Don’t worry too much about the competition. Be aware, spot trends, don’t be purposefully ignorant. But you be you. I see so many companies doing exactly the same thing as their competitors — that’s the very last thing we want to do. Some people will not get it — they will wonder why you don’t have a branded version of XYZ Company’s top product. That’s okay — let them buy that product from the other guy. We’ll make something better and we’ll find the people that appreciate and want that — those are our people.
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 James Collie. James was once taking a day-long hike with friends in Virginia. Knowing they wouldn’t be able to stop for cold drinks along the banks of the James River, and unable to find a good waterproof portable cooler, James created a make-shift cooler out of a day pack and double lined it with plastic trash bags. Inside, he filled it with cold drinks and sandwiches. This seemed like a good idea until the trash bags broke and ice water flooded down his back and legs. A wet hiker, warm drinks and soggy food started the wheels of innovation turning. Once home, he set out to design a soft-sided, waterproof and portable cooler that could carry ice and be comfortable enough to take on both long hikes and relaxing days at the beach.
Thank you so much for doing this with us James! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up in a small town in southern Virginia. As a kid, I loved being outside, camping, hiking, fishing, etc. I also loved drawing and painting and building things — furniture, boxes, skateboards, whatever. Even though my father worked in banking, his degree was in engineering and in his shop he was the master at improvising solutions to anything. He would never go buy something at the hardware store if he could figure out a way to use whatever he had on hand. I think my creativity and ability to design comes directly from my love of art and his influence on me. My ambition comes directly from my mother — she always drove me to achieve more than I may have believed possible. ICEMULE is actually a combination of my love of the outdoors, my art background, my father’s design & build influence and my mother’s drive.
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 girlfriend and I were hiking the Blue Ridge mountains — one of our first dates — one day in August several years ago. I wanted to take along some cold drinks and sandwiches, but I couldn’t find a good portable cooler that wouldn’t leak. So, I did what lots of people before me have done — I put a garbage bag in my day-pack, filled it with ice, drinks and food and off we went. Of course, the ice melted, the bag broke, and I ended up with ice-cold water down my pants and a significant degree of embarrassment (thankfully and inexplicably she still married me). It seemed ridiculous that a really good, portable, reasonably-priced cooler for outdoor adventures didn’t exist. So, I started trying to design one. It wasn’t until I was kayaking a few weeks later that I realized that if I could just insulate my drybag, it would make a great cooler. Going from there to the reality of making what is today the ICEMULE line of coolers was a ton of work — but that was the insight that created it all.
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?
For me, it was an idea that just wouldn’t leave me alone. When I first came up with the ICEMULE concept, I was fresh out of business school and working in banking, which I did for many years afterward. But I kept experimenting with different factories, different models and a few rudimentary websites to sell the coolers I was making. It was more of a hobby then. Eventually, I was being recruited for a job in California, far away from our families, and we just really weren’t that into it. My wife suggested that maybe now was the time to “give the ICEMULE idea a shot”. It was crazy to just jump into it, but that’s what we did. I started by finding the best factory, then I found a great mentor in the outdoor products space, who provided me with a ton of practical advice on how to build out the line. Finally, I felt I needed to market-test the line before launching it, so in the Fall of 2013, I launched a Kick starter campaign with practically zero advance planning; yet, still, it worked — people loved the concept, the story and the brand. Once I had that market confirmation, I found my first two sales reps and we just started knocking on independent retailer doors and grinding it out.
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’d say that the reluctance is your friend. As long as it keeps you from diving in, you are not ready. I think, for me at least, it became something I could no longer avoid doing. Even then, when you are ready to commit, you must make sure the market is there. For us, Kickstarter helped us understand that the market was real. That may or may not be the best path — but confirm market demand some way before you change your life. I have a few friends who didn’t do that, and it didn’t turn out well. But, if you are committed, and the market is there — then hang on — because the ride you are about to take is all-consuming and absolutely unlike anything you have ever attempted before.
