend. That’s BS, we’re ALL making it up as we go! Don’t put this process on a pedestal, fake it til you make it! Anywho, I rent out a Malibu HQ using Airbnb and rented a van for the day. I still can’t help but laughing when I remember this scene: I’m driving a large van with Kendall Jenner, Ashley Sky, Damaris Aguiar, and some bros, in the mountains of Malibu, I’m driving kind of fast around the curves because we’re late for the call time I set for us. I’m wearing a captain’s hat because that was my thing during that time. and Kendall’s manager scolded me for taking the turns too fast. Fun times

Here is how the campaign turned out

So, I got Kendall to agree to Instagram/tweet/facebook the kickstarter campaign, but what I didn’t realize is kickstarter is not mainstream and it just didn’t convert. I raised like $30,000 in revenue against a cost of like $70,000. I can’t say whether I would do it again given hindsight. It has led to great brand recognition because Kendall has kind of blew up and become a mega celebrity. AND her management let me write that contract so I have rights to those photos forever. One tweet by her got me close to 20,000 email subscribers which has been a stream of income ever since. (Shoutout Mailchimp!) *Monkeyrewards fyi Since then, I’ve been trying to come up with new designs, build on the brand, and leverage the list that came from Kendall Jenner’s gravity to make sales. It’s pretty seasonal, coming mostly during the summer and Christmas season. I have some big plans for 2015, but I have to keep them quiet for the time being, maybe there will be a follow-up post this next year

All that was a year ago and Woodies has had some good times and some slow times. I got into wood watches which have been really good sellers. I started selling on Amazon *affiliate, which has been a great boost to the bottom line.

Keep in mind that during this whole time I barely took a paycheck, and moved back in with mom in Tulsa, OK during a dry spell. I don’t spend a lot of money, I have zero savings (except for a few Bitcoins) I actually travel most of the year, I’m in Thailand right now writing this to you. So to summarize, I’ve been an entrepreneur for a long time, and my success is best characterized by a few BIG wins, and mostly small, gradual losses. In between, my life has been great, I get to travel, work remotely, perform autonomous, creative work, do photoshoots with hot models, and learn a lot about myself and the world around me. I wouldn’t trade it back and I’m optimistic about he future

Tech that makes all this possible:

Shipwire & Amazon FBA (Amazon FBA > Shipwire if you’re wondering)

All Google Products: Gmail, Google Drive, Google Forms, Analytics

Xero for accounting

Shopify for e-commerce

[Fiverr](Fiverr.com) to boost online reviews

Alibaba for finding suppliers. Once you find them, visit them, and invest in a relationship with them

Mailchimp for Email marketing (the best thing going in my opinion)

Flexport for freight forwarding, definitely changing the game

Other takeaways:

Wholesale business and international shipping are both great if you like to waste huge amounts of time chasing small amounts of money. Stick to domestic until you’re really big-time.

Never commit to big upfront costs. Always start small and test

Have a solid accounting system and data management system. It’ll come in handy when you need it

I’ve got to shout out my friend and one-time employee Joanna (she just started OnceBitten ) I was rarely as productive as when I had someone else keeping me accountable and adding great ideas and hard work to the process. I guess the lesson is if you’re going to hire somebody, make sure they’re really, really good and pay them well

Things I haven’t quite solved yet:

Customer Service management (I hate answering emails for real)

Taxes

CRM like Salesforce or something (is this necessary guys?)

I could go on, but I think this is enough. If you’re still reading this, I’ll answer questions if anyone wants to ask about business in China, solo-travel, branding, ecommerce, etc I’m not an expert in many things, but I know a little bit about a lot

See you at the Beach!

Cory Stout, Owner Woodies

A couple shout-outs: My other entrepreneur homies doing big things! RevelryDresses(group orders of sorority dresses)

OtisandEleanor(bluetooth speakers from bamboo)

OriginalGrain(wood watches, prob better than mine :) )

edit: Just want to say I’m enjoying hearing from you all. I’m doing solo travel right now, so it’s nice to connect with other entrepreneurs out there

source: http://www.reddit.com/r/Entrepreneur/comments/2tq5k8/buying_in_china_and_selling_in_usa_the_new/