Before we dive into the nitty gritty, I want to share a bit about myself, and my own journey. Part of this is so that you can see that I didn’t have any special advantage or unique skills that allowed me to make this work (beyond, perhaps, a willingness to work hard, and a desire for success — which, I’m assuming, you also have yourself), but another part of this is the simple fact that we’ll be hanging out for a bit, and I want to make sure you know where I’m coming from
I grew up in the midwest, and much of my early life revolved around sports. If I wasn’t playing a game or at practice, I was probably watching sports on TV, or playing NCAA Football dynasty mode on my PS2. (I know I just scored some major points with somebody.) I played college soccer at a small DI school where I eventually got a business degree. While in school, I always had a desire to start my own business. Perhaps it was always more glamorous in my 20-something-year-old mind, but I always saw it as an opportunity to be the author of my own success, and I still believe that! Also, I was very attracted to avoiding the 9-5 grind by living a life with a flexible work schedule. So while still in school, I began brainstorming and researching small business ideas. I graduated in early December and decided a seasonal business hanging Christmas lights would be a decent start. I knew absolutely nothing about the industry, so I bought an online course and the biggest telescoping ladder that would fit into my Nissan Sentra and I made it happen! Last year, I actually just finished my 10th and final season of installs, and would probably still be doing it if the Amazon gig didn’t take off!
But right before that first season of light installs, I was taking an entrepreneurship class my senior year in college, and the entire course revolved around writing a business plan with a few other classmates. Nobody in my group had any particularly passionate ideas, so I suggested my dad’s “dream business” and my group ran with it. It was basically a retail store that provided a few different customized printing services on a variety of products. So after my first Christmas light install season, I decided to use my profits and “business experience” to start this printing business, with my dad helping me some in his free time. After about half a year of running the business out of my parents’ garage, the company my dad was working for at the time went under during the recession. We took that as a sign from the universe, and decided to find a brick and mortar location for our recently founded business. The experience was exciting early on, but once the newness wore off, I slowly began to realize that this type of business model had a fairly low ceiling. There were two main reasons why: As a local brick and mortar store, your potential customer base is very limited to the proximity of your physical store. It’s like reading a newspaper instead of consuming your content online. For most types of retail, this is a dying breed of business for that reason. The second reason is, we were providing custom work on nearly every product that left our store. Therefore, our output quantities were limited to the labor that was available. We certainly limped along early during the late recession and start up phase, but eventually we built up a moderate business that could at least somewhat support my dad and me. But it was average at best, and I always had loftier goals in mind. And even though we were “co-owners,” I still somehow found myself in a way, working for my dad from 9-6 + Saturdays at a mediocre small business with a very limited ceiling. Years into it, I couldn’t help but feel like my time and opportunities were passing me by with less than satisfying results and fulfillment to show for it. Simply put, that didn’t sit well with me. It was actually my Christmas light business that really opened my eyes. Every November/December since I graduated college I experienced how easy it was to make money hanging lights. I always knew there had to be something better for me out there and my mind was constantly on the lookout for the right opportunity!
One day at my family business, I was talking to a regular customer who also owned a small business. He explained to me how he took one of his products that he designed and had it manufactured in China. He told me how to contact English speaking Chinese suppliers through Alibaba.com. The more I looked into it, I realized there were some great opportunities for us to improve our profit margins by cutting out the middleman and going directly to the manufacturer myself. So I gave it a try and immediately, we nearly doubled our profit margins on some products that we sold in larger volumes. I began thinking of what else I could buy and sell directly from China. Eventually, I realized there was nobody selling any “commercial grade” Christmas lights at that time in my city. All of the installers like myself either had to order online, drive to the nearest wholesaler 2 hours away, or wait for them to deliver once a week. As an installer, it is very difficult to estimate needed inventory levels in that business. So I decided I would attempt to fill that need in my city. Desperate for something new, I took most of my life’s savings (which wasn’t very much) and invested it into a large shipment of commercial grade Christmas lights! I was able to sell almost half of my inventory the first season to other installers. This was enough to turn a profit in year one, in addition to whatever extra profit I would make the next year. The biggest problem with that business model was my ceiling was again very limited. If I was really going to move some large quantities I knew I needed to find more customers. Somewhere in between those 2 Christmas light seasons, I randomly began hearing different stories of people becoming wealthy buying things from China and selling them on Amazon. I immediately knew this was what I had been looking for! Long story short, I created an Amazon Seller account, sent the rest of my Christmas Light inventory to an Amazon Fulfillment Center, and sold out well before the holiday season was over. Jackpot!