Welcome to the Eventual Millionaire podcast. I’m Jaime Tardy and today we have Brad Deal on the show. Brad owns a company called Sticks and Stones and I think it’s actually a funny way that I found him. My transcriptionist sent me an email to a Yahoo! site that talked about his company from going from $100 to multimillions and so she’s like you need to have him on the show. That was two days ago. I emailed him, he said yes and we’re here today. It’s amazing the power of the internet. So thank you so much for coming on the show today, Brad.
BRAD DEAL: You’re welcome. Glad to be here.
JAIME TARDY: Good! So tell me a little bit, I didn’t actually tell anyone what Sticks and Stones was. Tell us a little bit what Sticks and Stones is.
BD: Sure. Sticks and Stones is a company, we came up with the name because we take images of things in nature, art and architecture and so the architecture would have been the stones and the sticks would have been nature and they form letters of the alphabet. Then we create personalized keepsakes by framing these letters and sending them out to people for things such as wedding gifts, anniversary gifts, just home decor items that people want for their own home. But I would say, for the most part we are a gift item. We’re huge, huge Christmas business every year and then as the wedding season picks up, you know, Valentine ‘s Day we’re big, Mother’s day it’s big. That’s what we do.
JT: It’s funny, because when I saw the article I was like why didn’t I think of that. That’s what everybody sort of probably says because how did you guys come up with the idea?
BD: It was actually by happenstance. When my oldest daughter, who is now going to be 12 in July was 3, she went to a preschool and they started teaching them the alphabet there. One day we were walking along our riverfront with her basically in a stroller at that point in time though she could walk, she’d get out and run around, and she just happened to point and say, “A” and I just looked over and saw something that looked like the letter and said, “Yeah, that’s an A.” Then we kept walking a little bit farther and she said, “H” and she saw another letter that looked like an H and I said, “Yeah.”
As we went on walks she would just start pointing letters out and we thought that was kind of neat and eventually we started using our camera to take just kind of a memoir of our walks and where we saw some of these things, they were all local, I mean they were no more than 3-4 miles from our house and then we kind of made it a game to get the entire alphabet. Once we had the entire alphabet we said, you know, she likes these pictures and she likes looking at these letters and she is already starting to have memories of where we saw them because we’d ask and she’d say, “Park” or “In our neighborhood” or something like that.
So I said what if we learn to teach her to kind of start to read at a young age just by forming these letters into words and they were three letter words like cat and dog and pig. Animals make good three letter words apparently. Basically once we knew that we could do words with them, it came time for us to give a wedding gift for one of our daughter’s teachers, our next daughter, this is a couple years later. We gave her a wedding gift and we just went to my buddy who owned a frame shop and said would you be willing to just frame this for us, tell me how much it’s going to cost and we’re going to give it as a gift.
We took up a collection of like three or four dollars from each parent in the school and when we gave that gift to her we just used her last name, you know, the name she was going to take when she got married and within a day or two of giving that gift, we probably had three or four different people that wanted one and one person wanted 7 or 8 for Christmas already and so I kind of realized at that point that it could be hot, but it certainly wasn’t anything at that point in time that it’s like okay this is going to be our career and our livelihood. It was more of a we got these other things going on and this might be some nice extra income.
We had no way of making them at that point in time. So my friend who owned the frame shop, I had to go to him and say hey that keepsake you made for me for that wedding gift, he said. “Yeah;” I said, “Well I’ve got about 10 more that we need to make” and I said, “Is there any way that you can kind of cut me in on that?” He said, “Sure, what are you thinking?” I said, “Well I don’t know what it takes for you to run your business but if we could come up with a percentage that would work, we might start selling them.” It’s not like I’m trying to make money off of people that I know but really if we want to make it a business we got to start somewhere. So he said, “Sure.” I just kept bringing him orders from local people. So that was how it started.
JT: Your 3-year-old daughter, now she’s 12 but you must be like thank you. Thank you for seeing letters wherever you went. I have a 3 year old, that’s awesome. That’s really cool.
BD: The funny thing is she doesn’t even remember that. When I ask her do you remember when we took some of these pictures, she doesn’t have any recollection of it.
JT: Good thing you took pictures. So that’s really cool. So when you first did it, you started getting some people asking and you got like those first ten orders, did you go around and start telling people about it more or anything like that? How did you start to ramp it up just a little bit locally like that?
BD: We first realized, if we’re going to start selling these we need more letter choices because there was a couple letters that we just had one, because it was our quest to fill the whole alphabet. We kind of had to do that first and we realized we needed to give people more choices. What would happen is it was kind of a word of mouth thing because one person would buy one and put it on their wall and then another person would see it and say, “Where’d you get it?” Oh there is this couple over here in this neighborhood that does them and oh I’d like to get one. So people would start coming to our house.
We’re sitting around the dining room table with this little portfolio of pictures and they’re flipping through them and they’re taking them out and laying them side by side. So that was kind of how it went. Eventually once it got to the point where there were people that were calling us that we didn’t know, it was kind of a friend of a friend of a friend, we realized, actually at this time it was two young children but a third was on the way, we probably need to make this so that people can order without having to walk or drive over to our house to do it.
My buddy who owns the frame shop also has a Hallmark store. He owns a Hallmark franchise where he has got three or four Hallmarks so people would go there as well. We had our alphabet available there, but that eventually led to us saying let’s build a website where people can lay these out and make a choice, which is what you’ve played around with yourself to see. It kind of lays the frame out for you and the pictures will pop up based on the word that you choose. That’s just a more high tech version of what we were doing already back with actual photographs lying on a table.
JT: That’s crazy. So tell me the timeframe on that though. You went and people were coming over. When did the website actually come about from when you first did the keepsake for the wedding.
