A Veteran’s Entrepreneurship
From the Air Force to the Warehouse
A few years ago my sons and I wanted to sell a few backpacks. At the same time the New York City Business of Sports School let me work with students to create uniforms with the students to sell. Throw in a few more extra-curricular projects and the next thing I know I’ve got an e-commerce store in the making.
At the same time my brother-in-law was preparing to retire from 20+ years in the Air Force. While the understandable ‘Thank you for your service’ is often heard, what John really wanted to hear was ‘What are you doing to do next?’
So I jokingly asked him if he was interested in building up a warehouse to ship goods from his home state of North Carolina.
“Yes,” John answered emphatically.
John was finishing up his MBA and wanted to figure out if he could run something on his own before going to find ‘a real job’. I knew that processing a few hundred bags and t-shirts couldn’t be that difficult. While John figured out what was ‘next’ I loved the idea of farming out the task of shipping and receiving to someone I knew.
Three months later John’s townhouse was wall-to-wall boxes and his LLC had a name — Vastitude.
Technically John is my brother-in-law’s step-son, but that’s too many words. Prior to this venture I’d rarely talked to John because he was stationed all over the world. Hawaii, Germany, Japan. I knew John enough to know that he was a good guy, good dad, good son, good golfer.
So when he took over this project I was overwhelmed by how deeply he threw himself into understanding the depths of international shipping. Foreign concepts like Shopify and Quickbooks became old hand. In those early days I would give John an idea of how big we could get if things went well. We sat at the kitchen table while I talked about what little I knew. I explained that we’d be dealing with customs of international shipments and how Amazon’s next-day delivery could be competition. We talked about how we would start small and would always have the chance to go get a ‘real job’ if Vastitude wasn’t working out.
Before I knew it John was asking me questions about shipping containers and ports of entry that were well beyond my creative exploits. If I had grand plans of bringing shoes and bags into the country and delivering to customers around the world, John was going to be ready.
That’s when I saw the veteran.
If there was a question, John thoroughly researched every answer — by searching the web, making a phone call or driving over to an office building. He had answers to problems before the problems arrived. He treated this small operation like he was 10 people and he treated my product like it was Nike.
A month ago a customer lost — I repeat lost — a sternum strap from his SAM backpack. Before I could explain to John that he simply needed a replacement strap, the customer was thanking us for the replacement bag. “My bad,” John apologized. But John is a big part of our customer experience. “They have to stay happy, right?”
Errors like that have been almost non-existent — three mistakes in the last four years. Considering every new challenge we put in front of him needs his constant attention so he can digest it and prepare his staff to execute without fail, that’s pretty amazing.
A few months ago John was ready when 240 pairs of our senior shoe arrived. From logistics and quality control to replying to demanding seniors from Brooklyn, he had everything under control.
Today, John remembered those early conversations we had at that kitchen table. Two thousand pairs of our running shoe just arrived from our factory parnter in China. The shoes line his warehouse as we start to seed product with testers.
Six days ahead of schedule.
Not a problem.
With Ninety Nine Products, I haven’t focused on building a traditional brand. I had two goals in mind when I started down this path: 1) make really good, accessible product and 2) help people who help people. Our marketing budget will focus on making life easier for those who selflessly give to benefit others — teachers, journalist, doctors, veterans. The Point will celebrate teachers with events in Brooklyn, Harlem, Dayton. We’re planning projects with our outdoor boot, the Outlier, with veteran groups and doctors.
But I never thought about helping John.
John has been helping me. And I’m happy to pay him for the work that he gets done without blinking. I’m not looking forward to him getting a ‘real job’.
If you happen to buy something from GoodThin.gs (we hope you will) and you have a question, know that John is there to take care of you.
Like he‘s been doing for 20+ years.