The Startup Story – Episode 10: Barry Stiles, founder TRUEGRID Pavers
You can listen to Brian's Episode in it's entirety here: https://www.thestartupstory.co/truegridpavers
*Barry Stiles: * Hi, I’m Barry Stiles, founder of TRUEGRID Pavers, and this is MY startup story.
James McKinney: Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. THAT is The Startup Story.
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James McKinney: If we ever get a chance to meet in person, you will realize how much I love people. I’m an absolute extrovert. I love being around people, I love hearing people’s stories. That’s part of why I created The Startup Story. That is why I also love sharing reviews that you have posted about the podcast. Each week, we continue to grow and it’s only because of you and listeners like Bob Schaefer, who left a five star review on Apple Podcast. Bob wrote, "James brings out both valuable insight and entertaining stories from some of the startup space’s biggest players. This podcast is a must listen to for anyone in business, from startups, employees, and even Fortune 500 C suites. There is huge value for anyone who wants to keep sharpening their skill set” Wow, thank you Bob. Thank you for taking the time to write this review, and thank you for listening and subscribing. Our featured founders have amazing stories and we know they are stories that can encourage and inspire hundreds of thousands of people. We just need to get the word out. So thank you for being a fan, and I hope you’ll share The Startup Story with your friends and your LinkedIn network. Please, do not hesitate to reach out to me on LinkedIn or Instagram @TheStartupStory.co if I can help you in anyway. Entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs.
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I find it so interesting that when people think of a startup, they immediately think of technology. In fact, I’ve had some entrepreneurs approach me about being featured on The Startup Story, but qualify it with, "We’re not a true startup” Every single business you interact with today was a startup at some point in time. That is why I love exploring the startup stories of a diverse collective of founders. This week’s feature founder is Barry Stiles, founder and CEO of TRUGRID pavers. Yes, a paving company. Like every other episode, it’s not about building a construction grade plastics company. It’s about the challenges they had to overcome to get there. My hope in exploring stories like Barry’s is that you will process his challenges and triumphs to see the commonality with your own journey, because believe me, there are similarities there.
In this episode, you will hear how critical personal commitment to your ideas and vision can be. You will learn some hard lessons about how to capitalize your business so you never find yourself in a minority shareholder position. You will hear firsthand how important a support system can be when life throws you some of the most heart wrenching challenges. Business life and personal life are the same thing because many times, business is personal. When I think of Barry’s journey, it is apparent to me that the first 35 to 40 years of his life were simply preparing him for the really hard challenges that he was going to face.
Sure, he had two failed startups and found himself with $2 million in debt in his mid thirties, but those weren’t even the hardest years of his life. Oh no. but let’s not jump ahead. Like all stories, we have to start at the very beginning.
Barry Stiles: I was raised by a, I’d say, middle class, lower middle class, blue collar. My dad worked blue collar work at the airport. He worked for several airlines in baggage handling and customer service. My mom was a stay at home mom until we got into school, and then she went and became an admin for a couple different companies. No, I was taught their work ethic. They were actually older, and they were children of the Great Depression, the tail end of that. Security was first and foremost in their mind, which just not simpatico necessarily with entrepreneurship.
James McKinney: yeah, no kidding.
Barry Stiles: So it was hard work and security ethic was first. Although my mom always had a little 100% belief in us as kids, and really empowered us to do whatever we chose to do.
James McKinney: So at what point in your upbringing, again parents being children of the Great Depression. Obviously that had a significant influence on how they raised you, and obviously their jobs were about safety and stability. When did you, was it in high school? When did you start realizing you had an entrepreneurial itch, if you will, that needed to be scratched? Or better yet, did you know in high school that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Barry Stiles: I don’t think I knew. I knew I worked hard in school. I got the good grades, did everything right, but I knew I had a little bit of a rebel in me that was just waiting to get out. I wasn’t quite sure what kind of form it was going to take. So it was really later when I got into the work world that I got a little taste of corporate, and decided that long-term it wasn’t for me. I worked a lot of jobs during high school and college, everything from even before I was old enough to punch a clock. I was painting all summer, this one guy, painted every surface this man had. I think his fences, his home. I hate to paint to this day. But I was always doing some type of job to make money and working hard. I had a work ethic, but I didn’t really get the entrepreneurial thing early on. It was just something I did. Just had a good work ethic I guess you could say.
James McKinney: So out of high school, what was your next step?
Barry Stiles: So when I got out of high school, I obviously went to college and I was kind of searching and trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I went to UMass Amherst my freshman year. I applied to some different schools, but we really couldn’t afford. I was thinking Notre Dame at the time, got in, but didn’t want to burden my family with a financial stress. Decided to stay closer to home. I grew up in Massachusetts. I went there for a year and then transferred to University of Mass at Lowell.
What they had there was I was thinking an engineer. I didn’t have a clue as to what engineers did at that time. Didn’t have a good understanding, but they had a plastics engineering program that a friend did. It was very neat. I went to the lab one day and had these molding machines punching out ice scrapers of all things. Of course, we’re in Massachusetts.
As a kid, I liked toys. I was really into sports and toys, and we used to have this little toy that I’m sure would be outlawed the way it was made now then, but it was Creepy Crawlers. You could put goop into those hot moulds and heat these plates, and make these giant bugs. That’s kind of what it reminded me of, like wow this is tangible. You can make things with it. I can touch and feel it. It’s not an equation on a board. It’s not a chemical formula. It’s not an electrical equation. It’s something I can touch and feel, and it made it a lot more realistic to me. That kind of was my introduction to what my career was going to be in plastics.
James McKinney: And how did you, coming out of that program at UMass, what decade are we talking and what was your step out of college?
Barry Stiles: I graduated in ‘81, to date myself. Yeah, ‘81 and… I take that back, excuse me. Let me back up. Graduated in ‘80 and interviewed for several jobs. Fisher Price I got an offer from, but I visited Buffalo and it had more snow than Boston, so I said I can’t go there. And I had an offer in Florida from Burroughs corporation, a computer company at the time was the number two computer company behind IBM. So I thought well, that sounds good and I took the offer. It was supposed to be near Fort Lauderdale Florida, but by the time I got out of school, they transferred me to Jacksonville, Florida. Not quite the nice beaches of Fort Lauderdale, but it was still Florida.
