153: Jeff Sheldon: Keep Showing Up: Stories Of Small-Scale Growth From A Designer By Trade And An Entrepreneur By Accident
A brand focused on creating and curating thoughtfully designed products, Ugmonk was launched in 2008 as a creative outlet to design products that Jeff Sheldon, its Founder, wanted to wear and use. Over a decade later, Ugmonk continues to expand its collection of well-designed products and clothing and attracts a passionate following from around the globe. Jeff joins Thane Marcus Ringler on the show today to discuss his advocacy and illustrate what it takes to run a small business successfully and do it sustainably.
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Jeff Sheldon: Keep Showing Up: Stories Of Small-Scale Growth From A Designer By Trade And An Entrepreneur By Accident
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I’m excited about the interview that is dropping. It’s been a while since I had done an interview and it was such a fun time to get to do this interview with Jeff Sheldon. He is a Founder and Designer of Ugmonk, a brand focused on creating and curating thoughtfully designed products. Jeff launched Ugmonk in 2008 as a creative outlet to design products that he wanted to wear and use. Over a decade later, Ugmonk continues to expand its collection of well-designed objects and clothing and attract a passionate following from around the globe. I first came across Ugmonk back when my sister, Court, had bought a t-shirt for me from him that had the infamous slogan, “Never Settle On It.” If you know me, you know this an integral part of my work and my brand now as my rally cry for others is to take ownership and never settle. I have two of those shirts and they’re probably the shirts I wear more than any other shirt I own because I love the message that it stands for.
Jeff is a great advocate for this message and a great story, illustrating a small business and what it takes to run a small business successfully and do it sustainably. We cover a lot of ground in this interview. Things like coffee habits, looking at the details of life, what fuels creativity, our human ability to adapt, being proud of the work that you do and create, how consistency is everything returning to the reason why you started something. The different phases of business growth, what it takes to launch products well, the lows of running your own business, caring for your family alongside of the business, integration of faith and work, sourdough bread, and so much more. It was such a blast to have this conversation with Jeff. I learned a lot from him as I know you will. It’s a great look into the life of an entrepreneur and the highs and the lows and everything in between. Without further ado, please enjoy this interview with Jeff Sheldon.
Jeff Sheldon, welcome to The Up and Comers Show.
Thanks for having me on.
Thanks for being here. One of the things I learned in some research is that you’re a fellow coffee aficionado. What is your morning coffee routine or do you have any favorite coffees that you’re brewing right now?
Coffee is a big part of my life. I don’t know how many years. It was maybe a few years ago. I never ever drank coffee in my life. My parents didn’t drink it. I thought it smelled great, but I tried it and it tasted terrible. My taste buds were open to the world of Third Wave Coffee and all of the intricacies of what coffee should taste like versus the gas station coffee that’s so bitter, you’ve got to chug it down. Since then, I’ve gone deep into the coffee world. My usual daily routine is a pour over with the Kalita Wave. My wife and I each have a cup in the morning. As far as roasters go, there are so many good roasters these days. One of the things I love about coffee is that it can be roasted anywhere. It’s not location-based. It’s not you have to be in New York City or LA to be a good coffee roaster. Our latest find is a place down in Mission, Texas called Jitterz Coffee. The stuff that they’re roasting is some of the best coffee I’ve ever had in my life. You’ve got to check it out if you’re into it.
I have not heard of Jitterz. I’m excited to check them out. Do you have a most memorable cup of coffee that you’ve had from them?
The Ethiopia Idido that they’re roasting. I bought one bag. Immediately after my first cup. I went back and I was like, “I’ve got to get three more bags before this is out of season again.” It’s like a perfectly balanced cup.
I’m drinking a Colombian from Qorvis. That was a Kalita Wave brew. It’s one of the simple pleasures of life. If we didn’t have coffee, life would be a little less bright.
My wife and I always joke. We’re lying in bed and be like, “I can’t wait until we get that cup of coffee in the morning.” It’s the thing you look forward to, especially we have young kids. We’re getting up at the crack of dawn. The coffee is the one thing to look forward to that early.
I’m excited to hear more about your family, but before we get there, another thing I’m curious about is, do you still mow your own grass?
No, which is funny. I don’t know if you did any research or you’ve heard me on other podcasts. I used to mow lawns. I bought my friend’s lawn business in high school. He was going off to college and I bought the business from him. I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur like one of those kids that were always trying to build businesses. It was the control. I got to control my own destiny with it. I bought that and mowed lawns for several years, part of the way through college too, and come home and make that money. It’s hilarious now because I am not mowing my lawn. One, because my lawnmower broke. Two, because the time that it takes to do it and the stage that I’m in with a 2 and a 4-year-old, it’s like I’d rather have that 1.5 hours back on a Saturday to go out and kick a soccer ball with them and play with them than mowing.
One of my best friends growing up also had a lawnmowing business. One of the things we joked about all the time was the lines. How are the lines? When you drive by the lawns, did they do a good job or not? It’s a sweet business for that age and that stage of life. I know once you have done that work, it’s probably hard to let it go. When you have a 2 and a 4-year-old, that definitely takes the priority.
