Has the American Dream Been Downsized?

Do JD and Mindy Schiman prove that the American Dream is still a viable aspiration? Or are they exceptions who lucked into the new rules of upward mobility?

by Ellis Friedman

It’s a hot afternoon in Nixa, Missouri, and Mindy Schiman floats in her pool in an inflatable pink frosted donut. Her 8-year-old daughter, Hannah, has flopped stomach first onto the pool deck and set to work painting Mindy’s nails silver. Hannah’s legs twirl above her and the tag sticks out from her blue and pink pineapple bikini bottoms. The silver nail polish covers not just Mindy’s nails, but the skin around them, a look she wears for the rest of the day and out to dinner later that night.

This poolside manicure falls at precisely 12:42 p.m. on a Thursday in June. A year ago, this poolside manicure wouldn’t have been possible. Mindy would have been at her job as a home health nurse, or her husband, JD Schiman, would have been on call at his job as a fireman. Whoever wasn’t working would be with the kids in their smaller house with no pool. But right now, they’re both home by the pool with Hannah and her 10-year-old brother, Noah. They’ll be out there for the entirety of this increasingly muggy summer afternoon.

JS Schiman posts to social media from his backyard pool. Photo by Nathan Papes

You wouldn’t know it at first glance, but in this moment, Mindy and JD are providing for their family — or rather, they’re making money, the money that enabled them to pay off their debt and move into this house with a pool that JD converted to saltwater, something he takes great pride in. At odd but consistent intervals, JD’s phone emits a jaunty “cha-ching!” It’s the only hint that in the background, their business is running. That, and the fact that with each chime, JD shouts “Got one!” in a cheery falsetto, to which Hannah replies, her r’s rolled and drawn out, “Arrrrrrrrrriba!”

It means someone just bought a shirt.

Mindy and JD sell T-shirts and tank tops emblazoned with snarky block-letter slogans, but they sell them online through email, social media, and their website. So many people, mostly young women, have bought their shirts that sales have grown each of their three years in business, and last year they grew so much that Mindy quit her full-time nursing job to manage the business. And in September 2015, they bought this new house in the center of town — a house with a large yard and the coveted saltwater pool; space to give their shelves of apparel a dedicated room; and a vast furnished basement that their son Noah shares only with the laundry.

It’s the classic Middle America post-recession story you hear all the time: two kids grow up poor in the midwest, work blue collar jobs each for years on end, meet, marry, rack up debt, and then one day decide to launch a business printing sardonic slogans on exercise apparel and sell them through email and social media. The business skyrockets, and within the span of 18 months, they’re out of debt and jump to the cusp of the upper class.

Actually, you don’t know this story — either because it’s happening less, or because it’s not what we talk about when we talk about the changing middle class in the United States. The recession and its aftermath beleaguered an already shrinking middle class. Worse yet for the wear is the already struggling Middle America, their plight aptly captured in the moniker “flyover” states.

Towns like Nixa seem to be in America’s rear window.

Forsaken for the innovation and real estate bubbles of the coasts, people who couldn’t afford a four-year college degree — or took out loans for it and live in persistent negative wealth — or even those that could, subsequently watched as their wages flatlined, or their pensions dwindled, or their houses were foreclosed on, or their children struggled to find jobs. Towns like Nixa seem to be in America’s rear window.

In the times when we fawn over Silicon Valley, free meals and playgrounds at the office, venture capital, and the rebounding stock and housing markets, what we talk about when we talk about the middle class is reductionist terminology, saying simply that it’s disappearing. How it used to be America’s largest slice of the economic population but has steadily eroded since the 1970s, and how in 2016, people are still struggling to keep apace, let alone get ahead.

So why — how — have the Schimans, in the span of less than two years, managed to leapfrog the issue of the shriveling middle class, an issue that has nearly gnawed away entirely the belief that the American Dream is alive, great, and achievable?