I went there and I learned a lot, and they kind of threw me in. then transferred me to the factory near Fort Lauderdale in Hollywood, Florida six months in as the head of… an engineer quit. Kind of just threw me right into the deep end there as a young guy. I had worked in college. I worked night jobs, everything I could do about plastics. I worked third shift in factories, just to get that exposure, to get that knowledge so I always felt good about preparing. So I did everything I could, every kind of plastics job I could get, part time, while going to school.
So I went into the factory and just was in the fire, and learned on the fly. It was really a great experience because it wasn’t a backup. Jacksonville had an R&D program, but in the Florida factory down there in Fort Lauderdale, they kind of threw me in and said, "Figure it out” That’s what I had to do, figure it out.
James McKinney: What, see this is interesting, because obviously you’re, so far your journey mirrors what I would assume your parents would want for you, right? Stability-
Barry Stiles: Absolutely.
James McKinney: … large corporations. How many more years working for big corporations did you have in this journey?
Barry Stiles: Well, I was only there a year and a half, and then my boss came out to Houston where I’m still living. They said, "Hey, we need a project manager for this company Igloo Corporation” They make, at the time the leading maker of ice chests and coolers. I thought, that’s cool. It’s a sporting goods related product, and they did everything you can imagine in terms of plastics processing. So at that time, I was still thinking I was getting my resume built. Packed up my U-Haul and drove the I-10 to Florida with everything I had. One December, I arrived at Igloo. I knew it was going to be an interesting journey because the first day I pulled into the parking lot, back then they had these big computer rooms and it was glass walls. As I pulled in about 7:30 that morning, there was a car sticking out of the building. One of the workers lost their brakes and went into the main computer room.
James McKinney: Oh my goodness.
Barry Stiles: Car sticking out of the building, which is a very interesting way to start a job. So anyway, she was okay.
James McKinney: It wasn’t your car, though.
Barry Stiles: wasn’t my car.
James McKinney: Could have been a worse first day.
Barry Stiles: The legend goes she got out of the car, went and punched in to make sure she was on the clock. But it was an interesting journey with Igloo. I worked there for six years until I was 27 years old about. I kind of went up the ranks very quickly and got exposure to everything there. They had a million square feet on the manufacturing. I ended up going from a project manager to running their 35 person engineering division, and all the products. By the time I was 24 or 25, I had written a strategic plan for operations. Really got exposure to the whole corporate thing.
What really intrigued me there was I’d have these vendors come in and guys who owned their own business. They were, one guy in particular kind of owned the region in terms of equipment. He had reps, and just carried himself with a nice air. I kind of liked that. I thought hm, I really always not liked people telling me what to do. So I kind of took note of that. That started my thoughts about breaking out from the corporate world. I was not real happy with the culture, either. I think there was a lot of politics going on and sometimes companies can get toxic with that stuff. I had done everything I thought I could do there and started to want to look for a next step.
James McKinney: What was that next step?
Barry Stiles: I had talked to actually it was a purchasing manager at the time, who was about 10 or 12 years older than me, Terry Endman. Terry also wanted to move on and we had talked about moving, starting basically I was going to be a tech guy and he was the sales guy. We’d start an engineering consulting firm and sourcing. At that time, people were moving to China so we thought Mexico’s right here, and Texas right here. It’s low cost in both places. We can start a company to do plastics to begin within those locations.
So a buddy had a tragic event. About a year before we were planning to launch and leave the company in about six months, and tragically Terry was killed in a car accident down in Mexico on Igloo business. It was just horrid, as you can imagine. Took my breath away and had to go back and reassemble myself, and talk to his wife. She said, "No, Terry would want you to go forward” I did. I ended up about nine months later, got a cushion response from Igloo for I think it was just under $6000 and I thought I was flush. Said okay, here we go. I had a really great partner in Mexico at a plant who had a family owned business. I knew some folks around Texas too that needed business, so I thought here I go.
So I went from supporting a million square feet in manufacturing, and 35 engineering department, et cetera, to a rented basically an 8x10 office with a phone and a fax, and started my journey.
James McKinney: That is awesome. Let’s break that down real quick. So how old were you at that time?
Barry Stiles: 27.
James McKinney: 27 and so what, this was like ‘86, ‘88?
Barry Stiles: Yeah, I think it was ‘87 actually.
James McKinney: So ‘87. You had eight years in corporate America, the stability of a safe job that obviously your parents had probably dreamt of for you their entire life, again being children of the Great Depression. The reason I’m going through all this is because our upbringing has such an influence on our journey. Do you remember when you were contemplating leaving this safe, secure job having that conversation with your parents?
Barry Stiles: I do, and I don’t think they really understood completely because I was doing really well in the corporate world. Again, I go back to my mom who underlying, and sometimes she was the quiet one in the background, but she was very supportive of whatever we wanted to do. I had done pretty well in school in what I had done so far, so she had confidence that I would go forward and find my path. She was a strong woman and she supported me very much. And quite honestly they were miles and miles away. Even though we’re still very close, they were up in New England. I was here in this new wild west of Houston, trying to find what my next step was.
James McKinney: What were those early days like for you? You didn’t have, based on what you’ve shared, you didn’t have entrepreneurial mentors. You didn’t have a steps to walk in to know what it meant to run your own company, to start your own consumer acquisition. You didn’t have that guidance, so what were those early days like for you?
Barry Stiles: You know, I had a lot of confidence in my technical ability, but I really didn’t know what I was getting into. I had never really sold and I had never been a salesman of sorts. It was eye opening. I really literally ate baked potatoes for like six months.
James McKinney: Oh my goodness.
Barry Stiles: I had $6,000 in the bank, and I went out and spent I think $2,200 on a brochure. From there, it was pick up the phone. Back then, it was read a service card and a few magazines. I think I advertized in appliance magazines trying to get leads. It was real scary. It came down to the point where just had to make it work. I’ve always felt that failure isn’t an option, keep going forward. And so it got down to I lost some weight and some pretty good shape. It’s something about necessity, hunger making you better. So I plowed through. I remember getting my first little order. Ironically, it was for a little extruded piece for a toy company, the game Uno. I was working that and they needed a little piece to put the game pieces on. That little order broke the ice for me. I continued to push from there.