It’s not something I mind when I have the time. It’s funny because it’s come full circle. I’ve sold the business to my brother, who ended up selling it to friends. I am moving to the neighborhood where I used to mow lawns. It wasn’t my own neighborhood. Now that it’s come full circle and they mow the lawns for me, some high school and college-age guys. I had 12 or 13 lawns when I bought it. I grew it to about 30 or 35. My brother took it to 45 or 50. I don’t know how many they have now. They have this entire neighborhood. It’s ironic.
I’ve heard you self-describe as designer by trade, entrepreneur by accident. When you describe Ugmonk, how do you describe the brand and the business or even in introductions to people you meet in daily life?
Ugmonk is a hard thing to describe because it doesn’t fit into one category. You have to drop down this stuff to what type of business do you run? There’s never a category that it fits into other than retail because we sell physical products. It’s a design-driven company. We’re focused on making high-quality products and things that I personally love and use. That’s the filter. My taste and my enjoyment of things or my need for certain things is the driver of why I make things including this latest product called Analog. Everything has come from this personal want and need rather than me going out, seeing a product and thinking like, “I have no interest in that, but I see a business model for it.” It’s the flipping it on its head and it’s all about obsessing over the details of how exactly I would want it and then attracting other people who share similar tastes in design coffee, music, etc.
I feel like that’s such a more sustainable model. One of the things I’m excited to dive into with you is that slow growth model. In your childhood, did you have some weird things or things in your childhood that you obsessed over the details like you do now in your business?
I was the kid that was coloring, drawing and making things. Craft time, art classes, those were all my favorite things. Even as a young kid, my parents would say I would collect rocks, but they were all gray rocks and pebbles. I would go around and specifically pick out certain ones and categorize them. I had this whole system about the way they looked and the way they feel. I always thought that was normal. You find out I was that weird kid that was into detail or even on car trips, as a kid looking out the window. I love to take in the details, look at different things and see what’s going by. That is what has stayed with me and the thing that’s in my DNA. That’s part of who I am that is taking me to the place where I am now. The common thread from being a kid who loved making things, and I always loved doing that, to a place now where I’ve been running a business for over a decade where I’m still making things and matured at a little bit past the rock collections.
I also heard that you and your brothers were pretty adept at Lego creations. What was the thing as a kid that you were most proud of creating?
It’s every type of building toy imaginable. We had Legos, K’Nexs, Tinkertoys and every other version of things. I’ve got to say the thing that we made, we took videos of it. I wish we still had a video I could post. There was a K’Nex ball factory like a Rube Goldberg thing where the balls go up and do different things. We built the one out of the box and followed the instructions. It took a few days. We took all of the pieces we had from all the other sets and made this crazy thing that had 26 different ways where the balls would jump off and loop through.Not every person should slowly work their way up the ladder; it’s not a linear path. It's okay to work on which rung you want to be on. Click To Tweet
We all gathered together and put our heads together. My younger brother is an engineer and then my older brother is a software developer. You can imagine it got pretty intense nerding out on K’Nex. We had a lot of fun. I feel like that’s something where I hope my kids enjoy the same thing, get into the tangible building and creating things. One of my favorites was Hot Wheels and building the Hot Wheels tracks. I remember I had one. We had a basement. It would go all the way down the hall, down the stairs into the basement. It was a three-day project. Mom would get a little annoyed by the end of it because it’s in the way of everything, but those were the best days.
What was it like being a middle kid? Do you see that being the middle child influencing you in one way or another? I’m the youngest of two so I see ways that shaped me and even led into this overachieving mode to try to keep up with my older sister. What have you seen from being the middle child?
Maybe not the typical like middle child gets left out of everything, the overlooked one. My parents did a good job of finding each of the things we were interested in, supporting us and helping us nourish those interests. All three of us, me and my two brothers, are all very driven. We don’t like to sit around. We’d rather be doing things whether it’s using our brains or using our bodies. There was definitely a little bit of, “I’ve got to keep up with my older brother because he is way smarter than me, picks up on things fast and is good at solving problems.” He’s a software developer so he can think through that lens. I’m more on the art and design side and I don’t quite see things as easily or I get stuck on things. He’s my business partner now. My older brother who’s running his own startup, he’s also been a key part of growing the business. We’ve put our heads together. We’ve all stayed close. We had a unique relationship where the three of us generally got along, but we did challenge each other when it came to sports or whatever it was that we were doing.
What did your parents do when you were growing up? What impact did they instill on you? It’s so unique to have parents that help foster and bring out the best in you. Parenting is more an art form than it is a rigid structure. It’s what I’ve experienced, but from what I know of it. What parenting things do you remember from your parents that even you’re instilling now as a father?
I was and am extremely blessed to have parents that supported me and were there backing me and still backing me to this day. My mom still is my employee who does all of our shipping and fulfillment. It’s come full circle, but the thing that’s cool is they saw something in each of us. While they did push us to do well educationally and all of those things, they sacrificed and invested a lot for us to be able to do that. Whether it was taking more summer art camps or whatever it was to give us the platform to explore things that we wanted to do. Also being you can’t paint pictures for a living and giving us a grounded view of what we needed to do and how to steward those tasks to use them. Looking back now, as a parent, I realized how much they sacrifice and put our interests in front of theirs specifically to make sure that we were on a path that we could excel at those things.
What did they do for work?
My dad was a landscape architect and has been in sales for a while. My mom stayed at home with us and now she’s employed by me. It’s been fun to keep it a true family business. Every part of the family has somehow gotten roped into it at one time or another.