Nixa is not known for much; it does, however, have a place in pop culture as the fictional birthplace of David Webb, aka superspy Jason Bourne from the Robert Ludlum novels. With estimated fewer than 21,000 people within its city lines, Nixa is American in the most classic of ways: single-story houses and sizeable, well-tended lawns, water towers emblazoned with the city’s name, and neighborhoods where locking your door is an unnecessary, cautionary afterthought.

Nixa was first settled in the mid-1800s, when farmers came for the fertile soil and shaded streams. It became a popular stopover site for those traveling to or from Arkansas. Through the late 1800s and up until World War II, canning was a cornerstone of local industry, until the war reduced their labor pool and large cannery corporations took over. While Nixa’s commercial fervor died down, its proximity to Springfield made for an easy commute, so the population has continued to grow. In fact, it is part of Christian County, currently the fastest growing county in Missouri. In present day, its main intersection — at Main and Mount Vernon — is lined with storefronts that are kempt and quaintly modern, but which sit largely empty.

Though Mindy explains that it is now an upper-middle income satellite of the nearby Springfield, it is not where you would expect to find the upstarts behind a wildly successful — and wildly irreverent — apparel company.

JD is a man who likes to do things on his own terms, but he’s never been afraid of the hard work necessary to even have his own terms. After a previous illness hospitalized him a few years ago, physical fitness became imperative to keeping that illness at bay. He found competitive, high-intensity exercise and it’s been part of his life ever since. He quickly excelled at athletic competitions, and did well enough that apparel companies started approaching him with an offer: He wears their clothes for free, they get free exposure at competitions.

Some of Fat Bar Apparel’s women’s shirts. Courtesy of Fat Bar Apparel

He declined. “I thought to myself, ‘Why sell out and look like a NASCAR driver to act like a bigger deal that I was?’” But instead of wearing clothes without logos, he started wearing clothes that advertised his local gym, which is run by friends. If he was going to look like a NASCAR driver, at least he’d do it on his own terms.

The birth of Fat Bar Apparel is so incidental to JD and Mindy now that they don’t remember it in any detail. Its lore is reduced to JD’s recollection that one night, “after running my mouth, I decided to start my own brand.” If that seems like a big leap to make, or a very abrupt conclusion for someone to come to, for those who know JD, it is not. Mindy is the first to note JD’s penchant for what he calls “running [his] mouth” and “spitballing” whatever ideas he has.

It’s that spitballing — and maybe some beer — from which Fat Bar sprang forth. But it helped that it wasn’t their first entrepreneurial side hustle; a few years before, JD and Mindy had run a local photo booth business until the market became too saturated. From all the competitions at gyms they attended, they noticed that there were only one or two apparel vendors — decidedly not a saturated market. “We thought, ‘We could do that,” recalls Mindy. “Starting our own business wasn’t hard.”

That doesn’t mean it was easy.

Getting started was uncomplicated enough; when JD transitioned to a part-time ambulance paramedic to be a full-time firefighter, he got back $5,000 from his retirement pension contributions. He and Mindy used that money to start Fat Bar, and started printing T-shirts and tank tops in the garage and spare bathroom of their house.

In 2013, he quit as a paramedic altogether and split his time between Fat Bar and the firehouse. While not at the firehouse, he’d undertake the half-day-long process of printing shirts: First, a trip to Kinko’s to get a negative of the image. Then, in the makeshift darkroom of the spare bathroom, he put an emulsion on the screens, let them dry a few hours, then exposed the screen and rinsed it off in the shower. With a proclivity toward precision and winging it, JD used his kids’ wooden blocks as spacers for design.

Hannah helps fold “Feed me and tell me I’m pretty” shirts. Photo by Nathan Papes

When he and Mindy were home from their full-time jobs, they stayed up well past the kids’ bedtime to print shirts in the garage. Then they pounded the fitness competition circuits renting tables and selling shirts. And while the shirts sold well, they began to feel that they were putting in an awful lot of work for questionable payoff.

In the fall of 2014, they went to Minnesota for The Granite Games, an annual three-day athletic competition. “We had spent a month before that — a month staying up late screen printing in the garage. I was staying up until 11 or 12 at night screen printing by hand all these shirts, building our stock for that competition,” JD said. At the competition, “we sold so many shirts it was not even funny … I mean we sold $8,000 to $10,000 worth of stuff that weekend.”

