Hope your month of August is off to a great start! Today’s post will be a little bit different than some of the usual posts, in that I will be sharing some of the details of my past. A little over a month ago I sent out an email asking for blog post topic ideas, and there were several questions that revolved around learning more of my backstory, how I got my start selling items on Amazon, and specifically if there were parts I felt contributed to my current results selling on Amazon. So far I have shared a limited amount of my background on the blog, so in today’s post we will dig a little deeper.
I grew up in a small town in Southeastern Minnesota (population of about 2,500 people), and am the oldest of 4 children. I have 2 younger brothers, and one younger sister. When I was about 10 years old, my family moved to a 6 acre hobby farm, which is where my parents still live. This was an excellent place to grow up as a kid, I spent a ton of time outside, and learned a lot of valuable things growing up.
I had an interest in entrepreneurial projects / business from a young age. For a couple years around when I was in middle school, my family and I had a pumpkin patch which we grew pumpkins to sell around Halloween for carving. At the time we were selling them for $2 a piece, and our biggest year we probably sold around 200 pumpkins. This never really made huge sums of money (although it felt like it at the time) but I believe it helped to spark my entrepreneurial spirit, and was able to see the fruits of labor paying off. Here’s a picture of my siblings and me with some of our harvest (I’m on the far left):
Also from the time I was about 11 through around 17, I was involved in 4H. Unless you grew up in a pretty small town, it’s definitely possible you don’t know what that is. My 4H experience revolved around raising animals and showing them at the local county fair. I wasn’t a huge fan of the actual 4H meetings, as they were very structured and inflexible, but I really enjoyed having the animals and the business side of raising them.
Throughout these years I raised mainly chickens, ducks, goats, and sheep. Sheep and chickens were probably my favorite and at our peak we had around 20 sheep and 125 chickens. We would show them at the fair which usually occurred in July, and then would sell the majority of them after that. This didn’t end up being the most profitable venture either, but it was great for learning some of the basics of business, and more importantly the ability to see the results from hard work. Here are a few pics from those days:
I have been asked quite a few times how I obtained my business mindset, and what/who inspired me to want to be an entrepreneur. I can’t point to a specific person or example, but selling the pumpkins and raising the animals definitely played a role in my desire to learn about business, and likely more valuable than that was seeing the reward after putting in hard work. So, I have my parents to thank for getting me involved in these activities from a young age.
It wasn’t all entrepreneurial jobs though, during high school I worked at the local grocery store, worked as a lifeguard, taught swimming lessons, and worked for a local farmer.
I graduated high school in June of 2007, and then went to college at Winona State University. At the time I knew that I wanted to go into a business related field, but didn’t have an exact major picked out.
During my freshman year of college my eyes were opened to the possibility of selling online. The first exposure I had to this was with textbooks, the first semester I was there the university built my textbooks into my tuition. They claim it’s a good deal as they say they give freshmen first priority on used books for lower prices, that they’ll save you the stress of having to track down your books when you are adjusting to college life, and other fallacies like that. In reality, university bookstores are one of the biggest rip offs at most colleges. I heard about buying books online shortly after arriving at college, and compared the prices available online to the prices I paid. I paid dramatically more, and my first semester freshman year was the only semester that I ever purchased my books from the college bookstore. I also had the unpleasant experience of attempting to sell my books back to the university bookstore after my first semester. It was another rude awakening with the prices they were offering, again they were dramatically lower than what I could get online. I decided to sell them on Amazon myself. In 2008, my college textbooks were the first items that I ever sold on Amazon.
During my freshman year I learned about enough inefficiencies in the textbook market to begin creating a business out of it. During my sophomore year, I would buy books from my friends at the end of semesters, and also would set up boxes around campus to collect unwanted books. During my sophomore year I sold a couple hundred books, and it really got the wheels spinning to expand the business further.
During the first semester of my junior year, I convinced one of my roommates at the time to go in with me and purchase textbooks directly from students who we didn’t personally know. At the close of the semester when students were selling back their books, we setup a table near the college bookstore and would stop students that were walking with textbooks that appeared to be going to the college bookstore to sell them, and offer to buy them. Our offer was that we would pay 10% more than the bookstore if they wanted to compare, or they could skip the line, and sell them to us right away. Surprisingly at the time the bookstore didn’t care, we even bought some books directly from them that they had purchased too many copies of. We did this for about 3 days and purchased around $4,000 in cost of textbooks from students that semester. This was a huge sum of cash for us at the time. This was after the fall semester so we listed them for sale in December, and saw most of them sell through by the end of January. We made a solid profit, and I was hooked. We merchant fulfilled all of these books. We manually wrote the addresses on all of the books, and purchased postage at the post office. Luckily we realized quickly that this was very inefficient, and found out about purchasing postage online, and ultimately I learned about Fulfillment by Amazon.
My second semester junior year we did the same setup buying textbooks directly from students. I don’t remember the exact amount but we purchased a little bit more than the prior semester. We also used FBA for all of the books this semester, and man was that a massive improvement. We shipped out all the books in May, and saw most of them sell before mid-September. So, the spring of 2010 was my first ever FBA shipment, and I knew after seeing all these books sell that I wasn’t going back to merchant fulfilling if I could help it.
