The Startup Story – Episode 5: Zach Knickerbocker, founder of 14th Floor Apparel
You can listen to Zach's Episode in it's entirety here: https://www.thestartupstory.co/zachknickerbocker
Zach Knickerbocker: I'm Zach Knickerbocker, founder of 14thfloorapparel.com, 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: This episode marks our fifth startup story. I am humbled by the feedback received through email and Instagram of our listeners sharing how the raw and transparent startup stories of our founders have impacted them. The reason hearing the impact is so meaningful to me is that it validates why I'm doing this. Every single founder had a journey to where they are right now, and that journey is paved with some of the same challenges that you and I face right now. Hearing how they overcame those challenges can give all of us inspiration and real tactics to implement in our own journey.
That said, the previous four startup stories were from founders that are all in on their startup from a compensation perspective. This is no longer a side hustle for them. Every founder that we have heard from thus far has achieved some significant level of success that they have left employment and are focused completely on building their dream.
Today's episode, we will hear the startup story of an Amazon reseller that is very early in his journey. You see, the startup story is about unpacking the journey of how people overcame various challenges to simply start. I did not want to get too far into The Startup Story podcast episode listings without bringing on a guest that is still building his dream as a side hustle.
The key, though, is that he is building his dream. Our guest is Zach Knickerbocker, founder of 14thFloorApparel.com. Zach has discovered one of the numerous ways there are to make money on Amazon. Let me be clear. There are so many ways to make money on Amazon, and there are numerous podcasts for you to listen to if you really want to dive into that ecosystem. Zach's Amazon business is one that nets him a few thousand dollars each month. Yet, what I find most impressive about Zach's story is not that he's achieving some level of success with his brand, but that he has a small tribe on Instagram where he documents his Amazon merch journey? No. What is most impressive to me about Zach is that he has implemented systems in h is life to make all of this happen despite his battle with anxiety.
In this episode, you will hear real helpful tactics on how to build a business while dealing with anxiety. You will learn how significant it is to have a very powerful purpose to what you are trying to build. You will receive some action items on how to get started in the Amazon merch space. Where are you in your journey? Do you have a notebook full of ideas that you want to build, but need to stay gainfully employed and therefore hesitant to move on anything? Or maybe you're in need of capital to move on your idea, and hearing from Zach can help you make some progress in that direction. You see, Zach's very early startup story is one that shows how small daily victories can build into a very significant opportunity. In fact, Zach's entrepreneurial journey starts back when he was just 13 years old, when he started building an online platform that ultimately paid for his college degree.
Zach Knickerbocker: I distinctly recall this moment when I was 10, something like that, very young. We were driving in the family car. First of all, both my parents are just, they work 9 to 5. They're not entrepreneurs. But we're driving in the car. We're coming back from a visit to extended family, and this particular extended family member owns a big concrete business, or at least his parents do. I remember thinking like, and specifically asking my dad, how did he get all his money? Because I was quite envious of the fact that they're rich. They have a nice house, and it just seemed great. Explained to me the concrete business and how people can make money, pointed out this website. I think it was called Crazy Aaron's Putty or something like that, for people out there that remember it. This guy that just sells putty online. You know, just kind of explained to me the concept of how you can create a product and sell it. I think that's the first memory I have and the first sort of memory of infatuation with success.
Then, the other distinct memory was when I was 13. I was playing this game, it was a Disney game. I wanted to start a fan site after seeing somebody else do it. My dad helped me set that up, and then I just ran it. I built it and created the community around it, created content, grew the community. All that stuff, from roughly 2013 to 2018. That community grew quite large. We had Google ads on it, and I sort of learned how to make money online. I got the money to pay for college. It was just like a nice, small initial success.
It sounds like paid for college, got hundreds of thousands of dollars. No, it's state college. This is like $500 a month income, but it was awesome at the time as a kid.
James McKinney: I mean, yeah, you were 17 or how old were you when you started it?
Zach Knickerbocker: 13.
James McKinney: yeah, so that's yeah, obviously probably 13 you weren't making $500 a month but either way, 16, $500 a month just doing something online, that's fantastic.
Zach Knickerbocker: I sincerely credit it as the luckiest thing that's ever happened to me, just in terms of the experience I got from that and the perspective. Just a lot of maturity that came out of it. At the same time, it was a lot of hard work. I didn't spend as much time with friends. I didn't have high school girl friends. I didn't do any of that stuff. I was working on it every night.
James McKinney: That's awesome. So you mentioned your parents were not entrepreneurs. What did they do?
