First Entrepreneurial Venture

iClick is America's largest supplier of co-branded mobile tech products. The company operates a vertically integrated facility near downtown Seattle where it warehouses, decorates, assembles, and ships to small and large corporations across North America.

Year One

I started my first company, iClick, in Seattle, after finishing undergraduate school in 2002. Broke but full of ambition I applied for 14 credits while I was employed as a salesperson for a small software company. One week later the credits cards were delivered to my mailbox (those were the days of easy credit) and I had amassed a total credit line of $40,000. Without hesitation I quit my job and put everything I owned (which was a mattress, two chairs, a kitchen table, and a bicycle) on the line and started the company. In the early 2000's there were no smartphones and people were still taking pictures with film. But the digital camera revolution was on the horizon and I wanted to be a part of it. Somehow, through fax and email, I found a factory in China, owned by a Taiwanese group, that was making digital cameras. Shortly after seeing a sample of the camera I landed on the brand name iClick, designed packaging using Corel Draw, and submitted an order to the factory for 500 cameras. They costed $40/pc and 60 days to manufacture. I nervously, and in hindsight brazenly, wired the factory $20,000 to produce my first order of cameras. By some miracle I had chosen a wonderful factory partner and they came through on time and delivered the cameras to me in Seattle. Of course my office was a rented studio apartment so the pallets were delivered on the curb of the apartment building. I schlepped the boxes to my studio where they stacked floor to ceiling, ominously tilting towards me and the middle of the room.

I can remember lying on my mattress at midnight staring at the boxes, unable to sleep from an afternoon coffee binge, and my head spinning with anxiety. How the hell am I going to sell all these cameras, I thought. No one knows me in Seattle, I have no cash, I have 500 cameras stacked in my apartment, and the interest payments on the credit cards is becoming worrisome. Then, like a flash, an idea came to me. Earlier in the week I watched a new TV show called Survivor which was the first of its kind to follow real people, in the real world, to see if they could survive some crazy adventure. I thought, what if the way to get the word out about iClick wasn't about trying to tell the story of the camera, but of the entrepreneur. I drafted an email that very night to an editor at the Seattle PI, one of the largest newspapers in Seattle at the time. I pitched them on the idea of following me, a young entrepreneur, starting a company in the dusty aftermath of the dot-com bubble. By the following afternoon a budding technology reporter, John Cook, now founder of GeekWire.com, called me back and said they were interested. John interviewed me for an hour and was accompanied by a photographer, Phil Webber. Weeks passed as I waited patiently for any indication that the story might be published. Then I got an email from John, the story was to be printed the next morning. I was awake at 5am with $0.50 in quarters I walked to the corner newsstand and bought a copy of the day's paper. Sure enough, the story was published. I guess I was expecting a short article somewhere buried amongst the real news. But when I fingered to the business and technology section, there I was. Front and center. My story consumed the entire first page. I was elated. I was in shock. I was in business. My phone and email exploded with messages from members of the Seattle business community with an outpouring of support, guidance, and coffee meeting requests.

That single article propelled iClick into a real business. It was the type of ignition that every successful business thrives on to propel it into action. The article was so well received that the paper ran a total of eight subsequent articles following my endeavor over the first year. It was the greatest PR gift an entrepreneur like me at the time could receive. The publicity gave me credibility which, as anyone starting a business knows, is of paramount importance. Local retailers like Bartell Drugs and then-small Amazon.com called me. After six months I had outgrown my apartment-as-a-warehouse and I rented a small office nearby, thankfully within walking distance since I did not own a vehicle. I purchased a used desk and chair from a garage sale and I set up shop. Business was beginning to pick up and I needed help. I hired my first employee, Jennifer Hoehlein, whom I came to know at the cafe she served at below the office. She worked for iClick a few hours each morning before her lunch shift at the cafe. As the company grew Jennifer grew with it and remained at iClick for over 15 years. She became our head of HR before being recruited to another company in 2016. The first hire is the most important hire and I was blessed to have hired someone as incredibly talented, faithful, and warm hearted as Jennifer.

Two rather remarkable events happened thereafter in the fall of 2002, just nine months since the company launched. The subsequent follow-up articles from the Seattle PI were being published periodically and when they were I could expect a dozen or so new people to reach out to me. At this point I figured that most people in Seattle had likely heard about me and iClick so the quality of connections were beginning to diminish. Until the day I received a call from a man, let's call him Frank Smith, that said, "Hey, I'm Frank Smith and I read about you in the paper and it sounds like things are pretty rough financially. Do you need you some money?" I didn't think he was serious and I was trying to come across as a confident twenty-three year old entrepreneur, so I said, "No, thank you. Goodbye." I hung up the phone and then out of curiosity I wanted to see if this Frank Smith really was a somebody. Turns out Frank was somebody. The CEO and founder of a major publicly traded company based in Seattle. Sheepishly I called him back, explained that I had carefully thought it over, and that yes, I did indeed need some money. Frank told me to meet him at his office on Tuesday at 8:30am. I arrived to what would be, to this day, the grandest and most palatial office I have ever seen. I peppered him with questions and he fired back with answers so confidently that to this day I am still hanging onto his every word. At the end of our hour long meeting he asked me how much money I needed. I was in desparate need of about $25,000 at the time. He said "no problem." He scribbled out a personal check made out to iClick for $25,000 and handed it to me. Mouth agape I asked him how much he wanted of the company in exchange for this investment. He didn't want anything. So, then what should be the interest rate on the loan? It's not a loan, so no interest. When can I pay you back? Whenever you can. He simply asked that I never disclosed to anyone his real name. Five years later I had finally saved enough to return the funds, which I did, and I can remember tearing up as I handed him back a check and thanked him profusely for his trust.

By November of 2002 sales were beginning to dry as the effects of the article wore off. My phone rang, and it was another person that read about me in the paper. Let's call him Howard. He exclaimed that he was working on behalf of a large company that was in need of a premium product to give away as an incentive for their prospective customers. Howard proceeded to explain to me the promotional products industry and how brands need products customized with their logo to giveaway to employees, customers, vendors, and the like. We worked together on a bid for his client and by December we had an order for 10,000 cameras at a sale price of $25/pc. The total order came to $256,000. It was a game changer for iClick. Not only did it save us financially, it was the genesis of our entrance into the promotional products marketplace. That same company would order over 100,000 cameras every year for the next three years. The revenue gave me the runway to launch new products and dig hard into the promotional products industry. We subsequently launched MP3 players, various models of digital cameras, USB flash drives, wireless keyboards, headphones, phone accessories, and any popular mobile tech accessory that could be branded. Today, iClick has grown to become North America's largest supplier of branded mobile tech to the promotional products industry. We're still based in Seattle, walking distance from my first apartment.

Transition & Profit Sharing

In 2010 I had grown iClick large enough that it outgrew me. I no longer possessed the passion or capabilities to manage the operations. I hired Jeff Hall, a seasoned startup executive, to take the helm. I stepped aside to advise on higher level decisions and pursue new ventures. Jeff and the rest of our super-stellar team stabilized the business and grew the company 6x in 8 years. I implemented an employee profit sharing plan in 2012 that shares nearly one quarter of annual profits with our employees. I remain iClick's only shareholder. Each year when we divide and distribute the profits at our holiday party it reminds me that selling a company is not the only viable exit. It's not the only way to win. Building something valuable, together, to be shared, can be equally, if not more, rewarding.

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