But they’d paid to travel up there over a weekend with the whole family, plus the $1,200 fee to rent the table. And when they got home, they counted their earnings.

“We made $400 for three days’ worth of work,” JD recollects, a disappointing profit, especially with the month they spent printing shirts. “We basically just shuffled money around to give ourselves a part-time job … It lit a fire in me that these contests and these competition organizers, they’re making [money] off me. I get it … It makes perfect sense. But at the end of the day, their kids were getting to eat and my kids weren’t eating. That’s obviously being dramatic, but they were getting to make bank and I was doing a bunch of work and not making any money.”

“I remember saying to myself, ‘I’m not working for free any more. We’re going to make this work or we’re closing up shop,’” JD recalls. That was when they changed their entire business model. It was time to do business on their own terms.

Manifest Destiny. A chicken in every pot. A white picket fence.

Or, as Historian James Truslow Adams said in his 1931 book “The Epic of America”: “That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement … a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

While there are a variety of versions of the American Dream, they all tend to have one thing in common: The ability to get, maintain, and advance in a job that pays the bills so you can take care of your family. The dream is to steadily increase or maintain a tenable standard of living and retire in comfort. For some that translates to owning a home, for others, the chance to take family vacations, or send your kid to college, or pay your medical bills when someone gets hurt or sick, to pass something down to your children whether you started with something or nothing.

Americans have taken a hit in all of those categories over the past decade. Over a third of people plan to work until they die because saving for retirement and paying the bills simply isn’t feasible. One post-Recession political poll from 2013 found that Americans are more concerned with keeping what they have than in pursuing more.

Many simply can’t pursue more, or have to make do with losing less. Though the rate of mortgage delinquency has consistently decreased since 2012, it remains higher than it has been in the past 15 years. Homeownership is a frequent benchmark for economic health, but homeownership rates reached a 50-year low in the second quarter of 2016, when the data shows a 62.9 percent homeownership rate. And that’s even lower than the previous 20-year low of 63.4 percent in mid 2015.

Along with fewer owners, there are more owers. In 2015, the average household had $130,922 in debt, $15,762 of which is on credit cards. And while overall income has grown 26 percent in the past 12 years, debt outpaced earnings, growing 29 percent in the same 12 years. But it seems that even that rate of growth was propelled by the enormous increases in earnings for the very top earners in the country: Since 1979, wages for the top one percent have grown 138 percent while wages for the bottom 90 percent grew only 15 percent.

So rather than Manifest Destiny, it’s Manifest Status Quo. The middle class American Dream has downsized.

As have many other things since the Great Recession. Look at the “shrinkflation” phenomenon — charging consumers the same price for less product. In 2011, Dairy Milk Bar lopped two squares off its chocolate bar, and later rounded the bar’s edges to cut even more weight. But the price stayed the same. It happened with other big-name brands like Coca-Cola, Toblerone, and Mars Bar. By volume, consumers are paying more for less, and even though wages started (slowly) outpacing inflation in 2013, and even though we just got the news that median income has finally increased notably, the middle class recovery has been remarkably glacial.

Photo courtesy Pew Research Center

The share of adults living in middle-income households fell from 54 percent in 2001 to 50 percent in 2015, and median middle class income has gone from $76,819 in 2000 to $73,392 in 2014.There is plenty of data out there to support the fact that the middle class is shrinking and losing economic security, especially if they are less educated or black or Hispanic.

But if you expand the frame from the past 20 years to the past 40, you notice that the middle class on the whole has been steadily shrinking by two to three percent every decade since 1971. And while homeownership leapt from 43.6 percent in 1940 to 61.9 percent in 1960, it has never made such large leaps again, and instead persistently hovers in the mid-60 percent. Its all-time high was in 2004, when it hit 69.4 in the second quarter.

