Nerdwax Turned Down 2 Shark Tank Offers and Still Built a Million Dollar Business

Nerdwax Turned Down 2 Shark Tank Offers and Still Built a Million Dollar Business

nerd wax

Don Hejny is the creator of Nerdwax, a beeswax-based blend of all natural and certified organic ingredients specially formulated to keep your glasses in place on your nose.

Find out how (and why) he turned down 2 offers after appearing on Shark Tank and still went on to build a million dollar business.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How to finally take action on your business or product idea
  • How to reverse engineer the life you want
  • The optimal price point for Kickstarter

Listen to Shopify Masters below…

Show notes:

Transcription

Felix: Today, I’m joined by Don Hejny from Nerdwax.com, that’s N-E-R-D-W-A-X dot com. Nerdwax is a beeswax based blend of all natural and certified organic ingredients specially formulated to keep your glasses in place. It was started in 2014 and base up in Nashville, Tennessee. Welcome, Don.

Don: Thanks so much. Man, you got our tagline. I didn’t even have to do it. That was awesome.

Felix: We do some research on the company, thankfully. So excited to have you on. I think there’s a lot of things we get into so let’s dive right into it. Tell us a little bit more about your store and what is the product that you sell.

Don: Great. Nerdwax basically is an all natural wax, just like you said, that keeps your glasses in place. About five years ago, I was a touring audio engineer and I would do all these outdoor concerts working with mostly country artists because we’re based out in Nashville. There were times where I’d be outside at a summer festival or something. I would look down and my glasses would literally fall off my face because I was so sweaty. It was super gross. I tried different products on the market like straps, and bands, and hooks and nothing really worked out for me.

I was in one show in Texas that I can remember exactly the day that I had the idea. We were sitting there and the artist I was working for was on stage. She had on this huge aviator sunglasses. It just kept sliding her nose and she would have to stop playing acoustic guitar to push them back up on her face. I was so distracted and just thought, “There needs to be a solution for this that somebody who’s on stage could wear and they wouldn’t be ashamed to wear it like a band or a hook. It’s obvious that you have something on your glasses.”

I grew up around board sports. Surfers use wax in the water to keep friction on their surfboards. I thought, “Man, if I could make like a surf wax for your glasses, that would be really cool.” It’d be invisible. You wouldn’t see it. It’s not like pads where you’d have to cut them to shape. It would work with any kind of glasses and thought, “I bet I could make something like that.” That started the process. I came home. I told my wife. I was like, “Babe, you will not believe the idea I have.” She was like, “Yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it.” I have ideas all the time. I don’t think she took me seriously until boxes of wax and tubes showed up on our doorstep.

I just started playing around with it. I was on the road. I’d take it out. I’d try it out for myself. Give it out to friends and family. People started asking me where they could buy it. I was like, “Man, I think we have a business here.” That started the whole process.

We went through a huge life change while I was on the road. I was spending like 250 days a year out on the road and thought, “I’m just so miserable. I have a wife and three kids. I want to be home more. How can I make a change and get off the road?” While I was thinking through all this, I actually lost my job. All in a two-week period, I lost my job. My wife broke her ankle, both of our cars broke down, and our landlord called and said he wasn’t going to renew our lease, and so we’d have to move. Life just pushed me into a corner. I said, “I could get another job back out on the road, but I’m going to use this opportunity and this crux to change it and go do something different.”

I ended up taking two jobs in town in Nashville. I was working 80 hours a week. I put Nerdwax on hold because I was just completely overwhelmed with life. It took two years to get back to a place where I thought, “I’m back in a place in life where I have some bandwidth.” I looked around me and I’m a big fan of using what you have. We didn’t have a bunch of money. We didn’t know anybody that could invest in the business. I thought, “Let’s go to Kickstarter. See what the Kickstarter community has to say about this and see if we can raise some support.” That was the initial push into Kickstarter.

We launched our Kickstarter in April of 2014, and we launched at midnight. Seconds after we launched, we got our first backer. I was like, “This is crazy.” I had all of our social media planned to launch the next morning at 8am and some guy in Singapore, or Taiwan, or something is sitting at his computer and sees my project. He’s just like, “Hey, I’ll back that for 10 bucks.” It was this mind-opening thing. I was like, “Wow, there’s a whole bunch of people on the other side of the world that are like, ‘Yeah, I love your idea. Go for it.’” When we woke up in the morning, we had already raised $1,700 of our $5,000 goal. We were funded by about lunchtime on the first day of the campaign. By the end of the campaign, we had raised $60,000. That really pushed us into business.

Before that, I was not even thinking that it would take off the way that it did. I thought we would do a Kickstarter. We’d do our first run and we’d have to roll out to the small optical shops around our area and build out regionally. That was what I was prepped for. When we had this huge international success with Nerdwax, and I know 60,000 in sales is not that big, but we were shipping tubes to Taiwan, and Malaysia, and Singapore, and Australia. I just thought, “You know what? There is a demand for this. I got to run hard.” I left my full-time job that I just gotten a nine to five job. I left that job and took a part-time job and launched into Nerdwax. I know that was a long monologue. Sorry for that. That is the story of Nerdwax.

Felix: I think that’s a great overview. We’ll dive into the different parts of your story. Starting with the idea first. You mentioned that you are always coming up with ideas and I think you’re just like all the other listeners out there where you have an idea and you can’t wait to share with your best friend or can’t wait to share with your significant other. Did you have a background in pursuing other businesses, or launch other products, or were you just thinking of ideas nonstop?

Don: Yeah, absolutely. I hadn’t done anything official. I was the king of starting ideas and not finishing them. It’s like the guy who has a garage full of business cards. That was me. You launched into the idea and then you realized that the execution is going to be so much harder than the idea and you just drop it.

