Entrepreneur John Kendale joined us for an engaging conversation about his journey to become the inventor and owner of Toppy Toddler bibs. Listen in to hear about how John began his entrepreneurial journey with one simple idea, solving a problem any parent might face, a messy baby eating a meal.
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John Kendale: How A Single Dad Turned An Everyday Problem Into An Opportunity
I’m speaking with John Kendale, who is the epitome of an unlikely entrepreneur. As a single father struggling to make ends meet, John used his $75 sewing machine to transform a simple idea, an oversized bib, into Toppy Toddler USA, a successful small business that now serves customers across the globe. In this episode, John offers an honest and insightful look at his journey from his darkest moments as a single dad in his battle with addiction to the moment of inspiration and insight that ultimately led to his success. Without any further ado, I hope you enjoy my conversation with John Kendale.
John, welcome to the show.
Gary, it’s good to be here. It’s a pleasure. I’m super happy to have this opportunity to talk to you and whoever is reading. Thank you for having me.
We met some time ago, we were doing an entrepreneurial mindset training at Miami Dade College, and somehow you were connected to the college. That’s how I was introduced to your entrepreneurial story. I know a little bit of your story. I’ve gotten some of the details. We’ve been friends now for a few years but I want to go back to the origin story. How did you become an entrepreneur? What happened in your life that put you on an entrepreneurial journey? For the people that are reading, we’ll get into what specifically your journey is, but I want people to know how you got on this path.
First, it’s interesting, I met you before you met me. I saw you when I went to get a reward an award in Sacramento, California. You’re a speaker at that convention or whatever it was. It was something for community colleges. It was NACCE. We haven’t met then and when I heard you speak, I was like, “This guy has articulated what goes on in my mind more precisely than anybody I’ve ever heard.” Before we met, one of my professors introduced me to you, and then you came to our college. That’s when I finally properly met you and sat down. You caught my attention way before we had to meet, so fate as it is, here we are.
What do you feel set you on this path? Some people think, “I was just born a natural entrepreneur.” We could dig into that over time, but life circumstances put us where we are.
There’re so many things that happen in life since a child, there are so many instances. If there’s one thing that really hits an emotion, it might be the fact that I’m a middle child. Not only the fact that I’m a middle child, I am legitimately a middle child. Let me explain, I have an older brother that is two years older and then I have a sister who’s two years younger.
We all know what it is, especially my dad, where he’s from, which is from Sudan. My mom is from Ethiopia. In that part of the world, at least from my father’s side, the oldest son has all the pool, he has all the rings. Put it this way, if the younger son was an engineer, he had two PhDs, a Master’s, and so forth. The older brother, perhaps, just has a menial job and really doesn’t do much, no matter the degrees and amount of knowledge that younger brother has, they’ll always go to the older brother first, because of age.
You’re saying, in your own family, you were a natural-born underdog?
That’s how I took it. When my brother turned eighteen, he got the car. Our parents put a bunch of effort. My brother got everything with the attention and stuff like that. When I turned that age, it was nothing for me. My sister, they put a down payment for her car and helped out co-signing for credit. They helped my brother co-sign for credit.
I remember I asked, she had the money and they had the cash and I was like, “Could you do it?” They’re like, “No.” One parent is like, “I did it for your brother.” The other one is like, “I did it for your sister.” I’m like, “What about me?” I’ve always felt like that. I’ve always felt that chip on being in the middle. You have a little girl and an older brother and here I am in the middle.
Maybe they were doing you favor without realizing they were doing you a favor.
Maybe. My entire family. My dad was a professor in college. My mom started out as a housewife and after a certain time, she became a teacher. She has a Master’s in Education and should be a teacher. My sister went into education. My brother was a mechanic, then he moved to California and he started teaching at a school there. They were all teachers at one point in their life and I’m the only one who didn’t go that route, yet. We don’t know what the future holds.
Help me understand this. Being the middle child, you got left out a little bit maybe but how did that lead you to become entrepreneurial? Connect those dots for me.
If you’re not going to help me, I’m going to do it myself. I don’t care. If I had to put the button on it, that’s it, because I know that’s the mentality, “I’m going to do it myself.”
That was your attitude you got. That’s how you interpreted that situation. That’s super interesting.
I still have the chip on my shoulder to this day. At least the memories are still there. We get along great but that’s how I felt. If there’s one thing, it’s that. I’m a middle child, especially that moment, “You’re not going to do this for me, okay. I’m going to do it myself and I’m going to show you.”
How did that manifest itself?
A little bit of being a rebel. I don’t know where to begin.
What was the first entrepreneurial thing you did?
I’ve talked about this but I’m telling you, after the last time that we had talked something in the group happened and then a memory came to mind, Gary, that I haven’t thought about and it was in sixth grade. In sixth grade, I was in the gifted program. Not that that’s the important part but I remember there was a group of us, there was Michael Cole, Gary Caesar, Mike Tomaio, myself, and Jason Paluch. We’re at Michael Tomaio’s house, we’re in sixth grade and we were on the floor of his parent’s house, the literal floor, and we were creating a video game for fishing.
We’re in sixth grade. We had sheets of paper out. You’re talking about sixth grade, it was 1980 something, or it might have been 1990. Computers were just in, so none of this was going to be taking place on computers as far as we know now if we’re going to create a game or something. We were on a sheet of paper and we’re sixth graders. My son is in fifth grade and I couldn’t imagine what he’s doing if he did this type of stuff. We would sit down and develop a game saying, “This is where it starts off and we were serious about it. We completed a game on a sheet of paper.”
If we had to put a moment to it, that was the first entrepreneurial adventure I saw that we were being serious enough to make that commitment and organize in order to create and make something. After that event, in middle school, we sold Blow Pops and Airheads, that entrepreneurial stuff, but I had a business mind to make more money. You just get 100 Blow Pops for $5 at a Costco at that time, and then sell it for $0.25 each, do the math, you have some extra money.
It’s amazing how many times and how often I hear that. It starts with some experience when you’re a teenager or a little kid selling candy or selling something door to door for Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts or something. It’s that experience where you realize you can make something happen. I don’t know how that landed in your brain but it’s interesting to me that it’s a common theme.
Also, just seeing things built, you bring so much stuff to mind. We had neighbor friends in the backyard, Brian and Chris Shaffer, their dad helped us build a halfpipe ramp in the backyard. I remember he was a Boy Scout Leader/Master, we have Boy Scout in his house, but everything was hands-on. Seeing that process, knowing that you could build stuff with your hands, you could cut a piece of wood, put nails to it, and then now you have something made. It wasn’t like a parent making it for you. You didn’t go to the store and buy it. It’s something you did. You created something and now using it. You’re skating and people will come back. It’s incredible.
That’s powerful. That need to build things. We just don’t show up on this Earth to go to work, do things, and collect a paycheck.
For some people that works, that’s what I found out. For that group of the five of us in elementary school, I appreciated that. You can come together, you have like-minded people to work but now I find that navigating life, you might come across a friend or something that has an idea and they’re like, “Let’s do this.”
I’ve learned to hesitate because we’re on different levels. I find that the majority are in some sort of fantasy stage. They’re at that beginning level, which is great but when it actually comes to putting in the sweat, it’s a different story and they’re not ready to follow through. I’ve learned to listen to people like, “That’s great.” They’re like, “Let’s do this.” I’ll just sit there nodding my head because there are times where I don’t waste any time.
I’ve done stuff and when we have a conversation, like in my church, for example, we’re talking about what can we do about the transition with technology. I went home that night and the very next day, I came up with a framework for deploying what we said and then I came back and everyone was like, “That’s great. That’s nice,” but I just found out the conversation we had before were not serious.
It was great for conversation but no one wants to put in the work because you have families and there’s no knock on that the realization that people have families. There’s a lot of sacrifices that come with that. If you’re married, that’s a huge one, your wife better be on board or else you’ve run into problems there. There’s a lot that you have to put on the line, whether it’s watching TV, your hobbies, sports, the whole nine yards.
There’s so much to unpack there. Everybody has got ideas but only a small minority will actually act on the idea. That’s super interesting to me. I’m always thinking about the mindset. What are the underlying beliefs and assumptions that either encourage or inhibit entrepreneurial behavior? People come up with ideas and ideas are a dime a dozen. I’m always perplexed by the story you just told because people don’t act on the idea because they don’t realize that it could actually come to fruition.