James McKinney: So what was the growth of that company from ‘87 until whenever?
Barry Stiles: ‘87 to ‘89 and I was making a good living. I let the rebel come out a little bit. I grew my hair in the eighties style of long hair and went for it. I was calling on General Electric and big companies like that, but they would kind of look at me sideways and say, "Okay, you’ve got my attention. See what we can do," and they needed help. I found a need they were looking to try and outsource things. They needed somebody who had the technical background, and quite honestly the dogged nature to follow up. So I did. I was making a good living. But it wasn’t really satisfying.
One of the things that I found, the cultural differences. Like I say we’ll get your parts, we’ll be there on Tuesday morning. Tuesday morning comes and they’re not there, nothing I did but my suppliers that I built the supply chain, I just couldn’t do that and look you in the eye. So eventually, I knew I had to move on because it was out of my control and integrity meant everything to me. I need to be, if I tell you something, it’s going to happen. One way or another, I’m going to call you up and say, "Hey, sorry we missed that, but it’s coming soon” As much as I worked hard at making that happen, it just wasn’t happening. I was kind of, it was eye opening and I was making decent money, and I thought something else will come along. That’s when Brick toy company came into my life.
James McKinney: So you shut down the consulting firm that you had?
Barry Stiles: Yeah. I basically did. I let it kind of find its own end. I just serviced the customers but let it peter out if you will.
James McKinney: What was that process like for you?
Barry Stiles: you know, it was okay because I was so excited about my new opportunity and new thing, I was all right with it. I was transitioning. I had figured out that this was not something sustainable for me. Even though it was pre NAFTA, it was a huge opportunity. It was kind of, again I was a little bit ahead of that curve there on that, but just the infrastructure wasn’t ready to make that happen in a big way. I could have slugged it out for the long term and done that, but it just didn’t excite me. So I’ve always had to have some passion in what I do. Something else came along and I found some passion.
James McKinney: That step, that passion, you said was in the Bricks company, correct?
Barry Stiles: Yes. It was Brick Toy, and we found the patent, actually two ex Igloo guys, found a patent over in Holland that we ended up getting together. I was a technical new product guy and they brought me in. we started Brick Toy company. Brick Toy was life-sized Lego’s, basically looks like giant Lego and you could build primary colors, build life-sized castles and dinosaurs, and all kinds of fun stuff. It was a very exciting time. Again, something I could have a lot of fun and passion about.
James McKinney: In that journey, so now Brick Toy company, I’m going to guess you’re probably early thirties?
Barry Stiles: Yeah, I was probably late twenties, just about 30 years old, yeah.
James McKinney: Late twenties, early 30.
Barry Stiles: I think we started it in ‘89 I think is when the company was conceived so I was about 30 years old.
James McKinney: Okay. So now we’re in the decade of the nineties. For those of us old enough to remember the economy in the nineties, early nineties there was a dip in the economy. What did that do for you and Brick Toy company?
Barry Stiles: The dip in the economy didn’t really hit me until my next business. We were okay. We raised some early capital from friends, family, not myself but the other guys basically raised capital and started. We had an exciting thing. We took it from an idea, started out with FAO Schwarz and specialty mom and pop retailers at the time. Then eventually got it into Toys R Us and Walmart and the big box guys. It was a very exciting time for us. Really, it didn’t feel… toys are something less now with electronics, but back then toys are something you don’t ever, whether you’re in a depression or recession, toys are necessary for Christmas for kids. We had a great product.
James McKinney: See, that’s interesting. Let’s talk about toys real quick.
Barry Stiles: It was an exciting time. It was all growth. Sure.
James McKinney: So how has the toy industry changed from, obviously you mentioned electronics. Everything is robotics now, but in general for those that are listening that are contemplating toys, whether it be electronic or analog, how has the toy market changed from a go to market strategy? Because you talk about big box retailers. If you were to start the Brick Toy company now, would you try to grow it the same way you did before?
Barry Stiles: No, no. obviously with the advent of the internet, Amazon, et cetera I would do it completely differently. Back then, we went with specialty retailers and then into the mass market more so, and just build it that way. That’s how you got distribution, that’s how you got recognition. Now, it’s obviously much more direct model. I’ve done that with TRUEGRID differently as well, even though it’s not a toy business.
Toys are tough nowadays. It’s a tough, tough business and shrinking as obviously with kids with electronics, iPads and iPhones, and video games. So actual physical toys is much, much smaller audience. Just a challenging thing. Fewer retailers to sell your products with Toys R Us going out here recently in the last year. It’s become more and more a compressed market. It’s difficult to navigate. Even toy manufacturers used to be open to inventors, and that’s my next little story, but nowadays it’s more let’s slap a Spiderman license on it, Batman, and not take the risk with a new idea. The toy industry as a whole is less, I think, less innovative and much smaller market to go after. Much more difficult I’d say today than it was back then.
James McKinney: It’s amazing hearing that perspective that you bring to toy making if you will, toy industry. From an outsider, as you’re speaking, I’m looking through. Early nineties, that was I guess we’re coming close to 30 years ago. It’s amazing how within a lifetime an industry so pivotal like toys can shrink so significantly. Like you said age, it’s a shrinking demographic. I’m thinking of my own kids and how electronics was something that was desired by them early on in their childhood. My kids are only 13 and 11, so it is. It’s fascinating to get that perspective that you have with the Brick Toy Company. It’s incredible.
Barry Stiles: it was a great, fun adventure. We did something called Brickfest for children, which added purpose to what we were doing. It was actually, we did a local event in Houston at a gallery and we had 20,000 of these colored life sized bricks on the ice rink, that covered the ice rink right before Christmas. We had a building contest and the Junior league donated I think it was for Texas Children’s Hospital or Lupus Foundation, one of those huge charities.
