Jake’s Wife, Megan, asked me to answer a few questions for her business class. I thought I’d post the questions and my answers here (you know, since it’s commerce stuff!).
Name: Cameron Hughes
Hometown: Lehi, UT
Education: (high school and college) Meridian High School (graduated in ’96). Attended BYU- three classes short of graduating when I decided to, for lack of a better word, “bail”.
Q. What did you graduate in?
A. I would have graduated in English. My plan was to attend Law School and practice law with my father. During my first pre law course I realized my plan wasn’t going to work out (I hated law).
Q. Did this major have anything to do with starting a business? Was it helpful and in what ways?
A. Not really- English and knife retail share very few commonalities. But yes, the English background was very helpful. Website content is extremely important and the English background gave me an edge in regard to what was readable, clear and engaging.
Q. Do you have any relatives who are entrepreneurs, and did they have an influence on your business?
A. Not a one!
Q. Did you have any other role models or mentors?
A. A friend of my wife’s family runs a business online selling model (i.e. cars and planes). I thought to myself, “If he can do it, then I can do it.” I talk with him from time to time to get business advice. Most of my inspiration comes from INC magazine- there are some excellent contributors that I admire a great deal.
Q. Did you have any business or self-employment experiences when you were young? How important were those experiences to starting your own business?
A. I was always into something. I was always trying to start some kind of business. Mowing lawns, babysitting, painting. I used to haul my sister’s toys down to the corner by our house and sell them to the neighborhood kids. I was big into eBay too (not so much anymore). All these experiences might be classified as “cute” now, but they really drove home the idea that it’s hard to work to start and run a business.
2. Your Business
Q. How did you spot the opportunity to sell knives, and how did it develop?
A. Originally I just collected knives. I found a couple of good sources to buy them and I’d get a dozen at a time. I could sell eleven on eBay and make enough so that I could keep the last one without being out anything. Pretty soon I was making enough extra that I acquired a small inventory and decided to build a retail website.
Q. What were your goals when you started? Did you picture being where you are today?
A. Originally I was just excited by the idea of having a piece of the Internet pie. It seemed incredible that I could pop something online and someone would buy it. Selling knives online seemed like a fad that I was lucky enough to stumble on. But after awhile I realized that what we had was a viable business and my goal shifted to growth. “How big can it get?” was the question foremost on my mind. I never imagined for a moment it would be anything like the business we have today.
Q. How did you evaluate the opportunity in terms of the financial requirements and income potential?
A. It didn’t take much to officially start the company so risk wasn’t a big factor. As long as we made more than we put in things were fine by me. Initially we didn’t take anything out of the business for ourselves- any profit was put back in to facilitate growth.
Q. How much capital did it take?
A. I borrowed $2000 from myself to get “a lot” of inventory.
Q. How long did it take to reach a positive cash flow and break even sales volume?
A. Our only expenses were advertising, website hosting and growth costs (buy more than you sell). We had these costs covered a month after our website launched.
Q. How did you finance your business? Did you use your own savings, family and friends, angels, banks, bootstrapping?
A. I used our personal savings. My wife was horrified. Since then we have used the bootstrapping technique.
Q. What are some pressures or crisis your business survived in the early periods of it?
A. There was a period early on where I had hired my first three employees and I thought I could let them run the business so I didn’t pay enough attention to the day to day operations. Sales suffered, cash flow became critical and I had to lay everyone off. I ran the entire business by myself for three months. It was pure hell.
Q. What was your family situation?
A. When I started the business it was just me and my wife. By the time the business could actually support us we had our first child. The crisis happened right around the same time as our second child came (stressful!). We have a third child now and sometimes I worry I’m not spending enough time with everyone. The business often demands more of me than I’d like to give.
Q. Did you find or have partners? Are there any attributes among partners or advisers that you would definitely try to avoid?
A. Originally I had a partner. Everything was supposed to be shared 50/50, but I ended up doing most of the work and eventually bought out his half of the company. As much as I hate to say it, try and avoid a partner if you can. If you are going to have a partner make sure it’s someone you can trust the way you would trust yourself. Advisors are fine, as long as they have your interest in mind. Too many of them, in my experience, have hidden agendas.
