Lead by Change Ep1 Brad Sorock
Success is what your kids say about you when you’re not listening.Brad Sorock - Tech Founder
Jeff Martin: I’m excited to sit down with my guest today, Brad Sorock.
Brad is e-commerce pioneer, visionary, and cofounder of two businesses, Niche Retail and Loftopia. One thing about Brad that I really like and it’s really always fun to talk to him about is his willingness to change and innovate and navigate the waters and the many waters and seasons of his businesses. So let’s go sit down with Brad.
This is Lead by Change with Brad Sorock.
My name is Jeff Martin. I have a passion for change. I’m the founder of Collective Genius, a speaker, jiujutsu addict, technology advocate, and Prius owner willing to go anywhere to hear stories of technology pioneers.
Lead by Change is a series where we sit down with technology leaders outside their offices to hear their stories. As we travel from city to city, we’ll meet with them and learn how they Lead by Change.
Brad Sorock: We talked about what is success and I say well, it’s what your kids say about you when you’re not listening and I felt successful.
Being an entrepreneur, do we feel successful? Where am I going? What? Yeah.
Jeff Martin: This area is so cool and nobody works over here. It seems like everybody doesn’t work around right now. It’s Wednesday at 10:45 and no one is at work.
Brad Sorock: This is a pretty working community. It happens like on my block, I know of at least four others that work from home.
Jeff Martin: All right.
Brad Sorock: Why that is here, I don’t know.
Jeff Martin: Tell me how you paddle board.
Brad Sorock: You just stand up, find balance, and go. The board is big enough, that it’s stable. When I bought these, there weren’t too many different boards. I went to a trade show and I saw Surf Deck, which is one of the bigger surf companies in the [unintelligible 0:02:11] and then they have 32 different models of paddleboards. I was like, “Oh, my gosh!
They were like, “Yeah. We never had a dealer in Arkansas.” Now we have dealers in Arkansas. We [unintelligible 0:02:22] surf company, surf stores along the coast.
Jeff Martin: Yeah. This is amazing. It’s a whole new [unintelligible 0:02:32].
Where did you grow up?
Brad Sorock: I grew up in Detroit, Detroit area, suburbia.
Jeff Martin: How long did you live out in Detroit?
Brad Sorock: I grew up there for my first 17 years, and then I went off to school in Arizona, took a year off. I went to Europe, worked over there for a little bit, and then tried to be a ski bum up in Colorado in a small town called Crested Butte.
Jeff Martin: How long were you out in Colorado?
Brad Sorock: I was there for 10 years and I wound up so I working a job in construction in building houses. It was great. I had days like this where I’d be in the mountains like this is it. Bring the house up in the mountains. But the reality was hard days. We were shoveling snow. It was freezing cold. One winter was coming around, and I wound up partnering in a fly-fishing outfitting business/ski shop in winter, and it was a stepping-stone. I just knew I wanted to get into business and figure out from there just like how to get started in business.
I partnered with a guy who was already in business. From there, I learned about trade shows and selling at retail, and we were a small ski town in America. It’s probably the best place in the world to be poor because you’re living this great lifestyle.
I partnered with a buddy at the time. He was running a fly-fishing outfitting business, and I found myself put together his first computer, and we put it all in QuickBooks and I just loved it. I went to trade shows and the rush of getting opened as a dealer from different accounts, and I learned a lot.
Then I also learned that it was the greatest place in the world to be poor in a small ski town because we had all the gear we needed and we were having a ton of fun. It wasn’t until my son was born or really [unintelligible 0:04:37] was pregnant with my son unexpectedly. I was like I’ve got to make a living here. I just can’t get by.
We found the Internet as a way to – we had to innovate. We were making money in a couple of months in the winter and making money in a couple of months in the summer, and we had a long off-seasons on both ends. The Internet came along like well maybe we could start selling online and we will just sell Telemark skis, and I started Telemarkski.com.
At that time, everyone was trying to be everythingeverybody.com, planningoutdoors.com, pets.com, babymall.com. We were just doing this little niche. It sounds absolutely ridiculous right now when you think back, but we created some – I guess it was social then. I was putting real reviews up on the website.
Cato called me, and he was the VP of sales there, and he said, “Get our stuff off your website.”
I’m like, “What? I’m just putting like these are ”because I would say, “This is really good Colorado ski. Don’t buy it if you’re in Utah. This is definitely more than [unintelligible 0:05:35] ski.
They were like, “This is absurd. You can’t say negative things about our product.”
I’m like, “Yes, I can. It’s the Internet.” I was putting up real reviews. But also even more ridiculous was I would put up somebody’s picture on the home page and say, “If you see a picture, call me and I’ll give you a free T-shirt.”
