My friend Adam and I were working in a Michigan video store and knew next to nothing about running a business. But in 11 years, we had expanded to two continents. Here's our story.
There were several reasons why Suddora and CustomOnIt shouldn’t have been successes. My friend Adam and I were working in a Michigan video store and knew next to nothing about running a business. We started with an idea to sell sweatbands, like the ones I used to wear in my band, and over several months managed to launch it legitimately. This led us to bail on the video store and move to Vegas—smack in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis. We lived on ramen noodles and little else for two years while we got the company going. Our friends took bets on how long we’d stay in business.
But 11 years later, we have not one but several successful sports apparel businesses, I’m running a bunch of other e-commerce companies (including SweatBands.com), and we’re selling in the United Kingdom and soon in Asia Pacific.
How did two broke-but-determined guys working in a video store get this far? We always believed in moving ahead, no matter what obstacles came our way—and we learned a lot about how technology like G Suite can make a small business look and operate like a bigger one, and how searching Google for business resources can pay off.
Starting with an idea, a domain and…ramen noodles
In my band days in Michigan, we tried to think of ways to get our name out there. Instead of the usual T-shirts or stickers, I pitched the idea of custom sweatbands since I wore sweatbands when I played guitar. I figured other people might like sweatbands with the names of their bands.
We knew we needed a web domain and email addresses so we could sell online. We found out about G Suite during a Google search, and it seemed like the most pain-free way to get started by buying the domains Customonit.com and Suddora.com (Adam made up that name. “Sudor” is Spanish for “sweat,” which is what the businesses were about, and we added the “d” and the “a” to make the name stand out.).
Even though the company was just me and Adam, we needed to look professional (and also a bit bigger than we actually were). With G Suite, we set up email aliases for various business functions, like email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, and arranged to route email from these addresses into our regular Gmail inboxes; that way, customers could easily reach us.
Scaling our business in the Las Vegas heat
Next, we decided to move to Las Vegas because, in the aftermath of the recession, we could live cheaply there. When we got our first big sweatband order from a major NCAA football team, the momentum started. Now we had to scale up the business so we could handle more orders and deal with suppliers, even though we were still working out of our living room.
We grew to a five-person team, including a customer service person and a designer, and G Suite made it easy to onboard everyone quickly. In addition to giving new employees their own email addresses with the Suddora.com or STbands.com domain names, we routed emails to various people from the “help” and “sales” email aliases we had set up. We also made sure that all of our employees were set up on G Suite, too.
Once orders started to roll in from major fast-food restaurants, football teams, and sports apparel companies, our roles constantly changed. G Suite helped us shave off precious time by helping us manage email less manually—we automatically re-routed emails depending on who’s working on what. If I wanted to take on more sales work, I forwarded emails from email@example.com to my inbox with one click. Same thing with customer service: We never want to lose track of customer service inquiries, which are a high priority.
In 2009, a year after starting the business, Adam and I left our part-time jobs at a local department store to run the business full-time. We promised ourselves that when we hit a revenue target of $15,000 in one month we’d buy a TV for the apartment—and we got that TV!
Going international (without leaving our office)
The business was taking off. We decided to split STbands.com into two websites: Suddora.com for sports sweatbands and CustomOnIt.com for custom apparel and party goods. We recognized that half our customers wanted athletic wear and accessories, while the other half wanted custom items like T-shirts and wristbands. It was a move that would allow each business to thrive.
Creating products and managing suppliers was getting more complicated. Once again, G Suite helped us move our business forward. We used Google search to find suppliers in China, and were able to set up supplier relationships and talk one-on-one with the people making our products—without extensive and time-consuming travel to China. You can accomplish so much with video meetings and chat.
With more suppliers and more customers, we needed to constantly up our game in terms of product design. When we create new designs it generates a ton of files and iterations, which get shared back and forth between pattern designers, photo editors, writers, and marketing professionals. To help centralize these files, we store everything in Google Drive so they can be shared and accessed anytime, from anywhere. For example, we use Sheets to house updated data on our products across all of our e-commerce platforms.
Eleven years on, I’m still learning every day about what it takes to run and grow a business. I think what helps is finding tools like G Suite that are so easy to use, you don’t need much ramp-up time to get started—nor do your employees. That means we’re all productive much faster.
Also, you might be thinking about a million ideas for starting a business. But the truth is, you only need one—an opportunity that makes you think, “Okay, this is going to be big.” So go for it. You can’t afford not to.