We ended up using that as a marketing vehicle across the United States, ended up doing it in 35 cities and raising half a million dollars for kids charities. It was a lot of fun. It was like you’d invite the local media and you’d have basically sometimes we had mariachis or we had music. It was a circus and the kids get out there and build these… a building contest with these blocks. It was just a really good, heartwarming event if you will that we had. That was a really special time in my life when I had that journey with that event.
James McKinney: What made that special? What about that made that a special journey for you?
Barry Stiles: Like anything, even today when I have connection, when you have direct connection with people. So it’s not just you put a box of toys on a shelf and you sell it and you see the numbers come in. I had hands on with special needs kids, with kids doing this with parents. You could just see the kids using the toys to develop their skills. It’s wonderful. You have kids, I have kids, there’s nothing like it. At the time, I didn’t have kids. I had kids later in life, but that experience, that hands on experience and seeing the purposes of our toys and how the kids use them to develop their skills and themselves, it was beautiful.
James McKinney: What happened to that company then?
Barry Stiles: well, so there’s a couple things, and I learned a couple lessons by this experience. We’re rolling along, we’re getting distribution. We weren’t massive. I think we built about a $7 million company, but we had this national brand that was pretty well known, and we had a great reputation in business. Two things happened. First one, we had a venture capital raise. So the friends and family, my partners in order to basically take their friends and family out and bring some venture capital in. at that point, I was a minority. I owned about 10% of the company I think. So that was one.
Two things happened. One of our suppliers used the wrong plastic and we had to have a recall, which we did. We got a phone call, "Hey, my three year old with a piece of your brick in his mouth” It was horrible. So we did the right thing. As you suspect, we did a recall. Took everything off the shelf from the retailers, brought it back. Cost us half a million dollars, and did the right thing which in the end is a little lesson to do the right thing, because we didn’t delay. We just jumped on it, knew it was going to hurt. The retailers supported it, public supported it. People made mistakes. It wasn’t purposeful and we made it right. Thankfully, nobody was harmed and we did the right thing. It actually turned out to be a good thing for us.
The other thing that happened though was there was a plant explosion. We used polyethylene plastic, and there was a shortage in the market sot the price of that material, which was probably 70% of the cost of our product or 60% of it, doubled within three months. So that combined, that particularly combined with the venture capital. My lesson with venture capital is don’t lay on the debt, because we were very debt laden in the deal that was done. I was early on and I didn’t really completely understand the financials of it. I was young. But I just felt, I knew in my gut, it wasn’t the right move. But I was outvoted, and sure enough, we had so much debt when something like that happened which was out of our control, the company couldn’t make it. We ended up shutting it down in 1997 unfortunately. That was the end of that right.
At that point, I owed $2 million to the bank. I was signed on a note, and I thought okay. Everything’s gone. I’m mid thirties, 36 or 37, okay I’m starting over. I got a blue suit and went on two job interviews, and said no, I can’t do that. I moved into a small apartment. Cost me about $400 a month and said, "I’m going to become an inventor" and that’s what I did.
James McKinney: Were you married at this time?
Barry Stiles: No. luckily, no. no wife, no kids so that, from a business standpoint I was great. You’re not real attractive as a potential date if you’re living in a small garage apartment and you don’t have any income at that point, trying to figure it out.
James McKinney: Yeah, it’s a good thing we don’t bring balance sheets to date, right? Oh, by the way, I’m $2 million in debt.
Barry Stiles: Yeah, it’s a good thing, absolutely, absolutely. It’s a lot more romantic to stay there.
James McKinney: So how did you, there’s parallels in your journey and mine as far as building something and losing something so quickly, and then the recovery process. It sounds like your recovery process was a bit faster than mine. How did you recover? What was that? In ‘97 you shut the company down, you’re two million in debt, you’re living in a small apartment. You interviewed a few jobs, you’re like I can’t do this,, and became an inventor. Did you have any doubt in your ability at this time because of what you’d just gone through or did you have to process through some negative narrative you might have had in your head at the time?
Barry Stiles: I had a great idea that I just had to do, I had to do. So I knew I couldn’t sleep at night until I made this idea happen. It was in the toy business. So the only way that I could envision at that point, instead of going through and starting a whole other company from scratch and raising capital to do it and all that stuff, was to invent and license the idea. So I committed to doing that. I said, "Okay, this is what I’m going to do” Take the other half. I’m an engineer by training, but I’m also creative and artistic on the other side of me. I really wanted to exercise that side. It was a relief in some ways to be able to do that. I just threw myself into that.
So I ended up inventing. I still had some collateral, if you will, in the toy business. We were known so I could get in to see Hasbro as an inventor. I could get in to see a toy company, I could get a meeting because they had known our brand, they knew our story. So that was an advantage and I was able to do that. So I invented basically over the next few years, and it wasn’t easy. It didn’t, let me tell you it just happened, it didn’t. it took me several years to get back on track. I invented 100 items, I licensed four, and really two of them made it to shelf, and one of them did pretty well, which is the one at the end of the day I needed to make happen. It was not an easy journey.
James McKinney: What were those, because now you’ve piqued my curiosity, what were the four items that you were able to get licensed, and what was the one that really made it happen for you?
Barry Stiles: Let’s see if I remember the four. It was a novelty toy called hairballs. I won’t go into that one, but basically a goofy thing and I used to love those types of toys when I was a kid. I usually have a story line that we use through these things. So that was one. Then there was a 3D paint by numbers Color Me Pets. It was basically stuffed animals that you could create it. That made it to shelf.
Fourth one I’m forgetting at the moment, but the one I really had to make happen was BlockMen. When I was in the construction toy business with the Brick Toy, I’ve always been able to see gaps, and I could see that the action toy aisle, two aisles over, was about five or six times the size revenue as the construction toy. Lego of course as a brand leader had buckets of blocks and had farm and city, and just really mellow things with geometric, non descript guys. I thought boys, that’s great but boys like to build and destroy, not just build and put it on a shelf. What if we did army men that work with Lego compatible blocks? You build a fort you, you can knock it down, destroy it, and use missiles to shoot at it, and you can put little trigger things that blow it up. And what if we had good guys and bad guys, and major move it and sergeant slam, versus krull.