Of course, when one class shrinks, at least one other has to grow. The share of adults in the lower middle class has remained the same since 1971, and the share in the upper middle class has remained almost the same. The highest and lowest income brackets have grown the most: Since 1971, the share of adults in the lowest incomes has grown from 16 to 20 percent, and adults in the highest incomes have grown from 4 percent to 9 percent.

So is the American middle class being eaten away by income inequality, especially since the upper middle class is larger and richer than ever? Or has the American Dream been dashed by stagnated wages, rising inflation, and crushing debt? Or has the middle class and the trappings that come with it — home ownership and retirement savings — reached its critical mass, and the reckoning will be a brutal, every-man-for-himself political and class warfare? These questions find their way into debates, political stump speeches, social media rants, and economic analyses, but it’s hard to find a satisfying answer.

Or has the middle class reached its critical mass, and the reckoning will be a brutal, every-man-for-himself political and class warfare?

And then you hear about a unique story like the Schimans’. Are they proof that the American Dream is still a viable aspiration? Or are they exceptions who lucked into the new rules of upward mobility?

JD Schiman is a superstitious man. “You know what he does when he finds a nickel, quarter, or penny on the ground that’s tails up? He turns it over and leaves it for the next person to pick up,” says Mindy. “His change in his cupholder, all heads up.”

Mindy, Noah, Hannah, and JD Schiman at their home in Nixa, Missouri. Photo by Nathan Papes

JD was born in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents divorced before he can remember, and he spent his childhood and adolescence going back and forth between Lincoln or Omaha (Mom) and Springfield (Dad). “Typical divorce kid stuff,” he calls it. His father was a hospital nurse and his mother a phlebotomist, and for him growing up as a “poor kid,” it was “hard to actually imagine a tangible version of [a life of] making more money.”

Mindy is a self-described country girl. Born about 35 miles from Nixa in Mount Vernon, Missouri, she lived there until she was 20. As far back as she can remember, she worked. She did odd jobs on her uncle’s farm, like driving the hay truck and mower, and especially babysitting. At home, they grew vegetables in their garden, not because it was trendy, but because they had to. “I was a really boring kid,” she says, and can’t recall a time when she played pretend or dreamed of getting married. “I don’t know what I expected in life. I knew I’d always work.”

“I don’t know what I expected in life. I knew I’d always work.”

Mindy worked as a lifeguard from age 17, and got an emergency dispatcher job when she was 18 years old and “not worldly.” As a teenage emergency dispatcher based out of the county jail, she had a swear jar on her desk for people to pay into when they cursed. (She has since relaxed her stance a bit on profanity, and while Fat Bar shirts are not explicit, one of them hints at profanity.) She later went to EMT school and wanted to be a flight paramedic but decided it was far more pragmatic to become a nurse, which had the same responsibility as a flight paramedic but a higher pay. Usually working two or more jobs at a time, she worked full time as an EMT to pay for nursing school.

That’s when she met JD — and it was a case of opposites attract. Mindy is a methodical, read-the-directions-first type of person, while JD is the outgoing, make-it-up-as-we-go-along type. “JD has always been a busy person, and he’s worked hard to make things easier for me,” she says.

They eloped to Hawaii in 2004. They told their families a month before the ceremony, not, as some of their family thought, so that the family couldn’t go, but because they knew their families couldn’t afford to either pay for a wedding or to travel to one, and they didn’t want them putting all their money into coming. And both growing up in low-income homes, they never wanted to ask their parents to pay for a wedding they couldn’t afford. “We saw it as starting our own adventure,” Mindy recalls.

JD and the family dog, Brody, on break from building out emails. Photo by Nathan Papes

Between Mindy’s job as a nurse and JD working full time as both a firefighter and a paramedic, they were getting by, but they were living on credit, soon with two young kids. “We thought we’d pay it off eventually,” Mindy recalled. “That was our worst mistake.” With student loans, a mortgage, credit card bills, and a rigid timeshare agreement in Hawaii, they had dug themselves into a major financial hole.

As it is for many couples, money was their biggest source of stress, mostly because they didn’t have it. Though they have never considered divorce an option, not having to worry about money now has been an enormous stress relief for them. But how did they go through netting $400 for three days of work and a month of prep, to paying everything off, moving into a new home, and having Mindy quit working as a nurse to run their business?