Have you ever had your design interest bleed into the landscape architecture side and what is it like? Did you have that be any part of your own passion or was it like, “I don’t want to do what my dad is doing?”
There wasn’t a lot of crossover there. Architecture is something I was interested in. Trying to figure out what I wanted to do with this artistic passion and I still greatly admire architecture. If you get any of my five things emails, I’m always highlighting these incredible structures and houses all over the world. The part of architecture that I learned is it’s a lot less creative and it’s a lot more technical when it comes down to it. I wanted to be the guy sketching out the renderings and doing all the fun stuff, not like, “This can’t be made.” I would say that I pulled things from my mom. She wouldn’t say she’s an artist or she’s creative, but her mom is a true artist. My mom definitely inherited some of that, even though she won’t admit it. There’s an art gene on that side that I pull from. My dad’s side is much more analytical, super detail-obsessed. When he was working as a landscape architect, I’m sure it was dialed into the tee.
I fell into this bucket as well, but how much of that, “I’m not creative,” is simply a self-limiting belief? How much of that is a self-fulfilling prophecy more times than not with people?
A lot of people don’t want to admit they’re creative and they also only think of creative as being a visual thing. I get asked and hit up by all sorts of friends and be like, “You’re creative. You should know this.” It’s like this lump thing where creative is almost the worst term because you’re painted with such broad strokes. Everyone is creative in certain ways. People that work in spreadsheets all day are creative. They’re using different parts of their brain and it may not be visually creative, but problem solving is creative. Doing things, being a mom, being a dad, you have to be creative and you wouldn’t stop and say, “I feel super creative.” When you step back and you look at how you’re able to work through issues, how you’re able to see things, how you’re able to look back and analyze things. There’s creativity in everyone. People don’t like to lump themselves in as an artist because they may think, “I can’t draw so I’m not creative.”
It is sad that those terms have become synonymous when creativity isn’t everything. What have you seen or what are things that you think maybe it could be generalizations or it could be specifically for you are the things that fuel creativity within people?
We’re wired for it. Think about even now, we’re adapting through this whole pandemic and all of the things that were going on. We have to quickly adapt as humans, unlike any other species, because we didn’t do things this way. In a couple of weeks, everything got flipped upside down and we got to get creative. We are driven to that as a core means of survival, but also adapting to things that you put a different lens on to see things through. Whether it’s a problem or what we’re going through now where every small business in the country has got to get creative and is driven by that to succeed, to stay in business. At the core of it, there’s that driving force that’s part of our DNA and our nature.
I’m curious to hear more on the small business side in the middle of the pandemic that a lot of people can relate to, but speaking of putting a different lens on, that’s such a powerful concept of being able to see something from multiple perspectives. As you think about even your children and the world that they’re growing up in now versus the world that you and I grew up in, looking at details throughout your childhood and that being such an inspiration, how do you see that impacting your children now with the world we live in? How do you see them developing in that way and how do you help foster that creativity even in a different environment?
It’s crazy to think about how things have changed in our lifetime and how quickly things are changing. You look at the technology. Growing up, technology was a single computer for us, which we were fortunate to have. It was very limited time, no internet in the beginning. When we got our first phone line and we’d dial up and email was all new. Now screens are so prevalent in our lives and in our kid’s life that I feel like it’s going to be weird. It’s going to be interesting to see how that evolves as a society and how we’re watching it unfold right now as far as screen time. One of the things that’s easy to say as a parent until you have kids. Before you’re a parent, it’s like, “My kids are never going to be sitting in front of the TV. I’m going to limit the amount of screen time and all that.” You have kids and you’re like, “I need 30 minutes to send an email. I’m putting Paw Patrol on and they’re going to watch that. They’re going to love it.”
I can see it’s a slippery slope where you’re like, “I’m going to stick them in front of a device all day because it’s tiring to keep up with it.” The intentionality of saying like, “We’re going to go outside now. We’re going on a hike. We’re going on a walk. We’re going to be doing those things. We’re going to get out the rock collection or we’re going to get dirty with our hands.” It has to be this intentional thing now. It’s not an automatic where it’s weird. My neighborhood has tons of kids in it, but I don’t see them much at all. It’s rare to see kids out. It takes work and because we can default to being consumers of all these things, even on a kid level where they can watch YouTube shows or whatever all day. That’s one of the things that I’m not doing a perfect job of it. Being proactive and thinking about how does technology shape them and in all the different ways.
It connects to how I first came across you and your work. My sister has been more of the artist growing up and more of the creative. Now I’m telling myself I am a creative as well and that’s been helpful. She introduced me to some of your t-shirts and ended up buying me one. It was the Never Settle tee. That was the inspiration for the mantra that most of my work is around, which is take ownership and never settle. That’s probably my favorite t-shirt of all time. I’ve got a couple of them and I love it. I’d love to hear a little bit about the background of even that piece itself. Along with that, what other mantras or phrases or even principles are your business and work built off of?
Maybe we’ll do a re-release of that shirt because it’s no longer in print right now. Maybe we’ll bring it back on our new tees that we’re making and in LA, in your backyard. The Never Settle shirt and a lot of the phrase-based shirts that I was doing did come from things that I wanted to instill in my own life. A lot these phrases can be taken in different ways, but when I’m going to put together a product, I’m going to design something, I’ve got to get it to the point where it’s never perfect. There’s no such thing as perfection when it comes to design or art, but it has to be to the point where I’m proud to attach my name to it.