BD: It probably took us about three or four months from the first gift we gave to where the website, well the website was probably not ready to go until about November ’05 and this was probably August ’05. So August, September, October, about four months before and we had a programmer that we had already had on staff with another business that we owned and we just started diverting his time over to this website. So he probably put in 16-hour days for a couple weeks straight and we would be talking sometimes in the middle of the night to kind of edit the website and make sure it was what we wanted. Even then, when I look back on it, it was so rudimentary compared to where it is today. He built it from scratch and this was 7/8 years ago. There wasn’t a ton of website savvy out there yet really.
JT: So what was your other business, if you don’t mind me asking.
BD: We had a business that my wife and I owned that was basically related to advertising in the automobile industry. She originally worked for a company out of Detroit, which obviously is like auto headquarters of the U.S. and that company was selling and she split off on her own and then she got busy enough that I joined her. We had done that but we could see the trend was going in a direction kind of away from banner ads and email marketing. The consumers were becoming more savvy so the real estate was getting less valuable.
The company that we represented actually ended up selling and so there was really, at that point in time, we had a couple years worth of revenue that we could live off of, but eventually that business was gone. So we had to do something. This just happened to be what it was.
JT: How did you know? When was that point or that pivotal moment when you realized oh we’re not doing that anymore we’re going to Sticks and Stones as our main thing?
BD: I would say Sticks and Stones became like the main thing for us in about August ’06. So it was about a year after we sold our first one. The reason it became the main thing was, you know, I was outsourcing to my friend who owned the frame shop and so he was still building everything and he came to me one day and said ? (My nose is itching so I apologize I keep doing this.)
JT: It’s real, it happens.
BD: Every once in awhile you have to itch your nose. We were outsourcing to him and he eventually came to me one day and said, “I think you’re going to outgrow me.” His space was very limited. I think he was probably working out of about, the framing area that he had, he had four or five employees that worked back there and he was working out of an area that might have been about 10 feet wide by about 40 feet long. I was in there and I’m not small, with a desktop computer.
I would come up there whenever we got orders and I would some processing but his people would do all the building of the orders and we submitted our item to a home d?cor catalog called Grand and Road and got accepted in February ’06 but they plan so far out that it didn’t come out until late July. When it came out, they had said you’ll probably sell about 75 a month and that’s about what we’re targeting for you. I looked at the numbers based on what I was going to make off of them working with my friend and he and I realized that it’s not going to be worth my time because the catalog would take such a big cut.
He’s like you need to do this on your own. I said, “I can’t do this on my own because I don’t know how this catalog is going to perform. I mean what if it is only 75 a month?” It’s not going to be worth renting space and getting the equipment that I would need but in the first month I think we sold over 300 with them. That was when I realized I’m going to do this on my own and literally I was doing it on my own. Once I got my first little place set up which was in this really dingy basement with no heat. It was still summer at this time so I didn’t worry about heat but all of a sudden it got to be the winter and it’s freezing down there.
Anyway, I was doing it all by myself and all the 800 numbers, I still have the same 800 number that I had back then but now I have a call service that answers all the calls, but back then they all forwarded to my cell phone. I’m in this basement of concrete walls and every time a phone call would come in I would have to walk upstairs an go outside to answer the phone because you couldn’t, I had no reception in the basement to my cell phone. So I am answering every phone call talking to every single customer answering every single email. So it’s literally a one-man operation at this point in time.
JT: Let’s back up for just a second. How did you end up getting that catalog gig? What’s the process for that? For someone who has a product right now, what would they have to go through?
BD: The first thing you have to do is these buyers at catalogs, they’re merchandisers in some cases their called. The buyers is what we call them in layman’s terms. Their job is to assess products. Sometimes they’ll go to shows and find products and sometimes people will send them products. So, if you are a person who has a product that you, if you find a catalog that’s a good fit for you and you say, “My product would be great for this genre,” maybe it’s home d?cor, maybe it’s gift, we did both. Whatever your product is, go to that catalog and then usually it’s very hard to find the name of the buyer. Even if you call there’s a gatekeeper there.
JT: Yes, they don’t want to tell everybody.
BD: They’ll pick up the phone ABC Catalog, how are you? Hey could you tell me the buyer or the merchandiser in charge of couches or whatever it happens to be, wall art in our case. Sometimes they will tell you and they’ll say that’s so and so but sometimes they won’t. You have to, there’s a lot of research that you have to do to find that information out and some people are forthcoming with it and some people aren’t. The size of the catalog can make a difference too.
We had a really small catalog out of New York City called Uncommon Goods. I actually don’t think they’re very small anymore. The catalog itself is tiny but that’s just because they put it on smaller paper. But it’s a really good company and my wife actually called and spoke directly to the owner of that catalog, when he was at a trade show or something and he loved the idea and put us in touch with a buyer himself. Now some of these large catalogues they wouldn’t do that because there night not even be one particular owner.
JT: What did you do for that first one? Do you remember? Did you just track someone down to get that very first one?
BD: I know what we did. When we originally did it we sent it to the wrong place and when I emailed the person there she’s like oh I’m not in charge of that but so and so is and I think she would like it. Then she gave me that person’s email address. Then I got a call within about 24 hours from that person. I love it, I want to put you in and then we started the negotiation of price and then I quickly lost my enthusiasm, because I realized I was paying more to get them made than they were going to pay me to make them.
JT: Ouch. What did you do then though? You can’t have a business if you have to pay them more than you’re going to get.
BD: That was when I went to Kevin, who is my friend, and I don’t know if you saw the Yahoo! video but he was interviewed on there and he said, “You’re going to go outgrow me anyway.” Sometime you’re going to outgrow me regardless of whether this catalog comes to fruition or not. He said I can see your drive and I can see how much you care about this and all those things. He was like I just don’t see a lot of that in a lot of people sometimes. People talk a good game but he said, “You’re all action.” He’s like I’ve already seen it grow with you so he was like I will help you get set up whatever you need.
