I’m joined by Ryan Hamilton, Head of Operations and Product Development for Plus-Plus USA. As the lead distributor for a child’s play system, Ryan knows a lot about what it takes to successfully market and ship a product.

In this episode, he shares the successes and failures of starting a thriving business.

If you ever thought wanted to develop, market, and ship a physical product, this is the episode for you. My biggest take away was how important it is to spend a little money testing before committing a lot of money to an idea. I wish I could have made my young self do this. It would have saved a lot of trouble!

Plus Ryan is a dad and father. We get into how he manages a balance between a thriving business and home. That’s something I struggle with — I’m always searching for a balance. If you have ideas and tips, send me a message on Instagram: instagram.com/will.tv.

Ryan recommends

Ryan also recommends getting out and joining a network group of trusted friends.

“I'm part of a business MasterMind group here in Greenville. There's six or seven of us that meet once a month, and we are all business owners from very different backgrounds. So just comparing notes, sharing stories, sharing struggles, that's a huge help, I think. For years I was much too isolated, kind of the lone wolf entrepreneur, which is really my personality. My tendency is to be an introvert. So you've got to put yourself out there. Go have lunch with somebody. Go have coffee with somebody. You'll learn a lot. You'll make great connections.”


Announcer: Coming to you from the heart of downtown Greenville, it's show about thriving in a local economy. You're listening to Fire At Will, with your host, Will Stewart. 

Will: It's Episode Five of the Fire At Will podcast. Thanks for joining us. So excited to have everyone here. My guest is a very special one. He's a good friend, someone who I admire, who's done some great stuff in shipping a physical product. 

Will: We're going to be talking about that. We're going to be talking about, how to be a dad, and an entrepreneur, and balance all that, which is something that, with a three-year-old, and one on the way, he's still trying to figure all that out.

Will: But my guest, Ryan Hamilton, welcome.

Ryan: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Will: Sure. Thanks for being on the show.

Ryan: My pleasure.

Will: So, for the six people that don't know who you are, tell us a little bit. The Ryan Hamilton story.

Ryan: Sure. So, my name is Ryan Hamilton. I was born and raised here in Greenville, South Carolina, and left here after high school in '93, and went far away. As far as away as I could, and went to college out West, moved around quite a bit, and then, met my wife in Boston, we lived all over, and five, six years ago, we decided, "You know what? It's cold up north, and we're tired of the north," so we moved to Greenville, moved back home, brought my Yankee wife back to South Carolina with me.

Will: Nice.

Ryan: So I'm in the toy business, been in the toy business for 15 years now. So, on all different sides of the business, but currently, I'm the Head of Operations and Product Development for Plus-Plus USA, which is a South Carolina-based company, with offices also in Ohio and Denmark. So we are a toy making company, construction toys, primarily, so-

Will: Cool. Yeah, and for people that are wanting to know what Plus-Plus, it looks like the thing on your shirt.

Ryan: It looks like this.

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: Yes.

Will: An H, kind of?

Ryan: It is the toy so nice, we named it twice. So it looks like two pluses matched together. It is often likened to Lego-

Will: Yeah?

Ryan: Which we're happy to, people say, "Can I say the L word?" Yes, you can say the L word, Lego. We love Lego.

Will: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Ryan: It's very different, though, because Plus-Plus is all one shape, and with one shape, you can anything. You can build flat mosaics, in 2-D; you can build more complex creations, in 3-D. It's a slightly different material than Lego. It's a little softer. We do have two sizes, so we have a larger size, called Plus-Plus Big, for younger kids, and a smaller size, called Plus-Plus, for older kids, or "Kidults," as we like to say. Plenty of folks like to have one on their desks, as well, and play them with there, so-

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: So, yeah, it's an incredibly creative toy. By having the constraint of one shape, it really forces you to think in some different ways.

Will: Sure. Yeah, it's really interesting, seeing kids play with this, because way back in the day, way, way back in the day, I did a video for you.

Ryan: Yup.

Will: Done that, that was made three or four years ago.

Ryan: Yeah.

Will: And you just brought a bunch of kids, into a room, and dumped Plus Prize-

Ryan: Right. Right.

Will: On a table, and I'm filming them, play, unscripted.

Ryan: Yup.

Will: No prompts at all.

Ryan: No.

Will: And they were coming up with some pretty cool stuff.

Ryan: Yeah, it's neat to watch. I mean, kids are instinctively creative, and Plus-Plus looks like a puzzle piece to them.

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: So they know how to start mashing it together, and then, as they learn, and build some more three-dimensional things, they really get pretty excited about what they can make. And there's something about the feel of it. It's a very different, sort of a tactile experience, than a Lego or other construction toys, because it's a little softer.

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: And it's a very satisfying feeling, putting it together. We actually have a lot of teachers of autistic, and ADHD and ADD kids, who say that it really focuses the kids, like nothing else that they have.

Will: Interesting.

Ryan: Of that tactile experience.

Will: Interesting.

Ryan: Yeah.

Will: Yeah, my wife is a teacher, and we have a three-year-old-

Ryan: Right.

Will: And so, she's pouring everything she can into it-

Ryan: Right. Right.

Will: Which is great. I mean, it's the wonderfulest thing. Our daughter just blossomed. But my wife's all about Montessori, and open play-

Ryan: Right.

Will: And, like, all that sort of thing. Give them a ball.

Ryan: That's right.

