BiggerPockets Business Podcast

BiggerPockets Business Podcast 63: Full-Time Firefighting While Building a Million-Dollar Business With Lance Korhorn

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Do you feel like you don't have the knowledge and experience to start your own business? Perhaps you're looking for a way to leverage your full-time job to find the right business opportunity? Or maybe you're looking for ideas on how to create a grassroots marketing and branding effort without a lot of out-of-pocket costs?

If so, this is the episode for you…

Lance Korhorn—full-time firefighter and entrepreneur—walks us through how he was able to start Ladder 34, a business focused on recycling old fire hoses that were destined for the dump. Not only was he able to save tons of waste from the landfill, but he has recycled that “trash” into financial and philanthropic treasure.

In this episode, Lance talks about how every fire hose is a story and how he has been able to build a business around preserving those stories—turning old hoses into belts, wallets, mats, and other items that delight customers and carry on the legacy of the lifesaving equipment. And not only is this a business supporting Lance and his family, but it’s also supporting firehouses and firefighters around the country who are putting their lives on the line every day.

Lance tells us how he came up with the idea for the business, how he struggled to create his first prototypes, and how he’s had to learn how to start, build, and grow a business every step of the way through trial and error.

Make sure you listen to the end, where Lance reveals the power of storytelling, and how it’s helped grow Ladder $34 million-dollar business.

Check him out, and subscribe to the BiggerPockets Business Podcast so you won’t miss our next show!

Click here to listen on Apple Podcast.

Listen to the Podcast Here

Read the Transcript Here

J:
Welcome to the Bigger Pockets Business Podcast, show number 63.

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Lance:
All of the products that we manufacture are from firehouse that was either donated to us or we’ve paid a small fee for it for transportation and that sort of thing. Margins are pretty strong. As far as our belts and some of our bags were 85% to 90% profit on those items.

Speaker 3:
Welcome to a real world MBA from the school of hard knocks where entrepreneurs reveal what it really takes to make it. Whether you’re already in business or you’re on your way there, this show is for you, this is Bigger Pockets Business.

J:
Hey there, everybody. How’s it going? I am your co-host J Scott. I am here today with my lovely wife and co-host, Mrs. Carol Scott. How’s it going today, Carol?

Carol:
Doing so great. Thank you. Listeners, hope you all had a really super fun Fourth of July weekend. I mean, it’s really great that even through all the coronavirus and COVID and numbers going up in some places and everything, it’s always just nice to have a celebratory weekend to appreciate each other and remember that we are all unified as one. Hope you really enjoyed your time.

J:
Absolutely. We have a great show today. Our guest today, his name is Lance Korhorn. He is a professional firefighter who has figured out a way to repurpose product waste in his industry and, again, his industry is a firefighter, to create a business that focuses on sustainability, that focuses on giving back to fire departments across the country but also focuses on profit.
Specifically, Lance has a company called Ladder 34 and his company takes broken fire hoses, hoses that would otherwise be thrown into landfills and he turns them into consumer products like belts and wallets that he sells to the public. In this episode, Lance walks us through the evolution of his business, how he started creating wallets and belts and other products using old firehouses, he talks about his operations, he talks about the growth of his business and he provides some amazing tips on basically how you, if you are an entrepreneur, how you can turn trash into treasure.
Make sure you listen to the very end, not even at the end. Like three quarters of the way through where Lance gives us some amazing tips on how he can and how you can use storytelling to elevate and promote your brand. It’s just such a great tip and it’s something each of us should be doing in our business to really elevate our brand and increase our profits.
Make sure you also listen for the margins that Lance is generating in his business. You’ll be surprised at how much profit is in each one of his products. Fantastic interview. If you want to find out more about Lance, about Ladder 34 or about anything we talk about in today’s show, check out our show notes at Bigger Pockets dot com slash Biz Show 63. Again, that’s Bigger Pockets dot com slash Biz Show 63. Okay. Without any further ado, let’s jump into our discussion with Lance Korhorn.
How you doing today, Lance?

Lance:
I’m doing great. Thank you very much for having me.

Carol:
We’re so looking forward to chatting with you today. Ladder 34 is such a cool company. When we learned about you and the things you were doing we could not wait to find out more. Before we dig into the backstory, Lance, and how we got there and that type of thing, just set the stage for our audience. What is Ladder 34?

Lance:
Yeah. Ladder 34 is a business that I started about six, seven years ago. The backstory of the number I’ll start with, growing up my dad was an arson investigator and so I was always riding along with him, going to the firehouse, going to calls, things like that and his number … Everyone in our department is assigned a number and his number was 34. When I started my career in the fire service, he retired the same year and I took his number 34. That’s kind of the history behind that.
Ladder 34 started. We began collecting fire hose and one of the things that happens every year with fire departments around the country is we have to test our fire hose. When fire hose fails testing there’s really no other use for it. You can’t fix a puncture, anything like that, so it was just being disposed of and we found a use for it.