Even though he knew he was kind of cutting his own throat at that situation, because he was making nice money off of us, but he knew, I think, as long as we can make the pie bigger then his slice could become bigger, even though he was kind of in the short run making it a smaller slice for himself.
JT: Does he still do stuff with you right now?
BD: Yes. In fact, instead of him giving me space, I now give him space. He still owns all of his shops but I give him space in my factory because he builds all of our wood frames for us.
JT: Oh he does, nice.
BD: So he has about a quarter of the space and he’s got like a corner that he uses to cut all of our frames and it’s a great relationship because he buys all the wood and I don’t have to pay him until the frame is on my wall. He fronts all the money for the wood, which is great, but he likes it because he makes a lot of what they call ready-made frames like right behind you on your wall there I see a frame. That might be something that you’d be buying from a frame shop and putting your own art in there. He sells frames that are like that ready to go and he said, “I didn’t have the capacity because I didn’t have the space to make these frames.” So now I’m not only making frames for you but I’ve increased my own business because I can make more ready-made frames with the space you gave me.
JT: That worked out really, really well.
BD: Oh yes, it’s a win-win. We play poker together and we do things together. We’re buddies, you know.
JT: That’s awesome. So let’s take it back to June or July you said 2006 is when the catalog came out. You started doing that, you started doing stuff on your own. Take us until the next few years. How did you start growing it?
BD: Well in ’06 was when I first had to hire employees to help me because once we hit the holiday season, we had our internet business which was growing exponentially from the year before. We had a couple articles in our local newspaper about our business that were timed such that it was right in the gift buying frenzy and this catalog started going crazy around this time. Both of our catalogs that we were in. So I ended up having to hire maybe 8 or 9 people. I mean my parents were helping, my in-laws were helping. Everybody was on the payroll that was of age.
Then I hired just some people from the community. I was on a radio show locally and probably got 4 or 5 perspective employees from that and hired a couple of them. That was holiday season ’06. We made it through there by the skin of our teeth and then ’07 came and this was really my first year of experiencing what happens in January to a highly seasonal item. It was quiet. I head crickets chirping for a little while, but it wasn’t nearly as quiet as it had been the year before. So I realized now we’re gaining some momentum but this is just going to be a cycle that we’re going to deal with.
So in 2007, really early on in 2007 we actually had gotten invited to the Oprah Show in the audience. We basically got, we had gone in September ’06 and had gotten, it was just a real crazy situation because we had gone up there as audience members in ’06 and as we were getting seated there was a lady that just kind of says to me did your wife drag you here today she asks and I said, “No, actually I’m a huge fan. I drug her here.” So she started laughing. I think I just must not have looked like her standard fan, which I found out was the case when I got in there because it was mostly women.
There was some older guys with their wives that were bringing them there and they probably were, their wives probably dragged them there but in my case I was happy to be there. While she is doing this audience warm-up which is what they do before a talk show starts I guess because I’ve only been to her show a couple times so that’s all I know, they called me down. She pulls me out of the crowd out of like 300 people and says, “Come on down here.” This lady, not Oprah, but this lady who we later became pretty good friends with and she has me up on stage and she’s asking me questions.
At one point, she comes to so you took the day off work to bring your wife here that was nice. I said, “Well I own my own company and so it wasn’t that hard to do.” Then she asked me well what’s your company. So it gave me a chance to promote.
JT: Good job, that was perfect.
BD: Anyway so we leave and go home. Within about, we sent a keepsake to the lady that got us the tickets as a thank you and we thought it would be a nice thank you. Within a couple of weeks the lady that had called me up onstage called me. She got my phone number somehow. She might have called my 800 number but it got to me, because I was still answering them all. She says, “I’d love to get one for a bar mitzvah that I’m going to” and I said, “No problem, I’ll send you one.” Basically we’ve got a few keepsakes rolling around now up at Harpo and they’re in Chicago so they are close to us. We were really wanting to get on the show as small business owners or something.
JT: Yeah, who doesn’t want to get on The Oprah Show, right?
BD: So in January they call us and say hey we’ve got a possible segment for you. It’s on a millionaire moms’ show. Well we were not that at that point but we were doing well. The business is kind of going a little bit. She was like the show is going to have some people that you’ve heard of. I mean Paula Deen was on that show. Ang Sally who was the wedding dress making was on that show. So we were not there but you will be in the special audience. Oprah may or may not talk to you on camera. We’re like okay.
Well we quickly learned that special audience was basically like the regular audience. You just come in a different door. Instead of waiting in like this holding room with these giant flat screen TVs of all these Oprah shows playing over and over with 300 other people you come in a special door with like 10 people. But when you get in there it’s the same deal. You’re sitting in a chair, it just happened to be 30 feet away from the other chair that I was sitting in last time.
JT: But she knew about you and that’s what matters, right. They were special.
BD: Well we brought a keepsake up to give to Oprah but they confiscated. When you come in there is like some security, of course, and you have to give them your ID. We said we brought this gift for Oprah and they’re like you’re not going to get to give that to her. They’re like we’re just being honest with you, we’re not going to get to give that to her. So we just left it with them figuring worse come to worse somebody has got a nice keepsake sitting there that says Oprah.
Anyway, the show is going on and at the end of the show she hung around and just kind of, which she didn’t do the first show we went to, so we weren’t used to it. But she kind of hung around and taking questions. People would say can I take my picture with you and she’d be like sure come on up, which was really cool I thought. She probably gave about an hour of her time extra to the audience after the show. It’s a free show. But she was just being really gracious and my wife is ribbing me, stand up, raise your hand. So I raise my hand.