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?
Well, the dirty little secret about the outdoor industry is that as soon as you start a company you have less time than ever to actually get outside and go on adventures. For me, that’s critical — I force myself to spend time outdoors, hiking, boating, kayaking, fishing, etc.; and that definitely helps keep me sane. But, as far as the business is concerned, I really think of it as a privilege. I spent many years in corporate life, oftentimes working on projects that might have been intellectually challenging, but that I ultimately didn’t care about. Once you own your business, though, you have to care about everything. Every aspect of the business has to be attended to and it’s a huge, fun challenge. You have to learn how to do everything: design, accounting and finance, supply chain management, marketing, sales, eCommerce, etc. The path to dread, I think, is avoidance — if you neglect any part of the business, it will show up and ruin your life in some way down the line. But, if you stay on top of it all, it will grow, and that’s like nothing else; it’s a magical feeling.
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 enjoy building things, and I enjoy being in charge of my own path, so owning a business is a great fit for me. The downside is that you have to recognize that nothing happens if you don’t initiate it. You have to act — period. If you aren’t prepared to act, even if you can’t see all the potential outcomes, even if you haven’t calculated all the odds of success, even if you are unsure of what to do next, you will not succeed. The sure fire way to fail is to do nothing. You have to trust that the next right step will reveal itself and you have to act — every day.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Earlier in my career I founded a software company with a couple of other people, so I had some idea of what a start-up culture was like. The main difference this time was that I was all alone and self-funded, so there was no support whatsoever. When I made the decision to start the company, and made my initial launch plan, the first day was still a little shocking because I walked into my home office and, I know it sounds funny, but I was the only one there. That’s when I really had to commit. In every other job there is some structure — an office, other people, policies, PTO, etc. When you start your own thing — all of that has to flow out of you. Nothing can really prepare you for that.
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’ve never had that feeling. The feeling I have is “how can we do more” and “what haven’t we thought of” — there is way too much opportunity ahead of us to question what we are doing.
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 tell people all the time that I’ve made practically every mistake available to me — I just try to make each one only once. Very early on, we signed Amazon and I thought we had it made. But I uploaded all of our pricing into their system in the middle of the night (very, very little sleep to be had in those days) but what I didn’t realize is that I had uploaded an outdated pricing list. I emailed Amazon the next day to tell them that we needed to increase prices and their response was that they needed 90 days to review that request. Meanwhile, our new retail customers were calling me to ask why I was undercutting them on Amazon. We had barely started and I was about to kill the whole thing. Actually, it wasn’t that funny now that I think about it.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
I admire what a lot of other entrepreneurs and the companies they have built, and I study them for clues on how we should develop ICEMULE. But in my personal experience I mainly worked in corporate America in specific roles that focused on one aspect of business and I always felt like I needed to know more; I needed to know how the business actually worked, how it made a profit and what my job had to do with that. Figuring that out was always up to me — it isn’t typically part of the training a corporate employee receives.
I realize that the folks who work at ICEMULE are talented people who could be doing any number of different things with their time, so I just try to be as honest and transparent about what’s happening with the company as possible. I make two promises to each team member: one, that we are going to have fun, and two, that by the time we are done they will know everything they need to know to run their own business.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Yes. It sounds a little weird, because we joke that we keep beer cold for a living, but we’ve worked hard to make sure that we make a positive impact on the world in a number of ways. We support a terrific charity named All Hands and Hearts that provides long-term support to get communities affected by disasters back on their feet. We donate ICEMULES to All Hands and Hearts teams so that they can get fresh food and water into areas without power. We also donate coolers to various charities that support our big 4 target areas: fighting cancer, supporting veterans, supporting environmental causes, and helping get kids outside. We also work with the U.S. Air Force to provide specialized ICEMULEs that are used to get medical provisions to search & rescue teams — the goal of that program is to save lives.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Make a product that doesn’t require retail set up. ICEMULEs come shipped flat in a poly bag, and they don’t look like traditional coolers, so they need to be set up properly in order to be visible in a retail setting. Having the retail sales staff trained in the product helps, too. This isn’t such as issue now, but I can’t tell you the number of times early on that I visited dealers only to see a stack of ICEMULEs, in poly bags, laying on a shelf. Sometimes with the ‘How to set up for retail’ instruction sheet we include in every case sitting on top of the coolers. It made me want to bang my head against a wall.