Zach Knickerbocker: So my mom she works for a company that does hotel reviews, like anonymous. So they'll have people call in to the hotel. Or sorry, they will work as sales callers. They'll call the hotel and try to book a room, and then get feedback about how well the hotel is handling bookings and stuff like that. Best way I can describe it.
My dad is a software developer. He works for a big software firm. My actual career path now is as a software developer during the day. That's where a lot of that influence came from.
James McKinney: Okay. So your current, just for clarity for the listeners, how old are you again?
Zach Knickerbocker: I am 26.
James McKinney: 26, and if I'm not mistaken, per your Instagram you turn 27 very soon.
Zach Knickerbocker: Yeah, I do.
James McKinney: For those that want to follow you on Instagram, what is your handle?
Zach Knickerbocker: ZachKnickerbocker.
James McKinney: And by the way, his last name is Knickerbocker and he lives in New York. For the longest time, I wasn't quite sure that was a real name, but that is his real name and it couldn't be more perfect for where he's planted right now. So you're raised by a software developer. You were raised by a hotel review, office managerial position for your mother. Your dad helped you with your Disney fan site when you were 13, out of a fascination for really independent success is what I'm assuming what it was with your family members concrete business, on just how they can control their own destiny. What were some of the things that, at 13, there's a lot of just general affinity that takes place for a 13 year old right? I'm a fan of this game. What was it that drove you to want to create a fan site though?
Zach Knickerbocker: I've always kind of liked creating. That's another thing that, if I think back. So for example, we had these blocks when I was a kid that connect together. I don't recall exactly what they were called, but they were plastic blocks that connect, kind of like Lego's. One of the early things I remember doing is creating game consoles and other like products that I was infatuated with at the time, out of these blocks, and just kind of pretending like I was a factory creating things.
James McKinney: That's awesome.
Zach Knickerbocker: I don't know why. It was just fun. Another example is I would use those really early game creator software that you could find online and create really simple games. One that I created, I packaged it onto a disk somehow and put it into like a CD-Rom holder and made some cover art, and packaged that like a product that I was selling. It was multiple examples like that. I used to make movies with the old software that would come on Windows where you can edit videos just really simply. I'd make movies. So just anytime I get the chance to create a product, I seemed to like that for some reason.
James McKinney: That's awesome. So you're 13, you start this. Let's say you're 18. You're making a few hundred bucks a month on this Disney fan site. Sounds like you had some leaning towards software development as a career path. Where were you thinking mentally, as far as what your long-term game plan was? We're talking 10 years ago, so I'm sure you probably remember this, but what was your long-term game plan as you were coming to the end of high school?
Zach Knickerbocker: 100% it was just to get a software job. I hadn't thought about really what would fulfill me 40 years down the line, but I don't think there was anything in my head beyond just having a job in software for my life.
James McKinney: So when did you start having that entrepreneurial itch? Obviously, you jump into college. The fan site is paying for college. When did you start getting that itch that you know, I don't know if I want to do this as my 40 plus hours, or for my career?
Zach Knickerbocker: Yeah. I think it was roughly four years ago I would say. I think the thing I can remember pushing me toward it was watching these fitness influencers on YouTube. At the time, I was getting into the gym and I was watching these guys kind of figure out how to do it. One of the things that every one of them did was they would start clothing lines, and then sell that clothing to their followers. Some of them would have pre workout and other sorts of products, but bottom line was they're creating products and selling them.
Really, it just looked trendy to me. I thought it would be cool to do that sort of thing, in the same way I thought it would be cool to start a fan site. I hadn't really thought about, "Oh, I should jump into this as a new career, go into entrepreneurship." I really just wanted to sell products for the sake of selling it. I remember how cool it would be to take stuff to the post office and just ship it off to people in mass.
James McKinney: That's awesome.
Zach Knickerbocker: I think that was probably it.
James McKinney: What, so about four years ago, so you were 23 we'll say. Just for clarity, you're still working a software development job and your side hustle, which I know… I'm assuming your goal is to make it a fulltime endeavor, is custom merchandise, correct? Specifically shirts I'm assuming.
Zach Knickerbocker: Shirts, yep.
James McKinney: So how did you get started in that? So you see these fitness people. They're making their merch. Let's walk through that process of how did you get to when you were shipping your first shirt?
Zach Knickerbocker: Yeah, so it's actually a really slow process if you want to walk through the whole thing. It's not quite like just going-
James McKinney: Let's not go in real time, but let's walk through what your process was.