J:
Awesome. Can you tell us a little bit about what your company does? I have a feeling it has something to do with fire hoses but for our listeners out there that aren’t familiar with Ladder 34, can you give us an idea of what use you puts those fire hoses to?

Lance:
Sure. The first sections of hose they’re 50 foot long and our fire department was decommissioning those after they had been tested through service and tried to find a solution, something that we could do different with them. I ended up putting an ad on Craigslist for a sewing person as I bought a sewing machine, tried it myself, went through many broken needles and finally just went that route.
We began making a belt was the first idea using that material. We went through a few different product ideas with that and that’s what we landed on was a belt. From there, we explored different fire departments around the country, just started making phone calls to see what other departments were doing with their fire hose and come to find out, everyone was disposing of it and so we began traveling from … We started in Grand Rapids, of course, where we’re from and then to Detroit, Chicago, and now we’ve gone all over the country collecting hose from a lot of the major fire departments.
We take these sections of hose, we bring them back to our facility in Grand Rapids and we make different products from them. Our goal, ultimately, is to replace anything that we use day to day leather-wise with fire hose as a renewable source.

J:
That’s awesome. One of the goals of the business is sustainability so basically reusing this material that otherwise … What typically happened to fire hoses before you did this or what happens to the ones that you don’t take?

Lance:
There really wasn’t a use for it. Everything was going to the landfill. The only other alternative use that we’ve seen, some zoos use them for hammocks for monkeys in their cages. Outside of that, there’s such an excess of material that everything was going to the landfill and so with that we’ve been trying to save as much as we can.

Carol:
Excellent. I have so many questions about everything going on here. Did I understand correctly that before Ladder 34 you were or maybe still are a firefighter?

Lance:
Before and still today. A career firefighter today. I work nine to 10 days a month full-time shifts so we work 24 hour shifts and my days away from that, managing this business.

Carol:
Wow. You’re a full-time firefighter and you’re managing this business but did you have a business background? Where did this whole idea come from to start a business out of the sustainability possibilities of the fire hoses? Did you have an MBA somewhere? Do you have a business background, business training? How did that all start?

Lance:
Not a lot in the way of business background. Like I said, growing up, my dad was an arson investigator and so that was kind of my roots in the fire service but I always kind of had an entrepreneurial drive. I started an exterior cleaning business when I was 17, cleaning houses and commercial buildings and that sort of thing. Sold that and kind of was looking for a new way to do something in business and landed on this.

J:
Okay. Let's talk about getting started. You get that first fire hose, you had this idea, "I'm going to take a fire hose." You grabbed one, you tried sewing it back together to reuse it, couldn't do that so at some point you said, "I'm going to do something different with this fire hose." Take us back to that day or that week and what were the first steps to going from, "I have this fire hose" in my hand to, "I've created a product and I'm now selling it." What was that process like?

Lance:
Sure. Really, ultimately, it was finding somebody that was able to manufacture something from the material with the ideas that we had. You know, fire hose is such a rigid, durable material and it’s very difficult to sew. [inaudible 00:08:26]finding a small seamstress to put a few of the concepts together, we went from there searching for larger scale manufacturing, somebody who was able and willing to take on a project like this.
Fortunately, in Grand Rapids, a lot of furniture manufacturers, so we do have a lot of commercial and industrial machines here in town from the early days of sewing and so we went to several different factories around the city and pitched our idea and a lot of them turned us away. I ended up going back to someone that had turned us away six months prior and ended up being a long relationship manufacturing with them. It was definitely a process to find somebody to manufacture things for us here in the States.

Carol:
Very cool. I’m curious. One thing that I’m noticing throughout this discussion is you keep mentioning we. There’s not a whole lot of I going on here, it’s we, we, we. Were there partners involved? Were there other firefighters working on this with you? Did you have a team of people?

Lance:
Yes and no. A lot of the process I can’t take credit for with manufacturing and all of these things. There’s been so many people that have been willing to help and that have brought our business to what it is today. With sewing, with all of the steps of transportation. When we started gathering fire hose from different cities around the country, my dad would travel with me, kind of trucks and trailers and we’d travel to Oklahoma City or Dallas and collect fire hose and bring it back to Michigan and find new products to make from those.

J:
I love the fact that, again, this is reinforced on a lot of our episodes, you didn’t go in with this idea of, “I have an MBA” or, “I have a business background.” You didn’t write out a business plan, it sounds like, you didn’t have, “Here’s my 10 year goal for this business.” It was more like, “Here’s an idea and you just walked it through step by step.” You said, “Okay, first thing is to get the material”, you had to get some fire hoses, those you had access to.
But then from there you had to find manufacturing facilities to actually take those and create prototypes of belts or whatever you wanted to make and so I guess that was your next step. It sounds like you, again, didn’t have the whole five or 10 year plan mapped out. You were just going step by step saying, “Okay, well, what’s the next step of starting a business?” You just walked through that step by step. Is that about right?