In November 2014, after the $400 in profit fiasco, JD and Mindy resolved never to use Fat Bar to make money for other people again — that meant no more tables at athletic competitions, no renting space to sell shirts. It meant a total change in business model, and JD needed some help. It was fortuitous that at competitions he had crossed paths with Aaron Hinde, the cofounder of FitAID, and soon Hinde became something of a mentor and FitAID a source of business insights.

“I was sitting in a hot tub at a friend’s house with another FitAID guy. He was talking about CRM software. I was like, ‘CRM software? What do you mean, CRM software?’ He said ‘Dude, are you not sending emails?’ I was like, ‘No, what are you talking about?’ I’m that dumb. I literally [had] no clue.”

CRM stands for customer relationship management; it’s a technology that allows companies to connect databases and smartly contact — and sell to — their customers and prospects. At the time of the conversation, Fat Bar Apparel had 120,000 followers on Instagram, but they weren’t emailing any of them. And JD recalls this FitAID guy telling him, “Dude, you have to send emails. That will change your business.” So JD went home and Googled CRM, then called Aaron Hinde for his recommendation.

With the three-pronged approach of more social media engagement, email marketing, and selling their shirts solely online, JD waded blind into the world of digital and email marketing. He became so meticulous about updating and interacting on Instagram that he set his phone’s alarm to go off every 30 minutes so that he could get on Instagram. He did this even through a lakeside vacation, where he’d get out of the lake every half hour, like, comment, and post things on Instagram, then set the timer again and hop back in the water.

He calls their first email campaign a “giant experiment … we just tested things not necessarily purposely, but just out of curiosity … It’s that simple. I wish it was complicated. I wish there was an algorithm or physics. I wish I could sound super smart. But if stuff works, do it. If it doesn’t work, don’t do it anymore and stop wasting money.”

The camo LIFT tank. Photo courtesy of Fat Bar Apparel

Their first experiment was with what they refer to as their “Camo lift tank.” It’s a tank top in green camouflage that reads “LIFT.” “We stocked the shelves with the amount of shirts we would normally sell in a month,” JD recalls, and set the email to go out and social media to go live at 8 a.m. “I hopped in the car at 8:15 to take the kids to school. It’s a seven minute drive there. By the time I got back home, we were sold out.”

That was a month’s worth of shirts sold in about 20 minutes. And people were commenting on social media, upset that the shirt had been sold out. This was so big JD skipped his daily workout and created a webform for users to fill out ot be notified when it was back in stock.

“Then I started thinking ‘Wait a minute … Why don’t I just presell it?’” So he changed the item description in the store to say it would ship in two weeks after a reprint. By the end of that one day, they had sold three or four times more T-shirts.

Most people would probably agree that the American Dream hinges on money — having the education necessary to learn high-paying skills; having the luck or wherewithal to avoid debt; the savvy to know how to manage what money you do have. Business ownership figures heavily into this, not just because wages at traditional jobs have stagnated, but because part of the American Dream is freedom, freedom afforded by both money and time.

The most recent census of business owners shows that in 2012, there were more than 27 million total firms that made any amount of money with or without paid employees. When you look at businesses who make more than $25,000 a year, a point at which it is theoretically possible for someone to support themselves solely from their business revenue, the number drops to 12 million. And unsurprisingly, new business creation dropped precipitously from its peak in 2006 to its all-time low in 2009, and by 2012 it made a meager recovery.

Add to the heap that there’s talk out there that it’s not ambition or grit or high tolerance for risk that make a great entrepreneur but, well, pre-existing money. What if Gillian B. White at The Atlantic is right that “the larger picture of small-business ownership in the U.S. may hint at the fact that entrepreneurship is becoming a much more selective club that favors the affluent and excludes average Americans”?

Whether actual entrepreneurship is mostly for the elite or not, using the title of “entrepreneur” has become something of a competition and special label.