Zach Knickerbocker: I think this is actually pretty valuable, is like I spent a good year and a half probably just wanting to sort of get into selling stuff, but doing literally nothing. I'd spend the nights watching motivational videos and then halfway through the night, transition to playing a game and feeling sorry for myself. Like I'll get to it tomorrow, I'll figure it out. I distinctly remember at some point, I realized as I'm walking through shops in real time, I can see the products on the shelves and I can kind of see manufacturer tags on them. I was starting sort of to connect the dots that I can source products in the same way that person can.
There's nothing special about what that person is doing with their shop, I can do it as well. So I set a goal for myself and the goal was all I need to do is make $10 in the next month and I'm happy. That's my very simple goal. So what I did was I went out to Amazon.com and I just looked around and tried to find a product I could flip. In this case, it was one of those classic Nintendo entertainment systems, so this wasn't too long ago. It was like two years ago. I bought it, I flipped it on eBay because at the time it was really rare, and I made my $10. That's all I made for the month, and then the next month I went for $20 and following month I think I went for $40 and just kind of built it up.
So this is pre shirts. I was just trying to flip some stuff online. It's since then that I've sort of fallen into shirts as something I like.
James McKinney: So let's walk through that flipping, because I don't think a lot of people know about that as a business opportunity. For those that aren't aware of the idea of product flipping, Gary Vaynerchuk talks about swap meeting all the time. This guy's worth millions. For anyone who follows Gary Vaynerchuk, he just recently is just obsessed with how much money can be made in swap meeting and putting it online for sale. So there's money to be made everywhere. In fact, I think Gary had was it a $5,000 challenge? It was something that for a month, he just kind of vlogged his entire swap meeting endeavor and he made like $5,000 in one month just swap meeting.
So you're flipping product via Amazon to eBay. How did you even think to do that, because I don't think most people would think I could buy product on Amazon and then sell it for a profit on eBay? I think most people tend to think that, most people do shop on Amazon so I'm not going to find product on Amazon that I can flip on eBay. How did you come across that concept?
Zach Knickerbocker: The thing I came across was Gary V. actually.
James McKinney: Oh, okay.
Zach Knickerbocker: At the time, he had the 2017 flip challenge. Have you heard of that?
James McKinney: I have not heard of that, no.
Zach Knickerbocker: Yeah. So he was on the breakfast club and had this crazy idea called the 2017 flip challenge. The idea behind it is that for the year of 2017, his challenge was for anybody to go out there and flip product, and make I think $20,170, that 2017 theme. He just kind of explained the basics, which is go out there, find something from a garage sale, from eBay, from Amazon, wherever you can and then turn around and flip it like closer to retail price to make a little money.
So I think the classic Nintendo entertainment system, which is kind of coming out at the time, that was really the impetus, not so much going to Amazon and searching for something. I just knew that this thing was rare and Amazon was a good place to buy it.
James McKinney: So Gary V. influencing another entrepreneur, I love that.
Zach Knickerbocker: Yep.
James McKinney: One of the things you said before we talk about your transition from flipping from Amazon to eBay and moving into shirts and designs and all that, one of the things you said about the early part of that is you had the desire but not the motivation to do anything. What was that mental state for you? Why were you cognizant of the idea that I want to do something, I'm just going to play video games? What was the dialogue in your head? What was that conversation you had with yourself?
Zach Knickerbocker: I think I've always found it really easy to procrastinate. I've always been a pretty big procrastinator. So that's certainly a big part of it. One way I've found to counter that, that works really well, and this may just be a skill that I developed during this time, but was to set really small goals, which is kind of counter to what a lot of people do. But it really works for somebody who's having trouble getting started and procrastinates or whatever. It's pretty easy to achieve a small goal if you set it small enough, and it builds that momentum.
But yeah, the mindset, I deal with it today for sure. The only reason I get through my day and be productive is by building systems to keep me productive. I have this to-do list process that works really well for me. I plan monthly. Instagram is a huge part of forming that social pressure. I tell people I'm doing things and I can't just stop because that's a big part of it. But all of this just snowballs. I think this whole entrepreneurial journey has been kind of forming that.
James McKinney: If you were to think back now, you're talking to someone, you're mentoring them. Maybe you're at a coffee shop in downtown New York, whatever the case may be. But someone saying, "I just want to do something. I want to create. I want to pay for college." Whatever their objective is for wanting to do something. What do you say to them, having gone through? Again, you're still early on in your entrepreneurial journey. What do you say to them as far as just the getting started part?
Zach Knickerbocker: Well, certainly one thing that kind of speaks to the previous question as well, is finding a really solid "why". It's kind of cliché. I don't think about it too often, but I think there's really something to it because it is baked deep into what I do. Every successful person out there talks about it. My "why" is simply I really want to be in the financial position to one, cure my anxiety. Anxiety is something that myself and many people struggle with.