It was a whole storyline I saw in my head. What if we went and did Spiderman license and what if we, so you could have a sculpted action figure look like Lego compatible guy, and do a whole line? As simple as I think that concept was, it took me probably 40 meetings before I could actually sell the idea to somebody. I knew that Lego wasn’t going to do that for a time being. They were just not that flexible as a company.
I went through the whole showing at meetings, at toy fair in New York which is the event every year they had for seven to 10 days where all the toy companies come together. I go to New York and make my appointments and pitch these ideas, six other ideas I had in my bag, but BlockMen was the one I really wanted to make happen. They were, "Yeah, I get it but, but, but” It just didn’t get it. I came back to Houston and there was a local toy company called DSI Toys, and I know you’ve heard that name before because-
James McKinney: Yeah, Jason McCann, episode number one. He had a journey through DSI Toys.
Barry Stiles: Yeah. Well, that’s where I met Jason. So Jason and I are long time friends since the BlockMen days. I went in and I pitched the idea several times to Rick Nights, who was the CEO at the time, the president of the company. Rick, first few times, and they were an item company. In the toy business, you have item companies like TV items and one off type of things, and branded companies like Lego’s which are more evergreen type brands. This was an evergreen idea. This wasn’t a TV, item idea. So it was a transition for Rick.
So I think the third time I went in, I said I’d learned that he was actually a tank commander in Vietnam. That was his background. He had an interesting, colorful life. So I said, "Okay, I’m doing the army theme” So I had my artist that I worked with, local kids who could draw and did these concept boards, and did some characters and did some different concepts and did a whole army theme with tanks, and he loved he. He got it, and he said, "Hey, I’ve got this general marketing manager. His name’s Jason and I want you guys to figure this out” So he threw me in with Jason. We got in a room and I pitched Jason the idea, and of course Jason’s brilliant and he got it immediately and helped me get the BlockMen line launched at DSI.
James McKinney: How many years did you pitch BlockMen for before it got picked up?
Barry Stiles: I believe it was about two years. Hard hitting it for two years. You’ve got to remember at this time, I really don’t have any income except for the little engineering consulting I’m doing. I’m trying to be an inventor. So I finally got, I think a little after two years, I got Rick at DSI to take a bite.
James McKinney: Was there any point in that two year journey that you thought, especially come off of the shutting down of Brick Toy company, was there any point in those two years that you thought this just isn’t for me, I’m not going to be able to make this happen. Did you question your ability? Was there any self doubt at all?
Barry Stiles: I knew this was a gap. I knew this was a business, and I knew I was right on point with it. I knew I could do it. I didn’t know if I could sell it, because I’d never been involved in sales very much. It was doubt there for sure, but it was one of those things that was so powerful that at that time, as an entrepreneur, you see a gap, you just have to go for it and you have to keep going. For me, it’s always been about persistence and perseverance and purpose. If it’s not those three things, then I don’t have it. But I had it with this. It was like a thing, a vision I’d seen. It may not seem important to the world, but this time, it was important to me at that time to create this line, to express my artistry if you will and the storyline, get this product line out there.
I didn’t have any doubts that I was going to keep going until I figured it out. I would suffer through it, make sure it happened.
James McKinney: One, I’m glad. Thank you for that answer. For those listening, if you’ve been with The Startup Story for a while, episode two we had Larry Namer, the founder of E! Entertainment Television. He pitched for three years to try and raise capital, to get that money he needed to start his own network channel. He too, I asked him the same question. It took him almost three years before he got that first check and he was down to his last $60. I asked the exact same question, and his response was almost an exact replica of yours in that he believed in it so much. He knew everyone who had said, "No," up until that point was absolutely wrong, but he was so determined that what the network, what cable was missing was at the time it was called Movie Time, but what it was going to provide. What you said right here as far as BlockMen was filling a gap that was missing in the toy space. Then you were just determined to make it happen. I think that is, it’s a common thread for entrepreneurs is that in the face of adversity, that there is a feel of determination amidst that doubt, amidst the failures we’ve experienced in life. But there’s something that we see this and we know that the world needs it, or that this industry needs it, or whatever the case may be. We’re so determined to see this come to fruition. That carries us through those dark days when people are saying no after no, after no.
Barry Stiles: Absolutely. It was something I just had to do, and I knew it would never end if I didn’t do it. I was able to get a breakthrough with DSI. Got on board with Jason. After talking to Rick, and I said, the other part of the equation is committing to it. So I knew that I wanted to do the best that I could do, and make sure I had the best shot at this. I had never been in the military, I didn’t know anything about military, never been around any military folks to speak of.
So I ended up finding this original Navy Seal PT program, by a gentleman named Jack Walston and was an ex Team Six Seal. They were giving training in Memorial Park in Houston at 5 a.m. boot camp. I talked Jason into going. The two of us went down and we belly crawled through dirt, we carried logs, and we got yelled out. Had to do 100 more pushups and this hour and a half boot camp. It was excruciatingly wonderful. It was amazing. It was really the lesson there was mental toughness, which I just think is really the key ingredient for any entrepreneur. Just be mentally tough. No matter what comes your way, you can get through it. You just keep moving forward.
So I did this thing. I ended up, Jason moved on to bigger and better things, but I just kept doing it because I wasn’t married and I’d get up early in the morning, and I loved it. I ended up doing it for nine years as this training at 5:00 in the morning, and it just set my day. I think it really, really helped me in everything I’ve done just to realize what you can do, even though you don’t think you can. They tell you crawl across that field and get back here, run three miles. It’s like there’s no way I’m going to do it, but when you’re surrounded by people who are all committed and that team effort, it’s just really amazing what you can accomplish.
James McKinney: I tell people all the time, one of the greatest things that came out of, I was in the Marine Corps. One of the greatest things that came out of it was the ability to know that when I want to quit, I can keep going. It’s just my mind wanting to save me from whatever pain or discomfort is about to happen, but I know there’s so much more that I’m capable of. For those listening, David Goggins is someone that I look to, to exemplify this. His story, he was a Seal team member as well, but his story is unbelievable. He’s all over the social networks, but we’ll include a link in the show notes for those who want to follow David Goggins. His story is quite inspirational.