There’s actually a scene in our Kickstarter video where my Nerdwax box that I had packed everything up to, it’s in our basement. I had set it on top of all of the other failed ideas that I had. I really went into that shot with a lot of significance for myself saying, “Hey, this is the idea that I’m going to finish. I’m going to take it and I’m going to finish it out well.” Whatever that means. I still don’t know what that means. I’m going to take this until it’s run its course, and I know I’ve put everything into it that I could put.

As far as business background, I was a touring audio engineer, which has nothing to do with starting your own business, but it does have a lot to do with troubleshooting. What I learned within being an audio engineer and troubleshooting signal flow is you can take any complex problem. You can take anything that you want to learn and you can troubleshoot it. You can break it all out into its individual components, and you can look at it at the granular level and say, “Here’s where the problem is. Here’s the challenge. Here’s the solution to that.” That skill, I think, has played really big into me being able to have the success that we’ve had so far with Nerdwax.

Felix: The part where you’re talking about how you decided that this was the project, this was the product, this was the idea that you will make a reality, it’s a common theme I hear from other successful entrepreneurs that will say that the only time they started having success was when they made that commitment and said, “I’m going to take this idea even if it’s not perfect, even if I don’t know how to do it. I’m just going to commit to making it work, or until I go broke, or until I go homeless.” Basically saying that you’re going to push this idea all the way through and find out for sure if it’s going to work or not. Because you had this history of coming with ideas, like you were saying, you were the idea person, you have a garage full of ideas but not pursuing any of them, what made a difference this time, or how did you break out of that cycle of just coming up with the idea but not actually pushing it all the way through?

Don: It’s actually really funny that we’re talking about this on a podcast because it’s kind of meta. After my second year after I quit the road, I was working for Dave Ramsey as the EntreLeadership Podcast producer. I was producing the podcast for Dave Ramsey and we were four small business owners dissecting world class leaders. We’d had Seth Godin and Mark Cuban. We had had Pat Lencioni and all these really great people and entrepreneurs.

Then I was looking at these small business owners that were part of the EntreLeadership community. I noticed that the common thread with all of them was not that they were all extremely intelligent, which some of them were. It wasn’t that they all were super talented, which some of them were. All of them had the same thing in common which was they just decided to go for it. They just went for it, and they all had gone for it so many times and failed in so many ways, that eventually one took off. I think that was the common thread.

I realized you can’t be afraid of failure. The nature of putting out a goal, if you put a goal on the ice in a hockey rink, you’re going to miss it. Not even Wayne Gretzky hits the goal every single time. Just the nature of setting a goal means you’re going to fail. If you are not failing, you’re not setting a hard enough goal. That’s the reason that a hockey goal isn’t the entire width of the hockey rink. You have to set goals that are challenging. When they do, it creates a value. It becomes a game. It becomes something that is challenging and you can accomplish. The sweetness of hitting that goal is only there because of the challenge and the amount of times that you fail.

What I realized is I had built softeners into all of my prior misses. I had always said, “I don’t have the resources. I don’t have the time. I am not ready for this in my life. This stands in my way. That stands in my way.” Instead of looking at it and going, “No, the reason that this failed was me.” If you’re standing there on the free throw line, and you’re shooting towards that basket, and you missed the backboard, it doesn’t do you any good to be like, “My shoelace wasn’t tied.” You have to go, “Hey, I missed the backboard. I need to get this thing two feet to the left and then re-shoot.” If you don’t build an accurate misses, if you don’t admit your failures in truth, then you never get better, and so that was the thing is I realized I have to be honest with myself and realized that the reason that I haven’t had any success is that I didn’t define success correctly. To me, success is an achieved goal. That means that whatever that goal is, once you’ve achieved it, you are successful.

I think a lot of people in business and in life, they achieved awesome things and we look at them and we go, “Man, they’re so successful.” They feel internally like complete failures. A lot of times that is because they haven’t defined success. They haven’t defined that goal. The things that they have achieved are not really a ton of value to them.

I realized that, in my own life when I was on the road, I had a gig that people would kill for. There’s thousands of people in line for my gig, but I wasn’t happy in it because it was never my goal. I had never set out to be a front of house engineer, to be a monitor engineer, a tour manager on the road. That was never my dream or my goal. I had this awesome thing. I was making decent money and I was unhappy at the root of me, and it was because I hadn’t defined that for myself.

This whole course of realizing all these things, hey, I have to regain control of my life. I have to make some decisions. I have to look at not what I would want or what the optimum platform would be to have my thing come to existence. I have to decide to go for it today and then I have to admit that I’m going to fail at times and have to be okay with that because if I’m not, I’m never going to get better and I’m never going to do anything.

As I was dissecting all these world leaders, I was like, “Man, the biggest difference between me and Mark Cuban or me and Seth Godin is they just went for it. They went for it and did it. I’m sitting here and I’m not doing it.” I think that’s the big thing is. You’re not guaranteed success.

Everybody is like, “Go for your dreams.” If you see Taylor Swift on stage at the MTV Awards and she’s like, “For all of you teen out there, go for it.” Well, I live in Nashville. I see all of the Taylor Swifts that didn’t make it that are equally as talented, equally as beautiful and didn’t achieve that thing. You can’t based it off of the people that are wildly successful.

Not everybody is going to be Mark Zuckerberg, but if you define success as the goal that you want to achieve for yourself and you go for it, then you can achieve that goal and whatever that is, whatever that is for whoever is listening. Just go for it but make sure that it’s your thing. Make sure that it’s not the thing that you feel like is the rock star thing to go after. Make sure that it’s your thing and that you’re going to be happy with that lifestyle that you create for yourself.

Felix: I think you’re definitely onto something about how if you don’t define exactly what the goal is, then you may never be happy because you may achieve all of these things that other people that look at your highlight reel and think, “Wow, this guy is successful. He’s done all these amazing things.” Inside, you don’t feel that way. Do you think that that’s also a opportunity, I guess, to have gratitude? What are your thoughts on that? I think that’s the other side of the coin about being grateful for the success that you have even though you might not have set out to achieve it as the primary goal. What are your thoughts on that?