If it’s only 90% of the way there and I’m like, “Let’s ship it. This is fine. No one’s going to notice that this is unbalanced or the typeface isn’t spaced and turned properly.” The idea of never setting is going that extra 10% or even that 1% or 2% to get things to a point where you’re proud to say like, “Yes, I did the best I could.” It sounds a little bit cliché, do your best when you’re playing a sport or whatever. To truly give it your best effort, we all know when we kick back and get lazy and be like, “This one is going to slide through because I don’t feel like putting in that.” This isn’t to put myself on a pedestal like I do this perfectly, but I’ve got to keep telling myself that. Otherwise, the slope to mediocrity and being like, “No one’s going to notice.” How many times have you said, “No one’s going to notice?” The fact is they do notice these details and they notice a difference. That’s where that was born out of. People attach different meetings and different personal stories to it.
I love what you had said about defaulting. We always will default unless we infuse intentionality into what we’re doing. Whether or not we consciously know, we subconsciously know. Everyone will subconsciously pick it up even if they’re not even aware of picking it up. That’s why I love that phrase and that concept because we’re all capable of doing it and we all suck at doing it. We had to build the muscle of doing it. What are some of the other concepts or things that you have to remind yourself of consistently or want to infuse in your business and your work?
I had a shirt and a print that said this. We discontinued a lot of these. Maybe we’ll bring them back. It was, “Slow and steady wins the race.” At the end of the little slow and steady wins, there’s a little turtle, the reference to the tortoise and the hare. People look at what I’ve done and they want to build it in a day. They want to build it in the weekend. This goes into my mentality and also the advice that I give to other people building businesses is the ten-year overnight success of what I’ve done. It’s putting one foot in front of the other, slowly building on what I’ve done, learning, falling back, getting back up, doing it again.
That consistency for me is everything. I would rather be walking slowly and course correcting on the way than this rocket ship fuel-based thing where I’m scaling up 10x, 20x every year, building a huge team, things are getting out of control. Product quality and customer service are all over the place. There are so many other things that can happen that aren’t necessarily good other than the top-line revenue number. Consistency is showing up every day and trying to improve, trying to treat people the best you can and put out the best quality work is the mantra that I’ve been doing for several years, which is crazy.The only way to actually learn something is to go through it. Click To Tweet
It’s on your website or it may be on one of your blogs, I’m speaking to the slow growth model. You had said, “Another value that we’re carrying forward is our commitment to quality over quantity. It’s tempting to want to raise money from investors scale quickly, build a huge company with big budgets, but we’ve realized that’s not the core of who we are. We’re not looking for hockey stick growth and mass distribution. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. In a disposable world where most things quickly become outdated. We’re doubling down on producing the best products that will stand the test of time, selling them directly to you fewer better things.” I thought that’s such a rare stance to take in this world. How do you overcome the temptation of what most businesses or business owners or even startups want to try to embody this hockey stick growth, this scalability and growth at all costs? How have you overcome that temptation? There have been moments where you’ve been like, “Maybe I should.” What’s that process been like as you’ve thought through it?
There’s a lot to say in that. Going back to the reason I started Ugmonk was because I loved making things. I love creating things. The fact that other people like them too and people want to pay their hard-earned money to wear these t-shirts that I was creating and now use desk organizers, leather mouse pads and that like all of the products, take the money out of that equation. Money is the fuel to make that all happen, but it was never like, “How can I work the least and make the most money?” What is the way I can outsource everything, sit on a beach someday and have everybody working for me? To be honest, I’d be bored in the first two days. I can hardly sit on a beach for one day. My mind is going and I want to make things. I want to do things or at least be in the ocean swimming or something.
Going back to the scale thing, my eyes have certainly gotten wide sometimes where I’m like, “I could make this huge.” People put a little word in my ear. They’re like, “You should be huge. You could easily get this.” I get hit up by investors. We get VC firms and stuff reaching out blindly like, “Do you want to sell your business?” To me, “If I sold my business, first of all, I would start up another one probably.” The cash out of doing that and losing this passionate following and community of people that I’ve built to me is not interesting.” This is where I divert from the typical business world. Especially the startup world is I’d rather be doing this for as long as I possibly can. Hopefully not when I’m 80 or 90, but still doing something. I’d rather be doing that than try and flip businesses that I don’t care about.
The creation process, the storytelling, the launch, everything, all the way to full circle, to shipping the product, is rewarding for me as a designer. I’ve been approached by people and a lot of friends that I have scaled businesses and they’ve taken money and they’ve done it well. To me, scaling a business is not that exciting and motivating. I don’t get out of bed to be like, “I wonder how I can 20x, 10x this,” and spend my life working on that. I’d rather keep making products and layering them onto each other, serving the community that follows me and then build it that way. I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong, but it’s knowing I might be miserable if I was trying to run a $20 million company because I don’t want to do that. I don’t necessarily want to lead a huge team of people.