Lance:
Yeah. It’s definitely been, and still to this day, a learning process. You know, manufacturing a belt, especially from fire hose, so when you cut a fire hose it was built to be in its form and so when you cut the materials they start to fall apart. We had to find new ways of sewing these pieces, we created our own buckle for the fabric in order to work with the materials and so every step of the way has been a learning experience in manufacturing and dealing with different suppliers along the way.

J:
Presumably, at some point, you got a prototype and you said, “This is good enough to sell”, right? What happened at that point where you said, “Okay, I now have something I can sell”, what did you do next?

Lance:
Yeah. Again, back to the drawing board, learned how to manufacture products and then we needed a platform to sell on. I taught myself how to build a website and went through Shopify and just designed a few different platforms for that and started selling online. Again, we kind of organically built our customer base through the fire service to begin with and then expanded it from there.

Carol:
Okay. Very cool. Again, I’m finding so much power in the fact that you’re a firefighter by trade. You’ve always started these businesses. Like J mentioned, you just decided you were going to go all in and just figure it out step by step. You figured out through trial and error, in finding some good people around to help you out the manufacturing process.
When you had the product ready to sell, you just full on figured out how to build a website and used Shopify to start selling it. It sounds like you mentioned that one of your main markets I guess for distribution was the firefighting community around the country to start with. Is that accurate?

Lance:
Yeah. That was a really strong base for us to begin with. It was something that hadn’t been done before and so we had a great customer base that we were collecting fire hoses from these different departments, making things from them, and then we would let them know when we were finished and have products available from their city. That’s kind of been a theme that we’ve kept along the way is that anything that you buy from our site, everything is labeled where it was originally used, a little bit of the backstory so you can buy something in a town that you may have grown up in, somewhere that you know someone, that sort of thing. We’ve kept that theme going along the way and it’s really resonated well with fire departments and the rest of our customers.

J:
Yeah. That’s one of the cool things I love about this is when you’re doing something from recycled material like fire hose and you don’t have some million dollar manufacturing plant, I assume every belt, every thing that you make, every product is going to be in some way unique, everyone is going to be differentiated. You’re never going to get two of the same exact thing.
For a lot of manufacturing, I mean, high volume manufacturing, that might be a bad thing but for something like this that’s so highly personalized, knowing, “I got a belt from a hose that came out of a fire department that’s local to me” or to some other place that has meaning to me, that’s really cool. I assume your customers actually love the idea that every one of the products that you build is unique and it’s not just mass high volume manufactured.

Lance:
Yeah. That’s one of the unique elements to it. We took it one step further where we list everything on our site individually. For a while we were selling just a mass product. This was a yellow belt sort of thing. We list every product that we sell individually so that you can handpick exactly the item that fits you best for all of the items that we sell. It’s kind of a fun shopping experience and people really enjoy that.

J:
Okay. Take us back again. We get this first belt, you build the Shopify store, you’re learning as you go, you get that belt listed, presumably, you had to pick a price point for the belt. Do you sell this belt at $5 or $500? Again, because it’s not a mass produced item I imagine that decision isn’t as obvious as it might be as just going to Macy’s or JCPenney and saying, “Okay, belts sell for $18. I’m going to sell mine for $18.”
Because this is more custom, how did you figure out the price? How did you figure out the lengths of belts because obviously there’s lots of different belt lengths and you’re not making I assume millions of units. There’s all of these kind of issues with figuring out how to sell this. Did you do focus groups? Did you talk to your potential customers or did you just throw something out there and say, “Okay, let’s see what happens”?

Lance:
Yeah. We’ve really kept that as a theme along the way is just throwing out a product and seeing how well it’s received. As far as the belt goes, we made it one size just to make things simple so that you don’t have belt loops, you can cut it to fit your size specifically and just testing the market in different avenues.
We tried a few local boutique stores. We put our product on the shelf, spend the day there, talk to the customers, see what kind of feedback that we would get from them and really just suggest based on that what they wanted to see and adjustments to the product. It’s really grown well with that in mind, really listening closely to what they have to say.

Carol:
I love that your focus groups are so informal. Listeners, I want you to pay just special attention to all of these points that Lance is making. I mean, we talked about to so many people who have huge marketing budgets, who have huge tech teams and so on and that is absolutely not the case. Lance is talking about how he was working his full-time job as a firefighter while he was growing this business just trying step by step to figure out all of the different pieces using the people that were around him, people at other fire departments to get information back, seeing what worked and just moving forward and doing that.
Lance, I’m curious, now as the business has evolved … Let’s back up just a touch. When did this business start? What year were we in?

Lance:
Late 2012 is when we started collecting fire hose. Somewhere in 2013 we finally ended up with a product that was something we could sell.

Carol:
Awesome. About seven years ago you had a product and started selling it and through all these different avenues. As the business has evolved, are most of your sales now in stores? Are most of them online? Are most of them direct selling to other fire departments? What do those sale distribution strategies I guess look like?