Don: Absolutely, 100%. It happens everyday. If you go for it, what you realize once you become an entrepreneur … I was really blessed to be around a lot of entrepreneurs when I was working at EntreLeadership to see that they all have the same points. They all had the same struggles, and you are going to have them. When you set out to do anything whether it’s creative or whether it’s business-based, you are going to have the struggle and it’s going to get hard. When you do, your attitude and how you perceive that defines your ability to keep going.

Gratitude is one of the number one mind shifters. It’s the one way that you can look at your perspective and you can realign yourself to keep going. Everyday, there’s moments where I’m like, “Man, I’m a genius. I got this thing nailed.” Then two minutes later, I get an email. I’m like, “Why do I even do this? I suck.” It’s like that. When you’re an entrepreneur, you put yourself out there or you’re doing a creative work, and you put yourself out there, and you’re being vulnerable, you’re going to have those swings. Most people don’t see that because it’s behind the curtain. That’s why podcasts like this are so great is because if I’m vulnerable, hopefully, somebody listening to this will take something that I’ve said even if it’s just like a little tiny nugget, and they’ll apply it to themselves, and then they can pay that forward.

I look at myself all the time and, in the midst of it, I can look around me and I can look at the other business owners around me who are at 5X or 10X where I’m at. I can be like, “Man, it’d be so nice to be them.” You have to remember that they have 5X and 10X the problems. They have different problems or different challenges that they face than I do.

We’re about to leave town for a few weeks to go on vacation with my family. When I was out on the road, I didn’t take a vacation. We got married and got pregnant right away. 10 years later, I look up and I haven’t taken a vacation. I’ve worked 250 plus days a year away from my family on the road. I realized I can’t do this. This Friday when we leave for vacation, we’re gone for two weeks, I can still actually work on my business. I can still be working and I can give a 100% in the mornings and then I can go out in the afternoon. I can go spend time with my family. I have to remember in times that it gets hard like, hey, I got to do something that millions of people would love to be able to do. Be grateful for that and enjoy the moments of success, the moments where you’ve achieved a goal. That was one of my goals in starting this company was that I would be able to spend more time with my family.

In the next two weeks while we’re out there and we’re hanging out together, I’m going to be constantly reminding myself. This is why I do it. It will happen. In two months from now, there’s going to be some huge struggle and I’m going to be in it. Then I’m going to have to remind myself, “Hey, this is the season where we got to hustle. This is the season where we got to buckle down.” To remember, hey, there are seasons of selling and then there are seasons of harvesting.

Felix: I think that’s a great perspective to have. One thing that I’ve … I guess, a mind hack that I’ve used to be more grateful with what you have is to just change the way that you talk to yourself internally. One big way to do that is just … I think a lot of times we spend our days, especially as entrepreneurs, especially as people that spend so much time working, we start having this conversation in our heads about I have to do this, or I have to do that, or I have to launch this, or I have to write this blog. Just change it around to say, “I get to,” or, “I get to work on this. I get to write this blog. I get to do these things because not everybody has the opportunity to do those things.” Even if it’s considered work, you can still be in a position that’s highly, I guess, envious even though you are putting in all that kind of work.

Don: Absolutely.

Felix: It sounds like you’ve been able to take a very objective and unbiased look at yourself, and I think that’s what you’re crediting your latest success to because you’ve been able to do that. Was it always easy for you to look at yourself objectively like this, or how did you build this skill and this vulnerability to look at yourself so objectively?

Don: Man, that’s such a great question. I haven’t really thought about that. I definitely have always done it. As long as I can remember, I’ve felt like there was something that I was supposed to do and I’ve always felt like I am along for this journey. I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know why it’s so intrinsic in me to look at my life from that objective standpoint. It’s just always been there.

Felix: I think it’s one of those attributes that defines, not defines, but really helps create an entrepreneur, someone that just feels it within themselves that they have to do certain things to achieve their goal. I’m not surprised that you’ve always felt this way.

You mentioned a little bit earlier about how your previous job and previous career you’ve been able to troubleshoot things and break things down when you want to learn something. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? How would you approach, say, a solo entrepreneur out there that needs to learn all these different things to launch their business and to market their business, and they’re approaching a marketing channel or whatever it is that they’ve never done before? How would you approach this, I guess, from a high level? How would you break down a new skill that you have to learn to run your business?

Don: Google. I know that’s such a lame thing. Man, we have so many resources at our fingertips right now. It’s amazing the amount … There is almost zero excuses for you not to go out and do your thing today because of the internet, because of our connection to people, because we can access any kind of niche. You can find people for whatever it is, the thing that you want to do. If you can’t, then move on to the next thing because there’s always something for anyone. I look at products that are sold online. I’m like, “I can’t even believe that somebody is selling this,” but there is a market for it because the internet has given us the ability to, like Seth Godin says, to be weird, and to embrace that, and to find each other online.

With troubleshooting, with going out and trying to find stuff, YouTube is a huge resource obviously. Podcast have, I think, been one of the best resources for me. While I was working at Dave Ramsey, the EntreLeadership Podcast were really great. I went back into the library of the past and found some people there. The Tim Ferriss Podcast has been huge. I know it’s super popular. It’s wading through deep mud. It’s really hard to listen to and they’re really long, but I always pull a nugget out of those things.

To be honest, I’m not a huge reader. When I was producing EntreLeadership Podcast, I did have to read a ton of business books. I still apply those lessons to my life. I realized while reading those books that you can basically read the first paragraph and the last paragraph of every chapter and get the entire chapter. Generally, the way business books are written is they give you the idea upfront, then they put filler, and then they summarize the idea at the end. You can pretty much go through any book and read it that way. I’m not super encouraging people to do that because you might miss the lesson, or the analogy, or the metaphor that’s going to trigger you to have that thought. If you have a limited amount of time and you want to go through and do that, there’s websites out there like Executive Summary that will help you do that.