In the summer before my senior year, I had the idea to begin trying to take advantage of the buying side of the textbook business as well. I convinced my same roommate to go in on the project with me, and we ultimately created a site specifically for Winona State students to purchase their textbooks from Amazon. Essentially it worked the exact same as the bookstore website, student’s selected their class, their professor, and their class time, and the book they needed was displayed directly from Amazon. Most of the time at a MUCH lower price than the bookstore. I found a couple of website templates, and we were able to create the site ourselves. We monetized the site through the Amazon Associates program. This was going well as we made about $1200 in the first week the site was live (mid-August) but then we received an email from the university. Not surprisingly, they weren’t too fond of having us have essentially the same website as them, but with better prices. They said that the data we were using was not public information, and that if we wanted the site to stay live we would have to pay each semester for the information. We had a meeting with the bookstore manager, and a representative from the university, and ultimately we weren’t able to work out a deal that made sense. They wanted $2500 per semester for the info, but were unwilling to make that a long term commitment. Essentially, they would have had the ability to raise the price to a level that would force us to eventually shut the site down at any point in the future if they wanted. We decided to move on. This ultimately led us to creating a comparison shopping site for textbooks that would be usable for any student across the nation. This led to its own set of challenges, we paid about $5K to have the site created, and had some serious trouble marketing the site. We underestimated how hard it would be to expand to campuses that we did not attend. The site was live from early 2012 through the middle of this year, and monetarily it was a slightly losing proposition overall.
We weren’t done yet though with buying books from students at the close of the semester. At the end of the first semester our senior year, we attempted the same drill where we setup a table near the bookstore and started buying books from students. Within the first hour, we saw the bookstore manager walk by, and shortly after that we had security for the building informing us that we weren’t allowed to conduct business here. Needless to say the bookstore was still quite unhappy about the website, and wasn’t willing to let us infringe on their territory any longer.
This did shut us down for the remainder of the semester, but not beyond that. My second semester of senior year we partnered with a local restaurant across the street from the university to buy books from their location. We gave out free pizza and pop, as well as gift cards to the location. This turned out to be the most books we ever purchased in the semester at the time with a total of around $9,000.
This textbook buying business is still going in some capacity today (although in a more evolved form from the stories here), and was extremely valuable in providing me lessons in both business, and how to sell on Amazon.
A couple other quick notes from college, there was about an 18 month stretch in which I played an excessive amount of online poker. I had always played some poker for fun throughout high school and college, but the ability to play online took it to another level. I played mainly on Full Tilt and Poker Stars websites. I was up a good amount, I profited around $7500 in total at the time I cashed out, and this was ultimately the money I used to begin funding the textbook business. The other main reason for mentioning this is that I believe the strategy and numbers analysis involved in poker is a valuable skill in business today. Luckily I cashed out entirely before these sites were shut down.
In addition to playing poker, I created a website at the time that was essentially a site that paid affiliate commissions if you recruited new players. This site never made me even a single penny.
During my senior year of college I took a semester off to do a 6 month internship with IBM as a Financial Analyst. This was another very valuable experience. I was able to see what it was like to work at a very large company. While I did learn some valuable things, one of the biggest was probably the fact that I didn’t really like working the typical corporate style job. After this internship I had one semester of college left.
I graduated in December 2011 with a double major of Accounting and Business Administration. In January of 2012, I began working as an Assurance Associate at McGladrey in Minneapolis. In this role I worked as a part of an audit team. We were hired by the individual companies, but worked on behalf of banks or shareholders who required audits of the company’s financial statements. Through this position I learned a good deal more about accounting, as well as about the inner workings of some very successful small businesses. I can’t pinpoint anything exactly, but working closely with a large variety of businesses definitely provided some valuable insight that has value in my business today.
As a part of this job, January through mid-April was known as “busy season.” During this time period the expectation was to work a minimum of 55 hours per week, and working at least a half day on Saturdays was required. This part of the year got old REALLY fast. I almost quit before my 2nd busy season, and I knew after the 2nd busy season that I would be leaving the company before I was anywhere close to working a 3rd busy season. I ended up quitting on September 20, 2013 to pursue my entrepreneurial projects full time and haven’t looked back.
Ever since I started selling textbooks on Amazon, I was selling other products on both Amazon and eBay as well. I was doing mainly retail arbitrage and would mainly sell clearance items. Doing this, along with the textbook business, and owner-occupying a duplex, provided me enough confidence to quit my job and do this full time. At the time I wasn’t making even half of the amount I was at my full time job, but the risk has definitely paid off. My first post ever on the blog, walking away from 50K goes more into detail on my decision.
This post has gotten a bit long, and focuses mainly on business pursuits. I am far from an all work and no play kind of guy though. One of the biggest reasons I follow the entrepreneurial path is for freedom of time, and to allow me to be in complete control of my life. On the fun side of things, I really enjoy playing and watching sports, board games, most types of competition, traveling, spending time outdoors, and spending time with family and friends.
I have been in entrepreneurial projects for as long as I can remember. Some worked, some didn’t, but all of them taught me something that has contributed to where I am at today. There are many more stories related to these than I was able to include in this post, and there were quite a few that really didn’t make any money. The things that didn’t pan out particularly well have still provided value, as I am able to avoid some of the mistakes I made going forward. I would much rather try and fail, than to never have tried at all.
If you want to know more about my background, more about anything I touched on in this post, or have any other questions, let me know in the comments below!