Will: Don't give them something that's like, that has only one house.

Ryan: That's right.

Will: So, Ryan brought some Plus-Plus for me, for my daughter, Ella, so ... or maybe it's for me, I'm not sure.

Ryan: Yeah, I hear you.

Will: I won't tell her if it stays in your office. Ella, this didn't happen. You see this video one day, it ... but, yeah, so, I'm super excited about that. Thank you.

Ryan: Yeah.

Will: So, let's ... why the toy business? How did you get into that world? What was attractive to you about that?

Ryan: So, my entry into the toy business was both, was kind of, born of two things at once. There was a necessity side, and a passion or interest side. So, the short story, if I can shorten it up enough, is that my wife and I were living in Slovakia, in Eastern Europe, teaching English.

Will: Wow.

Ryan: And we were planning to be there, for a couple years, really enjoyed it. That was in the year 2002. But we got pregnant with our first child there, and ended up needing to come back, to have our first child, Isabel, here in the States. This was, being 2002, it still felt pretty, post-Communist, cinderblock, housing projects kind of thing in Slovakia, so medical care was a little tough. For your first child, anyway.

Ryan: So we came back to have our first child, and needed benefits right away, to pay for the birth, so I ended up going to work for my father-in-law, doing, basically, Microsoft Excel jockeying. He had a toy sales rep firm, based in Detroit, where K-Mart was, at the time, and they needed someone to analyze inventory and sales data from K-Mart, and some other retailers.

Will: Yeah, sure.

Ryan: I was pretty good at Excel, pretty good with computers, so they hired me on, very kindly, to give me some benefits, short-term, to have the baby. The other side of it was that we saw so many great toys, in Europe, that we didn't see here, my wife and I. So when we came back, my wife had grown up in an entrepreneurial family. She and her siblings had started a store when she was, I don't know, 10 or 11 years old.

Will: Wow.

Ryan: It still exists today, it's 25 years old now, and so, she's always wanted to get back into retail, and we thought, "Well, a toy store would be really fun to run. Let's bring some of these toys that we saw in Europe, that we don't see here, and open a toy store."

Will: Wow.

Ryan: So we opened the toy store, the week after my first child was born-

Will: Wyatt?

Ryan: In 2003.

Will: Oh, my goodness!

Ryan: So-

Will: That is ambitious.

Ryan: So I started off, kind of on the sales side, as a sales rep, or rep support, and then, also, as a toy store owner, so, yeah.

Will: Yeah. Wow. That's crazy. And so, that's, toy story ... toy store, you'd been running for awhile, and then, did you decide to go into Plus-Plus? I mean, do you still have guys who run that now, or is that-

Ryan: So we don't. There's a very, very long story involved-

Will: Sure.

Ryan: That involves, yes, all kinds of West Coast, East Coast intrigue. Involves Bernie Madoff a little bit-

Will: Oh, man! 

Ryan: Yeah, it's-

Will: Oh, wow.

Ryan: It's a story for another day, but-

Will: Okay, all right. Yeah. Maybe at the movie-

Ryan: The, yes. Yes.

Will: Ryan [crosstalk 00:07:28] the movie.

Ryan: The short version is that we sold the toy store to a startup company in 2008.

Will: Okay.

Ryan: Who was looking for an e-commerce presence. We had a pretty sizeable e-commerce presence, at that time. Oddly enough, in 2005, we got a call from Amazon. They, at the time, had just dissolved their partnership with Toys R Us. They had a contract, where they were the exclusive, kind of, online arm for Toys R Us. 

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: Toys R Us felt like Amazon had breached that contract by selling other toys, that were not Toys R Us toys, so then, Amazon went to look for marketplace sellers. That was the early days of their marketplace program, right?

Will: Okay, yeah, right.

Ryan: So they called small toy stores like us, and said, "Hey, would you sell on our platform?" So we started selling toys on Amazon in 2005, which was quite early.

Will: Very early.

Ryan: And then, that really boosted our online business, so we built that to a point, where this other company wanted to purchased that. So we sold that off. But during that time, to answer your question ... not to digress, sorry.

Will: Right.

Ryan: We started seeing a lot of toys in Europe. We'd go to shows at least once a year, and see toys there, and things that we didn't see here, as I said before. And so, we started thinking, "Oh, we could import and distribute these to other toy stores, so ..."

Will: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Ryan: That was the genesis of the whole thing. It started with a line called Dig Lingos, which was a, it still is, a stuffed animal toy from France.

Will: All right.

Ryan: Those crazy corduroy stuffed animals.

Will: Wow.

Ryan: So that was our first product line, started with six characters, back in 2007, was our first wholesale trade show.

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: And then, added many other product lines, over the years, and then, added Plus-Plus six years ago.

Will: So is Plus-Plus the main toy, or do you, still distribute others, as well, or-

Ryan: No. So what happened is, over the years, we added other product lines. We also had two of our own product lines that we launched on Kickstarter-

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: And manufactured here in the US, sold to toy stores, gift stores, museum stores, all kinds of places. But after we launched Plus-Plus in 2012, within a couple years, we realized, "This is different. This has more potential. This has bigger market potential." And so, and we were struggling. I mean, it's hard. 

Ryan: My business partner and I, he's in Ohio. Both have families, trying to earn a paycheck, or not, a lot of times.

Will: Let's not talk about that.