So what happened? So obviously BlockMen is not where you’re at now, it’s not your present state. BlockMen probably ran its course and you were probably with DSI throughout that. What was that transition out of DSI? What was the next step?
Barry Stiles: I went to BlockMen and we did really well. The third year, we were about to put it on TV and made this really cool commercial, animation and kids, and voiceover, welcome to the world of BlockMen all that fun stuff. Then Lego decided they wanted their shelf space back. Put the squeeze on, and at that time you needed the top five retailers, Toys R Us and Walmart, et cetera, Kmart. We lost two of those I think. So that kind of killed the TV opportunity. At that time, DSI was having issues as well. Jason actually went up to start I think he talked about his dot.com a bit. I was trying to figure out what my next step was. I had made some money from the BlockMen thing, and I went up there briefly to help him. Ran the warehouse for him basically and had temporary help doing calisthenics from my Seal training, pray for the day and say fill all these orders today.
I did that for about six months and wasn’t for me. Jason ended up going in a different direction. So I came back to Houston and I said, "What do I know? What’s tangible?" I’ve just been through this dot.com bubble and felt business model was out of whack. So I came back and took two molding machines and started a factory. I thought that’s something that’s tangible. I believe in made in USA, it’s always been important to me, I’ll start there. I think I can start this factory. It was called B Side Plastics. I loved music. It’s always been a thread through everything I do. So I started this company in Houston, thinking that I could do this. I was undercapitalized from the beginning. It’s a very capital intensive business. It was just a very, very difficult journey for me. But I did start it and made it through the other side. But that’s what happened after.
James McKinney: What happened with B Side Plastics?
Barry Stiles: Well I started in the year 2000. I started the company. I bought two machines on my way back from Dallas and we had them installed. Rented some space and about that time, six months later, China was rearing its head and everybody was going to China. Okay, the big monster over there for manufacturing. Things were moving overseas, I was fighting that. Then 9/11 happened, of course tragedy the following year. Getting out of the gate was itself challenging. It was just very, very difficult.
I had a little foundation account with Igloo. They gave me a project that they didn’t want to do themselves, so I made hinges so it was kind of just a foundation that I could work from. Enough of a cash flow that I could build the business a little bit. I started there. So one step, step by step. I’m a runner and it’s always running a marathon is taking the next step, and getting to the next a quarter mile and half mile, knowing that you want to finish 26 miles from now, but you get it step by step.
So I did that and then I bought a building. I was still, I knew in my heart of hearts, the way I wrapped it for myself was I was helping other people realize their dreams. Not only companies like Igloo, but inventors and entrepreneurs who wanted to start their own products. I had experience with that, could help them with the tooling, help them figure it out. That was kind of the purpose I wrapped around, because I always need a purpose, a passion. B Side Plastics, that was my purpose. I wasn’t 100% with that. I knew I would find another product that I could do myself, another idea that would excite me on my own because I’d have driving ideas and starting and doing the belly crawling to get them started is kind of what I do.
It took me a while to find that. In 2007 I bought a building, and then of course 2008 we had the great recession, crashed, and I had to get through all that. Somehow survived it. Made it through and built a little company, a little factory that employed a bunch of people. Honestly, that was the joy being able to walk the factory, and folks that need those everyday jobs. We weren’t the biggest company, we didn’t have the best benefits, we didn’t have the best pay, but I just tried to be authentic and genuine with those folks, and they appreciated it. To this day, I can walk in that factory and get hugs from some of the operators. Just special.
James McKinney: That’s awesome.
Barry Stiles: So I got through that. Then I was looking to, so the kind of TRUEGRID, the idea for that kind of came into my vision along the way.
James McKinney: While you’re growing B Side Plastics?
Barry Stiles: yeah. I was growing it, I was in it. I was not happy honestly.
James McKinney: Why?
Barry Stiles: I was now, one of the things I took, I was 100% owner because I decided I was not going to be in a minority position as I was at Brick Toy again. I was out of my control and I lost everything and had to start over. So there’s a balance to that, because in B Side I was 100% but I didn’t have enough capital, so I didn’t have enough to do it right. I had enough to kind of bootstrap it, which is good for a while but as you’re growing a business after a period of time, you need to be able to do things right. It’s great, I think it’s healthy to start out. You can bootstrap it for a while, but at some point you need to scale and do things better. I just didn’t feel a passion about it, that I wanted to go down that road with B Side. I was looking for a product line that I could do during that time, and hoping to divest the business and eventually sell B Side and follow a path that I had more passion towards.
James McKinney: And that leads us to TRUEGRID.
Barry Stiles: Yes.
James McKinney: Share a little bit about what TRUEGRID is for our listeners.
Barry Stiles: TRUEGRID is an eco friendly permeable pavement system that’s an alternative to concrete and asphalt. It’s made from 100% post consumer high density polyethylene plastic. You can fill it with rock or you can grow grass through it for storm water to drain such as we have in Houston, flooding issues. Instead of tension underneath the surface. Also water infiltrator over 1,300 inches per hour, goes right through the surface and you can slow it down and not flood the surrounding business and community as you detain the water. For land owners and developers, businesses, companies, it allows you to utilize your land so you can use your land as a parking lot and natural aesthetic, natural surface that absorbs the water. Reduce the need for a detention pond. A lot of times, you get rid of your entire detention pond so you can use 100% of your land. It’s a land safe driver for developers as well. It’s an alternative to concrete and asphalt as a permeable paving system.
James McKinney: What gap does TRUEGRID fill for you personally that you didn’t have with B Side plastics?
Barry Stiles: It gives me a true purpose. I think I have to go back to how it started. It started, I didn’t get it immediately. I had one to Europe and saw a concept that was similar, permeable paver, but mostly in walkways. Europe’s still ahead of us in terms of recycling. They have more people in a smaller area. They have more in tune with using recycled materials and drainage, because of the amount of land surface is less over there, but we’re catching up over here. What I wanted to do was come back here and I said, "Hey, I can do it better. We can drive an 18 wheeler” I used my plastic background and really started designing a better mousetrap.