What I seem to be hearing is that there’s so much more power in looking internally than externally at what we are wired for. A lot of times we look to others for direction and advice and some of that’s good. We need to learn from others. We need to get wisdom and experience and glean that from other people who have gone the path. It’s so much more powerful when that’s combined with the internal seeking of what am I wired to do and what brings me life. I love the question you returned to like, “Why did I start this in the first place? What is the reason for even doing this in the first place?” Inevitably over several years, you’re going to have times where you have to go back to that and be like, “This is why I did it. This is why I’m going to keep doing it.”
Knowing the differences of where you fit within a business or running your own business. I don’t tell everyone to start their own business because you can do whatever you want. You can set your own schedule because some people aren’t wired that way. They’re better working with a team of people or under someone else. We have this weird ladder where you’re supposed to work as a junior level person. You work your way up to become a manager. You no longer do the thing that you excelled at and studied. You work your way up past that. You become the CEO who manages things. There are a lot of personalities that can do that and can lead a company, but not every person should slowly work their way up this ladder. It’s not a linear path. It’s okay to find which rung you want to be on if that rung is satisfying and that ladder for you to stay at. It doesn’t have to be in this advancement of always getting more.
With that returning to the foundation of why you started, there’s also a necessary component of iterating, adapting and changing. Over several years, inevitably a business will change. What have you seen as the different phases of Ugmonk and how it’s shaped and shifted over those several years?
In the early years, it was straight up like a side project. I have no clue what I’m doing, making it up as I go, which I still feel like I’d say that all the time. I’m still making this up as I go. Half this stuff is DIY ethic. “Do a lot with a little,” that’s another phrase that I’ve used. How can we make this look like the pros and use the equipment we have? The early years were like we’re going to see where this goes. It was never supposed to be a business. It was supposed to be a little side project that I was passionate about. As things grew, it started with t-shirts and then I was like, “I could apply the same design mentality to other things.” I started to expand, which meant more money into inventory, which meant more shipping supplies. All of the parts that grew with it, we had to get a real customer service application. We had to slowly grow into these versus a business plan set up or even a framework of where we wanted it to go.
If you had asked me in 2011 where I would be in 2020, I don’t think I would have said, “Selling face masks and note cards.” The evolution of it is part of the fun. I’ll plug another one of my designs called Enjoy the Journey, which is the same thing. This weaving path of where Ugmonk goes and where I am now, where I was several years ago is part of the fun. It’s certainly not all highs. Trust me, there are plenty of lows and plenty of times where I’ve thought about throwing in the towel. You don’t necessarily see that all on social media or not necessarily writing about the lows of business. The enjoyment has to be in the process. It has to be in that path of pivoting, adapting and changing. If I was to stick to one thing, I’m never going to break from that. I’m only going to do this. Maybe it was sticking to t-shirts. I wouldn’t be where I am now.
When you’re in the middle of moving through different phases of Ugmonk, each phase, the complexity compounds. With that, the risk compounds. It probably feels a heavier load when you go from 100 people to 1,000 people. You’re now shipping not just shirts, but all these inventory and parts. How have you been able to adjust within yourself to handle more risk and more exposure or this more complex thing that you’ve built?
I have taken on more risks. We’ve taken on more of everything. There’s more overhead, more expense. At the same time, I’ve kept the business as lean as I possibly can. I’m right now in a bedroom in my house. We’ve kept our actual overhead minimal as opposed to growing in because we’re growing up, we need X and X and we need this fancy office and all this. Part of it is, how do I take away as much risk as possible from that standpoint? Not necessarily like investing $100,000 in a product idea and then throwing it out there and saying like, “I hope this works.” Doing it in the opposite way where I’ll start as small as I possibly can, which might be $5,000 on product development and start talking to my audience about it. I start telling a group of friends, other designers, my family, and working my way up to the point where I’m ready to launch something.
It may not be guaranteed, but it’s not, “I’m pivoting completely. I’m going to shut this all down. I’m going to start X idea and then I’m going to go all in.” That’s part of my personality too is people think I’m maybe a little risky because I quit my full-time job in 2010, the economy was terrible. It wasn’t a risk because I’d already been building Ugmonk on the side. I was already doing some freelance work. My wife was working. It’s a calculated risk versus, “Let’s jump off a cliff and build a parachute on the way down. I hope we have enough material.” I don’t operate that way. You need investment for a lot of things and for a lot of types of companies and technology companies. The way that I’m building it, it’s the opposite of that. What can I do with the small amount that I have working on a cash basis to make my next thing and layer it onto each other to get rid of as much risk as possible so that I’m not stuck in a hard place?
“How do I take away as much risk as possible?” That’s a good question in any pursuit, let alone business. How do you vet designs or ideas or projects that are to come out? Ideas are a diamond dozen. We all think they’re good when we first have them, but what is your process for vetting out what’s worth pursuing versus what’s a fanciful idea?
This is another tricky one too. It’s a gut-level decision where there’s not necessarily a formula or a litmus test to say it passed these three things and it’s going to work. The best test is to get the product in people’s hands or show it in person and be like, “What do you think of this?” The key is showing it to people that are going to give honest feedback. You’re going to have friends that are going to love every idea and then you’re going to have friends that’ll hate every idea. Where’s the balance between who’s going to give you the real critique to say, “No, this isn’t worth pursuing. Stop. You’re crazy?” For me, the last part of that, which is the key filter is like, “Am I passionate about it? Do I like this? Would I use this?”