JT: She won’t do it but you have to do it.
BD: She’s like you’re going to be noticed. I mean you were noticed the last time. You’re big and ugly and I said, “All right.” So I raise my hand and she calls on me immediately. I knew as soon as I raised my hand she was going to call me. I don’t know why but I just knew it, because that happens. So she just called on me and I just stood up and said, “Hey my wife and I made a gift for you. I appreciate you having us to your show. Would you be willing to accept it?” She said, “Sure.” No sooner has she said that than the woman who originally called me up on stage the last episode is standing there with our gift and it’s wrapped. Oprah gets these like giant gleaming scissors brought out to her.
JT: Because she’s Oprah.
BD: You only see them in the movies. I mean they’re giant and they’re gleaming. Somebody was probably shining them before they came out. So they bring the scissors out and she cuts the ribbon off delicately at the perfect angle and she opens it right there in front of everybody. She really was genuinely, I think, she liked it a lot. She started asking us all these questions about it to the point where somebody behind me is muttering I wish these guys would just sit down.
Every time I tied to sit down she asked me to stand up again. So from that audience, so she’s like turn the cameras off for a minute. So they all turned the cameras off. They did her bidding and she’s like I would love to give this as a gift to Tom and Katie for their wedding. Could you make one for me? Which we, of course, said, “Sure.”
JT: Yeah, no, of course we can’t make you this thing, Oprah.
BD: At that point in time, I guess, I didn’t realize the significance of that because we kept that really quiet. We told some friends and family, because it was kind of a cool thing like hey guess what Oprah bought this from us to give to Tom and Kate. Then they called us like a couple weeks later and she wanted to make another one for her niece. Now all of a sudden she’s kind of a customer, but we really did keep that quiet and I think the reason that we did was because we felt like it was a little bit cheesy to go out there and say, you know, if I give you a wedding gift and I say, “Hey Jaime here’s your wedding gift” well it’s your business to tell people what I got you or I could tell somebody what I got you, but certainly the company that made the gift that I gave to you, it’s not really their business.
That’s cheesy and I didn’t care about the press as much. We wanted to keep it on the down low so we didn’t say anything to anybody. But there was a show out in New York City or New Jersey but it was called The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch on CNBC. In June 2007, Donny Deutsch his people call us and say, “We heard about your company” and we kind of asked well how did you hear about us? Well they had gone down the roster of companies that appeared on that Oprah show that day, because we had like a 10-minute video segment, but we were still on the website which was great.
They had gotten to some people a few ahead of us who kind of said have you talked to Brad and Jera yet? They don’t know who that is. They’re like they own Sticks and Stones. They’re the ones that did the Tom and Katie wedding gift. Well now it’s out of the bag, because they were there and they heard it.
JT: But it wasn’t you so it was good.
BD: We even went out to the Donny Deutsch show and we were telling the people right before we went on the show, I don’t know if you’re going to talk about this or not but it’s something that we prefer to kind of keep underground. Well no sooner are we sitting on this couch then there’s images flashing on this giant screen behind us of Oprah, Tom and Katie and at that point in time there was nothing we could do. People magazine eventually found out and so they put us in there.
I’m not complaining because that was great, but I guess what I’m saying, that wasn’t our primary aim at that point was hey she did this kind of off the record a little bit and it was kind of quiet and we just kind of respected that. But really it has turned into a good amount of business for us so I can’t complain. It lends to some credibility.
JT: So what did it do for sales? I mean once you were on and everybody sort of knew that, did you see a huge spike or what did it look like?
BD: It’s weird because in October 2007 we were in Oprah’s magazine. That’s another thing that she said when we were on there ? “I’d love to put this on my O list” and we were like that would be wonderful as well.
JT: Sure, go ahead.
BD: Because that comes out once a month and it’s in her magazine. There’s like 8 or 9 items that get featured, no more than 10 and we knew that would be good for us too. In October we got put in there. We also were on the Rachel Ray show in early October. Then my wife had worked herself into a spot on the Martha Stewart show where she opened the show one day for about eight minutes.
JT: So wait. Stop! How do you do that? Number one, how did you get on Rachel ray and number two, how did you get on the Martha Stewart show?
BD: I’ll tell you both stories. Rachel Ray was actually our PR company. They sent our product to Rachel Ray producers who I think one of them had a relationship with because they were both out of New York City and they put us on. We didn’t have anything to do with that. But with the Martha Stewart, this is crazy. My wife saw a story in Martha Stewart Living magazine and the story was featuring one of her long-time friends and I believe like maybe her executive producer or maybe her editor of her magazine. It was somebody who was high up in her organization and there was a story on her and her family.
She had two sons and my wife said, “I’m going to look her address up,” which she did on Zaba search I think. Yes, I think she found it on Zaba search and looked her address up, sent keepsakes to both of her sons who were young teens, maybe 14 and 16. Well that lady called my wife directly within about a week of getting those keepsakes. So within a couple days and said how much they loved them and how much her sons ran upstairs and hung them in their rooms immediately. So anyway my wife is talking to her and she is like, she might have been her executive producer. I don’t remember what her name is.
This lady goes back into a meeting and says hey there is a company that I’d really like to feature on one of the shows. Somebody else pipes up in the meeting and says that was the company that I told you about like six months but you guys all shot me down.
BD: Yes. So we had been trying to get on through other avenues and then that happened. So when those two came together it was just a matter of what show can we get you on and how do we get you out here. So that was great for business.
JT: I bet. What did sales do? Did they double? Triple? Do you even remember sort of after each one of these shows like what it looked like?