I think the most important thing and the key is identify the people that you can look at and you could go, “Man, I think their type of life is the life that I want.” In my experience, looking at Seth Godin and watching him build his thing … He’s a lone wolf. He works at his thing by himself and I identify with that. To date, our company is just my wife and myself. We do everything. We hire out independent contractors, and we sell through Amazon as a channel, but we do all of our filming. We do all of our manufacturing. I design pretty much most of our stuff. We do a lot of it.

I’ve looked at these people like Tim Ferriss or Seth Godin and tried to identify the people … Casey Neistat is one of those people that I think recently I’ve been really into because of the fact that he’s been able to build his thing by himself for a long time. Now, he’s learning the skillset of building bigger team and surrounding himself with more and more people. I think identifying people that you think, “Man, those people have got some things figured out,” and then starting to dissect it with the acknowledgment that whenever you see something online, whenever you see the Instagram post or the Facebook post, you’re seeing what somebody wants you to see. The tendency when you’re doing that is to look at their life, and to draw that comparison, and to go, “Man, I’m not there.” You’re not there and they probably aren’t there. They’re probably not in the place that you think they are. You have to remember, hey, everybody is human. They probably have struggles, too.

If you get the opportunity to listen along for a podcast like Tim Ferriss, a lot of times you catch those little nuggets. You catch the things that come out where they say, “Hey, here’s one of the things that I struggle with in my own life.” You can help identify that with that and it helps to give you a baseline for your reference point.

Felix: I think that the, I guess, terminology or phrase I like the most when you are paying attention to people’s online, I guess, portfolio, that it’s a highlight reel and not the actual days and nights of struggle to get to where it’s at. You’re saying it’s what they want you to see. Obviously, they’re going to curate it. No one wants to put out their flaws too publicly. I think that’s definitely important to keep in mind.

I like this idea that you said that find out the people or the person whose life you want to live or you want to replicate because I’ve never heard anyone say this before. It makes a lot of sense because a lot of entrepreneurs, I think, they get started. They’re listening to this podcast. They want to pursue an idea because they want a specific lifestyle or they want to leave, maybe not so much a legacy, but they want to have some impact. Once you’ve identified this person or this life that you want to live, how do you go about reverse engineering it? How do you actually get that or start making progress towards having that kind of life?

Don: That’s really good. For me, that has just been to consume as much of the content as possible. The trick is that, in that, you have to remember … This is a thing within business that we look and we want to be able to industrialize it, and put the clone stamp on it, and replicate it. The truth is we have fingerprints for a reason. We’re unique individuals in a universe of expansion and chaos. Our very existence means that we are unique. Each breath that we take changes the fabric of the universe and remembering that when you live, you can’t replicate … I’m not going to be Seth Godin, or Casey Neistat, or Tim Ferriss, or any of these people that I’ve said. I’m going to be me, but I can look at the lessons that they’ve learned. I can look at the wisdom that they have and I can glean from it. Then I can apply it to who I am.

I think whenever you are getting into something for the first time, when you start to replicate somebody, you’re going to look like a copycat when you first start to do it. Everything that you do is going to start looking like that person or sounding like that person. As you get through that phase, you start to realize your voice and your own way of doing things. If your whole life is in that beginning copycat phase, don’t get caught there. Do your thing. Move past it.

Sometimes just getting started is the hardest part. For me, looking at those lives and going, “Hey, I want to start getting myself on a trajectory where I’m in charge of my own universe.” I don’t have somebody giving me a tour guide that I have to follow. I don’t have a road map that I have to do. I want to be able to pave that way and pioneer my path, and so I want to find people that have been able to do that for themselves and then start to see what did their path look like? How did they navigate those waters?

Then, like you said, just that ability to be objective about your own life and pull up and see the 30 foot view of it has been huge because you don’t simply want to replicate what other people have done. You definitely want to glean from them, take what they have done and then find ways to apply it to your own interest and what makes you you.

Felix: I like that little gem that you dropped in there about when you first get started in anything, you’re going to look like a copycat. Obviously don’t stay there but then also don’t get discouraged from doing and feel like you’re just a poser or you’re fake, whatever, and not continue to pursue it. You think about other ways that people learn how to pick up a new skill. If you’re learning to play a new instrument, you don’t get started by just creating your own music right off the bat. No one makes any progress that way. You start off by copying what already exist just so that you can get in the game. Once you’re in the game, that’s the only time you can really figure out your style and who you are.

Don: Exactly.

Felix: You’ve mentioned a little bit earlier about how you consume a lot of podcasts. You did read a lot of books before. I think this is, I guess, really applicable for the listeners of this podcast and also very applicable to your path where you had all these ideas. You have all these content, all these knowledge in your head, but the execution part is the when it starts getting hard. How did you make that transition from picking up what you’ve learned in the podcast or picking up what you’ve learned by reading books or blogs, whatever else that everyone else are consuming and then actually putting that into action and actually using … First, I guess identifying what you want to put into action and actually going through with it. What’s your process for that?

Don: I think we just touched on it real quick. Just getting started is always the hardest part. If you’ve got a bus sitting there, the hardest part is getting the bus moving that first little bit. Getting people around you and surrounding yourself with people who want to see your thing succeed is huge. The Kickstarter thing for us was that for this. That’s not the path for everybody obviously. I know plenty of people that are around me that have done Kickstarters that have failed but that’s starting, that’s getting going, and then you take that failure and you modify. Then you do it again. If you start pushing the bus, and it goes a little bit, and you’re upset that it’s not 65 miles an hour right away, hey, don’t worry about it. It’ll happen on the next one.

