My Story Thus Far
My Story Thus Far
I was born Christian Benjamin Mors on December 27, 1975 in Burbank, CA. My father was a washed up actor from the 50s. My sister, Gabrielle, was born in 76. She now lives in Las Vegas, and with mom, runs an outstanding e-commerce business called www.sheeab.com, specializing in tasteful lingerie.
When my grandparents chose to retire from Half Moon Bay, they decided to take residence in Weed, California. Outside of its ironic name, Weed is most notably known for the town that Lenny and George escape from in John Stinbeck’s class “Of mice and men.” It is a poverty stricken small town in the tip of Northern California.
We were raised without money or a father who was present in our lives. The man who sired me lived in LA with his first family, always working on his ”next big break.” His perpetual failures taught me early on the importance of not tilting at windmills. Father provided no support, but we did see him once a year for Christmas. He’d bring up bags of toys from the second hand stores in LA and then leave for the remainder.
On one my father’s annual pilgrimages up north, him and my mother conceived one last time. Giving me a younger Brother, Esprit Friedland. Esprit also lives in Las Vegas along with my mother and sister.
I took an interest in computers at a very early age. When I was 9 I went with my grandfather to the College of the Siskiyous where I would work on IBM 8086 computers and the coveted Commodore 64. There I learned the basics of operating systems, programming, data structures, hardware, et cetera, and whet my whistle for computers evermore.
After spending time in the lab there was nothing more I wanted in my life than a Commodore 64 computer. My dad had promised me one every year since I was 7 years old.
I learned that my other passion was making money. Being raised poor in a small town taught me very early the importance of money as a tool of empowerment. My first entrepreneurial exploit went back to when I was around 10 years old. My business partner Rick Small and I setup a candy store between the local ballpark and our houses. We happened to be positioned so that when people were walking to the game they would have to walk by our candy stand. We bought candy in bulk from the local Sprouse Reitzand sold it at less of a markup than the concession stands at the ballpark. While the business didn’t help me achieve great wealth, it did subsidize the candy habit that Rick and I had acquired.
My educational background was just as strange. I started my education at Weed Elementary School, and then I spent some years at Shasta Abbey School; a single room schoolhouse in Mt Shasta run by a monk named Zukio Swann. It had a unique curriculum where grades 6-8 were considered “community college prep.”
When I graduated from the 8th grade, I went directly to the College of the Siskiyous. I can tell you that being a 13 year old college freshman was quite an experience. While some would say this probably explains why I’m so odd, I like to think it is part of the reason why I, as Steve Jobs would say, “think differently.”
When I turned 13 I finally got tired of my deadbeat dad calling once or twice a year to promise me a computer, so I spent an entire 30 minutes cussing him out and telling him how I really felt about him. That was the very last conversation I had with him; he died of a stroke 3 months later.
Shortly after my Dad died, my grandmother died from breast cancer. This left my brother and sister, and my mother and grandfather as the last of the family bloodline. My sister and I were reaching our teen years and we were rebellious – to say the least. Rebellious and entrepreneurial proved to be a bad combination, as we continued to have our own share of run-ins with law enforcement for years to come.
As a final farewell to our father, the three of us, Gabe, Espirit, and I, changed our name to Friedland to honor the grandfather who raised us. In 1988 I became Christian Benjamin Friedland.
My 2 1/2 years in community college were much better than that of my high school peers. I landed my first real job as a tutor in the computer lab, helping people with their “hello world” programs in Borland Turbo Pascal, or teaching a Luddite WordPerfect 5.1. Since I helped out the jocks with their computer projects, I became known as “Doogie,” referring to Neil Patrick Harris’s character Doogie Howser MD, a TV show about a child doctor.
At the age of 15, I managed to score a job as a tutor at the College of the Siskiyous, get the grades needed to squeeze by most of my classes, and prepare for my JC transfer to Southern Oregon University however those weren’t my only exploits; I’m not particularly proud of all the hustling I did in my youth but I can say that I learned a tremendous amount of good business practices by being the guy who knew how to get whatever you needed; from car stereos that fell off the back of a delivery van to advance copies of professor’s exams, I was your guy. In fact, what almost ended my college career early was a huge hacker investigation at the university. I was accused of hacking into our NOVELL based servers and accessing professor’s accounts. I was exonerated, but probably still didn’t learn my lesson.
I spent a few years in Ashland at Southern Oregon University, trying to earn my Ba.S, when my rock, my only true father figure, my beloved grandfather Ben Friedland passed away due to prostate cancer. This was a pretty hard hit for me, leaving my mother, brother, and sister as the last of my bloodline.
I dropped out of school and moved away to be with friends in Chico, California. For a year I worked selling Chevrolet’s at Wittmeier Chevrolet. I still remember the Jay Jacobs purple suits and the cheap cotton ties I used to wear. I was 19 years old, wet behind the ears, and walking into a bull pen. There were 20 of us hired for this position, and I was voted most likely to be fired. I survived for another 18 months. I was never a great car salesman because I didn’t see it as my future, but I learned more about the sales process and closing deals from that job than anywhere else in my life.
