“From Avocation To Vocation: How I Turned My Hobby Into A Career” With Bret Wortman of Wrap Buddies

Most entrepreneurs want to see you succeed and are very willing to help. Be respectful when asking for some of their time. Prepare so you know what questions you want to ask and you can make the most of the time you have. Above all, remember that it was a gift given to you. Be […]

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Most entrepreneurs want to see you succeed and are very willing to help. Be respectful when asking for some of their time. Prepare so you know what questions you want to ask and you can make the most of the time you have. Above all, remember that it was a gift given to you. Be generous when someone makes that request of you.

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bret Wortman the inventor of Wrap Buddies® and founder of The Damascus Group, an IT consulting company. Wortman began his career in IT when he saved up enough from his paper route to purchase a TRS-80 computer. He would go on to study mathematics and statistics at Iowa State University, where he graduated with a BS degree and embarked on a career in software development. He worked in many industries as a tool builder before becoming a federal contractor in the late 90s. Since then, he has focused his software skills on developing tools to make others’ lives easier and more rewarding, a philosophy he continues with Wrap Buddies. In his spare time, he has been a Paramedic, a homebrewer, a scoutmaster, a musician, and an award-winning BBQ pitmaster. He enjoys playing chess, woodworking, cooking, and watching movies with his family. Always searching for new areas to explore, Wortman says that Wrap Buddies are just the beginning.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I remember as a kid, I must have been about 8 or 9 years old, seeing a picture of an electric car for the first time. This was the 70s, so it was just an early prototype and I remember thinking, “why don’t they just put a solar panel where the roof is and it should go forever.”

That was probably the first time I can remember having a product idea that I thought was new and which I would later see in the real world (this time, on a Fisker Karma) and think, “See? I should’ve followed up on that.” It certainly wouldn’t be the last.

I was always that nerdy kid who wasn’t good at sports and wasn’t good with girls. But I had a TRS-80 computer that I bought with savings from a year of delivering newspapers and my love of technology, of creating things, of solving problems kicked into high gear.

I’ve been working in one form or another since before I was 13. I mowed lawns and babysat for a few years, then had a paper route.. I washed dishes at a pancake house before moving to the front of house and discovering that I had a knack for waiting on tables. I spent two summers playing sax in a live band show in an amusement park. So I guess working hard at something, solving problems, and taking pride in the result has been part of my DNA from the beginning.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

My wife and I were getting ready to wrap Christmas gifts for our kids. I was being a bit of a whiner that day and insisted that we wrap on top of a craft table I’d made for the kids instead of on the floor. My knees and back usually took a beating wrapping on the floor. So we started, and it was a little better, but the rolls of paper kept rolling off the table and I got more and more frustrated until I threw a major tantrum, stormed off into my garage woodshop and left her there to finish the wrapping. About 30 minutes later, I came back with two blocks of wood with dowels sticking out of them and a slot cut in the end, perfectly sized for that craft table. I put a roll of paper between them, slid them over the end of the table, pulled the paper out to demonstrate and said, “Voila!”

She said, “You’ve got to sell these.”

It turns out she just meant for me to make more of the blocks, but I had other ideas.

There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

The most critical thing for me, and I confess I had to learn it over and over again, was that I didn’t have to know everything. My background is in software development and technology. I knew nothing about product design, retail, wholesale, pricing, manufacturing, packaging, or graphic design. None of that. But I found people who were really good at those things and were willing to take small jobs and offer their help and services. That moved this product forward. I found people who were at times even more excited than I was, and that really helped keep my fires stoked.

So don’t think you have to know everything. You just have to be willing to admit you don’t and then find good people and listen to them.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

I don’t think it has to be one or the other. You can try elevating your hobby to a side hustle first. Make it a one day a week thing. Wrap Buddies sales are up 6x this year and I’m still working full time in my IT career. It takes time to do both, but along the way you find ways to buy help by farming out some of the workload and that keeps you sane and focused on the things only you can do.I’m a big believer in bootstrapping, and that takes time. Yes, you’ll be working your day job while spending your evenings and weekends working your new business, but it’s not forever, and I find the extra work incredibly fulfilling and enjoyable.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

You have to have a mindset that looks for the enjoyable or positive in any situation. Whether it’s a customer complaint or a bad situation with a vendor, how you view it and react to it is all down to the story you’re telling.