Ryan: Yeah. The struggle is real. It was a cash flow roller coaster. We would order goods, get goods in from Europe, sell them-

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: And then, go back to the well, buy another container of goods, and it was hard. Around the time I moved here, we were looking for outside investors, for more financing, to try to scale ourselves up, but what we ended up doing was ... turned out even better, which was focusing 100% on Plus-Plus. 

Ryan: We jettisoned all the other brands, and said to the Danish manufacturer, now our business partner, "Hey, if we go all in on this, and form a new entity that's co-owned by the US and Denmark, we can create our own products, just for the US market, with our own packaging, the right price points."

Ryan: And so, in January of 2016, we launched Plus-Plus USA, which is really ... That focus has proved to be a huge winner for us. That's when we launched these tubes.

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: Then the tube packaging has been a real disrupter for us, and has opened a lot of doors that we wouldn't have been able to open otherwise, so-

Will: So lots of questions. I have lots of questions for you. Was it scary to go from multiple SKUs, multiple lines of ... to, just straight to Plus-Plus? Or were you, like, "No, Plus-Plus is the winner, this is an easy thing for me"?

Ryan: It was scary for me. I mean, we certainly believed in it, very strongly, from the first time I brought it back from Germany, it was a huge ... The biggest toy fair in the world is in Nuremberg, Germany, every January, and we go there every year, to look for new product. Or we did. When I brought Plus-Plus home from Germany and gave it to my kids ... I had four kids at the time. They were, from, I guess, one, up to, maybe 10? 

Ryan: It was clear that it was different. The engagement, level of engagement they had with it, was totally different. I'd always loved construction toys. I had a lot of weird ones as a child, like Fishertechnik, and Construx, and Lego, of course. So I'd always wanted some new construction toy, but there's a lot of bad ones out there, too, so-

Will: Really is.

Ryan: It was scary, and I had a lot of peers in the industry, in the toy industry, say, "Are you crazy? Lego is going to clean your clock. I mean, what, you're going all in on a construction toy?" So it was a little scary, but it was also very hard to manage multiple brands in the US, and try to market for each of those brands, and maintain social media for each of those brands, and-

Will: Right.

Ryan: Kind of keep them under one umbrella. That was tricky. It was a relief, in a way, too, to just have one thing to focus on.

Will: Yeah, I think there's something to be said for specializing.

Ryan: Yeah.

Will: Just finding your niche, and just going all in on that.

Ryan: Yeah, niche till it hurts.

Will: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely, yeah, because it just ... I preach this a lot, but it's just, you can't do everything>

Ryan: No. Yeah.

Will: If you need multiple social media accounts for every line-

Ryan: Right.

Will: It's just, there's only so much, so many hours in the day.

Ryan: That's right.

Will: And you'd have to duplicate yourself, to be able to do it in a way that you're going to be satisfied with the quality of the result, so-

Ryan: That's right. Yeah, one of my favorite podcasts, when I first got into listening to podcasts, was Entrepreneur On Fire-

Will: Yes.

Ryan: With John Lee Dumas, and-

Will: Yeah. Love him.

Ryan: He always talks about, "Figure out who your avatar is. Who's that one person? What do they buy, where do they shop, what do they drive, what do they listen to?" 

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: "Who is that one person that you're targeting?" And I think we an do that much more specifically with Plus-Plus, than with a bunch of different products. Now, we still have a lot of different markets to serve, so it still is a bit of a challenge to ... we're trying to cover education, we're trying to cover executive gifts, or dads and grads gifting-

Will: Right.

Ryan: Or preschool, so, there's still plenty of room to kind of segment, but it's great to have one thing to focus on, and one shape to focus on.

Will: So, rewinding just a little bit. Going to when Amazon called. That took vision, to just say yes to Amazon, and actually see it as something that you'd want to be in. I could see a lot of people who had a brick and mortar store going, "No, this is how I've earned my paycheck for so long."

Ryan: Right.

Will: "The Internet's not going to be there, or the Internet's not going to grow in that way."

Ryan: Right.

Will: What made you see the value, in partnering with Amazon?

Ryan: Well, I wish I could say I had great vision, but it really was that I had needed to buy groceries for my kids. My wife and I, we opened a toy store in a summer resort town, that closed down at Christmas. So, kids, if you're going to open a toy store, don't do it in a place that's not open at Christmas.

Ryan: It was great in the summertime, but the winter was quiet, and so, we really saw it as a way to kind of even out our sales curve. And we had also started building our own website, on OS Commerce. It was an old open source commerce platform that I was teaching myself, and so, we were shipping orders from our basement. 

Ryan: My wife [Sarah 00:14:48] would package every package with tissue paper, that coordinated with our logo, and put a handwritten note in there-

Will: Wow.

Ryan: And so, it was really this kind of boutique experience that we wanted to bring from our bricks and mortar store, to the people at large. So, it just dovetailed well with what we needed, practically, and it just kind of grew from there.

Will: Okay, all right.

Ryan: Yeah.

Will: So, yeah, there wasn't any magic, any lightning?

Ryan: No. No, Jeff Bezos didn't talk to me in a dream, or anything, so-

Will: I hear he does that, [inaudible 00:15:16]-

Ryan: Yup, I'm he does, via Alexa.

Will: Yeah. Oh, my goodness. So, Plus-Plus is really cool. How do you decide, for people that are business owners, maybe they're looking to launch a product, and they have this product, that they're wanting to get out? How do you decide, "Okay, this line is going to work?" Versus, like, because this is themed, Halloween, this is themed, turkey ... I'm sure you got a bunch of these, typed, just like, different-

Ryan: We've got a lot.