Among the entrepreneurial crowd, the thinking goes that to be a true entrepreneur, you have to risk everything and stomach that risk, no matter what, and bet on yourself. No working for someone else for pay (though working for them for free is fine), no hustling on the side. You’re either an all-in entrepreneur or … just a guy who works after work. Even Gary Vaynerchuk, the entrepreneur’s entrepreneur, has dedicated space to this idea, saying, “If you’re a true entrepreneur, you can’t survive having a normal job.”

That means no full-time job to make sure you can pay your bills while you get your business off the ground. No time where you’re not full-on grinding, hustling, or risking.

And yet both JD and Mindy, with all their background in emergencies, are intimately familiar with risk. They’re familiar with having very little. But if you go by the true entrepreneurial litmus test of non-stop grind on your business only, then JD is not an entrepreneur. He kept his full-time job as a firefighter for two reasons: first, he likes it, and second, he’s not the kind of guy who is going to risk not being able to pay for his house. Those are his terms.

Mindy Schiman prepares the day’s orders. Photo by Nathan Papes

Though ironically, it is possible that Mindy would fall into the category of a “true” entrepreneur, since she stopped working (except for one shift a month) as a nurse at the end of 2015. But who would tell JD, the man who Instagrammed every 30 minutes from a lake on vacation, that his hustle isn’t enough, that his grind isn’t tough? Who would tell JD to risk more?

“We have a local dickhead — yes, you can quote that — who’s got a couple of businesses and he’s constantly trying to self-promote himself as the biggest entrepreneur since Donald Trump,” JD says, musing on the nature of entrepreneurship. “Is Donald Trump really an entrepreneur, or is he just a rich kid who lucked into a lot of stuff?”

Though money is intimately entwined with our ideals of the American Dream, that’s not all there is to it. When we as a nation collectively admire those who have achieved, we don’t usually think of people who are born rich, buy a lot of things, and die rich. We think of people who started from nothing and became something. We think of people who started with something, made it into more, and gave back. Those people hustled before before hustling in the entrepreneurial sense was cool. Think of Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk, Madam CJ Walker, Steve Jobs, Estee Lauder, Ted Turner — they all have different stories and different outcomes, but none of them got where they are by not hustling. The American Dream isn’t about risking it all; it’s about determination, grit, and the belief that your hard work will pay off.

The American Dream isn’t about risking it all; it’s about determination, grit, and the belief that your hard work will pay off.

“We’re not the storybook entrepreneurs that go out there and quit their day job and make it big, because there’s a real risk of not making it, and we like the security of being able to provide for our family even if this failed,” JD explains. “Everybody and their mother wants to call themselves entrepreneurs nowadays. I don’t really give a damn what you call me. I’m too busy trying to grind and hustle to worry about what label I’ve got or what people think that I do for a living.”

So how do all the statistics about the economy, the middle class, small business ownership, and the idea of entrepreneurship account for the fact that families like the Schimans are finding success?

It’s easy to say that they could be the exception that proves the rule; they are, after all, just one family, one business, out of the rest of the country. Or one could argue that there are always winners even in the worst of times, or that they just got lucky.

Or maybe, it’s because they had the help of technology.

The most appealing thing about automated email marketing is that you can get way more work done while putting in far less work than you would manually. You set up sequences of emails to be delivered to people without ever hitting send. Or you can contact 120,000 people and only press the send button once.

Does that sound like spam? If you’re like author and former Newsweek reporter Dan Lyons, it does. In his book “Disrupted: My Year of Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble,” Lyons takes a very cynical look at startup culture as he experienced it. Here’s his take on the email marketing landscape:

“The convoluted logic behind [email marketing] is that “spam” means unsolicited email, and we send email only to people who have handed over their contact information by filling out a form and giving us their permission to be contacted. Our emails might be unwanted, but they’re not, strictly speaking, unsolicited, and therefore they are not spam. And even though we and our customers send out literally billions of email messages, we’re not trying to annoy people — in fact we are trying to help them. Sending one message after another, each time with a different subject line, is how we discover what someone wants. We’re learning about them. We’re listening to them.”