For example, I had a vendor send me a shipment of product and over half of it was unsellable. It had been tainted by chemical exposure which made the plastic brittle and caused most of the sets to break. This was right before the holiday rush, when I most needed that stock.

I chose to view it not as a problem, but as an opportunity. I learned about how threadlock compounds interact with ABS. I made contact with an individual who would become my new supply chain manager. We changed factories after we discovered ours was reluctant to own the problem. And I definitely learned the value of maintaining extra stock to ride out sales spikes!

Anything can become drudgery or get you down. You can’t change the circumstances, but you can change the way you look at them. Tell better stories, even to yourself.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

I think the answer to both questions is “personal accountability”. I love that the buck stops with me. If we succeed as a company, then it will be because of the team I’ve assembled and their efforts to make us successful. If I see that there’s a direction change we need to make, a change in plan or policy or product, then it’s something I can just make happen. I love being that connected to our product and our customers.

The downside, of course, is that if you fail, it’s really all down to you. Either your idea didn’t have legs, or you didn’t develop it properly, or whatever. You can’t really blame your team because you’re the one who assembled them. You trained them. You gave them your vision. In the end, it all comes back to you.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I guess I always imagined myself as the captain of a ship, full of confidence and competence, steering the company with a firm, unshakable grip. Barking out orders and watching my people scamper around and make great things happen.

But the reality is that every day I encounter something I hadn’t run across before, and I have to lean on my team and my advisors to get through it. I often find myself thinking of Captain Picard in his ready room on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He’d call his bridge staff in and ask them for their input. The decision was always his, but often the best ideas came from someone else. That’s what this is like. When I’m making the best decisions, I’m never doing so alone.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?

I do still have a real job. I’ve got two kids, a wife, and a mortgage to support. Eventually, Wrap Buddies will be able to support me but for now, I’ve got to pour our profits back into the company. But in those moments when I’ve thought about hanging it up and going back to work for someone else, I realize that I’d rather go try something else new than sit in my office working on someone else’s idea of what was important again.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I think the coolest moment for me was when the first person that I didn’t know pledged our Kickstarter campaign. I sat back and just stared at their name. Here was someone who found our product and wasn’t backing it because they knew me. They were backing it because they liked it and wanted it.

The same thing happened when I saw my first Amazon sale go through to someone I didn’t know. Those firsts really touched me.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was in New York City for the National Stationery Show a few years back. It was my first-ever trade show and also the first time I’d ever seen our new booth design in person. I had never assembled it. Thankfully, my team had left me great directions.

But I discovered after setting up the walls that I needed to put lights on them and it was too tall for me to reach. So I wandered out onto the streets of Manhattan to try to find a store that might have a stepladder for sale. I don’t know how long I wandered before stumbling across a Target and locating the one such ladder they had in stock. I then got to wander back to the hotel schlepping a stepladder the whole way and getting some interesting looks, which in Manhattan is saying something.

I learned again just how important preparation is, and that no matter how great your plan is, you’ve got to be ready to improvise. And I packed up that step ladder into our booth crate for next time.

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

There’s actually a company whose culture that inspires me. Dave Ramsey is a financial coach and leads a huge team of people delivering his message of financial freedom to the masses. And within the company he’s built, if someone has an emergency or someone’s family has a crisis, then the company rises to the occasion.

A friend of mine experienced this firsthand when his family had a major medical emergency. The first person who met them at the hospital was Dave, and for the next few weeks, their co-workers surrounded them with love. People brought them meals, mowed their lawn, and visited them in the hospital. Dave told them their only job was to care for each other during the crisis. They weren’t to worry about how long it took because their jobs would be waiting when they were ready to return, and their paychecks would continue to come. Sick days didn’t matter. And so they were able to be in that place of crisis knowing their jobs were secure, their lives were taken care of, and there was a company of people who loved them.