And then two, be in the financial position to take care of my parents and my family, no matter what happens, if any sort of medical issue comes up, or some sort of problem befalls us. That's a really strong "why".
James McKinney: Yeah, those are.
Zach Knickerbocker: It's almost like it feels more like an obligation and a responsibility than a pursuit of wealth or anything like that. It's really I don't have an option. It's just figuring out how to get it done because it needs to get done.
James McKinney: Yeah. Man, one thank you for being so transparent in that. I know, just from my own personal experience within my network, not myself but within my network, how prevalent anxiety and depression is among entrepreneurs. Even long-term entrepreneurs, not just new ones. Sometimes, they just kind of get in this spiral and it's hard for them to get out of it. So I think there's a reason we are talking today as someone of yourself who has got anxiety, and has goals and ambitions.
How do you manage that with the goals and ambitions that you have? What systems do you have in place? Very specifically, tactically, for the listener right now who is thinking to themselves, "Oh my gosh, he just said anxiety. How does he do what he does with the hours he has? That would just break me." What systems do you have that are working for you that someone might be able to leverage?
Zach Knickerbocker: First of all, some super advice I have to give if you're okay with it is to listen to Tom Bilyeu.
James McKinney: Oh yeah, okay.
Zach Knickerbocker: Guy from Quest Nutrition, right? He's got some really amazing ideas about how to kind of transform your mindset, train your mind.
James McKinney: Do you know the name of his podcast just so I can look?
Zach Knickerbocker: Yeah, it's called Impact Theory.
James McKinney: Impact Theory, okay. I'll make sure to include that in the show notes.
Zach Knickerbocker: Yeah, and that's been transformative for me. That's an incredible podcast for this sort of thing. So as a whole, any sort of… mindset is huge. I spend a lot of time trying to fix my mindset. I'm very cognizant of my shortcomings and I made a lot of progress in improving my mindset. I think that's important. Because of a lot of that feeds into anxiety. If you're beating up on yourself every day, that just makes it worse.
As far as other tactical things, I find anything I can do to make me feel more confident is important. One of those things is getting better at dieting, and getting to the gym, and just kind of making my body something that I'm proud of is very important for me. Similarly, I try and get up early which is very hard. It's something I've always struggled with. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, but overall I try and get up early. I find that gives me the confidence in the morning to have a good day.
It's like everything else. All these things just build on themselves. Another thing to help with confidence in a sense, but just overall just feeling like I've accomplished things is I have this to-do list system, which I stole from Andy Frisella, I forget what he calls it. Basically you write down three things for the day that you need to get done, and they're very simple things like they're not supposed to take you eight hours. They're just things that need to happen. If you do them all, you've written them down. Once you do them all, you put a little W on the page, and if you don't you put an L and you feel pretty bad about it. But whenever I get to write that W, which is hopefully pretty often, it feels really good.
When you're working out, and you're getting up early, and you're improving your mindset, and you're getting stuff done every day and writing those W's, it's just all these things that compound. It builds a sort of impenetrable base to help keep you out of a bad mindset.
James McKinney: That's awesome. I hope for all of our listeners that kind of struggle with anxiety or really just negative narrative in their mind. I hope everyone got some great tactics in there on that.
So you're keeping momentum going. You're getting up early. You're taking care of things mentally and physically you take care of. You're flipping. You're getting some little successes, buying on Amazon, selling on eBay. How long were you doing that before you realized, "I'm going to start creating my own brand," and start building merch around that.
Zach Knickerbocker: Maybe nine months into the process of selling stuff online. I was introduced to Amazon Merch, which is sort of what enabled me to create these t-shirts. The technology, I don’t know how important it is to dive into it, but it sort of makes it really easy to create one off shirts, where in the old world, the screen printing process requires these giant runs of shirts, hundreds, thousands to be economical.
Amazon Merch and any other business like it enables designers like me, people with any sort of design ability, to create t-shirt designs and then sell them one off through Amazon's massive organic marketplace. So I got introduced to that through a podcast, and it was really easy to just startup on the side. As time went on, merch got bigger. I could manage FBA and merch at the same time. FBA is the physical products stuff. Eventually, I just made the decision to switch to merch fulltime.
James McKinney: So for those that, and I too am not fully versed in all the different ways there is to make money on Amazon, but it is mind-blowing to me how many layers of monetization there is in Amazon, and for those that are listening, I'll include some show notes to a few podcasts. There's Amazon Sellers or Amazon Resellers podcast. I think it's Amazon Sellers podcast that I try to listen to. Every time, I'm just blown away how many different ways there is to make money on Amazon. How big the industry is. Just it boggles my mind.