There’re deep underlying assumptions. If I said to you, “John, there’s $10,000 in a bundle and it’s taped to the top of the telephone pole outside of your house.” You’re probably not going to go, “That’s great, Gary. I got to go watch TV with my wife or I got to go to work,” or something. You’re going to figure out how to find some rope, some climbing gear, a cherry picker, or something to get on top of the telephone pole.
To be more accurate in what you just said, people want a guarantee.
That’s the other part of it.
That’s specifically it, from what I see. People want a guarantee. In that example, they know there’s $10,000. They know if they do X, Y, and Z, that $10,000 will be theirs. It’s the same way a job is safer. You go to a job, you get your salary, you know what you’re going to get. It’s a guarantee that money is coming in. It’s in that safety that a lot of people base their decisions on. I don’t. I won’t say if it’s a better thing or not but that’s just the way I find myself operating.
You’re getting that something that’s bigger. We all have a need for certainty and safety but we also have a need for vitality and growth. Sometimes we favor one at the expense of the other. That’s how I think about it. The Dalai Lama said something to that effect once like, “Our need for safety and security is pulling us in one direction, and our need for vitality and growth is pulling us in the opposite direction.” Most of us just favor our default is safety and security. I don’t think there’s any harm in that but you got to be out on the edges. You got to have one foot out on the edge, pushing and trying things.
I want those same things but it’s painful. There’re days, you’re looking on the other side of the fence and it’s like, “I want that too but I’m going this way.”
The desire for autonomy is also powerful. To do your own thing and not have someone else telling you what to do, that’s a powerful psychological need. I don’t want to lose track of my question here, John. You said you got left out as the middle kid, you got the message that you’re going to have to figure it out for yourself. You had some experiences as a little kid designing a game, selling candy, you started to get the idea, or you’re building a ramp that you could actually build things. Do these ideas are coalescing in your subconscious mind? Is that right?
Over time, you see that ideas come up. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Let’s just say, maybe there are different phases in the ideas that everyone has like, “I have an idea.” Perhaps another person might say, “I have an idea,” they might look into it a little bit to see if it’s viable. First, they might say, “I have an idea,” then actually do something. Create something like a prototype or we’re on different stages. For my journey, I played basketball for a large portion of my time. From 6th to 12th grade, basketball was all I did every single day. If you think about that energy, it takes energy to jump.
You know it takes energy to be a basketball player. I have a lot of energy and at that time, from 6th to 12th grade, most of my energy was spent playing basketball. I love basketball. Even in basketball, the entrepreneur mind is still there because you’re figuring people out. Sometimes, when you weren’t playing and other people are on the court, there would be kids on the bench just sitting there talking waiting for themselves to play next.
I always enjoy watching what the other guy is going to do. That’s what you’re doing in business. You’re going to watch the landscape, the market, or your competitors. You want to see how they move. I love looking for patterns. I think I have a unique skill in that. I got to prove that for others to believe me but I pick up on little patterns in the world and life in general. That’s always intrigued me. Not only physical patterns but the way people think, their moves, habits, and I enjoyed that even in basketball.
I’ll even go to say that the entrepreneur part of me in that time from 6th to 12th grade was happening in playing basketball and was satisfied in playing basketball during that time because there was a lot to figure out in the other person. The coach would play the playbook, I would say, “Whatever,” then I was like a robot. I didn’t like that. As a matter of fact, they wondered why I wasn’t a great player once I got into that controlled environment. When we go to the spring camp or spring league that wasn’t part of the official season, or in the parks, my coach would be like, “How are you so phenomenal?”
In my mind, it’s because, “I don’t have you telling me what to do.” There’s no freedom in that. There’s no freedom in using your ability. You have to be a robot, “Go to that spot.” You can’t feed off and read off your players, your teammates, you can’t have that look at it, and you’re more constrained. I didn’t like that in basketball playing during the actual season on the court but in the parks, I dominated it all because I was able to be myself.
That should have been a marker right there. You’re never going to be an employee. Before we get to your first attempt at being an entrepreneur, I want to go back to something you said. You’re talking about people have ideas but then they just talk about it. They don’t really act or are not ready to act but you saw the differences. If you heard or came up with a good idea, you’d go right at it.
There’s this bias for action like, “I’m not going to sit around and think about it forever. I’m not going to do in-depth planning. I’m going to get into it right away.” That’s also a common theme that we see in entrepreneurs. It’s this bias for action. The point I want to make out here is to people that coach entrepreneurs to the untrained eye, that looks like unbridled enthusiasm but there’s actually a method to the madness. What you’re doing is learning by doing. You’re not learning through planning.
You’re learning by jumping into it. It’s just a different kind of learning but it is a learning process. It’s a huge advantage for the entrepreneur. That willingness to jump in, not necessarily with both feet, which is recklessness, but it’s what I would call micro-experimenting. It’s that micro-experimenting that enables you to tease out opportunities that can’t otherwise be seen. It’s the action orientation that allows you to prove the concept where other people are thinking about it.
Gary, that’s a skill that I found when I saw you speaking on stage. You’re able to articulate that. If you asked me, I don’t know, I can’t tell you. It’s very hard and difficult for me to answer, “Why this? Why that?” I don’t like the name entrepreneur. I struggle with that term because I’m like, “Whatever, call it what you want. I’m not that label. I’m not that definition whatever you think it is because I’m just doing what’s in me,” but you’re able to articulate so when I heard you speak, I was like, “This guy is able to put in words what’s going through my brain.”
I’ve never really heard it before. I’ve just heard the common cliches about the very simple aspects of what an entrepreneur does. Prototype and all this stuff, but you’re able that you were able to articulate the actual process that’s going on in the mind. People should listen to you. If you’re reading, Gary knows what he’s talking about. I mean that 100%.
What’s underneath that is that I look at entrepreneurship as a behavioral phenomenon. I don’t think of it as a business discipline. I see the entrepreneur as an organism trying to self-actualize. The entrepreneur is a human organism searching for the intersection between his own interests, abilities, and the needs of other humans. That’s an innate tendency.
It’s not just in some of us, it’s in all of us, like what you were talking about, the need to fulfill human needs through our own effort and ingenuity is powerful. Most of us don’t get to do that. We find ourselves in a job where we’re doing what someone else told us to do. It’s a more routinized thing and we don’t get that sense of fulfillment. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking entrepreneurs are all driven by money. I don’t deny it is a part of it but it’s not the whole thing, not the whole story.
Money is out of the picture for entrepreneurs to be the entrepreneur. I think about the people who founded Florida. Could you imagine coming to this place and there’s nothing? Look at the Everglades. There were people who are here and they had some vision. That was a very brutal way of living. It wasn’t as hot as it was now but it was hot, there were mosquitoes, and nasty. Those people saw where they were at and they were like, “I’m going to go with the people who went out West before the gold.” There are people that do that. They go, like “I’m just going to go travel.” It’s an adventure like, “I’m bored and I’m going to go.” That’s the way it is.
I like the idea of adventure. That’s what it is. It’s the discovery process. Get me to your first startup, what did that look like?
In 12th grade, I had an injury. In the first game of the basketball season, I’m thinking, “This is 12th grade. It’s my last year as a senior. It’s my time to shine.” The first game of the season, I’m in the game, two minutes into the game, the first time I have the ball, come off the baseline, and hit my first basket. Run down to the other court, the other team misses a shot. I didn’t even get the rebound, I just turned to run to the other side of the court and my ankle gives. I didn’t step on anyone’s foot that I saw but something happened to my ankle.
I grew up playing sports. I skateboarded a lot and I twisted my ankle many times. I couldn’t get up, Gary. They thought my ankle is broken. They had to cut my shoe off. It wasn’t broken. The trainer said, “Whatever is happening, it’s either something with the ligaments.” Whatever it was, it’s better off you break a bone because you can put it together and it usually typically heal stronger than it once was. At that time, they didn’t know what it was, so I was out for more than half the season.
I was on crutches for three months and even now, my ankle still bothers me. It doesn’t turn sideways. When the weather changes, I might feel it but I can still play basketball. It’s just something we don’t know what happened to it. To get back to the point, during that time, I really had a shift in my mentality. I was angry at God. I was like, “Why did this happen? This is something I played my entire life and here I am in my senior year, the first game of the season and now my ankle is gone like my dreams.” As a child, that seems ridiculous but all I ever want to do is play college basketball.