Lance:
Sure. About 80% of our sales are online and then we have various boutique and gift shops around the country through some of the trade shows that we’ve done through that. A lot of fire departments that we’ll take fire hose in if somebody wants to do a custom order or something like that, we’ll take hose in, manufacture something for them and then sell that back to them.

J:
That’s pretty cool. They can use it for promotional items, they can use it as gifts, they can probably use it to raise money for their local fire department. That’s really cool.
I’m on your website right now and I’m looking around and I notice you’re not just selling belts anymore. At some point you’ve expanded from belts. Talk to us about how the business grew, how you went from selling fire hose belts to the other products that you’re currently selling.

Lance:
I think one of the biggest steps for us was to step away from certain aspects of our business as far as advertising, marketing, that sort of thing. The game really changed in the years that I’ve been doing this. Originally, you know, throwing a few dollars on Facebook for ads and seeing how well they went worked all right but as things have changed, those things become more complicated.
We’ve outsourced advertising and we’ve done really well with that as well as our manufacturer that we had relied on for a while, we ended up finding a facility that worked out great for our space to bring everything in house. Now we have our own facility that we’re managing all assets of the business.
From the collection of fire hose, cleaning, cutting, sewing, fulfillment and warehousing is all done under one roof. We’ve grown that way. It’s really cool to be close and connected to the product like this. Any time we have a special request for something I can just walk out in the warehouse and we have sewing staff making things right now and they’re always coming up with new ideas.
A few of the manufacturers that we have here they’re very creative, they’ve been sewing for 20 plus years and they’ll bring new ideas to the table for bags or wallets and different things like that. We’ll kind of test that in the market and see what customers think of new products and go from there. If it’s something that sticks then we’ll manufacture more than just a few of them.

Carol:
So cool. How many people do you have working with you now on your team in-house?

Lance:
We have four sewing right now and there’s six others here managing different areas of the business.

Carol:
Excellent.

J:
What do your operations look like? I don’t know. Are you keeping 50 units of belts or 5000 units of belts? Do you have a warehouse? Who is handling the fulfillment and the shipping and the customer service? How is all that done at this point in the company’s stage?

Lance:
Everything is managed all under one roof. Like I said, our customer service is in the same building as well and so it works out really well in terms of if we need something specific, it can be done that way. We’re stocking a lot more units now in the thousands for specific products around holidays. We’ve become very much a gift brand and so around Father’s Day, Christmas, that’s when we really execute. Right now we’re starting to build up for the holiday season, for Christmas, and we’ll continue growing our stock until we reach that date.

Carol:
Cool. You’re talking about all these functions being in-house. I’m curious. I’m always curious to find out how you found your people. How did you go about recruiting the right people to do all of these different jobs within your operation?

Lance:
Yeah. Sewing came a lot of them from our original manufacturer, it had kind of gone in a few different directions and so four of the sewers came from our other manufacturing company and then a few friends and family have really picked up in different areas as far as customer service. We’re a big family business here. My dad’s around, making sure that he’s keeping me on track, and my wife is here as well managing customer service and other things like that. It’s a great working relationship. Every day we have an hour where we all sit down and throw new ideas on the table and see which direction we’re going to head for the week.

Carol:
I love that. That’s one thing … You just mentioned something that’s really big right now with a lot of our listeners, especially since coronavirus and all the challenges that have happened with that, is just being able to work with your family and create family-based businesses where you’re not necessarily working for another company right now because of all of the uncertainty around that. Can you talk to us more about the dynamics of working with different family members? Whether it be your dad, whether it be your wife. Just kind of how that all works out and how you balance the work with non-work stuff and how it all works out for you.

Lance:
Yeah. It’s an interesting dynamic. With my dad being here, it’s a typical father/son relationship. We have our tiffs too but he manages kind of the warehouse portion of things, make sure all of the fire hose is organized, ready for manufacturing when it gets to that point.
We really try … Communication has been a big key for us to stay in line here and making sure, like I said, we do an hour daily, different topics each day, some days we’ll spend on social media just trying to reach out to new contacts. Communication has probably been one of the most important things here. We really try and keep an open door policy and I think everyone really enjoys in the space here.

J:
That’s great. It shouldn’t be any surprise given the fact that you and your family have dedicated your lives to public service and to helping people. It shouldn’t be any surprise that there’s also a part of your business that’s focused on giving back. Can you talk a little bit about what your business does to help the communities that you work in and help the other fire departments around the country that you’re kind of supporting?