The product that I launched called Analog has something that I’ve used versions of for several years. Taking it from I’ve used this thing so long and it works for me that I keep coming back to it. It keeps doing something for me that it’s going to work for other people. I had a bunch of people would be like, “I don’t know. You’re selling index cards.” It’s like, “I get it, but that’s great.” Balancing all these things, but for me when I come back, I’m like, “This is the one thing that keeps me centered and productive every single day.” I’m going to see if it works because at a gut level, I’m like, “There’s something to it that I have to get out there and I have to test.” Not like a science experiment, “Let’s put all these things in a bowl and see what comes out. This is a good product. This isn’t.” This is more of like working through and being true with yourself.
I want to hear more on Analog. What is Analog and to get into that, you said several years now. I’m curious to hear about the different phases that Analog is going to take in over the years.
Analog is the product that I launched on Kickstarter, which is why things have been so crazy for me and trying to schedule everything. Analog is what I’m calling the simplest productivity system. It’s a physical card-based system to help you get things done. At the core of it, it’s notecards and this wood holder where the cards sit and live. Beyond the surface level of seeing what the cards look like, it’s a whole way of thinking that I’ve pulled from and been inspired from other productivity experts. There’s bullet journaling. There’s getting things done. Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work and all these principles of like, “How do we focus? How do we put constraints in our life?” James Clear’s Atomic Habits is another one, setting a cue to start a habit to set your day on the right course.
What I’ve done is I started with regular index cards because of the small size. I’m going to put up to 5, 8 things on there that I want to get done in that day. Every time I open up my task manager on my phone or my computer, I’m like a squirrel, I’m all over the place. I can’t focus. I can’t stay in the zone. How am I watching YouTube videos again? I was supposed to be looking at what I was supposed to do. What I would do is I would copy down this task onto a card in the morning, have that card sit right below my monitor, in my face, no notifications to swipe away, no nothing.
It’s right there. It’s not on a digital device. That system has worked so well that I came up with the idea of developing an actual design and the cards themselves, and then pulling in other things like the bullets where you can mark things as in progress or delegated or completed and pulling all those things together, but doing it in an Ugmonk way. In an aesthetically pleasing system that cohesively works together versus do I have any more cards or scraps of paper laying around? It’s been probably the last. Last year, I’ve dedicated a ton of time towards finalizing that design the concept, the launch, the story.
The original deal was a few years ago that maybe this could be a product. It’s too simple. I don’t know that it’s going to be anything. It’s been interesting to see how it’s gone through stages of being a note card to more of a system dividing things up into today cards, the next cards and the someday cards. This is how I work and this is how I think. I’ve been testing it with friends and seeing like, “Does this resonate with other people?” and seeing where it goes. Here we are shortly after launching this is going crazy.
It’s inspiring too because it is this concept of mastery being the simplicity on the far side of complexity and how all these great thinkers from Einstein and Churchill to Steve Jobs have affirmed that far side simplicity is the prize pearl that you pursue. That’s a great testimony to even the success so far of Analog, which is this is the beginning of it. That it is something we long for, the most simplest, purest form of something that is helpful and that we know is grounding and foundational, but furthering what we’re able to do. You’ve nailed it with Analog. It seems like it’s resonating deeply with people. That simplicity has a lot to do with it. One of the things I’ve learned about you is that your desk is almost more famous than you are now. Did you ever see yourself becoming a productivity designer or lifestyle designer in this way?
I’ve probably seen a photo of my desk somewhere, whether they know it or not, because it’s like hundreds of millions of times it’s been downloaded. I had collaborated with Unsplash to give out a free high res stock photography. It was more of like, “I’ll give them some images that people can use.” It’s been passed around all over the place. People’s portfolios, they’re using it as like their home office and stuff. I’m like, “That’s a little odd.” I get emails or messages from people, “They’re using your desk photo.” I’m like, “It’s all good.” People are allowed to use it as open source. The workspace thing was weird because starting as a t-shirt designer, the workspace has nothing to do with that.We're called to do things to the best of our abilities. Click To Tweet
If you trace all the steps, I wanted to make these leather journals. This was way long ago. I thought, “Let’s make a leather sketchbook.” It’s probably 2009 or something like a year into it. Let’s see what does it look like to do my first non-apparel project. I found a lady on Etsy. We’re working making batches of twenty of these little leather journals. She was amazing and the journals were amazing. As I was learning more about leather and the vegetable tan leather, the way it darkens and gets more beautiful with use, it’s like, “It would be interesting if I use the mousepad that way.” Instead of using these crappy giveaway freebie ones you get at conferences, they have big logos all over them.
Your insurance agent gives you and you’re like, “I don’t know if I want that on my desk.” I was like, “I wanted something nicer.” I started using like a little square of leather that she had sent essentially a mousepad. It started to wear in and start to get cool. I posted a picture of that. We ordered ten because I was like, “I don’t know if anyone uses a mousepad or anybody wants them.” They sold out instantly and now it’s one of our bestselling items. It started to open his door into designing not just a productive workspace, but aesthetically pleasing, productive workspace. On Instagram, it’s become a thing and everyone’s designing the spaces. To me, the space can be beautiful, but if it’s not functional or comfortable to work in, it’s a photo for Instagram.