So I saw the need over here and we live in Houston. We have flooding too frequently, and across the country. We see it everywhere, particularly lately with the weather patterns as they’ve been. So I came back. I was still in B Side at this point. I had this concept. Then I met my wife. We had actually been friends and gone different paths, and we got together and started dating. She had a three year old son, my stepson Hudson, when we got married. I always say, a little shout out to Amanda, all good things happened when she got involved.
James McKinney: That’s awesome.
Barry Stiles: So we had about a year and a half later, we had our first child, my first child, Lennon who was born. We were just, as you could imagine, happiest people on the planet. 10 weeks later, we found out his older brother Hudson who’s now four, had a rare form of cancer, Burkitt Lymphoma. He came home one weekend from his dad’s and we lifted his shirt and he had a hard mass on his stomach. You could just feel it. We knew. We went to Texas Children’s here and we live in Houston. We’re blessed that we’re so close to a great medical center. This went on and we were just devastated, as you can imagine.
I remember the first night, the surgeon came out after doing an exploratory with Hudson to find out what was going on. They’d done the MRI’s and came out and said basically, "We can’t help” Surgeons sometimes shouldn’t talk. They should just do surgery because that wasn’t true. The oncology team, and we were of course wailing and devastated, but the oncology team, "Wait a minute, that’s not true. We can’t do surgery, but we can treat it” So fortunately, we were able to treat it. So we spent long nine months in the hospital with Hudson as he went through this extreme chemo that no child should have to go through. He’s my hero.
James McKinney: Unbelievable. Wow. I assume Hudson is good now?
Barry Stiles: Yeah. Hudson’s now 12. He’s two inches taller than I am so he’s a happy, healthy 12 year old now. But during that time, just looking at what I did at B Side, and I just didn’t feel fulfilled. I’d go out for a run around Rice University to escape from the hospital, just clear my head and pray. That’s when it started to come over me that I could, because they don’t know where these cancers come from, whether it’s genetics or foods or environmental. Hudson always was a rare kid that would eat broccoli instead of French fries. He ate very well. We would call him a fruit bat because he would eat apples by the bushel. It wasn’t obviously the food he was eating, and genetics is not something we can control, but I knew the environment was something I could make an impact on.
This idea for this permeable paver could play a role in that, and I could wrap my energy and my passion around this, and really try to keep plastics out of the oceans and landfills, help filter the storm water from pollutants going through which ours does, and really make a difference. I felt that this was something in my skill set. I wasn’t going to go back to school and become an oncologist at that point. I could really use my skill set as an entrepreneur and as an engineer to provide a solution that makes the world a little better place. That’s how TRUEGRID started, and that’s where on a run around Rice University, on their track, power in that concept came to me.
James McKinney: So obviously TRUEGRID is purpose driven. You have a mission for what you want to see for it. When you envision the impact that TRUEGRID pavers can have, what do you see? How do you see it from a market adoption? How do you see it in the placement? How do you see it really impacting the environment?
Barry Stiles: I’ve been prone to say small actions equal big changes. I really think it is a tool to empower people to make a difference. It will, I know just for instance in places that flood, it will help absorb water so maybe that water doesn’t go into your home or into your business. We can get it down below the surface and detain it and release it slowly. It can impact every day we read stories about how much ocean plastic there is. We are using millions of pounds now to keep out of the oceans and landfills from a consumable product.
That water jug that you throw in your recycling container every week, we can take that, keep it out of the oceans and landfills, and turn it into something that’s going to last six years in a parking lot or your driveway, or your yard. At least giving a tool for people to empower people to make a difference themselves, beyond just recycling because we need to look at the full life cycle of materials. Plastic is this wonderful, amazing material that’s done a lot of good, but it’s also doing a lot of damage. It’s really how we handle those things. I see TRUEGRID as really being a tool for people to make small actions that collectively, we can make big changes and really change the way we think about paving.
Paving is everywhere. You step out of your house, your sidewalk, you walk to your car in your driveway, you drive to work. You’re on paving all the time. If we can turn that into something that’s helpful and friendly to the environment as opposed to a toxic material, then we can make a change.
James McKinney: Being that TRUEGRID was born out of really a personal story as well as personal experiences, how does your approach to growing TRUEGRID vary from your various other ventures?
Barry Stiles: I really want to make it scale properly, with quality in mind but also just accelerate the reach. I started off with a couple investors. Russell Benson, who is a long term friend, and Jason who are part of my board of directors. We had enough capital to do it right early on. As you’re figuring it out, when you start a company or start a business, you’re learning particularly if it’s in a new area. All this is plastic product. I didn’t really know that we were truly in the construction business, even though we don’t install it. You have to learn those things and these lessons as you go along. I think those early years of really not having too much money in the bank and bootstrapping a little bit, and learning step by step are a good thing.
Then, as we’re in our growth curve now, now we have millions of square feet across the United States. Now it’s time to take it to a new level. So really maybe change the way it opened me up to reaching out to good people I trust for mentorship, for financial investment. It’s something I believe in. I knew I was committed. So if I’m committed, I’m going to make it happen. No problem bringing in trusted folks I know and they’ve added an enormous amount of vision to me and perspective. My top three or four days a year is when we get together and look up from the weeds and look on the horizon, and say, "Okay, what’s the next three steps we need to do to take another step closer to our goal of changing the paradigm of making people think about a permeable paver, TRUEGRID environmental solutions, instead of concrete and asphalt?"
James McKinney: That’s awesome. It’s a great segue way into a question that I ask every guest, and it’s a question that I believe in because I believe that if we lose sight of those who helped support us and encourage us and guide us to where we are today, then inevitably it’ll lead to our failure. So it’s about gratitude. So when you look back on your journey leading up to where you are today at this time, who do you point to as key contributors to your success, and you just look to with incredible amount of gratitude towards them?