Lance:
Sure. It’s a big part of our business and something that keeps us really excited about it. In the United States, more than 70% of the fire service today is still volunteer and as with COVID and everything else going on, I don’t know if you’ve been to a pancake breakfast recently but there’s not a lot of that support going on anymore.
Something that we’re really trying to work more on is working with these volunteer departments. We worked with one locally, we collected their fire hose, manufactured some different products for them and then sold them on our website and a portion of the sale went back to their department to help them purchase a new washing machine, something that at our full-time career departments we really take for granted.
There’s a lot of these departments around the country that are struggling financially and we’re trying to make a stand and raise awareness for volunteerism as well as helping in some financial aspect, manufacturing products from something that would have otherwise been thrown away.

J:
That’s awesome. I’m going to ask because if I’m confused about this I’m guessing a whole bunch of our listeners are confused about this and I figure even if this isn’t about your business specifically, this is a great learning opportunity.
I guess they’re all professional firefighters but there are the full-time, get paid I guess firefighters and then there’s the volunteer firefighters. Maybe they get paid as well. I’ve never really known the difference. Can you just for my knowledge and anybody out there that has heard the term volunteer firefighter and professional firefighter, just give us an idea of what does that look like? How does that work? What’s the difference?

Lance:
Sure. Ultimately, it comes down to funding. In the larger cities, we have a tax base that pays for a fire service to be there. The department that I work for it’s a tax that the residents pay to have us on staff 24/7. On the volunteer side of things, it’s really out of good will and it dates back to the early days of the fire service. That’s really how it all started is members of the community when there was a fire, they would come together and help put the fire out sort of thing.
70% of the country when you call 911 there are people who are responding out of the goodness of their heart. Same level of training for most of those places. It’s becoming an issue around the country because the training has only increased and volunteerism has gone down. That’s something that we’re really advocating is for people to get involved in the fire department as a volunteer. It’s needed more now than ever before.
It’s really a funding issue. We receive messages from departments all the time saying … Some of these departments are paying for the fuel in their trucks out of pocket as there’s just not the funding available for them. It’s something that we’re really focusing on now.

J:
That just really blows my mind. We talk about public service and there’s law enforcement, there’s military, there’s firefighters and tend to think they’re all doing amazing things, they’re all putting their lives on the line but you assume that they’re all getting paid and it turns out I guess volunteer firefighters is the one group that literally is purely volunteer and not getting paid. I’ve always heard that term but it’s never really struck me as being the literal truth that they’re not getting paid.

Lance:
Yeah. That’s something that through our business we’re trying to shed light on to raise awareness because, like you said, not very many people understand that fact and it’s only becoming more of a problem. It’s a great thing to be involved in. Before I became full-time, as a firefighter, I was part-time and so we were still paid but you responded to calls kind of whenever there was something, it was your choice whether or not you wanted to go. It’s a great thing to be involved in. It’s very rewarding at times. Sometimes not so much but it’s a great path to be involved.

J:
Okay. As long as we’re talking about the finances of fire departments in general, let’s talk a little bit about the finances in your business. Can you give us an idea to whatever level of detail you’re comfortable, like how many belts and other products you’re selling these days, what your margins look like? In general, what are the financials that you’re willing to share?

Lance:
Sure. All of the products that we manufacture are from fire hose that was either donated to us or we’ve paid a small fee for for transportation and that sort of thing. It’s a free material but we have a lot of leg work getting it to us, the cleaning process, and then manufacturing. It’s not as easy as just ordering material and having it put to the sewing machine.
Margins are pretty strong. As far as our belts and some of our bags, we’re 85% to 90% profit on those items and we’re selling more to retail now than we have been before as well. We’re really growing in that regard.

J:
You mentioned that you’re selling a lot of retail. What is the breakdown at this point of what percentage of your product are you selling online? What are you selling retail? Is retail essentially local retail? Like you’re going into these stores and you’re saying, “Hey, I’ve got this product. Will you sell it?” Or have you figured out some way to kind of scale that to get into retail on a larger, more national level?

Lance:
Yeah. From the very beginning, that was one of the concepts for retail. We’re about 80% online, 20% retail and so the early days of this, we would just walk into a boutique store and say, “Hey, can we try some table space?” Based on the stores we’ve been in in the past, done very well. We had a store that it was their grand opening and we sold more of our products than anything else that they sold in their store so we’ve kind of kept that as a theme going forward.
Since then we’ve expanded trying some trade shows. This was our first year that we were going to go gang busters and travel the country and hit as many trade shows as we possibly could and that’s changed since the start of the year. We started in Atlanta, America’s [inaudible 00:29:08]is one of the larger gift shows in the country and so one of my tips I guess for everyone that’s interested in trying something like that is you just need to jump in and try it out.
We traveled trucks and trailers hauling our display that we made from Michigan to Atlanta. On a Monday morning, you’re driving around the city trying to find a garage door that you have to back your display and all of that in. It’s extremely intimidating but after the course of the week, when we were in Atlanta, we had more feedback that we had one of the nicest displays, we had sold 60 plus retail locations, and it was extremely effective for us to do a show like that.
Without trying something like that, we wouldn’t be able to expand. It’s just kind of jumping in and taking a shot at that, which it’s been great for us so far.