I think for myself in particular, this whole idea of going from idea and theory to execution is just literally doing it, going out and doing it. If you want to start a website, get online and just start building it. Just stop making excuses. Stop saying, “I need five grand to pay a developer.” We live in the world of Shopify. I have a great actual Shopify story we might touch on at some point.

I was waiting on developers to build a website for me and I was just like, “You know what? I’m just going to do this myself because they’re six months behind. I’m not getting what I want out of it, so I’m going to go on Shopify, and I’m going to actually build a website.” I built it in a week. Then I have my friend who’s a coder come back and fix all the mistakes that I had made ripping it apart. That’s just the thing. I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to go start with the free trial. I’m going to get in there. I’m going to see if I can make a mess and make something happen.” I think that’s the biggest thing is you just have to get in there and start doing whatever it is today.

When I was working at Dave Ramsey, and I’m producing this podcast, and I’m working nine to five, and I’m not moving forward at the speed that I want to and I’m struggling, and I’m like, “What am I supposed to do here?” I realized, “I’m working 40 hours a week. I have another 40 hours that I can easily get.” The year before that, I was working 80 hours a week. I know that I have more time. We all have the same amount of time. It’s how bad do you want it. When I realized that, I came home from work and, two hours, I’d get my kids in bed. Then I’d go work on my thing that night. Whatever it is that is holding you back, instead of being like, “I wish I had this thing to get started,” just go, “What can I do with what I have today?” There are resources, like I said, online. If you just ask that one question of yourself, what can I do with what I have today, that activates a completely different part of your brain, and it will help you just go start doing something.

Felix: I really like that. I think that’s an important thing to almost just have it printed out and put in a wall in front of you because a lot of times, even though we don’t realize it consciously, you make up a lot of excuses. You make up a lot of obstacles just so that we can excuse ourselves from getting started. I think it might be going back to laziness or fear of failure. I’m not sure what it is but a lot of times-

Don: That’s the big one.

Felix: We just create these obstacles. You’re basically suggesting people just get started, take action. Mark Zuckerberg was the famous one for saying, “Move fast, break things,” for anybody that joins Facebook for the first time. Do you think it’s possible or is it possible that you could take action too quickly? Is there a scenario where you might be moving too fast? What are your thoughts on that?

Don: Yeah. Here’s my theory on that. I think if you take the hard road which is if you go out and you just start making stuff … We’re in the eCommerce space. Let’s say you have an idea to make some kind of … I’m looking at a wallet that was handmade in front of me. You want to start making wallets. Well, the wallet space is … There’s a million people selling wallets but they’re easy to make. People always need wallets, and so see if it’s going to make you happy to make some wallets. Make 10 or 12 wallets and see if you can sell them and start with 10 or 12. Then once you sold those 12, take it to another 24 and reinvest the money that you made making the 24. If you’ve done anything more than break-even, keep selling wallets. Go for it.

Where I think you move too fast is we want to … I like to use this analogy. We want to lose weight, so we’re going to go out and we’re going to lose some weight. We go to Lululemon. We buy the yoga pants, or you go to the Nike outlet and you buy the shoes. You buy the short and you got the thing. Then you go get the gym membership and then you run. Half a mile into it, you’re like, “This sucks. I don’t want to do this.” Then you go back. Don’t leverage yourself to a point.

That’s one of the big lessons that I’ve learned. When we first got married, my wife and I took on just a bunch of stupid debt like eating out too much, putting health costs on credit cards, just being ridiculous with money. We ended up accruing like $80,000 in debt. That was just crippling. A lot of the reason that I was on the road in gigs that I didn’t want to keep doing was that I was trying to pay off our debt, and I was trying to do the responsible thing and get back out of it. Because of that, debt really taught me a lesson which is it can be a tool to help you get over a wall. It’s a rope. It can be a rope to help you get over the wall but it can also tie you up behind the wall. I think when you’re starting the thing, the thing that gets you …

You ask the question: can I move too fast? I don’t know if it’s that you move too fast. I think it’s that you think too fast. You get into this trap of I’m going to raise a bunch of money. I’m going to go do this thing, and you don’t really even know if you have a real business yet. You don’t really know if the idea is fully formed yet. Just because you have a great idea doesn’t mean that you have a great business. Just because you have a great product doesn’t mean you have a great business. Learn in stages and go for it in stages. Get out there, and start making a mess, and start doing things, but try not to leverage yourself.

All of my failed ideas that I put stuff down in the basement that I’ve put the Nerdwax in, all of those failed ideas were me going out … One of them was screen printing t-shirts. At one point, I just got really into screen printing t-shirts. I went and bought a whole basement load of screen printing stuff to screen print t-shirts. It was terrible. I hated it. If I had just gone to a screen printing shop and said, “Hey, can I intern for free in the afternoons?” and done it, maybe I would have enjoyed it. The idea that I’m going to start this screen printing business in my basement was such a terrible, terrible way to start, but I learned from that and I moved it into … That failure was definitely something that I carried forward. Start small. Just start small and start going. When you start small and then you build to the next thing, and then you build to the next level, I don’t know that you can move too fast doing it that way.

Felix: It makes sense. Let’s talk about your very first step towards creating this business which is the Kickstarter campaign. Just to recap really quickly, you only had a goal of $5,000, ended up raising over $60,000 from nearly 3,000 backers. You said that you got your very first backer just from some stranger you didn’t know within 24 hours of launching. How did that happen? 2014 wasn’t that long ago. I think Kickstarter was a lot easier back in its inception. 2014 wasn’t that long ago. What do you credit the first, I guess, traction to that early?

Don: I think it all comes down to people all the time say, “You got to have a good idea. You have to have a good idea, a compelling product.” I think we have that with Nerdwax. I think it’s something that people actually go, “Man, I wish I would have thought of that.” I think that it’s a really cool new thing that hits on a lot of pain points for a lot of people and it’s a thing that people didn’t really know was a problem. I think in the video I say, “It’s something that I never knew I needed, but once I have it, I can’t imagine life without it.” It’s one of those things so I think that helped.