Will: Yeah, so how do you decide, what works and what doesn't work? Is it just, kind of like, throw something onto a wall, and see what sticks?

Ryan: You know, it's trend watching, and we are ridiculously fortunate, in that we don't have any molds to make. We don't have different packaging to make, really. We can chase trends by simply, the right color combinations and the right set of instructions. So, I can't give away things we're launching in January yet.

Will: Sure.

Ryan: But they're all done now. But, as an example of this past year, we launched a unicorn in January, a Unicorn Tube, kind of a whim, because it was trending. T hat's our number three selling item this year.

Will: Wow!

Ryan: This summer, we cranked out a Llama Tube, and a Sloth Tube, because those two animals are really popular. So we can chase trends, and it's watching the marketplace. It's going to trade shows, and seeing what's on trend. Certainly watching social media. 

Ryan: For us, we also go after niches. So one real advantage we have is that, especially with the demise of Toys R Us now, there's a lot of different types of retail that want to sell toys. Because they see, there's a multibillion-dollar hole in the market.

Will: Yeah, right.

Ryan: And so, we are now selling in ...

PART 1 OF 3 ENDS [00:17:04]

Ryan: ... or hole in the market.

Will: Yeah, right.

Ryan: We are now selling in Ace Hardware and in Tractor Supply Company.

Will: Really?

Ryan: All kinds of crazy places that you wouldn't expect to find toys. But, there's parents there. There's grandparents there, there's kids there. We've designed lines of tubes that fit with each of these, so we have a four farm animal tubes. We have aquatic tubes that sell to aquariums. We have safari animal tubes for zoos. So my business partner, Brett [inaudible 00:17:29], who's the head of all of our sales. He really feeds back to the product development team and says, "Hey, we can sell to this niche if we have a product to sell to them."

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: So, it really is a nice synergy between the sales side and the product development side, as a feedback loop. 

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: To see opportunities.

Will: That's crazy, you don't have to like manufacture new dyes or anything like that.

Ryan: Yeah.

Will: You can actually just change colors.

Ryan: Yeah. It's almost like more like printing, or T-shirts or some other kind of business where you can chase trends pretty quickly. So, we have a real advantage in that. And, we're able to be pretty agile. Retailers in our climate now, they're becoming much more cautious. Just this week, we're wrestling with a 400 store grocery chain that wants to carry our products in all of their stores for this Christmas. They want us to ship in two weeks, and they haven't given us a purchase order yet. But, these guys ... They're really cautious these days. Even Nordstrom, we're shipping out tons of orders to Nordstrom this week and they just gave us PO's. They're being extra cautious in this climate.

Will: Yeah, sure. 

Ryan: And so if you can be agile and react, then you have a real advantage.

Will: Yeah, and probably reduce their pain a little bit, where they know they can just get it to you.

Ryan: Absolutely.

Will: So, whenever you say ... Say, like Ace Hardware store. Right? Do you go to Ace Hardware store, the marketing team or the purchasing people? Who are the people that make those decisions and say, "If we had a cow and a donkey, would you be interested in this?"

Ryan: Mm-hmm , mm-hmm .

Will: In other words, are they the ones that are informing that decision, or is it more like whenever you're going to a toy expo or something. You're talking to those guys.

Ryan: So, it's a little bit of both. And then, the third way would be that we rely on independent sales reps. So, we have almost 100 independent reps around the country that are organized into groups. Regional groups, and we rely on them to be the kind of boots on the ground and be in the stores, and have those relationships with stores. The US is a huge territory.

Will: Yeah, for sure. 

Ryan: One of the things we like to show our European partners is if you super impose the state of Texas onto Europe, it literally stretches from Scandinavia down to southern France. Our country is ridiculously massive. And, a lot of opportunity. But, you've got to know how to reach it. It's hard to reach it. So, it's a little bit of both. So, we do ... We'll show things, like this show we just had last week in Dallas. It's called the Fall Toy Preview, so we're showing products that are not real yet but they're for next ... They're for 2019, Christmas of 2019. 

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: We can show them without them being real and get feedback, and see if people are interested. So, it's partly seeing what retailers are trending and who has dollars to spend.

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: And then also, relying on our reps and our sales team to hear those comments.

Will: So, I'm sure shelf space matters as well. I've never sold a product, but I've watched plenty of Shark Tank. So, you know. 

Ryan: You're almost there.

Will: Yeah, I'm like ... Me and Mr. Wonderful, we're like-

Ryan: Yes.

Will: So, I know that's important. These things are just like skinny tubes. You said whenever you had tubes, that they kind of took off. That was like a big deal.

Ryan: Yeah. 

Will: What did you package them in before, and why were the tubes such a big deal?

Ryan: Yeah. That's a great question. So prior to the launch of Plus-Plus USA, we had I think maybe 12 total packaging styles. They were all boxed, and some were cubes. These very efficient Danish cubes with no air, those were very difficult to sell because they don't look like much on shelf. 

Will: Mm-hmm .

Ryan: They sell very well online because the price point's good and they're easy to ship. But, the other products we had were all in boxes. And from the beginning, we loved the colors of Plus-Plus. There's 22, soon to be 25 colors next year of Plus-Plus. They look great, the color selection is amazing that they've done. We wanted to show it off, and so it really was born out of in December of 2015, as we're about to launch this new company. We realized that we don't have anything really great and new and a new story to tell for our trade shows in January and February.