Carol:
That’s so cool. I’m sitting here picturing all of you with these stories that you have to share now about driving the truck and trying to figure out where do we park? What do we do with it? It just makes for such great stories about your journey, right? Things that will just last through your family and all your memories forever. It’s really cool. It’s just leaves such a legacy in all of the trials and tribulations and challenges that you’ve overcome to be successful. Very cool stuff.

Lance:
Yeah. I think it’s great to start that way too. A lot of the competitors that we’d see in those spaces, everything is being shipped in and somebody else is setting up doing all of the labor and we were there bolting our display together and really personalizing everything that we did to make that an effective show and it really shows through having the grassroots of doing that.

Carol:
Yeah. I would suspect, I mean, obviously, you’re pouring your heart and soul into this company and, obviously, that shows through in your products so I can imagine it carried through to your displays and it just made it that much more attractive to everybody. What are some of your most popular products? I love them all. They’re so cool. Is it still the belt or is it some of the bags or the mats or what is it that are your best sellers these days?

Lance:
Yeah. Belts remain to be our number one selling item. I think it’s just a great gift item. It’s one size so there’s no question there as far as gifting goes. You can just pick one up and everyone can adjust it to fit their size specifically. Belts have done really well. We’re expanding. We’ve been releasing a new bag every couple of months, trying out new designs and new styles and those have been really well received so between that we also have rugs, fire hose rugs and those are kind of a unique statement.
Everything that we make we guarantee for life so that’s another aspect that we are excited to have our customers contact us five, six years now after they’ve purchased something and still holding up and still looks the same as it did when we shipped it out to them. It’s building that reputation, building a good brand from the start that we’ve really enjoyed.

J:
That’s great. Talk to us about some of the struggles you’ve had either past or present. You’re an entrepreneur, it’s a roller coaster. We know there’s good and bad and we normally talk … On this show, we talk a lot about the good and all the successes we’ve had but presumably there have been struggles along the way and things you’ve had to figure out and things you’ve had to overcome. Just for a little bit of motivation for our listeners, tell us a little bit about some of the biggest struggles you’ve faced or maybe the biggest struggles you’re currently facing and what you’re doing to try and overcome those.

Lance:
I’d say probably the biggest struggle is manufacturing in America. From the very beginning, we started this way. Our concept was to make things here and we wanted to stick with that and finding manufacturers for all of the different components of the products that we make is probably one of the biggest struggles that we face.
We tried for years to find a buckle manufacturer in the States and are still trying to do so. If there’s anybody in the business, we’d be happy to have that conversation. You know, through COVID, through everything else, ordering supplies just to be able to manufacture our products here is a challenge that it seems unfortunate that we’re kind of in that position, trying our hardest to make things here.
You know, manufacturing as a whole is a tough game to get into but it’s very rewarding. It’s fun to see things that you create first-hand, being able to sample them and try them out and put them to market making things in your own space has been an exciting thing. I think if there’s an idea, if you have an idea for manufacturing something it doesn’t hurt to try and see how it’s received in the market. We never thought that we would expand to the level that we are now having manufacturing in-house and doing all of these things but it’s putting in the extra work to have that space here and doing all of the steps along the way has been exciting.

J:
Are you currently selling like six figures worth of product a year or seven figures worth of product per year? About how many products are you selling per year?

Lance:
Yeah. We broke just a little over a million last year and we’re forecasted to do much more this year. As the word of mouth spreads and our reputation of being American made and the lifetime guarantee sort of thing, we’re growing slowly and, like I said, it’s been a struggle with the retail side of things. That was our big goal for this year is to really expand into that space. We had several shows scheduled through the rest of the year and all have since been canceled but we’re finding new ways to explore those avenues. It’s a constant, constant learning experience.

Carol:
I love it. Speaking of the learning experience, Lance, do you have any tips or advice you can share with our listeners who are still working a full-time job and have these ideas and thoughts and visions and dreams of doing something on their own but not being willing right off the bat to just leave their job. They want to keep that stable income and launch something new at the same time. Do you have any thoughts or advice on how they can make that happen?

Lance:
Yeah. I think something that’s really worked well for me is kind of segmenting my time. I’m either working nine to 11 days a week at the firehouse and those are 24 hour shifts so some days coming off of work, we didn’t sleep much the night before so I really try when I step into the office, it’s kind of a change of mindset.
I really try and get my first three things knocked out every morning before I start anything else. That’s my top priority things. I sit down, no distractions. We’re so easily distracted in every avenue these days. You know, just between people coming into the office and social media and everything else but trying to knock out those first three things, first thing in the morning has been an effective method for me to help grow this business on my days away and staying focused in that regard. Yeah.

Carol:
That’s great. It sounds like the key is really just consistency around those top three things every day, just doing those over and over really helps substantially. Thanks for providing that.

Lance:
Absolutely.

Carol:
What’s next for your business? What’s next for Ladder 34?