BD: Television shows are interesting. There’s a couple different things. When we were on the Donny Deutsch show, it featured us, the two of us. We saw some sales from it but I think it was less impactful seeing people because you don’t make the product association necessarily. But with the Rachel Ray show they solely featured our product and it went crazy. I mean I don’t remember the number of orders but I remember thinking okay the holiday has started and it’s October 5 and it usually doesn’t happen to mid November.
It was just nuts. I wouldn’t even want to speculate what the numbers were but it was a huge jump immediately. That lasted for maybe three or four days because it was video and it was on television but then the segment is over and it’s really not immortalized anywhere. It’s not like you can go find one of those old episodes anywhere, at least you couldn’t five years ago. So there was a huge spike immediately but then that kind of fell off. But right when that starts falling off, Oprah’s magazine came out and boom then it jumped up again.
Then right when that starts trickling off a little bit, you know, magazines, one thing about magazines, which are great, if you can get in a magazine with your product or your story, is those things will sit and rot in dentist offices, you know what I mean. Five years later you’ll see a People magazine from October 2007 and there it sits in your dentist’s office. So that’s great because people are, we still, we were in Better Homes and Gardens in April 2007 and that was big for us because they have, I don’t know, I think maybe 8 million readers. Actually no, 8 million subscriptions I think. There is probably 40 million readers. That magazine, we still to this day every month we get orders from Better Homes and Gardens.
BD: That has been five years from this month when we came out in that magazine. It’s still getting orders. So all of those, whenever you get in print like a People or Real Simple we’ve actually advertised in, we’ve been in Modern Brides, things like that, those things just sit around for a long, long time as people don’t throw them away. Great for us.
JT: Definitely. It sounds like you guys are like PR people. How many of your all, tons and tons of promos everywhere, how many has your PR people gotten you versus how many you guys have sort of gotten on your own?
BD: Well, we’ve actually been through three PR companies now. The only reason is not because one was doing a bad job or anything, it’s because they had kind of a lifeline for us. Our lifespan I guess I should say where we’re with somebody for a year to 18 months and then they kind of ran out of things to do. I’ve turned over every rock and this is where I am. So you kind of get a fresh perspective. But there has been vast periods of time where we’ve gone without an PR whatsoever and in that situation usually my wife will jump in and she’s really good at that stuff as well. She’s way more tenacious at that stuff than I am.
So she has gotten, she got Martha Stewart all on her own. She got, she has gotten quite a few on her own. The catalogs was one thing, what she’s really good at too is researching things. This whole Yahoo! story came from her seeing one of those segments, the Yahoo! driven segments and just from being online and then going to our PR person now and saying, “Hey try and get us on this because I think it would be good for our business.”
I’m an idiot when it comes to that stuff. I’m almost never on Facebook. I don’t have a Twitter account. The only time I’m really online is to either watch a movie on Amazon or to work with our business, work with our company because I am online every day for that. But I’m not a celebrity watcher. I don’t really surf the internet that much and look for things and stuff but my wife is a consumer of the internet so she’s really good at that. So she is able to go out and see something that would be a good fit and then she takes it a step further and starts making contacts with it.
JT: See, that’s me.
BD: I would say we did everything on our own until about August 2007. The Donny Deutsch show was something that they just contacted us. I mean that was just kind of out of the blue from being on Oprah and she was the one that got us those Oprah tickets originally just by submitting to the show because I want to get tickets, we can drive in. If you live around Illinois, the show is filmed in Chicago, if they ever have extra tickets and you’ve written in and you say you are from Illinois, sometimes they’ll contact you and say can you be here tomorrow and if you really want to go to the show you’ll be there, you know.
JT: That’s awesome. That’s super cool. So tell me a little bit, because we’re sort of talking a couple years ago still. So what happened from then until now. Do you guys still constantly try and get press or what’s your best means of advertising?
BD: We’ve done, we’re constantly trying to evolve the business and continue to find new sources because we realize, I mean there are 300 million people in the U.S. alone and there’s a lot of them in Canada, I don’t know how many Canadians there are but there’s a lot. Those are really feasible for us to ship to inexpensively and we’re scratching the surface. I mean it’s like the tip of the iceberg because every single week there’s weddings all over the U.S. Every single day there’s a birthday, more than one.
JT: More than one, yeah.
BD: Every single day there’s babies being born. And so new baby gifts, birthday gifts, wedding gifts. Those things aren’t stopping otherwise our civilization will come to an end. So those things just keep happening over and over. So we feel like there is such an untapped market that we can always find more ways to promote our business and more creative ways, you know.
JT: You have a really good niche. It seems like it makes perfect sense to sort of go okay I have this thing. Where are people looking for this thing and then you can go out and sort of put it where people are already looking and word of mouth sounds like a huge thing for you too.
BD: Yes, we wondered after a little while is this going to be a fad or a trend. I don’t know how long it takes for something to be considered a trend but hopefully we’re still trending because this year we’re actually on pace to double or even triple our business from last year, which I thought last was a good year. When the economy kind of went down in ’08 and ’09, we felt the effects of that and I wasn’t sure because we were still a new business relatively. In the lifecycle of businesses we were three years old maybe. I wasn’t sure, I just expected to continue growing through it and when I saw that we weren’t I was like is it possible that we’ve kind of hit our peak and we’re going downward because we saw our revenue slide a little bit.
But then when it came roaring back in 2011 and this year I realize we’re just as susceptible to the economy, even though we’re a new business, especially because it’s more of a luxury item. Our item certainly is not a necessity. It can’t feed you. I mean it could but it probably wouldn’t taste good. So it is more of a luxury item. That’s one of the main things that happens when the economy goes down is people have less expendable income and so you’re not going to spend $100 for an item when it’s I don’t really need that necessarily. My wedding budget just dropped, I’m just going to give a $50 check and let them do what they want. Those types of things.