The only offer I got was to some random Community College in the middle of Florida. My coach gave it to five other players and me. I tore that out and I don’t know how I processed it at that time but it was a failure. I hated God. To be honest, I started to rebel. That’s all I did. I play basketball my whole life and I started to rebel in my actions and my characteristics. In that time of my life, it was my first entrepreneurial endeavor. I had a buddy, my best friend, because of the basketball team. They called us, Ernie and Bert from Sesame Street.
We’re always together. We ended up doing cannabis cultivation at eighteen years old. Once we graduated from high school, we moved out of the house and now it’s the thing to do. We have stores and it’s legalized. We’re talking about 1996. At that time, we endeavored to do that and most 18, 19, 20-year-olds, they’re out either in college or they’re having a bit of fun on their own but I took that seriously. I didn’t party and drink. I don’t know how it is everywhere else in America, but here, most people are from South America.
The parents are in South America and Latin America like drinking. If you’re eighteen and you’re drinking having fun, parents didn’t care because in their countries, it’s totally normal to drink even in Europe but I didn’t do anything. People were surprised. Girls are asking like, “Why you don’t drink? You don’t do this?” I was like, “No.” I was just focused on cultivating cannabis.
I moved out, we cultivated cannabis and made great money. One of our neighbors and former classmates was a DJ, so we invested some money for him to bring down the music artists to the beach. For me, the focus wasn’t the money. At that time, I didn’t buy myself a pair of shoes. It was insane. It was the process of the whole thing. I didn’t buy a car. I ended up eventually getting a car from my dad. I had thousands of dollars. I had $15,000, $20,000, $25,000 as an 18, 19, 20 years old and I didn’t buy anything. I just paid for our apartment. That was my first entrepreneurial endeavor.
What were you telling your parents at that time? How did you navigate that?
We moved out. My dad knew. Don’t get me wrong, I did that and went to college at the same time. My roommate just stayed home but I went to college because you really didn’t have to do anything. A plant grows, you can sit there and watch it if you want, which I used to do at night. Nature is so beautiful. You go and sit and say it’s a miracle how this stuff happens but I would go to school. Gary, you mentioned money, and to this day this is what sickens me. Friends, parents of friends, they all thought I was a genius and it’s for this reason.
You have a little bit of money and you’re not a show-off. In my head, I was like, “I wasn’t doing anything brilliant.” I was on my own little mission and my little endeavor. My friend was a show-off. A gold chain and he wear it out. People will say, “You’re not like him,” and they will put me on a pedestal. My brother and my sister looked up to me just because I had money. We see that in nowadays’ culture. It disgusts me.
We’ll go back to the business I have now because you’re not a tech business or you’re not millions of dollars, people don’t appreciate that but the second you have money, people respect that like that’s the actual word. At that time, I found that to be disgusting and it stays with me to this day. How much credence do we give to people who have money regardless of how they got it, or we think they’re smart or they’re brilliant? People would come to me for advice in general. I was like, “This is insane.”
I was a nice guy and level-headed but people put way too much on money as a gauge to whether a person is smart. Should they listen to them and do that? There’s way too much credence on money at that time. That was my first entrepreneurial endeavor. It was cultivating cannabis over a three-year span. We brought down a music artist which was a flop. I lost thousands of dollars. The kids that were DJs were more interested in picking up girls. I didn’t know anything about the business, but looking back, I was like, “I should have been learning the business. I should have been doing all this. I trusted them.”
We rented cars for them to go to move around and promote but these guys were just looking into getting girls. Our money was lost but it was a great experience. That DJ is actually with N.O.R.E. and they have a show on YouTube called Drink Champs. It’s one of the most popular hip-hop shows out there. It was good for him. He formed that relationship.
I was glad and I look at that like, “That was me that enabled that to happen. I financed that whole ordeal.” I take that with me as a win. I was still able to be part of something that someone else’s life was able to produce and so forth. During that time when I cultivated cannabis, this is before we had cell phones with videos to watch. Of course, there was a TV but I always enjoyed reading books. In a three-year period, I lived within 4 or 5 different apartment buildings. I used to be sitting on the stairs reading books.
You got the cannabis thing going and you’re going to college. What are you studying in college? That had to be weird. You got this whole thriving thing going on the side and that’s different from most kids in college.
There’s a lot of things that go through my head. I was going to college because that’s what you do. My dad was a PhD and everything that he ever says to his kids is education. I liked school. I like learning but I didn’t know what I was going to do. I loved every single class I ever took. I want to be a psychologist. I go to Science, I want to be a scientist. I loved everything. It was fantastic. On the cannabis side, I didn’t like it because it gets into a dark world. Now you’re talking about money and that wasn’t in me.
What came to my mind is like, “If you want to be part of this, you have to be a certain type of person.” I was like, “I don’t want to go that route. It’s just not me.” I am somebody that has never fought ever, in my life. Only in a basketball game and that’s a different story when one team fights another. It wasn’t part of me, so I always looked for a way out. I knew it wasn’t going to last because you’re going to have to hurt somebody if you’re going to be in this game because people do stupid stuff. It gets really ugly, so I was like, “I don’t want to be part of this. It’s not for me.”
Eventually, that got out of the picture because of problems and stuff like that. People break into your house and these times, it’s like, “If you’re going to continue this, you’re going to have to hurt people.” I was like, “This is not for me. I don’t want to go down that road.” In school, I went all the way up to my AA degree, meaning one more semester until I get my AA.
When I had to choose my major for the next year, I didn’t know what to do. I would sit down and just look at the sheet of paper of all the different majors and I’ll say, “You could beat this.” I would sit down like, “Lawyer,” I look at the sky and say, “If you’re a lawyer, this is what your day would be like.” I would play out the next 30 years in my head within five minutes and was like, “That’s so boring.” It’s not an accurate thought.
It’s not resonating with you.
I like it but I’m trying to picture myself waking up every day doing the same thing. I have to. I picture myself not as an entrepreneur at a job. Clock in, check-in and you have to be there every single day. That was very painful. At that point, I stopped going to school and doing the program.
Did you stop one semester shy of your AA?
I stopped going to school and now is where life gets really tricky. That was about two years so I’m 20, maybe 21-ish. Sitting back to my apartment buildings, I would sit on the stairs, people would come down every once in a while at the end of the month or the first of the month moving furniture. About 2 or 3 times, through all that time period, I remember helping people down the stairs. I was saying, “I’ll help you with this furniture. I’ll help you with that.” I’ll carry a sofa to the car and be like, “Do you have more stuff?” “Sure.”
I might help them for 1 or 2 hours, wherever they’re at. There were 1 or 2 people where I actually helped them get in the movie truck and go to the other location and unload the stuff. These people were so grateful for my help. “Gary, here is $60. Here’s $80. Come stay for dinner. Here’s $100.” You’re talking about $100 for 2, 3, even 4 hours of work. That’s $21, $22, or $25 an hour. I was like, “People are grateful for this.”
This was before we have Uber, cell phones, and all these companies. At that time, if you wanted to move, it was either family or friends that were going to help you. Even now, it’s hard to find moving helpers. I remember reading that somewhere. If you say you need help moving, people are like, “No.” It takes time. It might be on a Saturday or Sunday and people have things to do. I knew people needed help and their only option was family or friends. If they didn’t have that, it was to get a moving company.
Once you get a moving company, you’re paying the whole shebang. I came up with this idea where if you need a helping hand, we’ll help you move. We’ll make moving easier than 1, 2, 3. I still have the flyers to get it. I printed up the flyers, went to Office Depot, and put a picture of a U-Haul truck on it. I went to the tallest apartment building with the rubber band on the flyer, I put them on door handles and ran up and down the stairs.
That’s action orientation. You got the idea from your observation of helping people. They’re grateful for the help. Again, it’s your basketball pattern recognition. I’m working on another piece for Forbes. I’m writing about why business planning is not the way to go. If you were to walk into Small Business Development Center and say, “My name is John. I want to create a moving company.”
They’re probably going to advise you to write a business plan, to do all this market research on the demand, and how much money you need to buy whatever you need to buy to start this moving company. Also, go out and try to get a bank loan or a grant or some investor to give you the money to do it.
What I keep saying is that’s not how entrepreneurs tend to do it. That’s how managers from large corporations open new offices but that’s a managerial mindset and it’s not an entrepreneurial mindset. You get the idea that there’s a need for this. It’s like, “This is not happening in my apartment complex. It’s probably happening elsewhere.” The point I want to dig into is the other orientation that enables you to recognize the opportunity. You’re not thinking about what you can get. Your pattern recognition is broader. It’s more external. It’s like, “What do other people need?”
