[This post ran last November. This week, Ranger Up helped share a special giveaway of The Return, a Black Irish Books title by David Danelo. We just wanted to thank the Ranger Up team for sharing The Return — and Nick Palmisciano for sharing Ranger Up’s backstory. Working with Ranger Up is always a reminder of what can be accomplished when someone fights for his passion.]
Nick Palmisciano was earning a quarter million a year when he learned he was being promoted — a promotion that would add another hundred thousand or so to his income.
The promotion announcement landed on a Friday. The following Monday he gave his notice.
“I knew that if I took that promotion, the golden handcuffs were being slapped on and Ranger Up was going to die—and I was going to spend my life working for other people doing something I really didn’t care about that much,” said Nick.
What is Ranger Up?
In Nick’s words, “Ranger Up is a content machine.”
Don’t let the t-shirts and jeans on the home page of its site fool you into thinking it’s an apparel company. Yes, there’s the clothing, but if you dig, you’ll find a full-fledged media company, leveraging its free content to move pay-walled content.
Unlike many other content providers, who are struggling to monetize their content, offering a free article here and there and then banking on the hope that readers will buy a subscription instead of site jumping to another URL where more free content is available, Ranger Up offers a seemingly endless supply of videos and images—including the original series “The Damn Few” and the “Rhino Den” blog. The content being created by Ranger Up is distinct. It isn’t available in bulk online, which means its audience is digging in its heels and sticking around for more. In turn, this content has helped them engage, retain and grow a community that pays for content, too, in the form of t-shirts and jeans and signs and other gear, rather than site jumping for its next dose of free content.
How’s that working for Ranger Up?
According to Internet Retailer, Ranger Up’s “high level of engagement is what drove $750,000 in social commerce sales for the e-retailer in 2013—as 28% of its total online sales came from shoppers who clicked to the site from social networks. The role of social networks in driving traffic is even greater: Nearly 39% of Ranger Up’s 2013 traffic stemmed from Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and YouTube . . . . That earn[ed] the merchant the No. 2 spot in this year’s Social Media 500, which ranks online retailers by the percentage of traffic they receive from social networks, a measure of how effectively they are reaching their audience via social media.”
Let’s Backtrack a Bit . . .
Ranger Up started as a hobby while Nick was in graduate school at Duke University. As a way to stay connected with the military community with which he had served, Nick volunteered with the ROTC at Duke.
“The ROTC kids were always complaining about not having cool T-shirts, so I made some funny ones for them with a heat craft machine,” he said. He didn’t sell them at first—just gave them away–until students recommended he launch a web site.
Within a short time, Nick was out of school and balancing a family, a full-time corporate job and Ranger Up.
“My life had become, go to work at seven in the morning, leave at 6 PM from the job, come home, eat dinner, and then work on Ranger Up from 7:30, eight o’clock until three, four in the morning—and do it all again. I did that for two years. That’s it. It was all consuming.”
Buying the Farm Moment
Two weeks ago, I shared Tom Magliozzi’s “buying the farm moment”—when a near fatal accident left him asking, “If I had bought the farm out there on Route 128 today, wouldn’t I be bent at all the LIFE that I had missed?”
Like Tom, when faced with being shackled to a job without happiness vs giving his all to something he loved . . . Nick chose the latter.
As I reflected back on my entire adult life—from the moment I graduated high school, or even starting high school until that moment—the years that I valued the least were my time working in Corporate America. I just didn’t feel like I was growing as a person, didn’t feel like I was getting where I wanted to be, and so I just made the life choice. I’d rather make a living wage and do something I love than become wealthy, trapped in this world that brought me no happiness.
Family and friends told him he was crazy, but he jumped in full swing.
It Doesn’t Happen Overnight
Ranger Up wasn’t an overnight success. Nick maxed out his credit cards and almost bankrupted himself, until order by order his income started to increase.