To be honest, Amazon Merch had no idea about until this conversation right here. I knew about FBA. Here's a whole other way to make money via Amazon. So let's, can you unpack Merch and FBA for our listeners. For those that are thinking, "Wait, there's still money to be made on Amazon?" the answer is yes. This is not that podcast to talk about all, how much of an opportunity there is in Amazon, but can you just unpack those two since you mentioned them, on what they are, and how can someone make money in those two verticals.
Zach Knickerbocker: Yeah, for sure. It's hard to turn off the lingo. I'll do my best. At a high level, the thing that makes Amazon great for all these opportunities is that it's huge. I think like 50% of all internet sales went through it last year or something insane. So they provide various ways to sell your product on Amazon, and leverage all this organic traffic, which is what's really allowing you to make so much money.
The first thing I mentioned, FBA, is Fulfillment By Amazon. That's an opportunity they provide where you can ship all of your physical product to their warehouses, and then list that product for sale on Amazon.com. Whenever a sale happens, the business for Amazon is that they'll handle all of the fulfillment complexities for you. Actually shipping the item out to the customer is done through their warehouse. Any sort of customer service, returns, Amazon takes care of it all. That cost just gets bundled up into a monthly fee for you for using FBA. You can sell anything you want. You can sell books, DVDs, classic-
James McKinney: But you're shipping a product to them.
Zach Knickerbocker: Yep.
James McKinney: Got it, okay. So for you-
Zach Knickerbocker: Yeah, between you and the customer.
James McKinney: So for you, you are making the shirts outside the Amazon system in some quantity and shipping them to FBA for-
Zach Knickerbocker: Oh no sorry, this is pre shirts. So this is when I'm flipping, yeah.
James McKinney: Got it, okay. So then what is the merch side of Amazon?
Zach Knickerbocker: Yeah. So Merch is a very recent program they launched and it's totally separate from FBA. There are other programs than FBA and Merch, so we're just covering a segment of them.
James McKinney: Yeah. We could spend multiple podcasts on all the ways there is to make money. This is just Merch and FBA.
Zach Knickerbocker: Yep. So Merch is powered by sort of a technology called Print On Demand. What that refers to is there's these giant printers you can buy, and they're the size of cars. They cost $40,000. It's not really practical for someone like me to have one of these and be producing shirts. But they use the technology that allows you to literally print a design onto a shirt, which means you can just make a run of one shirt, and then when you print the next shirt it can be a totally different design, and it's very economical. This is brand new in the past five or 10 years in terms of actually being used for real businesses.
So what Amazon did is they bought a ton of these printers. They've got hundreds of whatever. I don't actually know. What Amazon Merch, the program, allows you to do is create designs, and then list those designs on t-shirt mockups essentially on Amazon.com, and when a customer places an order that shirt gets printed in Amazon's facilities on these giant car sized printers, and then shipped out to the customer. Just like FBA, you haven't touched any of the fulfillment or customer communication or anything like that. All you've done is created the design, and Amazon's taken care of the rest. You just get paid a royalty for the use of that design.
James McKinney: Got it. So you said that you couldn't keep up with Merch and FBA at the same time, so you had to get rid of your FBA, which was the products you were flipping. So obviously that means Merch is doing well. You've been doing this now for two years I believe?
Zach Knickerbocker: Like a year and a half on Merch.
James McKinney: Year and a half on Merch. Is it meeting your expectations?
Zach Knickerbocker: I mean, some of my expectations aren't huge. I haven't cracked the $100K barrier yet with entrepreneurship. Really, there's so much to learn still. Going through this initial couple years has taught me so much about accounting and starting a business, and what it means to hire help and build a team, however big it is. Really, this year and half with Merch, I haven't made a ton of money like I said. But it's taught me so much. I don't feel as though it's slow or less than I expected. It's just I'm not sure I really knew what to expect in the first place, if that makes sense.
James McKinney: Yeah.
Zach Knickerbocker: And definitely even in the past month, I've slowly become even more awoken to places I can take this, in terms of starting up stars that are stand on from Amazon, and different brand ideas for niches that I can go into and sort of grow out. It's an ever evolving process of figuring out not only what I want in a business, but what's even possible.
James McKinney: What do you see for… I'm thinking to myself, you said you haven't broken the $100,000 barrier, and immediately I thought to myself there's probably a listener out there that is probably wondering well why keep going? You've been at this two years now. You're working a 9 to 5. Why keep pushing on this?
