Categorized | Shoestring Startup

Reinventing the Wheel…of Putty

Reinventing the Wheel…of Putty

Aaron

My startup is called Crazy Aaron’s Puttyworld. Our website is www.puttyworld.com. The company began in 1998 with a small box of putty I kept under my desk during my job as a software engineer. I borrowed a Weight Watchers food scale to weigh out the putty and sold it in plastic bags to co-workers. We have since grown from a shoestring to a company that employs 12 full-time and over 200 intellectually and physically disabled individuals over the past 14 years.

Back in 1998 I was obsessed with Silly Putty, but I was frustrated by how small the pieces were that I would buy. So I purchased a whole bunch of little eggs and made my own ‘big piece’…a chunk large enough for my grown-up hands. All my coworkers kept stealing little parts from my blob. I put together an office pool and we ordered 100 lbs from a chemical supply company. After the first 100 lbs was divided up, people kept asking for more. Despite protestations from my family that I was insane, I put up $1000 of my own money to buy everything I needed to keep selling…this time at a markup. That’s when my business was born.

I dove into my parent’s basement and built a putty-experimentation-lab. From there our own version, called “Thinking Putty,” was born. I developed heat sensitive color changing, crystal clear, super magnetic, and many more awesome colors.

Reinventing the Wheel…of PuttyAs the business grew, things quickly started getting out of control. Finally, after a very stressful six week Christmas season of non-stop 18 hour days (and the help of neighborhood teens!), we realized we could no longer manufacture and ship everything from our basement. Despite employing their teenagers, our neighbors were growing tired of tractor trailers loading and unloading on our tiny street and blocking traffic.

In high school I worked in a dog tag factory…making ID tags for pets. There I had the opportunity to interact with people from many different walks of life. The owners had an arrangement with a local sheltered workshop to hire intellectually disabled staff to operate some of the equipment. I noticed that the workers with the biggest smiles on Monday morning were those from the workshop. They weren’t late, they weren’t grumpy, and they weren’t browsing want ads looking for the next job.

Thinking Putty from Puttyworld loAs we were pondering our own growth options at Puttyworld, I immediately thought of using a sheltered workshop. Through a neighbor who had a disabled sister, we were able to connect with a local facility. When asked if they had any capacity to help us, the answer was a desperate “YES.” The movement of manufacturing offshore was in full effect and these types of workshops felt the pressure right away. Despite the cost effectiveness of these operations, it was still cheaper to make product in the USA, ship it overseas to be packaged and then shipped back to the USA for sale. Hundreds of disabled workers in our area alone had little or nothing to do. They would often watch movies for weeks waiting for a small job that might last only a few days. Idle hands are the devil’s plaything and behavior problems and quality of life issues were rife.

Thankfully, we were in the right place at the right time and we were able to address this issue directly. Over the years we have grown to employ 12 full-time staff and over 200 intellectually and physically disabled workers who take real pride in their work. They really enjoy seeing it distributed around the world to over 20 countries. They have also enabled us, unlike so many other companies, to keep all of our manufacturing inside the USA and provide work to people who need it.

Over the years I’ve learned how it is possible to take something that already exists (putty) and through persistence (and obsessive interest) turn it into something much more. I don’t think anyone believed that a market for ‘premium’ putty was out there. I have learned that if you aim high and push hard enough, anyone can succeed.

Every business has competition. If someone is making widgets and you are making the same widgets, you are going to have a hard time differentiating your product or services in the marketplace. It is OK to copy so you can learn, but you need to keep that momentum and start making things better once you gain competency. If you want to be the best at what you do, the easiest way is by doing something that no one else is doing.

I strongly believe it is possible to grow most businesses slowly with just a little investment at a time. Back when I was working a full-time job as a software engineer, I was spending all my nights and weekends (along with my wife) making putty. Everything was done by hand and mixing 25lb blocks of putty manually was backbreaking work. Looking back, we weren’t really making much money at that point. But through persistence we were able to grow it into something more. You just have to do it. …Even when you are tired. …Even after you’ve worked all day. …Even when money is tight.

We didn’t need to find angel investors or go for a big bank loan (which never would have been approved) to get started. I remember at one point our accountant suggested we apply for a Line of Credit to help us with our cash flow. After filling out the application, the banker looked at me and asked, “Do you have title of any boats or property we can use as collateral?” I was 24 years old. Boats? Huh? If I had enough money for a boat (or even to buy a home!) I wouldn’t be there asking for a tiny line of credit!

So, we just rolled our profits back into the business year after year and were able to grow on our own. Eventually we did find a bank that understood our business and could help support us. The questions they asked were focused on maximizing our long-term success, not extracting the maximum profit from a one-and-done deal. If you can’t find a way to grow carefully and organically, you probably aren’t thinking creatively enough.

I do know numerous entrepreneurs who obsessed with getting the best price on their invention. They did massive first runs of their product. Only then, after their (often borrowed) million dollars was gone, did they find out that no one wanted to buy it. That’s just silly. Even if you make the first hundred pieces at a huge loss, maybe you lose a thousand dollars…NOT A MILLION! If the goods sell, you can make a thousand and break even. Then you make ten thousand and you’ll have a little profit. Your risk is reduced and the small runs make it easier to tweak and improve your product as you receive feedback from customers.

Every inventor thinks their own idea is incredible and perfect. There is a long history of beautiful, groundbreaking products that failed to find commercial success. That doesn’t mean that any old idea is great. But by being open to feedback and change, being persistent, and by listening to your customers, I believe any humdrum idea can morph into a great one.

Remember that if you already knew everything, you wouldn’t be an entrepreneur, you’d be an industry veteran. Plan on change. Keep your mind open. Keep nimble and pay attention.

After about a decade of plugging away and running the office-end of our business out of our home, my wife and I made the decision to do a large expansion. The change of pace, change of lifestyle, and change in the level of risk we would incur made for an incredibly stressful time. We signed a lease, hired more staff, and launched new product lines. Looking back, it was the right choice. But, man, it was really, really stressful during the day-to-day.

For years we did very little marketing. The product generated a lot of buzz and would be passed from employee to employee in offices, meetings, conferences, and events. This viral word-of-mouth marketing was quite cost effective and we were lucky to have a product that generated so much enthusiasm in our customer base. In advertising I believe in trying everything. You just never know! We spent money on all sorts of media and slowly discovered a very narrow range of what worked. Ultimately, there is no substitute for someone pounding the pavement generating leads and sales.

To connect directly with our retail customers, we use Google Adwords and social media like Youtube and Facebook. Again, it helps to have a product that people find entertaining and gets them excited and interested.

Please check out our website: www.puttyworld.com to find out more. Thank
you for your consideration.

Best,
“Crazy” Aaron

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One Response to “Reinventing the Wheel…of Putty”

  1. amaryllis veronica says:

    GREAT story — the part about how you came to hire disabled people was so moving!

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