I was a single dad doing all this stuff, and I just had to make sure that [my kids] didn’t realize that anything was going wrong. That was the thing that I always kept in the back of my head. I was willing to work other jobs if I needed to, and I was getting close to the point where I was going to do consulting work and stuff because I was down to $1300, period. I had people offering me jobs, so it wasn’t like there wasn’t a way out if I wanted it, but I never really thought like that. I need more time to develop Ranger Up, and so if I needed to do some consulting work or if I needed to take some part time work, I was willing to do anything just to make sure that we kept moving.
I hit that $1300 point, and then the next month I had $1350—it was actually $1348.57, the same day a month later—and then I had about $1500 a month after that, and since then . . . We’ve continued to grow.
Giving Back: Vetrepreneur
Through Vetrepreneur, Nick is sharing his experiences with other veterans, supporting their work as they build their own businesses. “Every year we take one person on. At some point, we may grow that to two, and that veteran has 10 projects that they have to complete in the year that covers everything from accounting to marketing to operations, whatever. They’re all tailored to a business that the person wants to start.
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Many of the lessons he’s learned along the way apply to all sectors. The following are a few standouts from our conversation, as well as a slice of the free content ripped straight from the Ranger Up You Tube page.
The Entrepreneur’s Life
The worst thing we can do is try to tell people that being an entrepreneur is like a vacation because it’s awesome. I would never want any other life. I would have such a hard time working for someone else now, but I never stop. Before I go to bed, I go to bed thinking about business and I wake up in the morning, and the first thing I do is check my phone, which is right next to my bed, to see what happened last night. How many orders came in? Did anything critical occur? I think that’s the way every successful entrepreneur I’ve ever met is.
There’s No Easy Button: The Problems Only Get Larger
What I always tell people is it’s going to take twice the money and three or four times the effort that you are imagining in your worst case scenario in order to be successful.
It’s non-stop sacrifice and then once you’re successful by whatever definition you use, the problems only get larger. Every year before Christmas, we have to fund a ton of additional inventory. Back in the day, that was me writing a check for $10,000 from a savings account. Now, we’re talking about a half a million dollars. It just gets scarier. If we screw up the holidays, what happens? If we make a bad investment, what happens? We’ve got 25 people that we have to pay twice a month. The stresses only get bigger, and so you have to be comfortable in that environment.
Expect the Worst, Be Surprised by the Best
Just about all of us see the world through the lens in which we live. If you’re an honest person, your starting assumption is that other people are honest. If you’re a dishonest person, your starting assumption is that other people are dishonest. If you’re competent, the same thing. If you’re incompetent, the same thing. Tom and I—Tom is our COO—we both live under the military mentality that if I say I’m going to do something, we will do it. Most people are not like that.
Couple of years ago, I think it was 2010, 2011, somewhere in there, we had outgrown one of our printers and there had been another printer that we had given a few small jobs to. They had done a good job and about a month before the holiday season, we said “Hey, we need more printing capacity. We’re thinking about giving you guys about $30,000 in printing. Can you do that?” At that time, that was a huge amount of printing for us, and they said, “Absolutely, no problem,” and they looked at everything that we wanted them to print and they said, “You’ll have most of this by December 1st and all of it by December 7th,” which was perfect.
December 7th came and went. We had none of it. Then it was the 10th. We got a little piece of it, but most of it was still with them. We’re talking to them every day. They kept assuring us they were almost done. Then finally they admitted that they were way over their head and they just didn’t even know what to do. They basically threw their hands up in the air and they were quitting.
A lot of this inventory had already been purchased by customers, and so Tom and I talked it through and we rented a box truck. Tom got in the box truck with his fiancée and he drove 20 hours to [the printer], told them to be waiting for him. He took over their printing operation, organized everybody into teams, and started getting all of them to print our shirts while his fiancée was checking to make sure the print quality was good—and getting rid of anything that didn’t come out right.