In our Kickstarter, just that early traction came from people who subscribed to basically Kickstarter blogs, and so they have Kick Tracker. They see all these new projects and they just enjoy being the first to move and helping new products and new ideas. I think the low price point helped us. It’s a $10 product so that was easy. People who are in overseas can justify 10 bucks and they’re like, “Hey, I’ll give you $10.” The Kickstarter thing, if you can find a price point around $20, that’s the optimum price point for Kickstarter because people don’t have a problem dropping $20. If you fail, it’s not a big risk.

Then I also had bigger levels. We had three people, one of which was a complete strange, gave us $500 in the campaign. We had some crazy support. I realized if you don’t build those levels into the campaign, you’re essentially just leaving money on the table because the people in the Kickstarter community actually like people, and they like the people that come up with the idea. You got to have a good idea but then also remember that you are selling you.

If you’re going to Kickstarter, or Indiegogo, or one of these crowdfunding platforms, at the essence … You don’t always have to do this. Obviously, there’s a million projects that have not done this. From my experience and being the grassroots, we didn’t pay for any advertising at all, our success was built on the fact that I was very vulnerable, let people know who I am and our story. I did that in a very concise way. I let them know here’s what we need, here’s the challenges we faced, here’s what you’re going to get for helping us out. When you can do that and make that call to action very precise and clear, I think that you can move product on Kickstarter. It’s not even an issue.

Felix: I think on Kickstarter and just in eCommerce in general, like you’re saying, people want to buy from other people. They don’t want to buy from some faceless brand. You’re saying you are selling you at the end of the day. It sounds like the way that you’ve done this is by being vulnerable on the Kickstarter page and the video that you’re putting out there. Do you think that that’s the only way or are there other ways to sell yourself, or do you have to get out there and be vulnerable and put it all out there?

Don: Yeah. I was heavily influenced by the Brené Brown TED Talk that she did on vulnerability. I think it was a big lesson for me of just, hey, realizing that vulnerability begets vulnerability and trust begets trust and so going out there and doing that … It depends on the brand that you’re building. With Nerdwax, all of our content is very personable. None of it feels like a big brand. Now, that might not be great for your idea. You might want to feel like a big brand. You might be dealing with a lot of perceptions in a space where the trust comes from a being a big brand or looking like you have a lot of employees or whatever the thing is.

It comes down to, like what we’re talking about earlier, deciding what you want for your company. That’s a big thing that I realize. When I’m looking around and I see the 5Xers and the 10Xers above me, hey, they’re building something that I’m not building. Look at the thing that you’re building and realize, “Hey, they’re building a high-rise, or a condo, or a multiplex. I’m building a house.” That’s okay. Not everybody needs to build a billion-dollar business. You can build a lifestyle business and be very happy and have bandwidth in your life to go and do the other things that you want to do. It doesn’t always have to be your vocation. It can be your avocation. You can do really cool, creative, fun work without it being your income.

A big thing with this business specifically has been, for me, building a business that creates more bandwidth in my life. I don’t want to be on the ground managing a team of 12 all the time. It’s not my skillset. That’s not what I’m building. When I look around me and I see people that have these businesses and that’s what they’re building, the tendency is to go, “They’re doing it. I should probably do it, too.” Then you have to remind yourself like is that the thing do you want? Is that the goal that you’re setting out and trying to achieve? For me, that’s not what I’m trying to achieve. That means I sacrifice in other ways. We’re not going to have the gross sales that that company has. We’re going to have much lower gross sales but I enjoy my life, and my time, and the lifestyle that I’m creating while getting to build this brand.

Felix: One thing you mentioned about the Kickstarter campaign was that it’s a product that people never knew they needed, I guess likely they don’t know that exist, but once they try it, once they purchase it, they get it. They understand why they need a product like this. How does that affect your marketing? Thousands of people aren’t going to be out there searching for this particular solution because they might not even know that there is a solution like this that exists. What’s your approach to marketing a product like this?

Don: Man, it’s been a huge challenge. The thing that we haven’t talked about at all is we were on Shark Tank in October of last year. To date, that has been the biggest driver of our sales over time. We went from a $136,000 in the beginning of last year to then almost a million dollars in gross sales now to date. Most of that came from the traffic that was driven by Shark Tank. I credit Shark Tank to being very similar to the way that we approach Kickstarter, which is I’m being vulnerable. This is me as an entrepreneur. This is my family. We’re building this business together. I think those two things have been the biggest driver of our success so far.

Now, we aired last October. We’re going into August here pretty soon. The traffic has slowed down from Shark Tank. We’re not having that same traction that we had before. Now, it gets into how are we actually going to market this in a repeatable way that is meaningful? How can I build in these funnels and how can I drive traffic into those funnels? How can I build the funnels, and then how can I drive traffic into them? That challenge, I haven’t figured out yet. That’s not where we’re at in our business. I know that’s the challenge ahead and have been working on those for a while now. We’re going to be implementing those things here in the next couple months.

I don’t know if I have a ton to say like, “Hey, here’s what we’ve done that’s able to drive traffic to your site in ways to just go dig up.” Shark Tank, Kickstarter. We are covered in Daily Mail. We’re on Mashable. All of those things happened organically because we just started going out and making a ruckus because we did something, like Seth Godin says, that’s remarkable so it’s worth making a remark about.

They see somebody whose glasses are slipping and they do the classic like nerd on the finger glasses push. The person says, “Hey, have you heard of Nerdwax?” They’re like, “Nerdwax, what’s that?” We are worth making a remark about. If we were Sticky Glasses Grip and the person is like, “Hey, your glasses are sliding. You need some Sticky Glasses Grip.” They’re like, “Eh.” It’s just be fun, be weird, be you and whatever that is. Maybe you’re not weird and fun. That’s okay. You do you. Whatever that is, you do you and make sure that it’s something. If you’re trying to make a ruckus, if you’re trying to make a noise in your space, think about what is it that’s going to get people talking to each other about the thing that I’m doing.