I finally realized I needed to finish my undergraduate education so I left the dealership. Despite the fact that I started my degree when I was 14, I was going to finish “on time” and was a bit disappointed in myself.
I ended up registering at CSU Chico. I
had pretty much abandoned computers for the past years while I was selling cars, and in that time the world had changed. It was no longer 80xx based DOS and Commodore 64′s which ruled the labs; it was Unix mainframes and Windows 95. I felt like a stranger in a strange world. My minor was political science, so I made the decision to pursue a degree in law and become a criminal defense lawyer. Since I spent most of my time on the other side of the law, I felt the irony was noteworthy.
During my time as a car salesman and undergraduate student, I started a number of companies that failed to take flight. My next big entrepreneurial endeavor after the candy store was as a pager resale company. The model seemed brilliant to me at the time. Buy pagers from a provider, sell them at a modest profit, and then collect a residual off the monthly fees. The reseller fees were around $9.00 and the market rate for pager service at the time was around $19.00. You could see the dollar signs in my eyes – $10.00 monthly profit = $100.00 per 10, $1000 per 100 and $10,000 per month per 1000 pagers! Phoenix Communication was going to be the leading pager reseller in Chico. There were 60,000 residents in Chico, and 10,000 of them needed a pager, they just didn’t know they needed one yet.
I hustled some money together selling whatever I could get my hands on, and then with 10 pagers in hand, plus a contract from the now defunct Cal Page, I was ready to be a pager reselling millionaire.
I made the mistake of choosing a partner who fronted half of the startup capital, but gave away our inventory to his friends with the assumption that they would pay for themselves over time. Needless to say, many of these “friends” canceled or switched their service after the free month ran out, and the pagers were redistributed to different people who signed up under different contacts. The model was good, but I picked the wrong partner. I decided to be more selective in my partner picking from that point forward. The timing for a boom in pager technology didn’t quite happen either, this whole “cell phone” revolution sort of quashed the plans also, so he’s not completely to blame.
My next endeavor was TCS. Total Credit Solutions. I had always been fascinated with credit and debt, and even as a youth I had a solid understanding of how credit reporting worked. I had realized that a niche had developed in “cleaning up” bad credit reports by challenging bad information on people’s credit reports as “inaccurate.” I put an ad in the local newspaper, filed for a business license, and started taking calls for TC Services as a person who could repair your credit for $500.00.
At first business was brisk. I had 4-5 clients a month who needed the help, but the client base that needed help cleaning up their credit didn’t have the required $500.00 to pay for my services. I found myself taking small deposits and then doing the requisite work for them on their behalf. Unfortunately, after I had done my good work of helping them dispute “inaccurate negative information” on their credit reports, they turned out to be pretty poor credit risks, and I found myself rarely getting paid in full. The business survived for a few months, until Congress was harassed by the credit bureaus to do something about little upstarts like myself taxing their resources. The credit repair organizations act was passed, and this pretty much shut down my business.
It was well into my B.A. studies before I felt myself being drawn back into the computer lab. After earning my degree in Political Science, it was clear to me that with my sub-par GPA and passion for computers I wasn’t going to make a world class attorney.
I switched majors to Computer Science and applied for the graduate program in CSUC. After acceptance, I found myself a job at a local plumbing wholesale house called Slakey Brothers.. Slakey was a noteworthy company who schlepped plumbing, heating, and cooling supplies to contractors.
While working on the counter at Slakey and pursuing my graduate degree in computer science, I developed my third big idea. Slakey’s was a wholesale only organization, so we often had customers stumble into our backwoods location, credit cards in hand, begging to buy from us as wholesalers instead of paying retail prices at the local Home Depot or Lowes.
I developed a business plan around selling faucets on the internet, and registered the domain FaucetDirect.com. As I started doing research, I realized how big of an opportunity was to be found in the national faucet market. Delta Faucet had over $1 billion in annual sales; Moen Faucet had around $900 million. I started playing the 1% game in my head and developed a grandiose dream of starting a joint venture with Slakey Brothers. They would fund it, and I would build an online faucet empire!
I went around campus telling my friends about my great idea because I felt I needed help. I was a hack programmer, good enough to build the site, but I needed a designer. This was the start of the tech bubble in 1999, and many people turned their heads at me like I was trying to teach my dog algebra. Faucets? Online? They were going to get a job at HP and Cisco and get rich off of stock options.
Finally I found a sucker partner, a guy I won’t name to protect his privacy. I pitched the idea to him and he loved it. We spent a few nights at my apartment, drinking wine and talking about how big this could be. Lo and behold, a few days after our discussions about the idea, he went off my radar. When I tracked him down he regretfully told me he had secured a $4000 a month internship at HP and couldn’t risk this opportunity on a faucet idea. He wished me the best, and we went our separate ways.
Once we had substantially developed the concept, it was time for the unveiling. I contacted my branch manager at Slakey Brothers and requested a meeting with the president of the company to present my great idea; this JV concept.
David and I worked feverishly to build a presentation, asking for $40K in startup capital and Slakey’s would get a 40% share of FaucetDirect. We had haphazard financial projections, and a gleam of ambition. Our plan was to use the money to finish buying hardware and “do it right.”