- Set a daily ‘end of work’ time and stick to it. Especially at the beginning, when I was working from home, I had a hard time separating work time from ‘life’ time. Actually, I still do. But it’s a good idea. I’m working on it.
- If you haven’t hired someone to do it, it’s your job. We have team members that live in other cities, so we have a relatively small HQ team, and I don’t like paying for things that don’t create revenue or save money. One Monday a new team member, recognizing that the office had been thoroughly cleaned, asked if the ‘cleaners’ had come in over the weekend. I laughed and said yes. Brittany, our Sales Manager, just looked at me and shook her head, knowing that I had come in on Sunday to clean. That may be an extreme example, but when you are in a small start-up company, there are no jobs too small to do — no one can be a diva — especially the boss.
- Be open to new markets, because you never know. We started out in the outdoors industry and we only called on outfitters and sporting goods shops. As far as I knew then, that would be the only kind of retailer we would ever call on. Now the fastest growing part of our retail network is boutiques, and we are looking beyond that. Our products fit an evolving lifestyle category that really has no boundaries, and if we had been close-minded about that we would have missed huge opportunities. If ICEMULE is about anything, it’s about not being constrained — and that has to include how we think about growing the business.
- Don’t worry too much about the competition. Be aware, spot trends, don’t be purposefully ignorant. But you be you. I see so many companies doing exactly the same thing as their competitors — that’s the very last thing we want to do. Some people will not get it — they will wonder why you don’t have a branded version of XYZ Company’s top product. That’s okay — let them buy that product from the other guy. We’ll make something better and we’ll find the people that appreciate and want that — those are our people.
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.
That’s a big question! But here is an attempt to answer it. Once a good friend of mine told me that every decision we make is made either out of love or fear. Considering that, I started to assess my own decisions — am I making this decision because I’m afraid of what might happen if I make a different decision? Am I feeling frustrated or angry; if so, what am I afraid of? It’s eye-opening. And fear guides way too many of our decisions these days. Now I try to ask a different question — what is the next right thing I can do? In every situation you can choose to take a path that is positive — or as positive as possible given the situation. I’d love to see everyone begin to try that; I think we’d get better outcomes, more fun, more love and less anger out there. And who doesn’t want that?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was about 14, I was building a table to give to my sister for her birthday because she was leaving home and I thought she could use some furniture. I was obsessed with sanding one little corner of it, and I couldn’t get it right. After watching me for some time, my father touched my shoulder and told me to step a few feet away from the table and look at it again. He asked me if I could see anything wrong, and I couldn’t. I tend to be a perfectionist, which is useful especially in product design, but it can also skew your perspective and make you focus on insignificant details when there are more important and urgent things to worry about. So, now, whenever I find myself obsessing over something small, I tell myself to “back up a few feet” and get some perspective. That lesson has saved me so many times from wasting time and energy on things that don’t really matter.
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.
I just finished reading Shoe Dog. My accountant actually sent it to me because he said he finally understood my mindset after reading how Phil Knight kept insisting on growth when all the bankers told him he was growing too fast for his capital base. His story is hugely inspirational for me — so meeting him would be awesome. In the world of sports, I’d love to meet Tiger Woods. I watched him win his first Masters in 1997 and I knew the world had just changed. Then, when he repeated that this year, after everything he has been through, I knew I was watching a model of focus, determination and discipline. So much of running a business is just keeping going, no matter what obstacles are present, and I can’t think of a better example of that than Tiger.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.