I don’t have any way to prove this but the Genesis, if you will, the core assumption of the entrepreneur is that it’s up to me to figure out how to make myself useful to other humans. The more useful I become, the better off I’m going to be. I don’t think many entrepreneurs even are conscious. They can’t articulate that. It’s that underlying assumption where you’re sitting on those steps and you help those people move and you’re saying, “There’s got to be more people that have this need. If people are giving me $50, $80, or $100, there’s maybe a business here.”
The money was a validation. It wasn’t the money that I saw where I could get $100. If people are willing to pay this, there must be some sort of pain. There’s a pain there.
It’s evidence that it’s useful. Based on that little fragment of evidence you have, you’re not going off to an SBDC to ask for help, write a business plan, and try to get all kinds of investment. You went and printed up flyers. How much money did you spend?
$50, whatever the printing cost was to print out. It wasn’t even hard flyers. It was on a sheet of regular 8×11 paper. Whatever the size is. It’s a little. I have it right here in my drawer. I still have one. It wasn’t even a fancy flyer. It wasn’t like, “Let me get this flyer. Let it be a cardstock and let everything be fantastic.”
By the grace of God, I have a gift. I’m a little artistic. I have a few skills to make a little design saying that this is what I want. I was able to do the copyright, “We’ll help you move easier than 1, 2, 3.” It was like a catchy phrase. I made a hole puncher myself and bought a pack of rubber bands. I made a loop through the paper with the rubber band and put it on doors. It’s like a little door hanger.
You spent $50, got some rubber bands, made some flyers, and stamped some holes in them. You made some reasonable attempts to make the flyer look professional or quasi-professional.
I had to put a U-Haul truck on it. I don’t know if that’s illegal. It was what it was.
It’s like you’re begging for forgiveness rather than asking permission. You then found the biggest apartment building you could find and you figured out how to buzz yourself and then what happened?
There’s no buzzing. I don’t know how it is in other places. Before, fences and gates were on your property. You go anywhere and run up and down. I put a bunch of flyers in the door. Within ten minutes, my beeper went off and I got a call. We have beepers before cell phones. I got a beeper and the beeper is going off and I was like, “This is crazy.” I remember I timed it to where it was moving time. I don’t know if I timed it on purpose or it just so happened to be that it was time to move. There’s a gap between where I first noticed this idea.
Remember, I lived at different apartment complexes. This was over a span of three years. Maybe it happened once where I happen to catch somebody moving out. Time had to lapse, so there was a pattern to spot. Time went on. It wasn’t like, “I hope someone moves.” I might help someone else and maybe the third time, the alarm went off. Even at that point, the wheels got turning. Later on, it was like, “This cannabis thing, I don’t want to do this. Let me get my hand at this.”
That was your way out of the cannabis thing.
It’s motivation. It happened at the same time but in tandem. They worked together.
That’s helpful. You’re helping to understand the contextual factors. There’s this dissatisfaction with your life as it is. You’re trying to look for a new direction. You were motivated in that way.
Let’s be reasonable, too. You’re going to have to put all your eggs in one basket, at least in the beginning, so it would be wise to choose. If you have two ideas, going all-in on both at the same time is pretty difficult. You’d have to choose one or another. Since I wasn’t doing the cultivation, I was like, “I’m ready to leave this. Perhaps I could go forward with this.” I was mentally ready to pour into this other idea.
You’re putting your flyers and then ten minutes into your new gig, the phone starts to ring. Walk me through that. What’s happening?
I live here in Miami, Florida, especially in apartment buildings, whether stereotypical or not, in general, speaking of the demographics, it’s Latino. Later on that day, I call people back. For sure, more than 50% are speaking in Spanish. They said they needed help moving. To be honest, I didn’t even think that part through. To be transparent, I wanted to figure out if this could be a business. Once people called, I was like, “Yes. It is.”
You were experimenting.
I was like playing a game. Once I found that out, it was like, “Now I got to make a business.” I try to get my friends to call back and speak Spanish. I had a couple of Dominican friends I played basketball with. I was like, “Carlos, can you talk to these people and translate?” He was the most mature one. I get every one of my friends that can speak Spanish but he’s pretty mature and he would talk. It was too much and I didn’t know what to do.
I pretty much left people hanging. The phone calls start to die out. I only went to this one and there were hundreds of apartments in this complex. I was getting a lot of calls. One of the phone calls was from a guy who sounded like, “Hello. Is this Ever-Living?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Tell me about your business. How does it work?” I was like, “This is odd.”
The pattern recognition belt is going off in your head.
He’s like, “How does it work? What is this?” I started getting scared. It didn’t sound like he wanted my service. He wasn’t asking the same questions everyone else’s was. I was like, “What is this?” I don’t know how the conversation ended. Fast forward, 4, 5, 6 months later, I’m on the road driving and there’s a U-Haul truck in front of me. We’re at a light and I look at the back of the truck and I see, “Do you need help moving? We’ll make it easier than 1, 2, 3.”
I was like, “What?” Verbatim, it was my every single word. This was the early internet. There was a website address. I went to the website and it’s like, “Moving help.” U-Haul had on their website an option for people who rent U-Haul trucks to hook up with average Joe’s laborers to help them. I was like, “That’s my idea.” Not only because the idea was the same but those are my words. It hit me, “That guy on the phone.”
It’s 100% my idea because those were the exact words they used at that time. We’re talking about many years ago. It has changed and moved on but if we go from the records of when that company started that branch, my Office Depot receipt is going to precede that. When I printed the flyers, it’s going to precede that date. I was like, “This is fantastic. This is awesome.” To this day, that’s one of my biggest winnings ever.
This is the largest moving company in the world. They’re international and I was like, “That was my idea. It’s brilliant.” It’s perfect for their model of this. They’re not helping move. I don’t even think they get money from it. They might charge people to post on the website if you want to get listed as a mover. If you want to get a moving company, they might take a percentage. I don’t know how that works in the back end but it’s the perfect model to get people to come in and rent their storage spaces and their trucks. If I was an intrapreneur in that company, they would have given me a promotion.
It’s interesting to me that you interpreted that theft of your idea optimistically. A lot of people would have been angry about that or defeated but you interpreted it as a validation of your ideas.
For a couple of reasons, one is I couldn’t pull it off. I didn’t see myself pulling it off. I left it alone from that time. From the time I saw that, I didn’t pursue it. I might get a phone call every once in a while, but I was like, “I’m not doing anything with it.” The second is I didn’t do something with it. Somebody did something with it and it’s U-Haul. I did use their copyrighted truck on the flyer, which I assume people were calling U-Haul because they saw the truck. People are interesting.
They might see a number there. As you’re in business for a long time, you realize people’s brains operate funny. Some people might look at the numbers and they called me. Maybe those people, after I didn’t go through with it, they probably called U-Haul. People don’t think. You see a U-Haul truck on a flyer, “Let’s call U-Haul.” They’re probably getting calls and they’re like, “What are you talking about?”
They probably saw the flyer, threw the flyer out, lost the flyer, and all they remember was U-Haul, so they called U-Haul.
The U-Haul companies are like, “What are you talking about?” They’re like, “There’s a flyer with your thing.” They’re like, “What?” They’re smart too. If people are calling, you got to give them credit too. They could go, “Who’s this? You’re using our copywriting. Cease-and-desist.” Maybe they did try that, I don’t know. They’re like, “This seems like an idea,” like I did. Somebody there did it. You find out more about it.
Where did you go from there? You’re driving down the street. How are you making a living now? You’re not going to college. You diss the cannabis business. You didn’t pick up the moving thing. What are you doing and what’s the next step?
It’s bittersweet. For the next 10 to 15 years, I started working at a temp agency. It’s called Talent Tree Temp Agency. It’s run by a family. Vaughn was the owner and Chris was the nephew and his wife Lizette. I’m about to tear up thinking about them. I was working temp jobs. I was working at a tennis tournament every year. There’s a tennis tournament on Key Biscayne where I worked. Some of the years, I worked with the players like Serena and where the players dine when they weren’t playing the game. I was around in that atmosphere.
Chris is amazing. He was the owner. He’s the one who ran the temp agency but over time, he saw something in me, my work ethic, and the way I worked. Stereotypically, a lot of people that come through there are shaky with their behavior. I was super dependable. We both had a relationship over time. I begin to know the owner and they begin to know me. They would call me and they can depend on me. After the temp agency, of course, the jobs weren’t always consistent. I worked at FedEx for a little bit. I worked at a restaurant and Old Navy. I’m going through life.