Zach Knickerbocker: Okay. So there's a reasonable answer and there's a crazy answer. I think the reasonable answer is that I can see the progress year to year, month to month, even week to week. There's some good weeks, some bad weeks, but some weeks I just have these… I'll create a shirt that just starts selling like crazy. I get all sorts of newfound confidence. I find some personality that really inspires me and I get all sorts of new tips or whatever. You're always kind of seeking that next golden nugget. You're always kind of feeling like why stop now, I'm making progress.
Then you always feel like, when you really introspect, that if you just keep going you'll hit the jackpot eventually. You'll get to your goal eventually. I don't know if there's any truth in that, but again every successful person says that it's years and years of grinding and failure. So every extra year of failure and slowness is just one step closer to the goal.
James McKinney: Oh man, I love that mindset. So what's the crazy aspect?
Zach Knickerbocker: Because it's a shirt. It's guaranteed. All you have to do is suffer long enough, and you'll get what you want. It's a shirt. It's the most sure thing out there.
James McKinney: That is true. All stats, when it comes to promotional products, apparel is number one, every single time.
Zach Knickerbocker: Yeah, it's a good business. Then the crazy thing is I have this sort of vision of one day, standing on a stage and talking about how I went through 10 years or whatever of just failure and problems. I don't even consider anything I've done failure, but it's… I just think it'd be super cool to be able to stand up there, have success, and be able to just tell people the crazy journey you went on. Every extra week is more of that journey.
James McKinney: What I love about both of those answers, besides the fact that they're honest and authentic to you, is some people just quit too early, period. Some people would probably say that standing on stage is the reasonable answer and the progress is the crazy answer, because people want success so quickly. So for those listening, what I hope that they're hearing is that like you said, you keep hearing from successful entrepreneurs that it's years and years in the making. Everyone sees the result that they're seeing now, whether it be on Instagram or Twitter or whatever. They're seeing the result now, but they didn't get to see any of the backstage action. So I just absolutely commend you and applaud you for staying the course and staying in the game. For those listening, I don't care what amount of traction or traction you're not getting. Stay the course.
Now, that said, if it's not working, be intelligent, pivot when necessary. Don't keep running into a wall, thinking at some point you're just going to break through that wall unless you have a rather large dome, and you're hard headed, and you will get through that wall. But most people don't do that. So what, let's talk about your path to the stage. Do you see it being shirts? Do you see adding product lines? What do you see for yourself let's say in another two years? What do you see for yourself?
Zach Knickerbocker: I think it's definitely apparel related, but I don't take that too seriously either because when I started FBA and I was doing product flipping, I legitimately thought I was going to scale up a product flipping business. Have a warehouse and products, and be moving all sorts of money. Then I found Merch and it turned out I liked that more. I'm super open to the idea that I'll just find something else that I like more and grow that instead. For the moment, shirts is kind of all I can see.
James McKinney: There's just so many ways to make money on Amazon and just blow their mind away. I think that's why I was drawn to your story via Instagram, one just because you were documenting your journey. It's so compelling to me, one your transparency, two so early a stage. A couple episodes ago, we hear from the founder of Varidesk and they're a global company, shipping to 30 countries every single day. We talked with the founder of E Entertainment Television, selling it for billions of dollars. Coming from the sewers to the billions, it's unbelievable. We talked to DocJenFit, who's got an Instagram following in the hundreds of thousands. She's got so much influence in the mobility and fitness space.
And then people tend to chalk it up, like, "Oh, well I understand that's where they got. I don't see myself starting that way." I love your story because of where it is in the journey. It's early. In another year, we're going to follow up with your journey to see the progress that's been made. Because I'm confident, based on the year and a half or so I've been following you on Instagram, I'm confident the journey's going to stay. I can definitely see your "why" is big enough. I would love to see you onstage somewhere, talking about your successes and your challenges.
So now, when you are two years in, what has been your greatest challenge?
Zach Knickerbocker: Time management is a big part of it, because I do work my 9 to 5 job. I hate calling it 9 to 5, because it kind of has this derogatory tone to it, like oh I hate my day job. I actually love my day job a lot. It's very demanding. I actually work at Amazon if you can believe it. I'm a software developer there.
James McKinney: Oh really?
Zach Knickerbocker: Yeah.
James McKinney: That's awesome.
Zach Knickerbocker: Just to mention that. None of this is… these are all my own opinions and everything, but I'm a software developer at Amazon, and it's a great job. I love it. So sort of balancing the time demanding aspects of that, and then being able to come home and take the four or five hours of the night time that I have to really focus in on these hustles, and try to scale anything on the side is quite hard. Especially, coming from that very just American, middle class, get a job, go to work, come home mindset. Transforming from that to this, it's been a challenge. It's hard.