Barry Stiles: There’s a number of people along the way. It started with mom and dad providing a strong, stable home. Mom for giving me that little spark and belief that I could do anything. Obviously it starts there. There’s different people on the way. There’s a guy my first job out of college. He was from Kentucky, I was a kid out of Boston. He was a self made engineer, hardscrabble. He used to say lead, follow, or get out of the way. His name was Curtis Wayne Moore. So I tried to take that advice. I always thought that was good. If I’m not leading, I can follow, and if I’m not following I need to get out of the way and make sure everything keeps moving forward. There’s Jack Wolfson I mentioned earlier from the steel thing. Obviously, Jason and Russell both have been a big part of my growth, particularly here in the last 10 years.
There’s a number of people, and I always go back to quite honestly everything got better when my wife came into my world. She’s the artist. She’s funny because I can make 10 million of something, but if I need to make one, she can make one of anything. She’s greener than I’ll ever be. She’s all things good for me. Having that stability, a family really helped me personally. Of course, when you have kids, suddenly there’s all kinds of purpose in your life and everything wraps around them. Those are the people in my life really who I think that at this point, I think that a supporting family, I have a brother and sister who have been awesome support along the way too. But certainly Amanda, my wife, and my kids are my center.
James McKinney: I love that. I love it. So now I’m going to ask you a question that, for those listening, for a minute here you’re going to be their mentor. What do you say to those listening that might have a book full of ideas and just maybe not enough courage or there’s some hesitance, and some reluctance be maybe where they’re at in life, maybe they’re at a 9 to 5 job and they have a mortgage, they’re married with kids. Or maybe they’re older. Maybe they’re in their fifties and they’ve never done a venture on their own. They know that they are capable of something beyond what they are doing right now, and they just have a passion for doing something more, be it there’s hesitance. What do you say to those people that are listening to you right now?
Barry Stiles: I say go for it, because an idea is just that until it’s executed. You have to take the first step. You can’t run a race, you can’t run a marathon, you can’t cross a finish line until you take that first step, and then the next one after it. Absolutely go for it. There is no right time. There is never a right time. There’s never a wrong time. It’s just time. I always say that time, as I’ve been through my journey with my son and my own cancer, time is an element you can’t recycle. It’s here, it’s now. Be in the moment, keep it simple. You don’t have to have all the answers to start off with. You don’t have to have all the funding. Just take that first step. Make it happen. Keep moving forward, and little by little, you’ll wake up one day and go, "Oh yeah. Look where we are? We still have a ways to go, but we’re moving that direction” Go for it. Take that first step.
James McKinney: What an incredible journey Barry shared with us. But did you catch that bomb he just dropped at the last second there? During his journey, he shared with us the challenge and trials of his son’s cancer, but he never mentioned his own cancer until the very end. So to be fully transparent, I thought about just cutting those words out because it would have just been easier to ignore, but after Barry and I spoke for a bit longer, there was quite a bit to his own personal cancer that needed to be shared.
Barry Stiles: I had started TRUEGRID and sold my plastics custom molding business, and opened up in December of 2013. Opened up TRUEGRID office and our facility in January 2014. Had a trip planned with the kids to Lego Land in July. Woke up one morning, six months after starting TRUEGRID, and had a lump on my throat. Weird, because I was in good shape and running and working out, and very thrilled about my new business. Went to the ENT, went off to Lego Land, and came back and two days later I got a phone call I had stage 4 neck and throat cancer. So that was six months into my TRUEGRID journey, so it was quite the hurdle I’d guess you’d say.
So I went through extreme chemo and radiation treatment over the next several months, and then didn’t eat solid food for nine months. At that point, we were just a few people in the company. I guess one other person I should shout out to, Nathan Wood who was the co founder with TRUEGRID partner, who joined me. When I launched TRUEGRID brands, Nathan kept things together while I was trying to recover and get back on my feet. I’ll be forever grateful to Nathan for that. So yeah, life has thrown some hurdles, but it just makes it all sweeter when you get past them.
James McKinney: Barry’s startup story marks our tenth episode. One thing that I’ve noticed as a commonality among our founders is the significance of their support system. Each founder has people in their life that provide help and support. Not everyone’s going to experience a cancer scare just six months into starting their business, but if it wasn’t for Barry’s partner and friend to carry the weight as he went through his treatments, we probably wouldn’t be telling the TRUEGRID story today.
Leadership and courage is not about traversing this entrepreneurial journey alone. It’s about charting a path that most wouldn’t. Yes, it’s easy to keep our head down and grind through it all on our own, but our chances of success multiply significantly when we surround ourselves by people that will be a resource for you when you need it. Because there will come a time when you just cannot carry the burden yourself anymore. Entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs, so surround yourself by people as driven as you are, and even find someone who is farther along the journey than you are. Well, maybe The Startup Story can be that mentor for you.
I hope Barry’s story has brought you real value. Now is your turn to deliver value to Barry. Time and time again, our founders share with me that visibility is their greatest challenge. Brand awareness is so hard in this space where it’s so noisy nowadays. TRUEGRID pavers is a product for both commercial and residential uses, so let’s support Barry in his startup by visiting truegridpaver.com, and share his site on your LinkedIn profile. It’s a very simple thing to share, because his product is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and it would go a long way to support our feature founder.
But now, for my personal ask. The Startup Story community has been so incredible with sharing our podcast with others, but we have more stories to tell and more people to reach. We are a startup and the most powerful way you can support The Startup Story podcast is to leave a review on Apple Podcast or wherever you get your podcast. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram @TheStartupStory.co. Share The Startup Story on your social media, either with a link or a screenshot. Make sure you tag or mention us @TheStartupStory.co so we can see your help and say thank you for it.
Lastly, share the podcast on your LinkedIn profile. The Startup Story is for entrepreneurs, so please do not underestimate that power of sharing The Startup Story on your LinkedIn profile so other entrepreneurs can discover us. In fact, most people struggle to share good content on LinkedIn anyways, so if you want to support The Startup Story then search for The Startup Story company page, follow us, and share our posts to help encourage other founders and spread the word about the podcast. Every single founder has a story, and the startup stories we bring you every week can encourage and inspire another founder. It might just be what they needed to hear to keep moving forward on their dreams. I look forward to sharing these stories every Tuesday with hopes to inspire you to start YOUR story.