JT: So that’s really interesting. What made you keep going? This was not just a period of time and then a big bam after that. It was years. What made you keep sort of pushing along and not realizing, not thinking that this was sort of the end.
BD: Well we were profitable. We were still really profitable I mean from a standpoint of dollars and profit but it was concerning because 2007 it was our peak at that time and then 2008 dropped off and then 2009 dropped off from there. Then 2010 kind of leveled out and then 2011 shot right back up. We had about a three year period where it was still profitable but there were some concerns like is this the end of what would be considered a fad or is it just economy and can we weather it.
JT: So knowing what you know now, because there are people that are watching this that go well I have this product or I have this thing that I’ve always wanted to do that seems like it’s starting to go bigger, what would you tell them? If you could do it all over again and help somebody else, what would you tell them to really get started on a product, especially if it’s like a gift or something like that.
BD: The first thing that I would do is say have your I’s dotted and your T’s crossed when it comes to who you are going to show this too and make sure that people that you are showing it to have nondisclosures and non-compete signed. I don’t want to make people too paranoid about that but I can tell you that in our situation, because our idea is trademarkable and it’s copyrightable with our images. We’ve trademarked our logo and our name but it’s not patentable. So if you’re in a situation where you’ve got a product that has a specific process that you can patent, get started on that right away.
If it’s something like it’s more art or more subjective like that where it’s more of a first to market thing where I need to build a brand and that was our thing from start was, because we can’t patent anything we need to just get out there full force and when people think, you know, when people think MP3 player they think iPod right now. Even if you don’t have an iPod you might have a Zoon or whatever, but people will call it an iPod. We kind of want it to be that way like oh is that a Sticks and Stones? No it’s not it’s a copycat. But that’s the word that comes to mind. We kind of want it to be that way.
So I would say if you don’t have anything patentable you have got to do almost everything in your power to get yourself out there and get brand built up as soon as you possibly can. Whether that means you have to pay for advertising to get it out there and some people, we had to do that early on. I mean I was bleeding dollars advertising on Google ad words and Yahoo! search marketing and the reason I was bleeding dollars is because our niche was not created. We were the only people doing it. So it’s not like you can see alphabet art, photo art. At that point in time, people wouldn’t have even though to look at us. We were doing holiday gifts, housewarming gifts and those were expensive terms. I don’t know if you have any knowledge about search marketing.
JT: Cha-ching every single click.
BD: Every single, yeah, you can do and it’s a cost per click deal and it can be really expensive. But the more targeted your words are the less expensive they are because the less competitive it is but it can be way more profitable. Nowadays we can do it because we have created a niche that other people are in so when people are looking they might be looking right for us and if we can get to the top of some of those terms then the clicks pay off.
JT: Definitely. Do you guys still do a lot of online marketing and advertising.
BD: No, not really. We are on a few Google terms but really I would say 95 percent of the people that come to our website just either Google our name or just come to us right through our URL. Like click through some other links. For instance, when you publish this story you’ll probably have a link to the site and somebody will just click right through it. They are not having to type anything. They just click to us.
JT: Yes, which makes sense though too because I went to try and find you guys because I saw that it was sticks and stones so I went to sticksandstones.com and was like okay this is not right, we are not in the right spot here. So I had to click on the link from Yahoo! which is really interesting because it’s not just sticksandstones.com.
BD: Yes, we tried to buy sticksandstones.com back in ’05 and the guy never contacted us back and all he has is like a splash page up there that’s for like some kind of maybe web design or something like that. I don’t know if he gets any business. Maybe if he sees this he’ll want to sell.
JT: We’ll ask him, right? But it’s cool. It’s really good to know that even though you don’t necessarily have just the name of your site you really are able to get clicks and links and stuff like that and that makes a big difference. Tell me a little bit about what you’ve learned. So you were a business owner before which is awesome. But what sort of have been the processes? Is there anything you read, any amazing books, any things that you have learned that you can sort of give us as tips and tricks?
BD: I was also in corporate America for nine years as well so I’ve kind of run the gamut since 1993. I’ve had my own business and I’ve been in corporate America and now I’ve got this one. I don’t want to minimize it because one thing about us is we’re very focused and we’re very driven. We are the type of people that we don’t easily take no for an answer, especially my wife. You just can’t tell her no. I’m more easy to take no, but I’m also a little bit more deliberate in my thought process. She’ll just jump into something and I kind of want to more feel it out a little bit. I want to think of all the different angles but that’s just how my mind works.
One thing that I would say have learned, especially from all my years, when you get into a situation where you’ve got a product and you want to get it out there, one thing that I recommend never doing is never building your team too big before you have the ability to pay them. I have seen a lot of businesses go under because of their personnel expense and I was always that person like I’m going to do this myself as long as I can until customer service would start to suffer. Like I just can’t get to the phone calls or if I do get to the phone calls I can’t keep producing keepsakes that are ordered. In my situation, I am very frugal with the dollars.
Even to this day. We hire a lot of part time people because we don’t have to be overrun with full time people. I’ve got one full time person on staff that gets paid a salary besides myself. Everybody else is a part time person who knows that any day, hey by the way Wednesday we’re all caught up, don’t need you to come in today and I’ve see so many businesses go under. They’ll go out and they’ll say okay we need a marketing person, we need an HR person, we need an accountant and all of a sudden they hire 12 people. We need three sales people, we need me and they’re like well we don’t have any business.
All that means is that you need to get investors or you need to have a large amount of cash flow. We didn’t have that. We couldn’t afford to do that. So I was the guy from day one said every keepsake I sell I want to be able to make a dollar on, a profit, because, more than that hopefully, but I don’t want to go in the red to sell a keepsake because that just starts you down the wrong path.
JT: No, that’s not a business, that’s bleeding.