Tom operated the dryer, because from there he could keep things moving and still keep an eye on everybody, packed everything into the vehicle, paid them—even though he had done a lot of the work—hopped in the vehicle, drove back twenty hours. He arrived at 3:47 in the morning and all of Ranger Up was sitting there at 3:47 waiting for him. We packed every single order and got it out that day and that was the last shipping day in order to get it for Christmas.
We got it done, but it took super human effort on the part of—specifically Tom—but the organization on the whole.
Right there, you see two things. One, our organizational standard for what we expect when we tell a customer something, and then also a vendor that basically thought it was okay to say, “This is just too hard. I can’t do it,” after taking on a big challenge. Now, we are so careful with printers. They have to build up slowly, even if it means we’re going to lose money by not having enough capacity. We don’t want to promise people anything that we can’t deliver. That was incredibly scary because it was going to be the first time where we really failed our customers.
You Have to Communicate
When I was at Duke, a CEO came up, and it was one of the few times when someone came up and gave a business speech that it really resonated with me. He basically said, “You owe it to people to have hard conversations as fast as possible, because if you don’t, you’re going to end up firing them and they’re going to have no idea how it happened.”
A lot of times, people make allowances for their best employees. I just address individual issues immediately. If something happens that is not in line with what I want from a company perspective, then five minutes later, we are sitting in a conference room and we’re having a conversation. It’s not a big deal. I don’t make everything a big deal. We don’t have to write everything up, but everybody always knows exactly where I stand on every issue and that is what I expect everybody to do in the organization, whether they’re peer subordinate or whatever because if you don’t do that, if you don’t address things immediately, then you end up with gossip. You end up with nonsense. You end up with people that are frustrated because they think they’re working on the right things but they’re not.
You’ve got to take responsibility as a leader, as a manager for communication. You can’t expect people to understand what you want and then be mad when they don’t deliver it. When we hire people here, we don’t hire people because of a skill set they have. We hire people for drive and intelligence. I would much rather hire somebody with no formal qualification that I can tell is an intelligent person.
The phrase that I use internally is, “We like to hire people that see everything to its rightful conclusion.” When something weird pops up and you don’t know the answer, it’s not okay to stop because someone gave you an email that said, “Oh, I’m working on this.” You need to make sure that its’ done. You need to make sure that you’ve completed the task. You need to make sure that we’re successful because as soon as you don’t see something for the rightful conclusion, it becomes someone else’s job.
Trying Something Different
When we launched jeans a couple years ago, that was a huge decision. It was a huge investment at that time when the company probably didn’t need to be making huge investments, but by launching jeans, we elevated our brand from being a T-shirt brand. It was the first step in many that we’re taking to be able to sell more and more higher-end premium products to our customers. There were a few ways we could have done it and we probably chose the hardest route. We built and made in America. Everything was premium.
The easy way to do it would have been to build in China, copy some popular brands and answer in with a $50, $60 price point, which is the price point that most of our customers typically shop at, but instead we came with a 100% American-made jean at a $100 price point. We had to build a huge marketing campaign around that and ultimately, it ended up being successful but had it not been, we had a six-figure investment in jeans. It was extremely scary, extremely scary, but sometimes you need to take chances in order to elevate the business.
Engaging the Military and MMA Communities
People tend to misunderstand the military and that’s why they have so much trouble marketing effectively to them. . . . Every mixed martial arts advertisement, shows a guy flexing how tough he is, where the tough is, where the biggest bad ass, is . . .
What we do is we always have fun with it. We had Tim Kennedy, UFC fighter, special forces operator, sniper dress up like a woman and do Katy Perry. That video has hundreds of thousands of views. We do things that are ridiculous, but no one else would do, and often times that’s how people find us for the first time. Then they say like, “Oh, this is cool. I’ll buy a shirt.” Then they’re on our Facebook page. Then at some point, we have multiple customers that own over a hundred Ranger Up products.