Not only that, I say it’s bittersweet because during that time I got to meet Chris but, where’s my energy going? I wasn’t playing basketball. Unfortunately, I started drinking more. I see some people drink but in that, it felt that energy was being consumed. If I look back in hindsight, that energy was being consumed like that. Even more unfortunate, during one of those times, hanging with my buddy and a couple of girls, we had smoked something that they had mixed in something that I didn’t know.
After that, I had an addiction to a pretty hard drug as well. For the next 10 to 15 years, I would work those minimal jobs and I was stuck. Looking back to the times, even in the addiction, it was to a point that I was even homeless. I didn’t share this with my college professor because I’m an entrepreneur. I didn’t want that to be part of my story. I’ve never felt it was. It wasn’t like someone who was born handicap like lost a limb. That’s something I did.
I don’t look at that as something to overcome, although it is, but that had nothing to do with that because I was an entrepreneur before that. I never was like, “This is where I came from,” because that would be a lie. I was out way before. In elementary school, we were making video games. I never shared that with anyone, Gary. That’s why I asked you the question about how personally you want people to be. Even during that, this is what I found. When I was homeless, sometimes to get money, I’d get scrap metal from places.
This is going to sound crazy but sometimes it wasn’t even the drug that I was after. After I got it, after I went through the mission of scrap metal, spending half a day, I would sit and be satisfied. I was satisfied with that hustle because I had to get creative. That fulfilled me. I remember sitting there with a drink and whatever and be like, “I don’t even need that.” Eventually, of course, I would consume the drink but I was satisfied. I remember sitting there for hours. I used that energy.
This is in hindsight. At that moment, as I’m looking back, it’s that energy that drive to be progressive and build something. For me, that was the grind. That’s what Davy Crockett and Boone did to go out because they had to do something. They’re like, “I can’t sit in this camp anymore. This thing is sold. I’m going to do something. I don’t know what’s going to happen but I’m going to go.” That’s what happened. For fifteen years, that’s what I did with my life until I had a moment.
What was that moment?
By this time, I already had kids. I’ve met someone during this time. I had met somebody when I worked at Old Navy. We got together. We lived together for ten years. We had a child and my daughter was born. I don’t think my son was born yet. After ten years, we had separated. Even though we were together for about eight years and we have a child, then we went our separate ways. I started getting better. I started drinking less. She saw a change in me. We ended up splitting up. We were two different people.
I was beginning to see my life and I was like, “I don’t want to go this route anymore.” She was fine. She worked at a bank. It was fun while it lasted. We were young. We would go to work and hang out when we come home. I started processing things. I was in my recliner and I remember my kids. My daughter is with my mom. I was on my third bottle of wine. I wasn’t even getting drunk anymore. It’s to a point where I was like, “I have too much liquid in my stomach.” I remember thinking about an interview I heard about Duff McKagan.
If you’ve watched The Simpsons, there’s a beer called Duff Beer. He was the drummer for Guns N’ Roses. On the radio, I remember him sharing a story about how he would drive across the country and he had nothing to drink and he would throw up in the car in a container. Since he had no more alcohol, he was drinking his vomit. I didn’t relate to that. I was like, “That’s crazy.” I saw where it went. He would also share how he didn’t eat. His manager had to force-feed him bread. At the time that I was in the recliner, I had steaks or some kind of meat in the refrigerator that was going bad because I wasn’t eating.
I shared how I used to think about the job from when I was doing my AA. The lawyer that I would think ahead. That day on the couch, I started thinking, “This is it. Is this who I was going to be? Where are you going to be in 30 years? You’re going to die. This is not sustainable.” That thought kept going. It’s like, “How did you get here? You’re drinking a lot. Do you have a problem?” I’d say, “Yes.” “You’ve been having a lot of fights with your family. You have no friends. You’re not hanging out with your friends.” All that fulfilling life you have before is a lot of arguments.
I got fired on my day off from one of the jobs I was working at because I didn’t sleep the whole night and I went to the team meeting intoxicated. I didn’t do anything wrong. I was asked to work on my day off. They weren’t supposed to do that. I got out of employment because I wasn’t supposed to work, “Everyone help to set up the store before we open.” I did something wrong and the GM was like, “Is that right?” Since I was out of the state of my mind, I went off with him. I was like, “What are you talking about? How am I supposed to work?” I got fired on my day off. I was like, “This is bad.”
I’m one of those people they talked about in school. In school, they taught you about addiction. I was like, “I’m one of those people.” I started thinking crazy stuff. Within five minutes, it started barreling down. I’d say, “Remember that time in elementary school that you told this girl, Rebecca, like, ‘Do you want to go out with me?’ She was like, ‘Really?’ You’re like, ‘No.’” I started thinking about all this stuff I didn’t like. It’s like, “You’re not a good person.” My brother and I told my parents that my sister broke the picture and she got in trouble and we didn’t.
I was like, “You’re arguing with your parents because of the stuff you did in your life. You’re not a good person.” I started crying. It’s the worst I’ve ever felt in my life. There was a thought that came to mind, I was like, “That’s a given. All men sin. All men fault before God. What do you think Jesus died for?” At that point, it was like a weight lifted off. I’ve never drunk or done anything again. I went back to school. The changing point of my life is that five minutes in that recliner, reflecting on my life, reflecting on where I’m at that age, and all the things I’ve done not being in the right place.
God has given me so much in the form of parents and where we’re at. We’re not born somewhere in North Korea or something. I have so much and the choices that I’ve made are throwing it down the drain. I knew always that I have the ability. I was given so much as far as talent and natural gifts. I was like, “What a waste.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen A Bronx Tale. It’s an old-school movie. It’s about a mob boss. There’s a kid, Sonny. Sonny is a little kid and the neighbors are like, “What’s the worst thing Sonny has done?” Sonny is the mob boss. He’s a wasted talent. It’s like, “What’s the saddest thing? It’s wasted talent.” That’s the change in my life.
What’s interesting to me is there’s a thread in this conversation. Psychologists would call this attribution and it’s important. This is a mindset moment here. What’s important that I want to tease out of your story is that you were attributing the causes of your malaise to things that were within your control. That’s super important and interesting.
A lot of people would interpret that same set of circumstances as things that are beyond their control. That attribution happens in our subconscious brain. You don’t think about it in that way. It’s like, “Do I have control over this or don’t I?” Your mind is using that as a decision-making structure. That’s a common thread in this conversation. Every time something bad happens to you, you attribute it in a way that you could do something about it. You interpret things optimistically.
At least for me, it’s been a growing experience. It wasn’t always like that. Even the entrepreneur, we’ll get on about the business and how I got started picking up from that moment and changing my life. It’s a growing process. I can’t say I always had an idea and I put it to use. There’s a lot of ideas I sat on. I read this book by Jocko Willink. He’s a former Navy SEAL. The book was called Extreme Ownership. It’s being accountable for everything.
After listening to that audiobook, that put the seal across that line towards everything. That was the finish point in that line of thinking of accountability that it’s up to you. After hearing that, it was in line with what I was already thinking, I wasn’t progressing through my journey, and that was everything. Every little thing that happens is like, “What was your part of that? Why are you there?”
That’s what you can control.
Anything else, then you’re helpless.
It’s a Serenity Prayer. That’s what it comes down to. You figure out what you can control and forget the rest. I must have said that prayer 1,000 times before I paid attention to it.
Sometimes, it just clicks.
You have this moment. You realize you got to dig yourself out of the hole you’ve dug yourself in. You’re a single dad. You’re going back to school. You’re working odd jobs. Were you working in a restaurant or something?
At this time, I was working at a restaurant. I was working in Macaroni Grill. They went out of business in 2020. I was a cook there. It’s a lot of fun. It’s an open kitchen. I had a great time working at that restaurant. It’s like a family. I know a lot of people from the restaurant on Facebook. I was a single dad. I have my son. At this time, my son was eighteen months old and my daughter was about four years old. I came up with another idea when my son was eating rice and beans. I was doing great. I was working at the restaurant.