You’re putting cool lights up and doing a lot of stuff. I want to be able to get work done in this space and bringing in tools, bringing in things, building the monitor stand that I built, bringing in Gather, which was the desk organizer that I launched a few years ago. These were all things that helped me to be more productive and design things through that same lens that minimal lens that I’ve established for Ugmonk. Seeing it take off and we now move into even the productivity space, even the mental organization of ideas, that winding road, that journey. I would never have said that I would be launching a product like Analog even a few years ago because I wouldn’t consider myself a productivity guru or expert. I need to get work done so how am I going to do that? That’s the story of how things have come to where they are. We still sell t-shirts. T-shirts are still one of our bestsellers. At the same time, moving into this workspace aesthetically pleasing functional items.
Speaking of Gather, there are some other interviews you’ve done where you get to share more of the hardships along with Gather especially and going the Kickstarter route with that. How would you compare your experience thus far with Analog versus your experience with Gather? What have you shifted or changed in your approach based on what you learned with Gather?
Gather took on a life of its own and was the biggest successful product that I’ve ever launched. We raised over $400,000 on Kickstarter. I did not anticipate that. I tried to take out all the risk I could. I did put a lot of money up front to invest in product development, figuring out all the pieces, shooting a video, but I didn’t know it was going to go that huge. What happens is when something goes big, that means the larger success, the larger the problems. The harder it is to fulfill at scale, the harder it is to manufacture. There are a lot of things. Someday I’ll write a book and people will be like, “You’ve got to write a book about all of this.”
Maybe I’ll come back and listen to some of these podcasts so I can remember some of it and chronicle the whole journey. Doing something at scale and then seeing like, “This could be my business.” Gather essentially felt like it was going to be my business because it was going so big to the point of, “We’ll get into big box stores. We’ll get into boutiques.” I had a call from the associate casting producer at Shark Tank. They wanted me to come on. All these crazy things where I’m like, “This is nuts,” and that’s the opposite. Our eyes got big. I’m going to scale this thing up, get rich, then sell that off. I don’t know what I’ll do next. What happened was there are a lot more problems involved with producing it, manufacturing it and even shipping it. Doing things at scale that it became a nightmare essentially of trying to get this all to work.
The product itself is great. People still love it. We still sell them to this day. It’s very successful, but managing a company and managing growth like that out of nowhere was like, “I wasn’t ready for the big leagues.” If I did want to go huge with it, I wanted to get in every big box store and do deals with Target or something like that. I have to spend most of my time working on that, not designing more products. I thought a lot of that stuff would happen organically automatically. It didn’t. We were manufacturing at scale on Kickstarter and then sales trickled down.
What I learned from that, to go full circle, is that with Analog, I’m manufacturing it locally. I’m doing it all in the US. I have complete control over the process, be able to QC everything. We’re going to do all the shipping ourselves even if we’re already up to thousands, like 1,700 to 1,800 packers right now. We are you going to do that. It’s going to be a big chore. It’s going to be a lot of work. It’s not the cheapest way to do it. It’s not the easiest way to do it, but I’m going to take all that back in-house to have control over the whole process. We don’t run into a lot of the customer service and shipping and all of the issues that we faced with Gather.
When did it feel like Gather was finally resolved? Meaning how long did it take for you to feel like, “Gather is fully resolved. The pieces of the puzzle are now in place. The problems are solved. It’s not cruise control, but cruise control with it?”
There’s still fallout from some of that stuff. Some inventory and stuff that we never got refunded for and issues that we’re dealing with. It took at least a year, almost maybe two years after we launched that, back and forth with issues. Me physically going into warehouses and spending days inspecting product and getting people to repack things, the manufacturer made right on it. Send us new parts and we repack everything. There are issues with quality with certain Gather sets. We had to go through each one. You think of the number, 4,000, 5,000, 6,000, it sounds manageable. That’s two shipping containers worth of product. It blew my mind too.
We were shipping t-shirts and small items. The amount of effort it took to go through that, by the end of it, it was like, “What am I doing here?” I wanted to work on Analog. I wanted to work on other things. I had to put Analog and other things on the back burner for a while to focus on resolving that stuff, making sure everyone was completely satisfied, sending customers free replacement sets, anything that was covering all the issues. At the core of my brand, I want people to stick around. This isn’t a one and done, quick sale and then we’re done cashing out. I want people to be interested in the next thing we were making. There were many months and horror stories of like, “Should I quit now?” It almost crushed me.
During that time, what were the reframes or how did you shift your perspective to be able to see maybe the opportunity versus the disaster that it could be? What was your mindset or process in that?
We learn through experience. The only way to learn something is to go through it. Trial by fire. Being in a classroom is fine. Being on the road and having to sell something is totally different in the real world and going through some of that. A lot of the reframing was around like, “What can I take away from this? What can I learn from it? I never want to be doing this again.” How many times have I said that to apply to the next thing? On the flip side, reframing it, there are thousands of people in 80 countries or something that have a Gather on their desk that love and use it, that send me emails and being like, “This thing is great. I didn’t even know I needed this until I have it. When somebody moves it off my desk, I feel out of sync.”
Thinking about the positives, thinking about the product itself still being successful and people aren’t necessarily walking that path of the terrible times and seeing how hard it is. People saying, “What else have you got? I want to see what else are you going to design for my desk. I can’t wait to see the next thing.” That picks me back up and it’s like, “I’ve got to be there for them. I’ve got to deliver.” Having the passionate, real people behind it, not just numbers, but engage people that want me to succeed is how I reframe it.