It’s hard to square Lyons’ critique with Mindy and JD’s experience. Just following them through the process of launching a new T-shirt, it’s clear that their product announcements are anything but spam. This week in June, it’s a tank that says “I’m silently correcting your grammar.” On Wednesday, Mindy picks the shirts up from the printers. Then a young woman and her friend from the gym come over in the afternoon and JD takes pictures of them in the shirts for Instagram, then takes photos of the shirts by themselves, first hanging on the exterior wall of his house and then meticulously lit and laid out on green paper on his bedroom floor.

JD Schiman takes photos two young women from the gym wearing Fat Bar’s shirts; in natural light taped to his house; and lit on his bedroom floor. Photos by Ellis Friedman

Then he retouches the photographs and starts building an email. The email is probably the easiest of the tasks, he just drags in the photos, puts in the hyperlinks and buttons, thinks of a subject line, and tests the email a few times. Set it to send the next morning at 8 a.m., create another one to go out four hours later, and he’s done.

The next day — launch day — is punctuated with cha-ching! “Got one!” “Arrrrrrrriba!” even though by Fat Bar standards, the launch is a little slow. By the end of the day, people have placed at least 50 orders. The day’s first Instagram post got 99 comments and 592 likes in 32 minutes…

…All from people who don’t want his emails?

JD puts the final photos in an email that will go out to his whole list. Photo by Nathan Papes

This disconnect between spam and email is something JD encounters regularly, even among people who are close to his business. He and Mindy currently employ two brothers, Ryan, who’s studying pharmacology in college; and his younger brother Connor, who plays high school baseball and hopes to make it to the major leagues one day. The night before the grammar shirt launches, they’re at Mindy and JD’s with their parents and a few other friends who stop by. There’s too much barbecue, the kids mingle with the adults, and people stay late. Which is to say, it’s like any regular night — their house is practically pin-point center in the middle of Nixa, a suburban Grand Central Station.

Connor and Ryan’s father, Todd, asks JD how exactly he sells T-shirts and makes money, and JD explains his email process. “Oh, you send junk mail,” Todd replies. JD didn’t respond, but mentioned it the next day, and clarified that those emails are sent to people — mostly athletic women ages 18 to 32 — who actually want his emails and his product. “I still deal with the stigma [of email marketing] around here. I talk to [people] about email marketing and they’re like ‘Whoa, what do you mean? Is it junk mail?’ Probably yes, this is what you would call junk email. But it’s the junk email you want to get.”

The biggest thing to JD is that his emails work. Those emails bought his new house, where his son Noah has the entire basement to himself. Those emails converted his pool to saltwater. Those emails paid off his debt and allowed Mindy to quit nursing. Those emails made it so that when their refrigerator breaks the day before launch and can’t be fixed for 10 days, JD and Mindy can contemplate just buying a new one without worrying about it destroying their finances.

The thank you cards sent in each Fat Bar order. Photo by Nathan Papes

“It’s a miracle we’re out of debt now,” Mindy sighs. “Success to us is comfortable living, free time, and time with the kids.” She says that JD calls it the American Dream, but she doesn’t quite agree. “No, it’s our American Dream. It’s the way we want it.”

And that’s how they find themselves working every day at the pool, a couple hours filling orders in the mornings, a bit of scattered time doing social media, email, and product shots in the afternoon. The rest of the time they’re in their backyard, Hannah and Noah playing in their hammocks, their black French Bulldog Brody parading a stick about, JD drinking a beer listening to music.

“We were typical lower middle class America and now we get to live like doctors,” JD explained. “It feels like we won the lottery.”

If you enjoyed this story, please recommend it (❤ it below) and share with your friends.

At Infusionsoft, we are transforming sales and marketing for small business. Our software, services and educational content help small businesses get organized, grow sales and save time.

Ellis Friedman is the multimedia manager at Infusionsoft, where she helps small business owners share their stories. Ellis has a diverse media background in magazine publishing, blogging, film, and photography, and is the author of the novel A Valediction. Connect with Ellis on Twitter @ellisredpen.