Felix: Just looking at the success that you had with these channels, it sounds like if you do have a product that people don’t know they need or don’t know that exist, the key to marketing this is to have a remarkable product like you’re saying or remarkable story and get the PR. Get the publications to write about you. Shark Tank, I think, I would consider as a form of PR as well. That’s the only way to get out to the masses because then if they’re not actively searching or you, then you have to get out there in front of them essentially.

Don: Here’s the thing. Let me just touch on that because people are going to hear that and think, “Well, I’m not on Shark Tank or I’m not on Mashable.” They’re like, “I have to pay for PR or I have to do something that’s hard to do.” That’s not necessarily true. Bloggers make their living talking about stuff. They’re always looking for something to talk about. They’re always looking for stories to tell. If you can write that story for them, if you can take the work out of it, and you can give them the cool thing, and you can be remarkable, they will find you, and so that’s a big thing. Don’t make the excuse of, “Hey, I have to go out and do these things.” It’s been awesome. Kickstarter is awesome. Shark Tank was awesome.

Now, comes the work of, hey, how do we just make some more waves? How do we get people talking? You can’t quantify that as easily as you can like, “Hey, I’m going to go out and I’m going to hire a PR person to go drive these press releases for me.” That’s a really quantifiable thing to do. I think you can do that but make sure that you have the infrastructure set up before you go and do that. Make sure that you have something that they’re going to want to be a part of. Otherwise, you have an uphill battle.

Felix: That definitely makes sense. Speaking of Shark Tank, you went into the tank with the goal of raising or getting $80,000 of investments for 20% of the business. What ended up happening? What was the end result of that pitch on Shark Tank?

Don: I had made just a little comment earlier about our version to debt but more or less my view on debt. That is that debt just makes things more complicated. When you take on investment, you now have different people that you have to please other than yourself, and your vision, and where you want to take your thing. We went in knowing the sharks that we wanted to align with and we got two offers. One from Kevin and then we had a guess shark Troy Carter who is Lady Gaga’s manager, former manager. Both of them were ventured at.

Kevin’s offer was, “I’ll give you the $80,000 but I want $240,000 back and I want 3% for doing that deal.” That’s a terrible … He wanted 10% of gross sales until his 240 was paid back. That’s terrible that is definitely the rope behind the wall that’s going to keep you from moving forward because on Shark Tank specifically they know that you’re going to have a big, huge wave of sales. A product like ours that’s like a $10 price point that has mainstream appeal, that product is probably going to make a huge amount of money here really soon. If you can take 10% of it, we would have already paid Kevin back and he would now own 3% of my company and doing absolutely zero work or being a part of our business.

Unless I value that relationship and what I think he’s going to do for us in the future, then it doesn’t make sense to take that offer. For us, Kevin didn’t really align with our brand image and the story that I wanted to tell. I think we would have done a deal with Kevin if he would have shown interest. You can tell on that show when Kevin makes an offer and he’s really interested in the company and when he just makes a pot odds offer that he knows is going to pay him his money back. I could see very easily that he was not making us an offer that meant that he wanted to be a part of growing our business and growing our brand. He was just trying to make some money. I don’t fault him for that. He has the platform. That’s awesome but it was not something that we wanted to do.

Troy Carter was a very similar offer. You’re in there for an hour and they show eight minutes of your segment. You’re in there talking for so long. We talked through a lot of things and I just didn’t feel there was a fit. At the end of the day, we turned down the offers in front of us. Mark and Damon were both encouraging us not to take an offer the whole time. They were telling us, “You guys aren’t ready. Don’t take on investment now. It’s a really bad idea. Control your own destiny.”

I had already felt like that going in. It’s really hard. As you’re gathering all of your data and your numbers for Shark Tank, you’re putting so much time and investment and knowing everything about your business. I realize, hey, we’re not really ready for a huge investment, but we have these manufacturing issues that we need to take care of. If they can come in and help us with those, that would be awesome. If they can’t, then that’s probably a no. When we knew that there wasn’t a good fit, we walked away from those offers.

If you’re looking at going on Shark Tank, you’re part of that whole queue of wanting to be in the show or you’re a fan of the show, you have a business and you think you would be great fit for Shark Tank, just remember only 30% of the deals that you see made on TV actually close. When you’re going into that arena, there’s a high probability that it won’t close. More importantly than getting the deal is how you approach being in front of that many people like the PR of it.

Controlling the story was really important to me. The whole time I was in there I was thinking how are they going to edit this together? How are they going to … I want to make sure that we’re perceived in the way that I want to be perceived. I want to make sure that we’re constantly smiling. That we’re super positive. That we’re really excited. I was thinking about all of these things that I wanted people to associate with me and my brand and less about the investment and the nuts and bolts and getting a deal. I think a lot of people go and focus on the deal.

I feel like you should flip that. Know your numbers. Know who you want to do deals with. Know the investment structure but go in there thinking how am I going to be perceived by the American public? That’s what it comes down to for me. It has been a huge driver in our business and has opened so many doors for us. I feel like the biggest part of that was just intentionally going in, being vulnerable with people like we were talking about and saying, “Hey, this is is who I am. This is my brand. Here is what we do.”

Felix: I think maybe a lot of listeners out there aren’t going to pursue the same, I guess, path you’re on, but maybe at a smaller scale they are looking to take on investments either from friends and family or maybe an angel investor. You mentioned, I guess, Mark on the show and a couple of other sharks said that you weren’t ready yet. I think this is a … I don’t hear that too often, especially in the the startup world that we all live in today. Get the money. Get as quickly as possible. More money the better. Don’t worry about anything else. The goal is always to get more and more funding. Tell us a little bit about that. What was it about your business? What was it about the [stays 00:56:42] that you’re in that made Mark say that? I guess you’d also decided that you weren’t ready to take on the investment and when is a company ready to take on investments?