Lance:
Yeah. We’re trying some new products. We have a few different bags that we’re coming out with. Just kind of trying to really improve the way that we make things, efficiency-wise, and telling more stories. We want to keep the volunteer journey going, telling the stories of different departments, whether it be through podcasts or film.
We’re working on some different films of some of these departments to really show the heart and soul that goes into the work that they’re providing in these different small towns. Something that I think nobody really sees what’s the heart of some of these people. That’s really the focus of our business this year I think is to expand in telling stories and showing the heart of some of these firefighters.

J:
I love that. There were two amazing tips in there that I think for you probably seem so obvious but I want to highlight them for our listeners who may feel like they were just glossed over. Number one, you mentioned one of your big goals moving forward is efficiency in manufacturing. We talk a lot on this show about the value of a business, obviously, is in the net income it generates.
Two ways to increase that net income is, one, you increase revenue, you sell more, or you keep more of what you’re selling and so focusing on the efficiency of the sales and getting your margins up and being able to keep more of every dollar that you put out there for product and for, in your case, for the sewing and the marketing, is really important.
I know you glossed over it but, I mean, it’s such an important tip of how to increase the value of your business, just be more efficient. Then the other thing you said and this is so very important, it’s something that I learn every day and I’m trying to get so much better at, it’s the value of telling a story.
We think about our businesses as … We think about them from a scientific/mathematical standpoint. You have revenue, you have expenses, at the end of the day you have a number but a business is so much more than that and our customers care more about the story of our business or as much about the story of the business as they do about the product. People are buying your products, not because they necessarily need another belt. If I need a belt I can go to Macy’s or JCPenney or TJ Maxx and I can buy a belt. If I need a shirt I can go anywhere and buy a shirt.
A lot of your customers are buying your product because of that story because it resonates with them. There’s an emotional connection to your business and for you to continue to grow your brand, to grow your customer base, to really keep your customers engaged it’s really about continuing to tell that story. It’s not about the business, it’s not about the product. It is about the story.
I love the fact that you’ve recognized that that’s what it is. It’s telling a story and really connecting with your audience. If there’s any tip any of our listeners should be taking from this it’s to figure out what that story is about their business and communicate that story and really make that emotional connection with their customers. I mean, I have to imagine that’s been the big thing that’s help you guys get as successful as you are.

Lance:
Absolutely. Starting with a belt probably wasn’t the best first product to begin with, being that it’s not something that’s really worn fashionably with a tucked in shirt. We’re more of a rugged lifetime guarantee product. A lot of the belts for the first couple of years were hidden and so we’ve focused on manufacturing other products that people can then tell that story about when somebody does see it or asks about what is that sort of thing.
With every product that we sell, like I said, we indicate where it was originally used but also information more about the product, something that they can then share with anybody that asks to help educate them to tell our story further. That’s one thing that we’ve absolutely recognized and worked to … We continue to help others tell our story.

J:
Yeah. It’s not just a fashion statement or a product or a functional piece of something you wear. It’s a discussion topic. People are going to look at it and say, “Oh, what’s that?” “Well, let me tell you about that. Let’s have a discussion about that” and that is what will ultimately propagate your brand toward.

Lance:
Absolutely.

J:
Love that. Love that. Awesome. Well, Carol, is it time to jump into the last segment you think?

Carol:
I think it’s time for a Four More.

J:
Okay. Well, we’re going to jump into the Four More segment and that is where we’re going to ask you the same four questions that we ask all of our guests and then at the end we’re going to jump into the more where we’re going to give you an opportunity to tell our listeners more about where they can connect with you, where they can find out more about your business and where they can purchase your awesome products. Sound good, Lance?

Lance:
Sounds great.

J:
Awesome. I will take the first question. What was your very first or your very worst job and what did you take from it?

Lance:
Very worst we’ll go with I worked … When I was 15/16 I worked for a retired Marine drill instructor during the summer and one of the jobs he gave me was to … He had a white vinyl picket fence out front of his house. My task was to clean that from the well water stints from the sprinklers that would hit his fence. I was out there for weeks with brushes and some different cleaners, polishing, scrubbing his fence.
I think he enjoyed giving me that level of labor and the discipline that was needed for it. Older guy and we didn’t see eye to eye all the time but he would pay very close attention to detail and this was something I didn’t realize until long after that I worked for him. There was one instance when I was folding up I think it was a shipping blanket or something like that. He was so upset with me that I hadn’t folded the corners perfectly. For years, I hadn’t thought about it and remembered the story. It wasn’t about that. It was that he wanted me to pay close attention to the detail of what we were doing and the focus of that. Worst job for sure. However, a great takeaway that has gone with me for years.

Carol:
I just love how it’s one of those things where as you’re a teenager you’re doing this and you’ve got to be like, “Are you even kidding me?” But now all these years later you so absolutely appreciate it. I can see from the smile on your face you so appreciate all of the life lessons that he taught you. That’s so cool.
My second question for you is, Lance, when did you first get the entrepreneurial itch?