BD: But I have seen a ton of businesses go under simply because they were basically overstaffed without the business to support it. Another thing I would say is when it comes to customer service, that’s one thing in my old business, I worked for Enterprise Rent-A-Car for nine years and I moved my way up. Started out making about $18,000, you’re washing cars, you’re wearing your tie that’s getting sucked up in the vacuum but it’s a wonderful company though and they hire a ton of college graduates and right out of college I started working for them.
It was a huge opportunity and within about five or six years I was making a six-figure income doing that. So they gave you a great opportunity to move from I was making about $18,000 to making over $100,000 in about a six-year period and that was kind of what they talked about. You could do that and I didn’t know if I believed it or not but it looked good and you got to wear a white shirt and a tie which was kind of neat.
JT: Now you’re like now I’m wearing a t-shirt and a backwards hat.
BD: Yes. But one of the things that I learned?
JT: The tie wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
BD: I’ll tell you about that in a minute. One of the things that I learned during that time was, their philosophy there was the customer is always right. Then they also said off the record the customer wasn’t always reasonable but you still have to make them feel that they’re right in the situation and get to the bottom of any type of customer service issue quickly. So one of the things that I learned right off the bat was if you’re going to make somebody mad you might as well keep their money. Otherwise, immediately just cheerfully give to them.
So if somebody comes in and they’ve got a problem with what’s going on in your business, you know, the best thing that you can do is just say, “Hey, you know what, I’m sorry about that. I feel worse. I’d be more angry about that than you are. What can I do to make you satisfied here?” Just do it like that versus crossing your arms and deciding I’m going to stand my ground on this and then all of a sudden within five minutes you’re giving in and you’re in a huff and a puff, well now you’ve lost the customer and the dollars.
BD: That would be another thing. I think another thing, for me, I think you really have to enjoy the journey and not just the destination. I look just as fondly upon the times where I know that we were struggling to kind of get our business off the ground because I think there is value in the struggle, but there are some people out there that they’re constantly looking for their destination. I’m going to be happy when this happens. Whatever that is. Maybe there’s a certain dollar amount they want to have in their bank account or maybe there’s, who knows what it happens to be. I’ll be happy if I get my product in this catalog or this magazine or on this show.
I think that if you’re not enjoying the journey along the way, that you’re going to set yourself up for disappointment, you know, because you get there and you’re like this is great but if you think well we made it, you’re bound to fail after that. I never think that we’ve made it. I think hey I’m just enjoying the ride. I’m enjoying running this business. I enjoy the people that I work with every day. I enjoy being able to decide okay today I’m going to work from my house, tomorrow I am going to work from the office. Now sometimes customer traffic dictates that because I do work about 14 or 15 hour days 7 days a week in the holiday season for about two months.
But I was going to say when I, my first goal that I had when I got out of corporate America, my goal at that point was I just want to work for myself. I saw bosses, I liked my bosses as a matter of fact and I respected them, but there was also that where I realized I think I am just as smart as these guys. I’m certainly not as good looking as these guys and I don’t wear and believe me I am a guy that can look at a white shirt and get it dirty. I don’t wear it like they do. I’m not the type of guy you want to put on camera with a white shirt and a tie. But these guys look really good in these things and I don’t.
But I think I’m smart and I think that I’m driven and I think that I can do well on my own, but right now when I wake up every day really I’m living somebody else’s dream for them. I’m making a cut of it and I am not complaining but in the grand scheme of things I’d be willing to make less money, certainly less money and that’s what I did. When I left, I went from making a hundred and something thousand dollars to zero dollars.
JT: Me too!
BD: Yeah, you did the same. Because I wanted to work for me. My other goal was not to have to wear a suit and tie every day. Coming out of college wearing a suit and tie was cool. It was a status thing. Hey mom and dad look at me I’m wearing a suit and tie so I must be successful.
BD: But then you finally get to the point where you get through past all that and you realize it’s just not that comfortable.
JT: I don’t want to have to iron. Come on, who wants to iron?
BD: The last time I wore a tie was at a funeral I think, maybe a wedding, but that’s about the only time you’ll get me to throw one on.
JT: That’s great. I think that’s huge too. You can just hear the drive and the passion and stuff coming out and I think that’s what all entrepreneurs need and especially to get over those humps, like you said, to sort of just enjoy the journey even when you’re sort of on the downside of it. That’s huge. Now when you were on the downside though, did you feel the same way or were you sort of like I just need to get through this?
BD: I didn’t feel that way.
JT: Okay, good. You’re normal.
BD: I can look back now and I can talk fondly about it. When I was on the downside there was a period of time where I went from, I would wake up in the middle of the night like two in the morning and I would be praying and I would be like God, guide me. Just show me what you want me to do. If you want me to do this business, then open some doors. If you want me to give this up, then put up some roadblocks just so I know. Make it obvious. Like slap me across the head with a big can of sardines.
But I would also be really worried about our financial status because I knew that we had some money put away because we had done well for ourselves. That wasn’t a question. But it’s still scary and you probably know, when you see no money coming but you see money going out just for having to live. We had a mortgage and we had car payments. Well we might not have had car payments but we had a mortgage and we had our kids going to a private school. We had that tuition and I had some investments and we were constantly putting into those.
That wasn’t necessarily out flow but it wasn’t cash flow for us, because I had to put it away and I just remember getting really scared thinking at some point in time we’re going to be dipping into our long term savings, the things that I wanted to kind of grow over the course of time to be a nest egg later when I retired. It would keep me up. I was very, very concerned about it and at the same time my wife didn’t know because she was just oblivious. She didn’t want to know really and I didn’t want to tell her because I didn’t want her to worry about it. I was just trying to protect her from the fact; I didn’t want her to worry too. I thought one of us worrying was fine and that was scary.