We weren’t able to secure a meeting with the president, but we did get the heads of marketing. They explained that if companies likeWebVan could burn through billions of investor’s dollars with high flying CEO’s like George Shawsheen and couldn’t make e-commerce work in grocery stores, we were out of our minds to think that with $40k we could build a meaningful business in, of all categories, plumbing.
We didn’t get any capital, but we did get permission to go it alone and an open account to ship on if I could manage to generate any sales. Despite the lack of encouragement from the much smarter and experienced $200 million parent company, we decided to try and go it alone.
With little fanfare, two big things happened in 2000.
First, Melissa McIntire-Friedland my girlfriend and wife-to-be had our first child, McKenna Lillian. This was the most trans-formative thing that ever went on in my life. Once I realized I was going to be a father I knew that my days of hustling were over and it was time to narrowly focus on financial success. We were renting an apartment and managing to get by, but I didn’t want my brood to have the same challenges I had grown up with; for better or for worse. I worked fiercely on FaucetDirect.com nonstop while attending grad school full-time and working at Slakey Brothers. I let everything else go in favor of making sure this business launched successfully.
Secondly, In October of 2000, two months before the birth of my first child, was the birth of my first really successful enterprise; FaucetDirect.com. In our first month of sales we did $26,000 and our profits were around $5000. I felt like I was rich. Success was not unreachable. I was spending time in grad school working on profit projections and on product databases for FaucetDirect.com between classes. I soon realized it was time to “put school off” for a while and say goodbye to Slakey Brothers. By January of 2001, sales had grown to $40,000 a month, and I bid adieu to Slakeys and CSU for the time being. Both wished me very well.
From that point on, it was 15 hour days as the company’s data clerk, call center employee, returns person, operations manager, and my most important job at the time, head programmer.
Since a lot of my posts are going to discuss trials and tribulations I suffered as a bootstrap entrepreneur, I will not go into explicit details, but I can tell you the ride was very fun yet daunting.
Melissa and I bought our first house and Dave realized his Cisco stock options weren’t going to ever be worth anything, so he abandoned that job to work fulltime out of my house in Chico.
This is when we realized we had a real business. We continued to develop the company and decided it was time to look beyond plumbing and take our niche-marketing concept into different verticals. We started the groundwork to launch LightingDirect.com and FaucetDirect.com. We did over $1 million in revenue in our first year and we were very proud of that. In our second year, we were looking to triple the business and grow to $3m in business.
As part of this growth strategy, I took on a new shareholder and partner named Craig Stilwell. Craig was another Cisco graduate and his wife had been my wife’s boss. Melissa was a nurse before she became a fulltime mom. Craig’s background was in IT, but he was persistent and smart and I knew he would do a great job figuring out a new way to market our business. Craig became our VP of marketing, handled customer calls, and did the same crap work that Dave and I were doing. I still remember introducing Craig to this concept called “pay per click” which at the time Yahoo was pioneering, and Google was just getting its wings.
The path from 2002 through 2004 was tumultuous as we started to grow up into a real business. We ended up purchasing our first office space and had a full payroll of 15+ people. On a run rate from 9m to 21m was very exciting and stressful for us. We renamed the business Improvement Direct and launched a network of niche sites. The business continued to scale up; launching a total of 14 websites in different niche verticals like ToolsDirect.com, VentingDirect.com, LightingDirect.com, and Handlesets.com over the subsequent years.
The second big life changing event for me occurred in 2007. Dave, Craig and I thought the real estate market was going to crater in 2006, since prices continued to artificially inflate. In 2007 the business had grown to a run rate of over $55 million dollars in sales, and as shareholders, we were getting antsy. We decided to look for an investor to buy out 30-40% of the business to provide us with additional security. We knew we were in for uncertain times, and wanted to hedge our bets. No longer a bunch of glassy eyed kids selling faucets, we had a real business with real profits, and interest was brisk. We were able to get offers from A tier venture firms, along with some of the largest players in Internet retail… and then we had an unlikely inquiry from the parent company of one of our largest suppliers, Wolseley PLC out of London.
After a competitive bidding process we were made an offer we couldn’t refuse from Wolseley. We sold the business in its entirety and agreed to stay on for a number of years to help with the transition.
Between 2007 and 2008 my other major shareholders found their way out of the business… Craig Stilwell is enjoying his retirement, while I am still actively involved with David Boctor on a number of real estate investing companies ( which I will discuss in future posts ). 2007-2008 really allowed me to get an understanding of how big companies work and how acquisitions are looked at and will be the subject of some of my posts so I won’t go on in perpetuity here.
As the acting President / CEO(sort of) of Build.com, I’ve again learned more about double entry accounting, CapEx budgeting, and forecasting than I think I need. That being said, I still think the company is in its infancy, and has ample potential to become the largest pure-play online retailer in home improvement.
I’m still enjoying the ride and occasionally like to tool with other business ideas which I will be sharing in this blog.
Really the purpose of this massive diatribe is that I hope you will find it if you have a scheduled meeting with me. If you didn’t read it, I will know. If you did, you will have a huge leg up on the conversation.