They do this for any employee who has a family crisis. That’s what inspires me.

I’m definitely not at a place where I can do all that right now, but that kind of culture, where the people matter more than anything and everyone cares for each other, is what I want to create within Wrap Buddies.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

The world seems to want to see us fail. Call it envy or schadenfreude or frustration with feeling stuck in their own situations, you don’t have to look far to see those who seem to cheer against our successes. And in noticing that, we all get so focused on the negative that we forget to look for positives.

But whenever someone cheers, whenever another leader or entrepreneur reaches out and offers help, advice, mentorship. Whenever someone points out the potholes in the road you’re on so you can drive around them, the darkness gets held back a little. So I try to remember that someone else’s success doesn’t come at a cost to me. I believe success is abundant, not scarce. There’s plenty of it if you’re willing to come get it. So whenever someone asks me for anything at all, I try very hard to share that belief along with my advice. Will it change the world? Probably not. But it might bring a little light to a few people near me. And maybe they’ll choose to share that light with others the same way many have shared it with me. Eventually? Maybe we can push back the darkness.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. You don’t have to know everything or do it all yourself. See my “Aha” moment above.
  2. Gather a Board of Advisors. Your company may not need a Board of Directors but you definitely need some advisors. Choose them well. Don’t look for people you agree with. Their job is to challenge you and tell you when you’re being wrong, bull-headed, or myopic. Listen to them. Talk with them regularly.
  3. Don’t get bogged down in unimportant details. Your first impulse is to have flashy business cards, letterhead, a fancy office with new furniture, and so on. None of it matters. Most of your business cards will end up in the trash and the rest of it is just window dressing. Right now, I run my company from a co-work space that I rent a desk in for $100 a month and a storage unit that acts as my warehouse/shipping department for another $150 a month. And no long term leases on either one.
  4. Most entrepreneurs want to see you succeed and are very willing to help. Be respectful when asking for some of their time. Prepare so you know what questions you want to ask and you can make the most of the time you have. Above all, remember that it was a gift given to you. Be generous when someone makes that request of you.
  5. Saying “no” is the most powerful thing you can do. If you agree to too many things, you’ll lose focus. It’s better to succeed at one thing than to fail at twenty. If I had done everything customers have suggested, we’d be stuck trying to evolve new products when our first one was still proving itself. Use “no” as a way to keep your focus honed and pointed in the right direction.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I look at gift-giving as an act of service. It’s something we do frequently during the year, at birthdays, winter holidays, and other personal occasions. It allows us to celebrate others and get outside of ourselves.

Taking the extra time to personally wrap a gift for someone else is a beautiful expression of consideration. And every time we do it, it helps connect us more closely to those around us. There are so many forces in the world today trying to isolate us as individuals. Gift-giving is a simple thing, yes, but it has so much potential to help restore those connections that are slowly being eroded.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I worked for a guy named Mike during the few years I spent working in Australia. After I caused a major outage, he wasn’t upset. I owned my mistake and described the steps we put in place to prevent another such error.He told me, “If you don’t break something every once in a while, you’re not trying hard enough.”

That has stuck with me more than any famous quote, because it says that those who push the envelope, who work hard to be proactive, who aren’t content with things being “just good enough” will occasionally push too far or in the wrong direction. But you want them out there pushing things forward, finding improvements, locating fresh new ideas, and if the cost of that is the occasional “oops”, then you pay that cost and move on. If you rein in all those go-getters, then you’re going to stay right where you are and stagnate. Mike understood that and I’m thankful he expressed it to me so eloquently.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Sir Richard Branson. He has innovated in so many areas and when it comes to proving naysayers wrong, no one can hold a candle to him. He really understands the value of delegation and of trusting his people and his companies to do well. His vision and his drive to achieve that vision are a constant inspiration, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of him when he’s not smiling that incredible, infectious smile of his.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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