Q. Did you have a start-up business plan? If so, what were the basics of it?
A. Originally no. But once we realized we had a “real” business we did map out a basic strategy. It went something like, “Be the best, offer the most comprehensive product selection, offer the lowest price, offer the best service, provide the most enjoyable website shopping experience possible. Always buy products we think we can sell, always sell more more than we get them, take into account hidden expenses, do what’s best for the business.”
Q. What was your most triumphant/exciting moment? Your worst moment?
A.The most exiting thing that I can remember was the first time we broke a million in sales in one year (I think it was 2005). I think it will actually be more exiting to launch our physical retail store (next month) but I don’t know yet. The worst moment was working by myself (a long three month moment) and wondering if things were going to get better.
Q. What were the most difficult gaps to fill and problems to solve as you began to grow?
A. Order fulfillment was the biggest problem initially. Getting the product from our shop to the customer was an epic uphill battle. Hiring employees was pretty difficult (and we’ve hired some bad ones in our day) as well. The bigger we got the harder it became to assign roles to and manage everything (I’m a bit of a micro manager). The biggest problem we have right now is stock- we don’t have an effective enough way to manage inventory reordering.
Q. What are your plans for the future? Expand, Maintain, Harvest?
A. For the time being the focus in on getting thing running smoothly and continued expansion (like our retail store- into the local market we go!). My feeling is that if you’re not moving forward you’re moving backward. We have a slew of new websites we want to launch and the future looks bright.
Q. Have your goals for the business changed? How?
A. I have higher expectations for it than I did in the past. I think it’s capable of more so my goals are a little more ambitious in regard to growth, sales and product selection.
Q. Have your personal goals in life changed? How?
A. I don’t think my personal goals have really changed.
A. What do you consider your most valuable asset(s)–the things that enabled you to succeed?
Q. Relentless determination, hard work and a little bit of hardheaded ego get the business off the ground. But ultimately it’s having the right people by your side that determines if you’re going to succeed or not. A business operation is seldom a one man show.
Q. If you had to do it over again, would you do it again in the same way?
A. I honestly don’t know. Everything we did – good and bad- got us to this point. If I could go back in time and just do the good stuff I suppose I would, but ultimately (and I know this is a big cliché) the mistakes I’ve made have been a valuable help.
Q. What do you feel are the most critical concepts, skills, attitudes, and know-how you needed to get your company started and grow to where it is today? What will be needed in the next 5 years?
A. Well, the things I mentioned above. Also making sure everyone in a business is getting along is very important. We had one employee awhile back and he infected everyone with his depressive attitude- if the people in the business aren’t happy then the business isn’t happy. When it comes to business I get most of my know how from business books and magazines. Also, I reply heavily on the input of everyone here at work- if we make decisions as a group they are generally better (two heads are better than one). I’m not thinking five years ahead yet…
Q. What things do you find personally rewarding and satisfying as an entrepreneur? What have been the rewards, risks, and tradeoffs?
A. When I sit in the store look around it’s exciting to see my vision coming to life. It’s very rewarding when customers are happy or compliment the store, selection, service and staff. Building a business is kind of like playing with big Lego blocks. But not a day goes by without thoughts like, “What am I doing?” or “Is this really going to work?” There’s a lot of responsibility that rests on my shoulders and I’m not always comfortable with that. As I mentioned earlier sometimes I wonder if I’m home enough- I don’t want to sacrifice my family for the sake of “success.”
Q. Who should try to be an entrepreneur? And who should not?
A. I used to think anyone could do it. I don’t want to sound egotistical, but I don’t believe that anymore. If someone has a passion for something, if they are dedicated to it and have the means to make it in to a business they should give it a shot. But they need to be honest with themselves- if they can’t do it they should call it quits before it becomes a financial liability or an emotional black hole. There aren’t any rules about who should be and who shouldn’t be and entrepreneur.
Q. What advice would you give an aspiring entrepreneur? Could you suggest the three most important lessons you have learned?
A. Do something you like. If you enjoy your work you’re much more likely to success. Also surround yourself with the right people.
1) Work hard (and work smart).
2) Do what’s best for the business, not yourself (if everyone takes care of the business then the business can take care of everyone).
3) Hire people who are better than you. Put your ego aside and get the right people for the job.
Q. Would you be willing to be on an advisory committee for my business?
A. But of course. Make sure I don’t have a hidden agenda though!