I came up with another idea. I was like, “My son is spilling food but it’s getting on his shirt.” There are bibs that exist for that. It’s also hitting into the gap between his body and it was getting on the table. I was like, “This is frustrating.” To solve that problem, I went and got one of my t-shirts and I tied the arm sleeves around his neck. I made the shirt like a little slide onto the table with his plate on top of the shirt. When he ate, I still have it on video. He would sit there, watch the TV, eat, and rice and beans were spilling down.
He would look at it and pick it up and eat. After he’s done eating, I would go to the garbage can and dump whatever’s on the table and that’s it. I was doing this every time he ate. I’m a neat freak. It would frustrate me to see a piece of rice on the floor. Some parents could do it. They could deal with it. Now I’m better because my kids are older. That’s a fight you’re not going to win but it bothered me.
I came up with this and I was like, “Maybe I can make a product for this.” Now my shirts are getting dirty. I have to find which shirts am I going to use. My shirts are getting dirty and some would stain. I was like, “Let me see if I can make a product. This would be a good product. It works for me.” The first thing I did was I didn’t cut my shirt into the actual thing.
I went to JoAnn Fabrics store and I got a cheap piece of fabric. It was ugly. I have the prototype here in my office. It’s an old ‘70s green piece of fabric and it has polka dots on it that are orange and brown. It’s a ‘70s color and it’s super ugly but it was cheap. I cut the bottom half of the square like a placemat and the top half was a bib. You could picture it. It was something like that.
It was a bib and a placemat but it was attached together. Not only that, I noticed the bowl would move. I made it so you cut a hole in the middle and then you could put a suction cup on the bottom of the bowl to hold it to the table. You might go now and you might see suction bowls that are for sale. You might see bibs like that. This was 2012. None of that stuff existed.
The interesting thing is what you didn’t do is as important as what you did do. What I mean by that is a lot of people have ideas but they don’t know what to do with the idea. A lot of folks in that same position would say, “I got to go have somebody tell me what to do.” People have ideas and they don’t know what the next step is. Go write a business plan and go get somebody to give you money to launch a business. That’s not what you did. What were you thinking? Can you walk us through your thought process? You went to JoAnn Fabrics. You bought a piece of fabric. You’re trying to make a prototype, I assume.
I got a piece of fabric. Of course, I needed someone to sew it. My first was a fabric and I cut it. It wasn’t a finished product. I might have used a clothespin or something to hold it on him. There were no buttons or Velcro. It was something rudimentary to see the size of it and to be able to have an idea for a pattern. If you’re going to make something with textile, usually sewing is involved.
Most of the ladies who work at JoAnn Fabrics know how to sew and I remember asking a couple of them, “Do you sew? I’m trying to make something. Can you do it for me?” I found one that can. I remember it was $20 to do the job, so I gave it to her. Three days later, I was like, “Is it ready?” She’s like, “No. Two more days.” Five days later, I get the thing back and gave her $20, bring it to my son, and try it on. I was like, “This works but this doesn’t. Now I have to change this design.” I go back, I find it. It takes two weeks.
You give it to them and you call, “What’s going on?” They’re like, “I’m going to be a little late because I have this.” I was like, “I can’t do this.” I’m going to end up spending $1 million for every iteration of the product. I have to wait two weeks or however long for the person to do it. In my mind, I was like, “I don’t care. You’re not making a dress.”
These people don’t care. That’s not their job. They’re not even making a lot of money. I was like, “I have abilities.” In middle school, we made a football and a baseball with stuff that we’re batting and stitch it up with a needle and thread. I was like, “I know how to use a drill and stuff like that. It’s a sewing machine.” I went to Walmart, it was $50 or $80 and bought a sewing machine. All the different studies on the sewing machine but all I need is one.
It’s the one with the stitch that goes forward. People are like, “Do you know how to sew?” I was like, “No. I know how to make the product.” This one setting. I didn’t need all the other complicated stuff. I learned how to sew or to use the machine for that need. The product kept taking different shapes and different iterations.
You made different iterations and you keep trying it on your eighteen-month-old son and see what works and what doesn’t. Meanwhile, you’re going to a day job every day working in the restaurant.
I came to a point where I had a product. It’s like, “This is great. My son is using it.” I shot a video with them with the cell phone and I’m like, “This is great. Now what?” This is where the rubber meets the road in marketing. One thing is developing a product and getting there. This is a whole different ballgame. It gets infinitely hard. Even if you’re an established company like here, we’re close to the marketplace, it’s where it’s at.
Amazon was just getting started at that time. Meaning, most people I know didn’t order from Amazon. Of course, Amazon has been since 1996 but not everybody was on it. Only a few people. I remember going to Amazon and listing the product. I was showing up. You can’t do that now. If you want to show up on Amazon, you’re going to have to do a lot of work. I spent a lot of money. I posted a picture and I was getting orders.
I remember selling it with the bowl. The first iteration was the band and the placemat section had a hole, and then I wanted to sell it with the bowl, so I had the complete thing. When I got an order, I would go to Target, get a munchkin bowl or something like that, put it in there, and put it in the box. The aesthetics and packaging were horrible. I just threw stuff in a box and ship it off. I had a couple of sales here and there and that’s it. People say, “This is great.”
It sounds like a side hustle at that point.
My dad passed in 2011. My dad always said, “Education teaches you how to think.” It’s not necessarily what you’re reading. When you’re there, you think. People say all the time, “Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates didn’t finish college. They dropped out.” I was like, “Haven’t you noticed they were all in college?” You don’t have to go there, but college had something to do with it because they were thinking. It’s an area where you think. I just wanted to throw that out there.
It’s a space where people are exchanging ideas. It creates the environment.
When I was at Old Navy or at the restaurant, you weren’t thinking. You’re doing your job. I was like, “I need to go back to school. I’m going to go back to school.” It was great because when I first went to school, you were going to the library. If you want to look up a book, you were looking at a Dewey Decimal System. I went back to school in 2013. Computers and entrepreneurship are taking off. The college, Miami Dade, just opened up this new entrepreneur center on the North campus. It’s beautiful because this is what’s happening.
I found one guy who knew Amazon in one of my classes. We happen to sit in front with this guy around. He was selling a spiralizer, then you take a cucumber and it makes spaghetti. It’s a little piece of thing and he’s making $25,000 in sales a month for a ridiculous little contraption. He taught me Amazon. We became good friends. He’s like, “This is what you got to do. It’s like this.” I took Finance and I learned how to use a spreadsheet in Excel.
In Finance class, the teacher was talking. We had computers in the classroom. I had a business going. He was teaching arbitrary about Apple or these ridiculous companies like Toyota Motor and stuff that was in the textbook. I was plugging the information for my company like, “This is how much it cost. Internally, you’re losing $5 each bib.” It started getting me to think, especially in Accounting and Finance, you have to think about time. I was using zero calculations for the product. I was like, “I’m losing money. I’m paying people to buy my product.”
I want to make sure we’re clear here. You’re working a part-time job, you got this side hustle going, and you’re a single dad.
You say that really quick, “What is extremely difficult?”
That’s the point I wanted to make. It’s not like you’re skipping through life and this is all on a Saturday afternoon. You’re trying to put 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5-pound bag.
I’m taking a full course, 12 credits, 4 classes in college. I finished but the first semester was to finish my AA because I left off with being a semester short. I finished AA then I rolled into the business and supervision. This is the first year that Miami Dade College begin offering four-year classes. In the four-year classes that they had, one has something to do with nursing, and the only other one was for business supervision or management. I didn’t have to meet the bar that was set for FIU because my GPA in AA was garbage. It was bad.
All that bad stuff started. I wouldn’t study. I was in the back of the class and I get Cs. Towards the end, I started dropping out. I wasn’t able to make it to the university, to FIU, or any of these colleges. I remember the counselor said, “Your grades are trash but it’s so brilliant.” He ended up being my Finance teacher. His question was, “Is it because it’s hard for you or because you weren’t making the effort?” It’s so profound if you think about it. He has sense enough to know there are different reasons why grades are like they are.
He was helping you figure out the attribution to get that right.
It was important. He’s like, “If you’re going to do this, if you’re struggling then you need to go this way. If it’s because you don’t put the effort then you need to go this way.” I was taking four classes. My son was growing. By this time, it was 2010, so he was 3 or 4 years old. He’s talking already. I go to work, school, and come home. My children were feeling it. I remember I started sewing for the business. I was in the bedroom and I would sew. I had a bed there and I had a table sewing machine. My son slept with me in the room. I sewed every night. That’s all I did.