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: What can we do? Let's try some tube, let's just put some mixes of colors in these clear tubes. And, there's a few other companies that have done it that are good friends of ours. Like Tenzi, which is a dice game you may have seen. There's 40 dice in a clear tube, and it's a great game. It's awesome, our whole family loves it and you basically roll 10 dice until you get 10 of the same number. It's brilliant. The dice are great colors, so we literally called my buddy Steve from Tenzi. I said, "Hey, Steve. Where do you get these tubes?" And he said, "Here's my guy. We're making in China now, but you can buy from this guy domestically." And so, we started right here in Greenville, just a mile or so from here we started packing tubes in February of 2016. Now, we've shipped over a million and a half tubes.

Will: Wow.

Ryan: In two and a half years, so ...

Will: What makes people gravitate to these versus a box?

Ryan: I would say, one like I say is the colors, that it really shows off what is in there. Another is that they're really portable and reusable, and moms really love that. They keep them in their purse, in the diaper bag. People love it as a restaurant toy. I'm sure we've all seen the plagues of screen zombies at restaurants, and we see a family of four "having some family time," and they're all staring at their screens. 

Will: Even the parents.

Ryan: Even the parents! Oh, the parents are the worst ones.

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: Including myself and my wife, it's really hard to break it. But, pull a tube of Plus-Plus out. Put it on the table, everyone's engaged. Pull the crayons out with the kiddie coloring sheet, and Dad's going to go, "Oh, no thanks." But, Plus-Plus is really engaging for a lot of ages. So, it's partly the portability. But for us at retail, the big advantage is we're not competing for that rectangular space that Lego owns. They own that space in every major retailer. We have multiple displays or CDUs, counter display units that we can offer retailers. There's some hold that 48 tubes. There's one I just visited this morning at M. Judd's in our local bookstore. They have a nice tall rack that holds hundreds of tubes in it, as well as box sets. We have a number of different options for them to place tubes. It's really important to give them the right merchandising option for their stores.

Will: Yeah. 

Ryan: We have some racks that spin, some racks that are stationary. Every store's a bit different, how they want it to look.

Will: Yeah. That's cool.

Ryan: Yeah. 

Will: So, the tubes ... Oh, man. There's a good question I was about to ask. Ah. Well, we'll just go to the next one. Yeah, so someone who is wanting to create a product.

Ryan: Mm-hmm .

Will: Maybe they've got this killer idea.

Ryan: Yeah.

Will: And they've been talking to their partner about it, you know? And, they're like ready to make it happen. I'm sure you've seen some of the pitfalls that can happen with shipping a product and all the ways ... There's pitfalls everywhere, a friend that has a dietary supplement that he sells. That's been a nightmare for him. He's doing very well for himself now, but you know. That happens. What are some of the things that people just early on, little things that they can do to avoid some major catastrophe down the road?

Ryan: Yeah. So, prototype, prototype, prototype. There's no such thing as a prototype that is too rough. When I'm prototyping a new package, I literally open up the drawer of my laser printer. I pull out some pieces of paper and I start folding and cutting and taping. There's no such thing as a prototype that is too rough, and anything you can do especially with a physical product, anything you can do to replicate the physical space of it. The presence of it is going to be huge. I learned about this from the guys at IDO, which is a design firm out in California.

Will: Right.

Ryan: These two brothers that are ... They're also connected to the design school at Stanford, I think? They kind of pioneer this whole design thinking. They designed those original OXO grip things for the kitchen. They're the big chunky peelers and all that. Again, just watching how people work and rough prototyping. Also if you're going to sell a product in store, knock up your package and take it to a store. I'll sometimes take a box and go into a local toy store, introduce myself, and say, "Hey. I'm just going to walk around and put this box next to some other boxes. Don't think I'm stealing anything or being weird." But, just seeing how you stack up to your competitors. Is it too tall? Is it too wide? Is it too short? Is it too skinny to stand on the shelf? Just simple things like that are really helpful.

Will: Are they okay with that? Are most-

Ryan: Yeah. Yeah, of course if you just go into a giant store, no one's going to know you're there.

Will: Right, yeah.

Ryan: Most stores are fine with it. Then also, I would say focus group. The big mistake, though, is that a lot of people focus group with their close friends and family.

Will: Right. 

Ryan: Your mother's not going to tell you your baby is ugly. So, you got to-

Will: They tell you you're brilliant, you're the best son ever. Whatever.

Ryan: Yeah. Would you buy this? Oh, yes, son. I would definitely buy that. Thanks, mom. You need friends of friends of friends to focus group with, and offer them a free lunch. Offer them whatever, but get them to give you real feedback, blind feedback. You can hire companies to do this and it's expensive, but you can do that. But, I think there's cheaper ways to do it. There's so much you can learn from rapid prototyping, good focus groups. That includes names, I've seen some really failure names out there.

Will: Sure.

Ryan: You know, that a name can kill a product quickly.

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: Or, induce a lawsuit quickly.

Will: Yeah, right.

Ryan: As we've had some friends that have experienced that. So, yeah. Those are just a few things that I recommend. I mean, the biggest thing I recommend to people is just keep it simple. The most successful concept is there is a simple one, because you're going to have fewer sizes, fewer iterations, fewer packaging design changes. I learned this from some good friends of mine that started Elf on the Shelf.