Lance:
First entrepreneurial itch was probably 12 years old. I grew up on a large farm property that soon turned into a golf course and as the golf course was being … The first couple of years that it was opened I would walk the whole golf course and pick up golf balls that had been lost in the swamp and in the weeds and that sort of thing and repackage those and sell golf balls back to the golfers on the course behind our house. That was kind of my first sales entrepreneurial drive and some lessons that have stuck with me since then also.

J:
Awesome. Okay. Question number three. I’m going to make it easy. What’s your favorite book? Business or otherwise.

Lance:
Favorite book? I’d have to say Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink is probably one of my favorites. A lot of lessons that stick with me.

J:
I haven’t read it yet. I’ve had so many people recommend that book over the last couple months. I’m definitely going to pick that one up.

Lance:
Great guidance for business.

Carol:
Awesome. Okay. My fourth and just fun favorite question is what is something along the way that you’ve splurged on in your personal or professional life that was totally worth it?

Lance:
Something we’ve splurged on? I would say my wife and I enjoy boating in the summer and being in Michigan it’s a great spot to do that. We’re not too far away from Lake Michigan. We have a boat that we do an in and out service. They put it in the water when you show up and then they take it out when you leave and it’s probably our best money spent every year. We get to enjoy a sunset and not the labor of putting a boat on a trailer every time. We love that.

J:
I love boating and I could never own a boat for that very reason. All the work involved, just getting out in the morning and getting back at night. I’m just a little too lazy. I love that. I’m going to have to keep that in mind.

Lance:
Yeah. That’s the best money that we spend every year is that service. We enjoy that very much.

Carol:
Yes, J. Listen to Lance. We are totally joining a boat club here. We’re in Florida for crying out loud. Listen to this man.

J:
Carol’s been trying to get me to do this for a year now. Okay. We eventually will. Awesome. Okay. Let’s jump into the more part of the Four More. Can you tell our listeners where they can connect with you? Where they can find out more about you? Where they can find out more about your business and where they can buy your awesome products?

Lance:
Absolutely. All of our fire hose products you can find at Ladder 34 dot com. Ladder 34 on Instagram. The same on Facebook. I’d love to see any feedback that anyone has. All of our products are available on the site and if you sign up for our newsletter we release new product and design ideas every couple of weeks. Love to see some feedback.

J:
Fantastic. Lance, we really appreciate having you here. Love hearing about the growth story for the business. I’m excited to have you back in a year or two to find out all the other cool products that you’ve done and just see how the business has blown up.

Lance:
Absolutely. We’d love to be back.

J:
Awesome. Thanks so much.

Carol:
Thank you so much, Lance. Great talking with you.

J:
Talk to you soon.

Lance:
Thank you. You as well.

J:
That was an awesome episode. I love hearing the story of somebody who basically started with no background in business, no business plan. Basically, he saw an opportunity, he jumped on it, and he said, “Okay, I’m going to figure this out as I go along.” He figured out how to make the product, just trial and error. He figured out the marketing trial and error. He built his own Shopify store.
Basically, it’s just a good reminder to all of us as entrepreneurs that you don’t have to have your five or your 10 year plan laid out before you get started. Just go do it and work hard and figure it out as you go along and it’s going to come together if you just put in the work and you put in the time and you don’t give up.

Carol:
Agreed. Truly, what is not to just love about Lance, right? Everything about him, he’s still a firefighter full-time while he’s running this business. He runs it with his family, he runs it with other firefighters, he reaches out to other firefighters. He’s so all about giving back. It’s just a great story, just like you said, J, of just getting out there, doing it, remaining consistent and, my goodness, a million dollars in sales and they’re projected to do far more than that this year. I mean, come on. It’s just great all the way around.

J:
Yeah. It’s just, again, a great reminder that there’s no excuse for not taking action and just getting out there every day because if you do that and you be consistent and you work hard, it doesn’t matter what your background is, you’re going to be successful. All right. Are we good here?

Carol:
Let’s wrap it up.

J:
Okay. Everybody, thank you for tuning in. Again, hope you had a great Fourth of July, hope you’re staying happy, healthy, stay safe and we will talk to you next week. She’s Carol, I’m J.

Carol:
Now go create the story of your business today.

J:
Thanks, everybody.

Carol:
Have a great one.

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In This Episode We Cover:

  • How he built a store with a simple step-by-step process
  • How he threw out products just to see how they’re received
  • How he built his team and started outsourcing advertising
  • How he gets 80-90% profit on many products
  • How to work with family members
  • How they financed their business
  • How he segments his time
  • And SO much more!

Links from the Show

Books Mentioned in this Show:

Connect with Lance

What does it take to start, scale, and sell your own business? Every Tuesday, J and Carol Scott ask this question to entrepreneurs of all stripes and delve into stories that go beyond the launch. F...
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