I would come home and sew in the sewing machine. It got so hard to where I remember having a tear come down my eye because the type of job selling is, you need to be built for it. To do that over and over, your brain needs to be built for it. If your brain is not built for it, you’re going to break. I remember being so tired. I’ve had my son look out the window when we live across from a park and he’s like, “Daddy, look over these kids playing outside. Why are we always in here?”
There are also the moments I wanted to quit because it was so difficult. One of those times is sewing in my room and saying to my son, I named my son after my dad, “Dominic, I can’t do this anymore.” He was like, “Daddy, if you quit, you fail at your job, so choose.” When he said that, he was 3 or 4 years old. He’s my biggest cheerleader to this day. “Daddy, don’t quit at the job.”
In the beginning, when I made the decision to go back to school, I said, “I didn’t go through with the U-Haul idea. I didn’t go through with this that the idea is great. I’ve had these in between that where they didn’t go past a bunch of thought. They might have made a two sheet of paper.” I was like, “I’m going to do this until I succeed or fail.”
Take it to its logical conclusion.
I need to find success. Somebody else says, “We need to find this.” I didn’t know but I just said success or failure, but I knew a failure meant. Failure was a picture of me standing in a room with nothing around. There’s not a move to me. That’s where I told myself, “That has to be it. If it’s going to work, you saw what happened. If you’re going to do this, there has to be an effort because it’s going to be hard and difficult. There are going to be customers that speak a different language, but you’re going to have to figure it out. You cannot stop.”
I learned from that. “It’s going to be scary. There’s going to be pain. It’s going to be hard. There’s going to be tears. You’re going to cry. You’re going to do something.” If you don’t cry, you’re going to be close because there’s so much pain in that endeavor. For me, it’s necessary because that’s what I’ve always wanted all this time but I never crossed that line to make that decision and commitment to go all in.
There’s a lot there, John. You’re ready to give up. Your little kid encouraged you to keep going in the depths of despair. You’re selling these things on Amazon, so orders are coming in but you got to figure out how to fulfill them. You’re the chief, cook, bottle washer, the whole thing.
The first year that I did it, $343 was the first iteration of the product. I noticed a product is difficult to explain. I was losing money because it takes so long to make it. I had a lot of buttons on it. I was doing the buttons by hand. The way the buttons work is there are two sides. There’s one side that has like a pointy piece, you put it through the fabric, and it goes to the other half. You have this hand crimper. I was cutting the fabric by hand. On the bed, I’d roll out a sheet of fabric. I was buying the fabric 1 or 2 yards at a time, making it, and cutting it out. I have cramping hands. The pushing button is hurting.
The bias tape, the thing that goes around the bib is so hard. I was trying to find out how to do it, and then finally, I figured out there is a piece that you can use and attach to your sewing machine. It guides it for you. I’m watching people that have sewn for years and they know nothing about it. I’ve been blown away.
I was like, “This is crazy.” The other way you have to do it is you have to sew one side that turns it on. I was like, “There has to be something better.” I searched and I remember finding it. I’m like, “Why are these people still doing it the hard way? There’s a piece you can put in them.” There are people out there that have no idea and they’ve been sewing for 5 or 6 years.
You’re seeing their videos like, “This is how you sew bias tape on,” and I’m saying, “Why are you doing that?” Finally, I get to use this piece, and then you still have to learn the piece because there are little odd things that happen with the fabric with slides and different settings. When the thread gets caught in the machine for the first time, now you got to figure out how to learn the machine and get to become a repair person. You can take it somewhere where you had to spend money, so you have to learn how to fix it. There are different columns.
This is before YouTube had a lot of videos. 2015 is where social media and stuff took off. You got to figure stuff out. The first year is $343 and the next year, a couple of thousands in sales, but I noticed the product had to change. It was too hard to explain and too difficult to make for the money that was being charged. You try to spend $15 for a bib.
How many are you going to be able to sell? I was still working at the restaurant and I also clean my church twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays before church. I was like, “Something has to give here.” I started looking at the reviews on Amazon, the products, and what’s missing as far as bibs are concerned.
I realized that bibs were mostly for babies meaning, the newborns. The cotton bibs are what comes to mind but there weren’t bids for kids that were my son’s age at that time, which was 1 year old to 18 months. I said, “Let me make a larger bib.” There was a lot that went into it at the time like, “Where do you find the different fabrics?” You’re calling everywhere. You’re trying to find fabric and the price is too much for just a couple of yards. How can I find that with the big supplier I have now?
I talked to some guy in North Carolina and he’s like, “You don’t want me to sell for your company. Here, go do this. You need your own people. You need to establish stuff yourself. Don’t buy fabric from here. Buy it from this place. That place is not even listed on the internet. It’s an inside thing. They don’t need to advertise like that.”
It happens with communications with other people organically. You’re in it. You’re that explorer going to the frontier. You don’t know what’s going to be there, but you might meet an Indian. There are many Indians and they’re like, “This is how you do this. I make corn. This is how you plant.” They’re going to help you.
You said you did about $340 the first year and a couple of thousand bucks the second year. You’re starting to figure it out and orders are still coming in.
I then ran into a problem with the buttons I was using. When orders started picking up, now it became a production issue. Not only am I doing sales but I’m running a manufacturing company. Some companies just do one or the other. Most sellers on Amazon are in the sales department. I have to think about both and they both have their problems.
Production is a pain in the butt. There’s a lot of things that go wrong. For me, the buttons were an issue. I was like, “You can’t keep up with these buttons and the machines that do it by themselves. They are $20,000 machines that you buy to do that. Not only that, but the buttons would rip out.” I was having an issue where people would say, “The buttons would rip out of the fabric.”
I had a thin polyester material that I was working and it’s a waterproof material. I was like, “This product can’t go on. There has to be a solution. Do I put something underneath the button? What am I going to do?” Lo and behold, there is a button product that comes with supporting material. The button is embedded and that’s what we use now. I didn’t know ahead of time. I didn’t create the business and say, “I have to have all the ducks lined up in a row before I move forward with the product.”
If that problem wasn’t solved, I didn’t know where to go but I know it had to be solved. I have an engineer friend at church and he works at Johnson & Johnson. He’s like, “Maybe you could soften the buttons. You put it in heat.” These people are geniuses. They’re like, “Warm up the buttons a little bit, and then they’re not as hard.” I was like, “Engineers are smart.” They’ll go to the complicated things first.
There’s a little nuance I want to dig out here, John. One of the things I say about entrepreneurs is they tend to have a growth mindset. This comes from a lady named Carol Dweck. She writes about a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. It has to do with, if you have a fixed mindset, you have a deeply held belief that your intelligence or your talent is finite. They come on the hard drive and there’s nothing you can do about it. If somebody has a growth mindset, you believe that you can improve your talent, intelligence, and grow.
What she says that’s important is that you’re not aware of whether you have a fixed or growth mindset. You can have a fixed mindset in one domain and a growth mindset in the other but this belief underlying influences the type of goals we set for ourselves. If you have a fixed mindset, you won’t set goals that you aren’t assured of the outcome. You won’t do it because the failure will reveal your limitations. That’s the underlying logic.
The point I wanted to get to without going too far down a rabbit hole is that I see the growth mindset in entrepreneurs but I want to make the point that I don’t think they’re genetically all born with a growth mindset. It’s because you’re trying to accomplish something and because you don’t have access to resources, you’ve got to figure it out.
You’ve got to teach yourself how to sew, find the buttons, how to do Amazon, how to find the fabric, how to fix the sewing machine and all of those things. Over time, your sense of self-efficacy and your belief in your abilities to learn keeps growing. You build this self-efficacy, self-confidence, or whatever you want to call it.
Going back to where my dad said, “School helps you to think.” I ended up entering into an accelerated program at the entrepreneur school. It’s called The Idea Center in Miami Dade College. The building is completely empty and there are just eight of us as the experimental group, but you’re around brilliant people. A lot of these kids are younger than me. All we did was focus on this one kid, Gregory. One person is talking about their business and you have a ton of feedback coming in.
Remember, during my addiction, I was off and run by then grinding and going to my job. I didn’t see all the new technologies come out like Facebook and Instagram. I wasn’t on any of that stuff. These kids were introducing me to all this new way of thinking and all this technology that was native to them. My mind was blown. I listened to the feedback. People would ask me to explain my business and I wasn’t able to explain to a certain extent because I was still exploring but the amount of knowledge and feedback listening to how like-minded people think was a learning lesson for me.