Will: Yeah. 

Ryan: They're two sisters from Atlanta, and we met at one of our first trade shows in 2007. We were booth neighbors, and super nice. They had just been turned down by all the publishers in the country, and decided, "Okay. We're going to sell this book on our own." And, the one sister, Christa, had been a hostess on QVC. She said, "You know, the people that I saw on QVC that had the most success were the ones that had a focused concept and one product or very limited range of products."

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: So they said, "We're going to have an elf with a book. That's going to be our one skew." And everyone said, "Uh, you're crazy." And now, you know. I don't know how many millions of units later, and the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade balloon and everything.

Will: Wow.

Ryan: They've really made it.

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: And, they made it through focus and simplicity from the start. 

Will: I've seen a lot of entrepreneurs, they have a solution that's in search of a problem.

Ryan: Mm-hmm .

Will: They're not really fixing anything. They think, "This would be great," and maybe they're thinking about the bottom line of, "I can make it for five cents and sell it for a million dollars," or whatever.

Ryan: Right.

Will: You know?

Ryan: Right. Yeah, yeah. A lot of problems that you think you're solving are perceived.

Will: Right.

Ryan: You may experience it as a problem, but you got to make sure other people do as well.

Will: If you and 10 other people experience it, it's not enough people.

Ryan: Right. That's right, yeah. You need a broader selection. Again, back to the focus group. You've got to make sure that people think your solution is relevant, or the problem is actually one that needs to be solved.

Will: Yeah. I think just getting out of the room, you know? Wherever you're doing your doodling or thinking, and just talking to people.

Ryan: That's right. 

Will: Seems like a lot of entrepreneurs are sometimes ... Not a lot, but I've seen some that just ... They're just too shy, or too introverted to actually ask questions. That tip about putting it out on the store is great. It's a great-

Ryan: Yeah. It's really helpful, and also trade shows. You know? Trade shows for new companies can be a completely money drain. I mean, for one show done well, it can cost us upwards of $50,000. So, and we need to be there. But, you should always walk a show before you commit to exhibiting there. Talk to the exhibitors that are there, find out if it's worthwhile to be there. The trade show companies are interested in getting your money.

Will: Right.

Ryan: They don't much care about how many orders you write once you're at the show.

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: So, they'll say what they need to say to get you there, and there are wonderful ... There are many wonderful shows out there for all kinds of specialties, whatever your market. But, I would always recommend spend the money on a plane ticket. Even if you fly for one day and one night, go in. Walk the show, talk to other exhibitors. Find out if it's a ghost town, or there are actually buyers there.

Will: Yeah.

Ryan: You know, again, try the inexpensive things first.

Will: That's good. That's really good, yeah. As I've been growing my business, we don't do trade shows. We don't do a lot of the actual physical products. But, there are ways where if I would've spent maybe $500, I could've saved myself thousands upon thousands of dollars of mistakes.

Ryan: That's right, that's right.

Will: I don't want to spend that plane ticket in a hotel and food. I'm like, "Why don't just save money? I'm going to do this right." Within your head, unless you have physical validation, actually do your research-

Ryan: Yeah.

Will: ... a lot of times, your head doesn't tell you exactly what you need to know.

Ryan: That's right. That's right. Yep. You know, connected to that is also ... It's really hard as a small business that's scaling to do things really well. Example for us is our finance and accounting. We started out, for years I did the books because I had to and that's what I did. I didn't mind it, but as it got more complex we brought on a freelance accountant. That worked for a little while, but then we quickly realized this is out scaling our ability to use a part time account. So, now we use a great firm here in town that handles [inaudible 00:32:00] and a bunch of other huge companies.

Will: Nice.

Ryan: But, we know they can scale with us. They care about us. We're small, but they care about us and they know where we can go.

Will: Sure.

Ryan: Being able to ... Willing to spend a little more on the people that really know how to do it. Whether that's a packaging supplier, whether it's an accounting firm, a logistics company. If you try to scrimp on some of those things, you're going to pay for it in the long run. 

Will: Yeah. It's just knowing how to spend that money. That's important. It's all experience, right?

Ryan: It is.

Will: It teaches you those lessons that are expensive and valuable.

Ryan: Unfortunately, you learn the lessons through losing a lot of money. I've certainly done that. 

Will: Every year I say I have my $10,000 mistake. You know? Those hurt.

Ryan: Yeah.

Will: They're painful.

Ryan: Yep. 

Will: So, you talked a little bit about trade shows. What makes a good trade show display, and just having a good ... Probably for you, it's going to be different than maybe some others. But, there's probably some universal truth to it. Walk us through that.

Ryan: Yeah. So, the first thing is location. So, really studying the map of the trade show and seeing are you going to be near the food court? Are you going to be near the entrance? Are you going to be near the restrooms, which isn't always a bad thing because folks are always walking by you. So, there's some definite dead zones. Again, that can be a real advantage to go to a show beforehand to find out where you want to be on the floor. One example is the Javits Center in New York, which is massive and has tons of trade shows every year. If you do toy fair or any winter shows there, then you're in the back of the hall. They leave the doors open the entire time you're setting up. So, you're literally setting up in hats and gloves and your product can get blown over. So if you don't know, you don't know. And so, you may just show up and start to set up and it's a disaster.

Will: Yeah. 