James McKinney: Yeah. I have to ask, because I didn't realize you worked at Amazon, are there lots of Amazonians that, I don't know if that's what you're called as an employee but it worked. Are there lots of Amazonians that have Amazon hustles like yours?
Zach Knickerbocker: If there are, I don't know them. I tend to be the local expert on everything selling related because I'm like the one dude that has done it.
James McKinney: Okay. That's awesome. So what, for those listening that are thinking to themselves, because I'm thinking to myself man, this is interesting. I've had a few startups in my career, to varying levels of success, and each one had funding in their early stage a different way. I'm thinking to myself, "Huh. Amazon's a unique way to get that funding for another startup that I have, especially the Amazon merch thing." Especially with the Amazon merch, what are some learning's you experienced in the early days you could pass on to our listeners that might be thinking I could do X, Y, and Z in the merch or FBA space to help fund a different dream that I have. What are some learning's you have for those people?
Zach Knickerbocker: I think one of the biggest learning's is to really seek out that opportunity. So one particular thing that's come up in the merch community recently, that I've not really seized on because I tend to focus on the organic traffic side of things, is to find restaurants, any sort of local business that would traditionally have a need for merch.
So for example, the employees at a restaurant probably are wearing a shirt that has the restaurant's name on it. If you have a pizza shop or something, maybe they have a shirt with their logo that they're selling to customers or something. And the catch there is that all these businesses, when they order their shirts, they need to order them in big runs. So they'll have to order like 100 extra small, 100 smalls, 100 mediums, even though they might have 20 or 40 employees, because all these shirts are created with screen printed processes, which requires doing things in bulk if you look into screen printing. It just does.
So the catch here is that with print on demand, you can do things on demand, one shirt at a time. These businesses don't realize it. And in fact, it's actually hard to work with all these systems. So that's one opportunity right there. People are scaling up to million dollar businesses right now. There are multiple examples of people doing it, just by going to these businesses and saying, "Hey, rather than doing the screen printing that you're doing, just come through us and we'll just give you shirts on demand at a slight premium price." That's one example.
A simpler example is like the local baseball team also needs shirts, and they're also going through screen printing companies. There's a lot you can do there, just in terms of being a familiar face and saying you'll do it for them, or helping with the cost by going through print on demand. Which this is all stuff you can do with Amazon Merch, by the way.
I like that sort of stuff because it's something that a lot of people connect pretty easily w. it's probably easy to think of something you've seen recently where people needed a shirt. Beyond that, if you're passionate about some sort of hobby, something super, super niche like pinball, like this pinball machine behind me. There are people out there that also love pinball and they're buying shirts. Again, because screen printing is not great for super niche, low run shirt type things, print on demand is exposing this great opportunity to create shirts for this group of hobbyists that haven't really had a huge selection to choose from in the past.
James McKinney: That's awesome.
Zach Knickerbocker: I think that's the biggest opportunity right now with shirts.
James McKinney: Those are some incredible opportunities for our listener. So for our listeners out there that want to bite on some of those opportunities, and they want to pick up a design, they want to collaborate with a local baseball team, or whatever the case may be. Either way, they want to move forward in this because hey, this could fund a different dream that I have, a different idea that I have, or maybe even just a short term goal that they have in order to accomplish something else. What are some practical tips and learning's that they should know about going into this?
Zach Knickerbocker: Yeah. The biggest thing is just that originality is very important. Merch is somewhat low barrier to entry and it's pretty common for people to create designs that are either using like… or they're using a font for which they don't have a premium license. There's all sorts of things out there. With art, you need to have the license to use it, or you need to create something totally original. Especially when you're selling on a platform like Merch, where Amazon has some liability, you just can't infringe on IP. Originality is important. Then certainly, when you're looking at other sellers, you can't United States go and be doing something that's a direct rip-off of another seller. That's bad for the community. It's a potential IP problem. So again, originality is of central importance to this.
James McKinney: How did your first sale come across? You said you focus on organic. How did you get that first one? Did you literally just post your design and a sale came in?
Zach Knickerbocker: Yeah, pretty much. Well, it wasn't quite so simple. It takes a long time to actually learn what's going to sell. You're probably more naïve than you think actually in terms of what you think would sell to an audience. But it's a learning process like any other. I think I threw up a shirt and it didn't do anything. I threw up a couple more. Finally one bit, and you're like okay, that's positive feedback. I sort of see that works. Then you go create more and you listen to podcasts. Sort of figure out slowly from other people who have succeeded what kinds of shirts work and you just get your inner sense for how to market products nailed down.