I’d put it up on a Monday morning, and within an hour, somebody called me. I’m like, “Oh, my, gosh!”
He’s like, “Yeah, man. It’s my home page.”
I’d sent out emails like, “Send us your pictures. I’ll put them on the World Wide Web.”
And so, I was in this fly outfitting fishing business and ski business.
I was riding my bike one day, and I had a Suunto Watch on. It tells you altimeter right now. There’s an altimeter that tells you how many vertical feet you’ve biked in a day or you’ll skied in a day. I thought I got this narrow site, a niche, of telemark skiing. What if I narrow down to even just one brand, so I bought the name suuntowatches.com for Suunto. I called Suunto, and I said, “Hey, I want to do this [background noise 0:06:41].
They were like [background noise 0:06:42] the Internet. Let’s do it.” I started using suuntowatches.com for about a year.
Jeff Martin: And they were worried that you had their URL?
Brad Sorock: At that time and this is like the late ‘90s, maybe ’99. They’ve had suuntousa.com or something [background noise 0:06:58], and it was a horrible website. We just took innovation and made it great. We put up real reviews, and boy, between that and Telemarkski and my son was born. I’m walking down the street, and I see a jogging stroller, and I bought joggingstroller.com. What if we instead of babymall.com, we just did joggingstroller.com? About a year free, we were selling 25,000 jogging strollers a year.
Jeff Martin: And that was with Niche Retail?
Brad Sorock: That was with Niche Retail, and we were doing all these niche sites: elitecarseats.com, joggingstroller.com, highchairs.com, bicycletrainers.com. Sort of there was a theme of kids outdoors. Suuntowatches.com. We niched out a few brands and got legal agreements with all these brands, and it was going great. I mean we were just going game busters. I mean like the first year, $175,000 in sales; for the next year, $2 million; the next year it’s $6 million; the next year it’s $10 million. It just kept
Jeff Martin: Are you inventorying all that?
Brad Sorock: Well, we thought the perfect rules. I drop shipped from my small house in Crested Butte in Colorado. But the reality was I wanted to control the experience, so we wound up warehousing. We kept going from warehouse from my closet to my loft to my partner’s basement in Detroit to a small warehouse 1,500 square feet all the way up to 20,000 square feet, even 60,000 square feet. It just kept growing and growing. Of course, our big error was we bought a warehouse – one of our errors. We’ve made lots along the way. But one of our errors was we bought a warehouse in the boom of real estate and then it lost most of its value being a warehouse in Detroit.
Jeff Martin: What was its peak?
Brad Sorock: At its peak, we were doing almost $20 million of sales, maybe 85 employees or so. At the time, I was building my business and it was – I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t really have a long-term goal. I was really young, and I think I need more time figuring out what life is about in my late 20s or early 30s. At the time, it was about the top line. How many sites can we have? How many employees can we have? How big can we get? Probably as I matured, I see like it’s about lifestyle. It’s about my kids. It’s about the bottom-line. It’s not this top line of big business. But that’s just a part of life, too, and one of my own lessons in my own journey. I need [background noise 0:09:39].
Jeff Martin: Yeah. It’s nice to go through those situations to learn it, right?
Brad Sorock: It’s all part of the journey. That’s it.
Jeff Martin: How much do you put into building the technology with Niche Retail and how much would it cost to buy it today?
Brad Sorock: With Niche Retail, boy, we were pioneers! In fact, I think we had to be one of the first, if not the first around a company that one company with multiple websites. We had these niche markets, and we were building our site on GoLive, Adobe GoLive. We had to customize these cards, feed them into one accounting system that really didn’t really exist to do all this. That was a big innovation that we paid a company to help build this big platform. We spent close [background noise 0:10:40]. We had to. It was the right move.
But now you can replicate that with Shopify, which is a great platform for $150 a month. That’s just one of many examples out there of what’s available in the market today. It’s much cheaper to be an entrepreneur right now.
Jeff Martin: It costs money to innovate.
Brad Sorock: It costs money to be a pioneer and to innovate. Absolutely! I should say it’s easy to be an entrepreneur right now in this field that I’m in of e-commerce, it’s much easier. The risk is much less.
Jeff Martin: People like you paved the path.
Brad Sorock: Did I say I paved the path? I mean there are all sorts of people that paved. I think I’m one of those guys that happened to be early on to it and early innovators and being able to take that step. I mean there’s really people have, people are filled with ideas. It’s people who take the step to make it happen. I’m full of ideas. I’m like, where do I begin if I want to start this one? Is it through money? Is it going out and getting money? Is it finding the right people? It all depends on the business idea. But certainly in e-commerce, we were one of the pioneers.
Jeff Martin: What happened that things started going south vs. north?