Don: I don’t know if there’s necessary one thing that I can point to that I would this is the point where at you are ready. I think what it comes down to for me is there’s always a trade-off. When you take on money, you trade either equity in your company or you’re going to trade percentages of profits because you’re going to be paying that back with interest. What are you trading and what are you gaining? For me, I didn’t want to trade all of the creative components of our company. What we do today, a lot of people would be, “Are you okay with the name? We just don’t really feel that the names are great.” I’m like, “No, I love the name. That’s a big part of it.” I wouldn’t trade that. Whenever you bring that relationship in …

The guy that I worked for, Dave Ramsey, his big line was the only ship that doesn’t sail is a partnership. That just comes from him building his own business over time and being really bull-headed. If that’s you, a partnership or taking on investment might not be the best thing for you. That’s why in the startup space, it’s go quick, go hard or go home. That’s not how you have to approach it all the time. I work a lot and I work all the time. I got up at seven this morning. It’s almost 9 o’clock. I’m still going and that’s fine because I enjoy it. A big part of it, to me, is if the work is not enjoyable, if the atmosphere isn’t enjoyable, if the people that you’re partnering with are not enjoyable, then why do it?

I know that’s a very vague thing but I approach it from a standpoint of I don’t know that there’s this one size fits all, that there’s a specific point in time where you take it. We all like to get involve with the metrics kind of like the running gear. We like to get involved with what’s your conversion rate and what’s your traffic, and what’s your numbers. All those things are great. They help us quantify. They help us measure. They help us get better. Really, what is the quality of your life?

I heard somebody talk recently about … There’s your short-term self and there’s your long-term self. If you focus on one solely, the other suffers. You can look at your short-term self and you can be like, “I got to live for today. I’m not going to save. I’m not going to get health insurance. I’m just going to go hard for it.” That’s great. Your short-term self will thrive but your long-term self is going to suffer. If you only look at your long-term self and you’re like, “I’m going to save ever penny I make and I’m going to put my nose down. I’m going to suck it up and I’m going to do this job that I hate.” Your short-term self suffers and you die a little inside each day. You have to balance those two things out and you have to look at yourself as two people: your short-term self and your long-term self. Make sure that you balance that out.

Myself personally I knew the stress that debt had on us as a family and just owing people things. I didn’t want to continue to owe people things. If we could find an investor that was willing to give money but wanted to be a part of the company and he’s going to grow it with us, awesome. That makes sense. As long as they have buy-in and as long as they’re with, just know that you’re trading one thing for another thing.

I’m really happy with the business we have. In six months, it’s probably going to look completely different from what it looks like today. It comes back to what we were talking about earlier. Be grateful for what you’re building when you’re building it. Look at it objectively and just ask your question. Seth Godin talks about it all the time. He’s like, “Is the trade-off worth it?” You make a trade-off all the time. Just look at it and go, “Hey, is this worth it? Is this getting me closer to the goal? Is this getting me one step closer to the thing I’m trying to achieve?”

Felix: Love it. What are your goals? What are your plans for the next year? What are somethings that you want to achieve for Nerdwax over the next year or so?

Don: Absolutely. We’re looking at right now just now building on a less PR-driven course obviously because going from Kickstarter and the success and making a ruckus online to then Shark Tank has been these huge, big peaks and then a huge valley. I’m really excited about taking a more level momentum like look at the future and plan a few months out, six, eight months out. We actually have some bandwidth now. That’s part of owning your business. You get to decide where all the money goes. We’re not sucking a bunch of it out. We have a buffer. For the first time ever in our entire lives we have a buffer. I have a time buffer and a financial buffer. We can look at that. It frees your brain up to make better choices. Right now, I am looking at next year and thinking, “What products do I want to add? How am I going to approach that?”

Like you were saying earlier, changing the mindset from I have to I get to. I have this thing inside me and I always have. It’s like Pistol Pete always said when he’s practicing, he felt like somebody was getting better than him or when he wasn’t practicing, he felt somebody was getting better than him. I always feel that fire inside of me that’s like I have to get to the next thing. I have to go do the next thing or whatever it is, and I get really bend out of shape about the next thing. This last season has been, “You know what? I get to do the next thing.” I get the opportunity right now and the challenges in front of me of, hey, how am I going to market this moving forward? That’s the challenge that I get to solve today.

It’s been really fun. I’ve changed my mindset on it and it’s been challenging. It’s sucked at times but it’s also been really fun just because of my mindset has been, “What am I going to do next?” I don’t know but I’m going to figure it out.

Felix: Awesome. Thanks so much, Don. Nerdwax.com is the website. N-E-R-D-W-A-X dot com. Anywhere else you recommend our listeners to checkout to follow along with what you’re up to?

Don: Yeah. We’re Nerdwax on all of the things: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. We’re Nerdwax. Hopefully, we’re going to be doing some more YouTube content. I think that’s going to be a really fun channel for us. We’ve been talking a lot about me, and my family, and our story. I hope that here in the future we’re going to see, I don’t know if it’s going to stick, but we’re going to try to start doing some YouTube stuff. I think that it might be really fun and it might be a really cool channel for us. Nerdwax.

Felix: Awesome. Thanks so much, Don.

Don: Thanks, Felix. I have enjoyed this thoroughly.

Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters, the eCommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit Shopify.com/masters to claim your extend 30 day free trial.


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About the Author

Felix Thea is the host of the Shopify Masters podcast, the ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs, and founder of TrafficAndSales.com where you can get actionable tips to grow your store’s traffic and sales.

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