I think that's actually, not to diverge too much, but that's one skill I've picked up with Merch is being able to effectively identify segments of customers and niches, and sort of know what they want, and be able to create t-shirts for those things. It's a good skill. It expands to a lot of businesses.
James McKinney: Absolutely does, understanding audience segments. So you referenced a few resources that you use for learning's. We'll call them mentors. Even though you haven't met them, but you've listened to their podcast, read their books, watched their content on YouTube, whatever the case may be. Who are, if you were to think back now, these people played such a key role with where I am today. Again, you're early stage, but they've played such a key role in where you are right now. Who are those people and what are the resources? I want to include them in the show notes.
Zach Knickerbocker: Yeah. Number one, I've kind of covered him a little bit so I hate to be repetitive, but Gary Vaynerchuk was huge. I still listen to him now and then, but for a while there I was listening to him an hour or two every day. That was really important for establishing that sort of hustle mindset, and the motivation to get things done, and realize the potential in everything.
Tom Bilyeu with Impact Theory was, he might actually be number one honestly because so much of even what I do at work today, and in my regular life, is influenced by a lot of the stuff he talks about. He's just straight up cured parts of my anxiety for sure. It's really powerful stuff.
As a third, I think Andy Frisella has always been someone who's really up there for me, just because he's very no nonsense. Sometimes you just need a kick in the butt, and Andy Frisella gives you that for sure. Then one guy that's always been a good friend and helped a lot with the flipping, he's huge in the community, he's certainly an influence on me, is Reezy Resells.
James McKinney: Oh yeah, okay. I've just recently started following him, so I'll make sure I include links to all those resources, and make sure they understand the little shout out that you gave them right there. I guess lastly, when we think about the people that are just reluctant to move on their dreams. I'm not even saying anxiety related. They just don't have enough belief to move forward, but they still have that dream and vision for whatever it is.
Whether it be to take care of their parents, whether it be to have tremendous wealth. Whether it be to just contribute more to nonprofits. Whatever their reason or "why" is, but they just have so much self doubt in moving forward. What do you say to those people?
Zach Knickerbocker: Well, personally I'd tell them to go make $10 in a month. A lot of people aren't willing to set such a small goal. I think a lot of people see make $10 in a month, and they're like, "Of course I can do that." But I really think that just initial victory is so important for establishing oh crap, like I actually can, I can do this.
Because once you do $10, then $20 looks that much more attainable. If you're willing to have a little humility and accept that it's going to be slow and it's going to take a while, but you can actually do it if you build slowly like that. That's what works for me. I don't know if it works for everybody, but it's been really powerful for me.
James McKinney: The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that approximately 18% of American adults deal with some level of anxiety. While this is not something that I personally deal with, I have people in my life that do, so hearing Zach's story about perseverance and discipline in his business to keep his anxiety in check is inspiring, and one that I will be sharing with a few people very close to me. That is the beauty of The Startup Story. There are so many incredible founder stories out there that can be of encouragement and motivation for another individual who has dreams and aspirations of starting a business. Maybe Zach's story of his early stage startup is one that would be exactly what someone in your community or network needs to hear right now.
What do you have in your life that you need to develop systems for in order to move forward? Maybe you battle with an internal dialogue that has you believing you're not capable of starting a business. Maybe your health patterns are so poor that you don't have the energy you need to put in the hours you should to make your dream a reality. Or maybe you've had so many failures in your life that you now just keep things a secret for others out of fear of rejection or embarrassment.
Whatever challenge or obstacle you have in your life, follow Zach's lead and develop a system to overcome that challenge or obstacle. You will not defeat that challenge or obstacle without being intentional in your approach. The reason I can state that with full assurance is because we, both you and I, are surrounded by a culture of mediocrity. A culture that loves being average. We love the participation trophies and we wear the mantra of bare minimum like it's a merit badge. The masses settle for good enough and all of that bleeds into how we do things, unless we are intentional about pushing ourselves to new heights.
Here's the great news. The fact that you're listening to The Startup Story podcast should tell you that you are not average. You are not the norm. you're here pursuing growth because you know you are capable of more. You know that you have it in you to move on that idea you have for a business or product. Keep pushing forward. Develop a system that works for you and don't stop. See, Zach has put himself out there with his goals and ambitions, and documents it on his Instagram @zachknickerbocker. There's a link in the show notes. Show some support to him by following him.
In fact, I would also like to challenge you with an action item. Send me a video DM on Instagram @TheStartupStory.co and tell me what challenge or obstacle is holding you back from moving forward. If you do that, I promise you that I will reply with a few ideas of systems that you might consider to put in place to make forward progress. I will continue to say it. Entrepreneurs help other entrepreneurs.
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 the 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 anyway, 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.