There’s another important part of the story here and that is the environment you put yourself in matters. When you’re in school, that’s not about what to think but it’s a place where people are thinking and then you took it one step further. When you put yourself in that entrepreneurship center, you’re not just with people that are trying to acquire knowledge but you’re also surrounded by people that are trying to build things.
I have goosebumps.
That’s part of it. I read a book by a guy named Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From. He talks about the spaces where ideas can mingle and swap. It’s like a contagion. Being around those people who are talking about their ideas and gives you ideas, you can feed into their ideas and they could feed into yours. It’s an important part of the conversation that people don’t understand.
The people you surround yourself with have an enormous impact on your behavior. I’ve looked at some research around this and it’s freakish. The behavior of your friends’ friends’ friends influences you. You’re in the entrepreneurship center at Miami Dade and you’re one of the first cohorts but you’re around people talking about ideas and making things happen.
To touch on what you said is important because in that sixth-grader making the video games, I was around people that made those decisions. We were able to sit there and focus and make the video game. As I started moving and becoming more serious with basketball and made the basketball team, I remember being embarrassed.
It’s one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made in my life. I remember being laughed at for sitting with my nerdy Gifted friends in my career in high school at the lunch table. One of the cool basketball players from New York turned and laughed at me for sitting with them. I never sat with them again and that was the end of our friendship because I cared more about how I was viewed by these cool kids than the people that I jive with intellectually.
I also knew personally because you’re together all through the year. When I was with the basketball people, I excelled in their basketball but I neglected that entrepreneurial side that’s always been with me and look where it led me. It led me to a dark place because that energy had to be released somewhere. The people I was surrounding myself with, I’m accountable for my actions but your environment is going to influence your tendencies.
Let me go psychobabble on you because what you’re saying is that you’re denying some part of who you are.
I dropped out of the Gifted. I dropped out of all the stuff.
With the sports thing, you didn’t drop out of that. You just couldn’t proceed there but there’s a price to be paid for denying that. There’s a lot of spiritual poverty in this world. Henry David Thoreau wrote this line, “People lead lives of quiet desperation.” You can’t deny that. I don’t want to go too far in the weeds here. I want folks to understand where the bib thing went from there. Now you figured out how to use the buttons that got that backing on it, so you’re not having those issues. You’re figuring out Amazon, the manufacturing, the production part of it. Where does it go? It’s $2,000 in year two.
There came a point where sales started being steady. I figured out the button problem and then sales were climbing. We’re getting more recognition and ranking within Amazon. I was selling a lot on the website. There’s a lot of sales coming from the website. Of course, as Amazon started growing, even people I used to purchase from the website now become a customer purchasing from Amazon. It started becoming a production issue because I have the business, my kids, and school.
At some point, I did decide to go all in sewing the bibs because I could pay myself for labor and I’m also making money from the business. I finally developed a product that is profitable aside, so I went all in and I was still cleaning the church. I got money from that as well. It took little time, maybe 3 to 4 hours a week to do that.
The next problem I had is keeping up with production because if I was the only person sewing, it’s too much because you have to do sales, too. You then have to figure out the sales part and getting more customers. Finally, through one of my suppliers, I found somebody who was able to sew, who was good and dependable.
I went through a lot of other people like my friend’s sister and it was horrible. You’re going to go through a lot of people to find somebody great, which is a problem across every business or it’s an issue that you’re going to have to face. Sales started going steady and it has taken off ever since there. We’re doing 50% more year over year and it’s been the same ever since. We keep climbing.
That’s a great story. There’s so much I like about your story and your honesty makes it so powerful.
I want to thank you for that because this is the first time I have shared all that. Most of this stuff was many years ago but still, it’s so real because it’s part of me. You can become embarrassed and ashamed. Even through that journey, you would believe the people I’ve talked to are prominent people. It’s part of life. Many people go through it. People that you wouldn’t think to hear them saying “This is my story. This is my family.”
It’s all real. You’ve been able to meet them the first time. I think it’s time. I’m at that point in my life where I feel like we’re at the next stage. Even as far as a business with the bib, I have a lesser of a vision. In my intuition, I see it to keep going where it’s at but I also have something else on my horizon over here.
I’m feeling to make the next jump on what’s going on in the business landscape, where we’re at in technology, and everything else. It’s a female industry. Even though we have a lot of daycare centers, you also deal with a lot of mothers. If you’re going to be a brand, you have to pull out material in the form of videos. If you’re going to do videos, you’re going to be involved with a lot of kids, at least that’s the direction I would go. You’re dealing with a lot of mothers.
A lot of dads don’t do this. I don’t care what people tell you, “It’s 99% women.” The dads are going to put the time into it. Trust me. It’s just the mothers are into it. I don’t see myself in that direction. I don’t feel the passion. I don’t see myself being involved with women and little toddlers. It’s just me here having no female as a business partner. On that end, I see the next transition for myself. I already have something here that’s been percolating for the last couple of years. Something has always been stirring all this time. It’s been working.
The entrepreneurial efficacy grows. That’s what people don’t get. You start out with one goal. I found this video some years ago, John. It was a little interview with Steve Jobs when he was young. He’d started Apple, then he got kicked out and he was doing something else. His hair was long and he used to wear a shirt buttoned all the way up.
He said this thing and it struck me down. He said, “We come into this world and we’re taught that the world is the way it is. Your job is to figure out how to fit into the world. Try to get a job, save a little bit of money, and have a little bit of fun, but don’t bash into the walls. Don’t break the rules. That’s a recipe for a limited life.”
He said, “Life gets interesting once you understand one simple fact. The people that made those walls and made those rules are no smarter than you are. You can bend those walls, poke through them, and build something that other people need. Once you understand that, you’ll never be the same.” I’m of the opinion that the entrepreneurial spirit is the human spirit. It’s not just in some of us. It’s within all of us. It’s dormant within some of us.
The kids have it.
If you think about curiosity, we’re all born naturally curious. We’re all born with the innate desire and the capacity to learn everything we need to learn in order to adapt and thrive in our environment. Nature rewards us for learning with a sense of joy. You don’t need to be coerced into learning what you’re interested in. The same goes for work. Human beings have the desire to contribute. To fulfill human needs through our efforts is a powerful need. If we aren’t able to fulfill those needs, we tend to turn to need substitutes.
For some of us, those substitutes become drugs and alcohol. For some, they become an obsession with sports, gambling, video games, phones, or social media. As entrepreneurs, we stumble into that intersection of our interests, abilities, and fulfilling human needs. That’s how we become optimally engaged and that’s what your story is all about. It’s a fabulous story. John, I want to make sure people know how to reach out to you and the name of your products so we can be clear about that.
Our brand is Toppy Toddler USA. We sell in Walmart, Amazon, the US, and Canada. Sometimes in the UK. Our website is ToppyToddler.com. You can find us there, too. We’re up there with our six-figure business. We have several independent contractors who work for the company. I’m so grateful for this opportunity to be able to grow the company and lead the company.
We’re able to do sales within the military. I have some sales in the military. We have sales to hundreds, if not thousands, of daycare centers across the United States. People in Hollywood have purchased our bibs. It’s always great to see something’s going out to one of the studios. Perhaps used in shows out there that I haven’t seen yet.
We were invited to a yacht club for a Luncheon and my wife’s niece was using one of your bibs. I said, “Where did you get that?” I didn’t know at first, but I saw it was an oversized bib. I said, “That sounds a lot like my friend John’s.” That’s where it came from.
That’s my dream right there to see my bib going out to restaurants. I’ll take that. It’s cool that you’re able to see that. That’s the story and I’m not finished. I’m starting my new adventure and putting it into play. The idea has already been there. We’ll have something else to talk about soon. It’s being built. I told you I was moving locations to do this interview after. That has a lot to do with implementing that plan. I tell my kids, “Daddy is going to be busy for a little bit.” Some time in December 2021 seems like the optimal time to introduce this new thing to the world.
John, let’s start to wrap up here. What did you learn about yourself through this journey? Is there any one thing that comes to mind that you want to leave our audience with?
Relentless. I realized there is an unextinguished flame that burns within. What I’ve learned about myself is to be relentless and to go all in.
Thank you, John. It’s been a pleasure to get this story down.
Thank you, Gary, for this opportunity. You need to get all this stuff out. It’s important for me to move forward. It’s important for everybody to be who they are, be real, and share their story because there’s somebody like you that you could be an inspiration, too.
Thank you. I appreciate it.