Ryan: So, location matters. We always try to have some fun giveaway and not just mousepad with your name on it, but something interesting that we can give to people that they want to click on their name badge, or they want to wear on their backpack.

Ryan: ... we can give to people that they want to click on their name badge, or they want to wear on their backpack or something that will spread the word on our behalf around the hall. Then just having something very hands-on that's inviting. We do big bins of Plus-Plus that people just want to dig their hands into.

Will: Nice.

Ryan: Then we have kind of a private meeting area in the back. Even when we had a small booth, when we had our smallest booth, a 10-by-10 booth, we had a fridge in the corner with a coffeemaker on top, water, beer, wine. We learned this from our European partners. You go to a European trade show, and it's hospitality bar none. It's amazing.

Will: Nice.

Ryan: They're so welcoming. So we try to do that at shows. That when a buyer walks in, we ask, "Can we get you a cup of coffee? Can we get you a water?" They're kind of shocked like, "What? This is not a big booth. How do you?" "We have it back here."

Will: Wow.

Ryan: So that's always a fun thing for us. One thing that seems kind of strange, but if you can get really cushy floor covering like thick carpet or a thick carpet pad and carpet, when buyers walk into your booth, they want to stay there because the trade show floor is hard.

Will: It is.

Ryan: It's tiring to walk all day. When they set foot in your booth, and they go, "Oh, this feels great."

Will: That's good.

Ryan: It's the little things, but those are a few things that we find helpful.

Will: This is awesome. Great tips. Really, really good. So you're a dad.

Ryan: Mm-hmm.

Will: How do you balance starting, running a business? I used to think the thing that was keeping me from my family was the fact that I was starting a business. But I think being an entrepreneur, it never ends, right?

Ryan: No.

Will: Things scale really. There's probably 1,000 fires that are burning brightly somewhere else, and you're even ignoring those to be here, and I appreciate that. But the same thing when you're at home. So how do you find that balance between running a viable, healthy business and then also keeping a family life healthy and maintaining all that?

Ryan: Yeah. I wish that I could say that I've done it well. I mean, it's the old adage that when you run your own business, you can work whatever 80 hours a week you want. You get to choose. Set your own schedule, which is very true. But I haven't done a great job of it. My family has definitely suffered over the years, and there's years when I've brought home almost no money, and it's been rough on the family. So I think, for me, using the flexibility that you can to spend time with them. So we do one trade show a year together. We all go and do a road trip to the show.

Will: Oh, fun.

Ryan: The family comes, and they work in the booth and help me. They troll the floor and gets lots of free toys, which they love. So involving them in the business they really enjoy. For me, trying to really block off time. So for years I've been using Inbox Pause, which is now, I think, part of Gmail maybe. But it basically allows you to pause your inbox and only have email come in at set times of day.

Will: Oh, wow.

Ryan: So some times of the year I turn it off because I feel a sense of urgency, which is a mistake, but generally, I check email at 8:00 a.m., 12:30 and 5:00. I batch it, and it only comes in then. Then I can answer emails outside of that, but nothing else comes in. So if I keep that on, then I know that from the time I leave the office to the time I get back to the office, no email is coming in. So I can get home, put my phone in the drawer, shut the drawer, and I'm done at least until the kids go to bed. I can pretend there's no fires burning at work. So that helps. But it's a constant struggle.

Ryan: Just last night, I was laying in bed, my wife and I. It's been a stressful week, and I've got now seven employees at our facility here in Greenville, each with their own personalities and struggles and assets and trying to manage people well and have high expectations but also equip them to learn and to grow. So I was apologizing to my wife last night as we were lying in bed saying, "I'm sorry for talking about this, for being stressed about." She said, "No, we share in this. This is life together." It's not just business growth. It's personal growth. It's learning how can I be a better leader, a better person? How do I bring my faith to bear on my business in a helpful way, not an imposing way, to my employees? So all those things are wrapped up in it.

Ryan: I think for my kids it's good for them to see that there is a struggle and it has been real. They know the value of a dollar for sure now because there's been very lean years and, God willing, there'll be some not-so-lean years. But we're learning it together. I think they, now that they're old enough, so they're 15, 13, 10 and 7, and the older ones especially feel a part of the business. They help design things, and they help test things, and they have a pride in it. So it's fun.

Will: That's good. Yeah, I think being a 100% on and 100% off helps for sure.

Ryan: Yeah.

Will: That's the one thing that I struggle is just, when I'm at home, not putting away my phone. I was figuring out something yesterday evening, and I felt like someone running out of a burning building. I still have embers on me and smoke, just trying to fix things. I'm downtown with my wife and daughter, and I'm looking at my phone one last time. My wife's like, "Just give us 15 minutes, please." She said it very sweetly and kindly. I was like, "Yeah, yeah, you're right." So I just tuck it in.

Ryan: Yeah. I think one of the harder things for me, too, I'm glad I don't have to travel a lot. I travel at kind of concentrated times of the year, three of four weeks a year. But it's always hard to reenter family life. You go from only worrying about me, only thinking about business for three, four, five, six days, and then you come back into the fray that my wife's been dealing with for the entire week. Just that mental reset can be tricky, but hopefully I'm getting better at that, too. But it's an ongoing struggle, and it's seasonal, depending on what's happening at the office and at home. But I'm so grateful, and I try to emphasize this to my employees. Your family's first. If you've got a sick child, we'll work it out. Do not come in here and think that this is more important. If you need to work from home, if you need to come in late, if you need to whatever it is, we'll make it work.