Brad Sorock: One of them was the most obvious. It’s just the market completely changed. When we started, Amazon was only selling books. Then they were out to take over all business and do free [unintelligible 0:12:12]. I’m not blaming Amazon at all, but the market changed. At some point, I saw the writing on the wall. It just said – there is also the fact we were the first. We were joggingstroller.com. We were the only one. We were embedded in Google. It was great. But right behind us, just within a year, two, three years later was babyjoggingstroller.com, joggingstrollerforbaby.com, joggingstrollersuperstore.com. It was just – there must have been 30 behind us. While we were still number 1, just our piece of the pie kept shrinking, and we reached the peak and things started to taper.
I learned a tremendous amount from the business, but at some point, we had to say the bottom-line isn’t working, the lifestyle isn’t working anymore. Let’s make a change, and I’m just not afraid of change, and that change was not to say I belittle it. It was really hard. It was a really hard year of my life, the hardest year of my life really. Having my kids at the prime age of fun, at ages like they were 5 and 9 at the time. We moved into smaller apartments, headed through a divorce.
It was a hard time of change, and it was just part of my journey. I think I was depressed and rolled up in a ball. I know it was about for a weekend, and fortunately
Jeff Martin: Just one weekend [laughter]?
Brad Sorock: Through one week. Fortunately, I don’t have much of a depressed bone where I woke up in a Monday morning. It was similar to a morning like this and I walked out of my front stoop and said I just got to go forward and let’s rebuild.
Jeff Martin: Wow!
Brad Sorock: And we did. We just took the piece, gathered pieces what we had left and let’s put it back together.
Jeff Martin: So that’s where you created Loftopia?
Brad Sorock: That’s where we created Loftopia. Well, the idea of Loftopia came from my partner, Tyler, and close friend and said, “What do you want out of this?”
“I just want to be in my loft.” I said, “My utopia is to live my lifestyle from anywhere in the world.” I was sitting on the stoop – even though I was talking to him, when I saw this guy running by and the sun was on his bike. I thought back to the days I did that with my dad. Guy is maybe training for a marathon. I thought this is what I want. This is what I want in my life, to be a dad. That’s number 1 for me.
Going to business was great fun and I love it. We all have to work. We all have to make money. To be a dad, to be real good dad, that’s my utopia. And so, we thought of Loftopia as probably the name.
Jeff Martin: What is Loftopia then?
Brad Sorock: Well, we have two different sides of our business. We do distribution, which is really similar to what we were doing, but what we saw is that the whole landscape changed. It used to be you have a distributor you have to find these dealers. They sell to the public. We thought, “Well, there’s just the way to blend all of this. You can be a distributor. You can sell direct. Provide a great website. You can sell for Amazon in multiple different channels. You can also sell through dealers.” And so we took that what we learned in our retail days with niche retail and created this distribution network. In fact, we even now have distribution in Australia where we bring products from here and sell it down there.
We also found that boy we are really good at building ourselves up, doing social media, creating contents, managing our websites, so that they are faster. It’s not like the days of putting a billboard and hoping to know that to this many people pass by in a day. Right now, we have the analytics capacity to be able to say this is how many people came to our site; this is where they went on our website. This is how much time they spent on this page and that page.
Jeff Martin: You have about 25 years of experience in social media and retail, right?
Brad Sorock: [laughter] Apparently, yes.
Jeff Martin: Online. Most people can’t say that.
Brad Sorock: Yeah. So we decided we can do this for other companies and it doesn’t have to be retail, and we have this whole other strength that we can then bring to ourselves. I guess in a new way of saying it, we’re a digital agency.
Jeff Martin: Part of this video series is really seeing behind the scenes an entrepreneur, a founder, some sort of change agent but also do activity that they’re interested in, they like to do, the place they go to think or the place they go to hide, and you paddle boarding.
Brad Sorock: Well, for me I need to meditate out an issue, be it at home, be it at my personal, be it at my work, and so what is that? I think many people find that through athletics, through running, and they find the Zen. For me, I’m really fond with paddleboard.
One of the lessons I’ve learned from closing Niche Retail is we have to know when to call it quits. You could say that about a stock. A stock goes up. We all hope we’ll just sell at the peak. You never really do, and if you do, it’s probably luck. And so, with Niche Retail, we were this big company. Well, big is all relative. It was big to us. By that time, we had shrunk a little bit, but we were at 60 employees. We started to taper down. At the end when we closed, we still had a $12 million business. But we had to be able to say like this isn’t working. It’s not meeting what we want. Do not be afraid of you’ve got to change and that’s okay. We’re having rebounded really well. That’s it. They say it’s not hard. It is hard, but there’s a time to say we’ve got to change.