In the six-month period though we went from that worry in early 2006 to the end of 2006 being like gosh. I remember in April 2006 we made $3,000 in revenue which was not much at all. We can make that in half a day today in an off month. So in the whole month we made that. I remember going from that to be like gosh I know it cost me more than that to live in that month, quite a bit more. To go from that to worried about how are we going to get these keepsakes out? We have so many orders are we going to make it out by Christmas.
JT: There’s always worry, right, no matter what it is whether it’s one side or the other side.
BD: So now in November and December I’m waking up at two in the morning and I am unable to sleep because I am worried. I’m like we got 3,000 orders in there. We’ve got X number of days to get them out. I’ve only got six people and how am I going to do this.
JT: The floodgates kind of opened for you. Oh no, this is not a roadblock.
BD: Either way I’m really tired in the next day because I didn’t get any sleep but at least I can stomach it, you know.
JT: It’s really, really good to hear some of the backstory too because a lot of times when we talk to business owners in general or when you see the Yahoo! stuff, right, they look so great and perfect and yes they get sleepless nights at that point but no they’re wonderful and you don’t see that there’s constantly stuff that people are working on and working towards. Like you said, just enjoying the journey matters.
BD: I don’t think a lot of people, unless you’re, you can’t teach a fish what it’s like to walk on land. So unless somebody has been through that struggle, when you see a Bill Gates out there you see Bill Gates as a billionaire. You don’t see Bill Gates as the kid that was in the college dorm wondering if his idea was going to get off the ground at Harvard. You don’t see those types of things and just like in our situation, yes, you see this Yahoo! story you’re right, these guys must have it made. I don’t feel that way. I feel that I am very happy in my life but I feel like we have a lot more things to do on the business front.
We’re not going to just rest on what we’re doing. But you’re right, the struggle that you go through and the worries and all those types of things that a lot of people that are watching your show are probably in right now, what if I leave my job and now I have nothing to fall back on and everything is going into this dream. I mean is there a possibility that I’m not going to make it in that and I have to go get another job? Very much so. I thought about that numerous times. That was my biggest concern.
I said to my wife I don’t care about downsizing my house, I don’t care about pulling my kids out of the school that they’re in, I don’t care what car I am driving. I still don’t care about that. You should see my car. It’s not that nice. We don’t buy new cars. My car was like five years old when I bought it. All those things I can get rid of but the one thing that I would have the biggest toughest time giving up was the freedom of answering to me and my wife. You know, answering to my wife.
JT: You are in business together.
BD: I still have to answer to her. But that was my biggest concern was having to then go back into corporate America and use my college degree and like work for somebody else and maybe kind of start over a little. I mean it wouldn’t be starting over but just getting up every single day and by the way here is your territory and here is what you’re going to sell and those types of things, that’s probably the biggest fear and that’s what drove me more than anything I think was the fear of doing that. Not because I wanted to but because I had to. I live in this community, it’s on a golf course and I said to my wife, you know, I just can’t wait until the day when everything is gone and I’m a little older and I can just work for the golf course down there and just ride my cart around and be a marshal, because I want to.
JT: That’s really funny. Instead of being retired and having a tons of money to just play golf all day, you want to work for that.
BD: I’ve got bad shoulders so I am not, it’s hard for me to play golf.
JT: It’s funny because we can chat for a really long time and I know we’ve chatted for a really long time. So why don’t we start wrapping it up and maybe I can have you back on the show again at some point. For the last question that I always ask everybody is what’s one action that listeners can take this week to help move them forward towards their goal of a million?
BD: I would say take the action. Whatever the next thing on your to do list is, do that now because there are so many ideas that stop at the cocktail party or there are so many ideas that are sitting on a shelf somewhere that never got off the ground and got marketed simply because somebody was either afraid to do it or they were too lazy to do it. So I would say whatever the next thing on your to do list, if you’ve got a business idea and you need to go get with an attorney and get a nondisclosure or noncompete or you can find one online basically for free. Legal Zoom will have it too. Get one of those if that’s what your next step is.
If your next step is I need to incorporate then do that. If your next step is I’ve got a product, I’ve got a prototype that I need to have done, get the prototype made. How do I do that? Do I have my prototype and I need to get a mold and I need to find a manufacturer? Start working on that. Start now. Don’t start tomorrow or next week. That’s what I would say.
JT: Yes, action is the only, where you guys got is just because you guys were both tenacious and took tons and tons of action. So that’s awesome.
BD: That’s true. I mean you certainly, I’ve heard the statement nothing good ever happens without enthusiasm and I totally believe that. But I also believe that you can’t take the second step until you have taken the first. So take your first step.
JT: Well tell us where we can find you online. Talk about your website. We’ll definitely link everything up in the show notes so that way everybody can check it out and get it for the next upcoming wedding season, right? That’s coming up soon. So go ahead and tell us where we can find you.
BD: We are at www.createsticksandstones.com. That’s all spelled out or you can just Google sticks and stones alphabet. We’ll pop up.
JT: And take a look at it everyone too. I was just telling Brad before, I was almost late, like a minute late for the interview because I was so busy trying to pick out what the letters looked like for my name and it’s sort of addicting. Even if you just go and check it out it’s kind of really cool to see all the different things and it makes me want to go and take pictures with my daughter and son, you know what I mean, around everywhere because they’re small too.
BD: Absolutely. We love it when people are on the site and just playing around like on your little build engine just making words and emailing them over to people. You can take a screen shot of it and email it to somebody and say look what I created. That’s fun for people. We like that people like to play around on the site. Spend more time on there.
JT: I know, right! Awesome. We’ll definitely link it up so everyone can go ahead and do that. Everybody on iTunes check it out definitely. So thanks so much for coming on the show today, Brad.
BD: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
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