Will: That's good.

Ryan: So trying to emphasize that. Yes, we're going to work hard, but when we need to not be working, we're going to go tend to the things that are more important.

Will: Yeah, that's good that you have that culture because yeah, I always thought that if I wasn't here working, that everything was just going to fall apart. You try not to tell your clients no, but there's sometimes you have to go, "I cannot do that. I physically just can't do that." Usually, it's very, very rare that any of them ever yelled at me because of it because they get it. Sometimes you can't-

Ryan: At least once a year, it should be more, but at least once a year I take a week, and the out-of-office reply on my email is, "I am taking a break from technology to be with my family this week. I'll answer your email next week." People appreciate it. They get that auto response, and they go, "Oh, okay, that's great. Good for you." Now it helps working with European partners who take five weeks of vacation a year.

Will: Oh, goodness, yes.

Ryan: So they definitely understand. But it's hard, especially in our American always-on culture, and it's hard also with my employees. I don't want to cultivate that. My employees are amazing people, hard workers. Sometimes I want to say, "No, no. Just because I sent you that email at night doesn't mean you need to respond at night. Respond tomorrow." So sometimes I'll schedule emails with the same app, Inbox Pause. You can schedule with Boomerang, you can schedule them to be sent later. So I'll write a bunch of emails at night but have them deliver in the morning so they don't feel like I'm expecting responses tonight.

Will: That's smart. Yeah, that's good. I've been trying to do that with my crew just because you don't want to set that expectation that they have to do that.

Ryan: No.

Will: They need to have a life for sure.

Ryan: Yeah, exactly.

Will: That's good, man. Well, I definitely appreciate your time. One last couple questions, and then I'll let you go. Something, resource that's kind of educational for you as an entrepreneur, as a business owner, maybe if it's a blog or a podcast. I know you talked about J.D.'s podcast or, I don't know, some magazine or book. It could be anything. Then also where can people find you online? How can they reach you?

Ryan: Yeah. Wow. I'm a real book and podcast junkie, so it's hard to narrow down. I would say some of my favorites currently would be Don Miller, StoryBrand podcast is incredible. Just last week there was an episode that really helped me with my staff in terms of how to communicate, how to truly listen without just kind of the dorky old active listening, "So what I hear you saying is." Yeah, so I really appreciate Don and his podcast. Other podcasts, I mean, recently the How I Built That podcast has been really inspirational for me, just hearing some of these stories.

Ryan: I think book wise, recently "Essentialism," Greg McKeown, I think, a great book, again, just about focusing. One that I always come back to over and over, which is totally cheeseball, but "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." I mean, I just-

Will: I'm going through it again now.

Ryan: The longer I live, the more relevant it is and just so many principles. Just a couple of weeks ago, talking to my warehouse manager about urgent versus important, that the busy time is coming, and we have to do important things now before they're urgent. So that book just continues to feed back into me. So yeah, listening to that over and over. Yeah, so my bookshelf is riddled with kind of cheesy entrepreneurial books, but they really help.

Ryan: Also, relationships like ours and Eric Arbe, who is on your podcast. I mean, it's so great having friends in the trenches. I'm part of a business MasterMind group here in Greenville. There's six or seven of us that meet once a month, and we are all business owners from very different backgrounds. So just comparing notes, sharing stories, sharing struggles, that's a huge help, I think. For years I was much too isolated, kind of the lone wolf entrepreneur, which is really my personality. My tendency is to be an introvert. So you've got to put yourself out there. Go have lunch with somebody. Go have coffee with somebody. You'll learn a lot. You'll make great connections. So I'm not a natural networker. I have to work at that.

Will: Yeah, I'm not either. That's interesting. You're the first guest that's actually a physical meeting of people, that being some of inspiration. But it's very important for me because I'm an introvert. I don't do well at these business meeting. Here at Endeavor there's Collaborators & Cocktails. They bring in these people. I will slip in and listen to the speaker. It's great. It's fantastic. The whole event's great. I mean, I'm not knocking on it at all, but for me, I have a hard time just walking up to you like, "Hey, I'm Will." It's just hard. What works for me is I try not to each lunch alone. So I'll invite either clients, or I'll invite friends that are in the business and just even have normal conversations with them for sure. It certainly helps.

Ryan: That was a great thing about CoWork, where we met years ago here in Greenville, now Atlas Local. But being forced to work around a bunch of people, some of whom are introverts and some of whom are not, was great just for building networks and helping inspire you.

Will: Yeah, absolutely.

Ryan: So in terms of finding us, we're hopefully in most places you'll look for us. Our own website is plus-plus.us, and we sell everything there. You can also find local retailers. We're in about 4,000 stores around the country, so you can find hopefully a store near you. We also are on social media. Plus-Plus USA is our handle at most places. Then for myself, I'm here and there on social media, too. Ryan L. Hamilton.

Will: Nice. Fantastic. Well, I can't thank you enough for taking the time to sit down. It really means a lot.

Ryan: Yeah, my pleasure.

Will: Yeah, you're doing something great. So we'll put all the books and links and everything in the show notes, so as you're listening to this, make sure you check that out and be sure to grab some Plus-Plus for your little ones or for yourself. I won't tell if you won't tell that I'm playing with this.

Ryan: That's right.

Will: So thanks, Ryan. I really appreciate you.

Ryan: You're welcome. My pleasure.