What’s a C.E.O.? If you founded and are running a startup, when should you really take C.E.O. as a name?
These are questions I have struggled with over the previous year. It’s easy to check at Silicon Valley unicorns — firms with at least $1 billion in valuation — or public companies and see their C.E.O.s as”true C.E.O.s.” But what about bootstrapped start-ups? It looks like every person that has an idea is a C.E.O. — on his business card.
I founded FringeSport from my garage in 2010. With my co-founder and staff, we bootstrapped the company to $5 million in revenue by 2015. In that time, we happy tens of thousands of consumers and weathered ups and downs in our marketplace. It has been an interesting journey.
My co-founder departed last year. We closed our initial investment round, and we have remade the company as we pivot from a”lifestyle” company to a true organization. In many ways, restructuring the company in 2015 to make a run at building something amazing for our clients, employees, tribe, community, and shareholders (like me) was tougher than heritage it.
These are the experiences that have led me to ponder the essence of leadership, and focus on developing my style. We have something special going at Fringe. The opportunity to help hundreds of thousands of individuals make meaningful, positive changes in their own lives.
The founding of FringeSport
I have always wanted to become an entrepreneur. And I wanted to sell things — bodily things. When I was a child, I read Boys’ Life magazine and I purchased pocketknives and other camping trinkets from the classified advertisements. I resold these things to my friends.
In high school, I noticed that all of the clubs raised funds by selling candy. I combined seven associations, bought a whole lot of candy at Sam’s Club, and raised some funds for myself. I had been in so many clubs that everybody assumed I just moved from organization to organization helping them raise funds for trips.
This also helped me get into college, by the way. One of my high school counselors told me she had never seen someone so busy in extracurriculars.
In college, the dot com bubble was inflating, and Austin, Texas, where I attended college, was flourishing. I landed an internship at a web design company and taught myself HTML — and a few Flash, CSS, and PHP. I parlayed that experience into a position that has been my dream job: working for an ecommerce startup, LivingDirect.com, the perfect place to get modest appliances online.
I worked there for 10 years since I helped the organization grow from $3 million in annual revenue to $50 million. While at Living Immediate, I knew I wanted to start my own company. In actuality, I told this to the C.E.O. when I was interviewing for the job. This was a fertile time for me to grow. I was definitely not the ideal worker by standard metrics. However, I worked long enough for good, then I’d get bored, and move on to concentrate on the next challenge within the business. But I constantly moved into areas that we did not clearly understand. Then I would work out the process and proceed, constantly teaching those that came later.
Doing so, I learned:
- Pay-per-click advertising (back when Overture was the huge gorilla);
- Internet design;
- Merchandise photography;
- Logistics — national and international;
- Chinese sourcing (this kept my attention the longest and has been golden for my livelihood );
- all elements of digital advertising — before social websites.
Additionally, I returned to college, making my M.B.A. in The University of Texas through its day”executive” program. Soon after graduating, I was encouraged to V.P.. There was talk about a route to C.E.O.
However, I knew I needed a change. My career was going well. However, I had a mentor who knew I wanted my own company. He explained,”Peter, you must start your own business now. You’re about to begin making’real money’ as a worker. It is a drug, and as soon as you’re hooked on it, you will never have the ability to eat ramen again.”
I had just begun to make in excess of $100,000 each year. I could see he was right. I drove a luxury car, composed with a Montblanc pen, assessed time in my Omega watch, vacationed with my spouse in luxury hotels, and that I wanted a Porsche 911 nearly as far as I wanted independence, and my own organization.
But my mentor was perfect.
Around the same time, I took a holiday to Kuwait. My dad had recently moved there and I wanted to spend some time with him. On the advice of another friend, I grabbed a copy of Tim Ferriss’s publication, The 4-Hour Workweek.
I read the book as we bounced around the desert in my daddy’s car. It was an epiphany. It was like Ferriss was talking directly to me. So a lot of that book was comparable to ideas I had.
I ran through a couple of niche ideas during the next few weeks, and narrowed down my business to beginning a strength and conditioning equipment company, where I’d design equipment, have it custom manufactured, and sell it online.
At the moment, I mostly wanted freedom. I wanted to help folks, sure. However, I was very internally focused.
To go to market, I used my own comprehension of the lean startup methodology, the best way to establish a market is to sell someone yourminimally-viable item.
I was heavily involved and emotionally investing in the CrossFit movement. I judged there was a lack of good choices for gymnastics rings. The few existing suppliers were expensive, and frequently had very bad support.
I used my system — from functioning for Living Immediate — to obtain a fantastic factory. I purchased 200 pairs of injection-molded gymnastics rings.
I began parking my car outside the garage (in the driveway), construct a small warehouse and transport station in my garage, and immediately launched a Shopify website.
On a side note, if you considering starting an ecommerce store and can not decide on a platform, I propose building out your Amazon sales first. After that, start a Shopify store. Don’t be worried about any platform aside from Shopify until you’ve hit $1 million in yearly sales. Then you can worry about a platform. Shopify does everything you need it to, inexpensively and easily. Additionally, it’s simple to make your shop look great.
We drove traffic via pay-per-click advertisements (unprofitably), by selling on Ebay, through forum promotion, and by reaching out to bloggers with free products. Plus, we hustled — hitting CrossFit gyms and throw-down competitions.
After we got up to a few orders per day, we broadened the product variety by recruitment companies which our competitors were selling to.
In 2010, we did a couple million dollars in earnings; but we started late in the year. In 2011, Fringe did approximately $100,000 in earnings, with no employees other than me. In 2012, I quit my job, leased warehouse and office space, and hired workers. We did approximately $1 million in earnings.
Fast forward to 2014 and 2015. Fringe had much promise, but was in danger of stagnating as a “lifestyle” business for my co-founder and me. I’ve nothing against lifestyle companies; that is originally what I needed for Fringe. However, I’ve seen the enormous positive impact we’ve got in our clients’ lives. I want more. I wish to construct something exceptional, that affects thousands and thousands of people — helping, inspiring, empowering.
And Fringe will do that.
That is why I find myself back in the zone of distress, learning what it means to be a fantastic leader. Learning that at a certain point — today? a year ago? Being a founder does not matter. Being a C.E.O. and leading-guiding-building-managing is what Fringe needs.
This is what I must be now.