It’s so cool too. People are way more powerful than numbers. We get lost in the numbers so much. We forget that it’s a real human being behind a single number. That’s where the inspiration, the motivation and the support that we feel comes from. Numbers will never feel like support even though we may get excited about them. It’s a big difference. As you mentioned before, you’ve been focusing on taking control back, manufacturing locally, starting to get things where they’re more controllable and manageable. One of the things you’ve done is moving your t-shirts and being manufactured in LA. I know that cannot be an easy process, but how did you go about finding, sourcing and vetting a manufacturer for t-shirts is the main part of your business?
Finding good manufacturers is hard, especially at a smaller scale where I’m not producing several hundred thousand units of everything. A lot of people are like, “Sorry, we can’t work with you.” Finding people domestically in the US where there are not a lot of factories left. There’s a stat that I read that was in 1980. Eighty-plus percent of our clothes were made in the US and now it’s less than 2%. There’s almost nothing left. LA is one of the few places that still makes apparel and clothing. Your choices are already narrowed down. There’s a reason why everyone has basically gone overseas because it’s way cheaper. We wanted to move from buying readymade t-shirts off the shelf from some of the larger companies to making our own and making it better.
I have this constant thing and my wife always teases me like I always want to optimize. As soon as I’m done on one thing, it’s like, “How can I make that better?” That’s my constant thought to the point of like, I need to learn to be satisfied with things sometimes. I had this idea of what if we could make the shirts even better? What if we could make them locally? We could tell the story of that. We could show who’s making them. We shot a video there in the factory, the real people behind it that are hand making the shirts and dyeing them and everything. Moving us to that level to be able to sell the actual garment itself rather than the design, because a lot of the blank companies and the wholesale companies that we’re working with, the quality has started to decline.
It isn’t the same as it was several years ago. It pushed me to say, “What if we can make that even better?” That’s where we got to making our own shirts. It’s been fun. It’s definitely not like, again, the cheapest way, the highest margin way. If they run a similar sized company and look at our margins and stuff, they’re like, “How do you do this?” It’s the mentality of like, “I want to deliver the best product I possibly can.” We’ll figure out how to cut the overhead or cut the expenses on the other side so that we can still sell it at a reasonable cost.
With the place in time that we find ourselves in and going through a pandemic and the nature of uncertainty that we all face right now, what has that been like for you as a small business owner going through almost a crisis of like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen?” I’m curious to hear your experience through COVID and what you found especially with this big buildup of launching a product you’ve been working on for years and years of time.
I was going to launch Analog back in March 2020 and then COVID happened. It changed the plans of everything and everyone. If we had done this in March 2020, it would be a different conversation. I’d probably be a lot more stressed and a lot more unsure of what the future looked like. Working through COVID specifically has been interesting and here’s like a quick snapshot is first, I sent a personal email as COVID was starting to get intense here in the States. I sent a personal email and be like, “This is who we are as a company. We’re a small company. We realized not everybody needs desk organizers, t-shirts and all of these things right now, but we’re going to muscle our way through. We’d love to keep producing these things and making them for you.”
We have a lot of workspace items, everyone’s setting up working from home. We’re like, “Let’s do a work from home sale. Let’s put together a collection of all desk related products and do a special sale on that.” Not pleading for people to save us and donate money to us. How do I get set up on my kitchen table while I’m home? This was when we didn’t know we were going to have to be at home this long. The response to that was incredible. It goes back to real people being on the other side of these emails that wanted us to succeed. I got messages and messages from people who’ve been like, “I can’t buy anything right now, but I’m pulling for you as soon as I get money. I want to help you.” That felt unbelievable. That was like, “We have a lifeline here. We’re going to make it.” What happened after that was the face mask, which we joked about at first like, “Maybe we should sell masks,” and no one was selling masks.
People were online that we’re selling them are getting yelled at like, “You capitalist. I can’t believe you’d sell a mask and profit off this pandemic.” I was like, “I’ll stay out of that.” I did not want to get involved in the back and forth of that. It became like, “COVID is serious. We need to be wearing masks. This is mandated. We need to protect ourselves and others.” At the same time, the t-shirt manufacturer in LA had reached out and been like, “We got a permit to reopen our factory by making masks.” They had to shut down completely. He was like, “Do you think you want to sell them through your site?” I was like, “I don’t know. Let’s try it.” We started ordering face masks through him. Little did I know they would be like the world’s greatest face mask. He had designed it and specked out the fabric. It’s super soft, breathable. We want to sell them at a reasonable price. We put them on our site for $10, printed a logo on them, which is another side note, which kept the screen printer.Working can be an obsession and can be an escape for a lot of us. Click To Tweet
The one guy in the building that does the screen printing kept him in business by giving him an extra little job and started selling them. Here we are and it’s been unbelievable to see how many new customers have come through the door. We’ve sold more of them than any other product probably I’ve ever sold of anything. You would never have predicted in January 2020 that this is what it would look like. What’s interesting is even though we’re not making a lot of money on the masks, we’re bringing in all these people and introducing them to the Ugmonk brand. They’re coming back and being like, “If your masks are this nice, I bet your t-shirts are nice.”
They come back and they’re buying a t-shirt or they’re buying something else. What a roller coaster it’s been to walk through that and then to launch a Kickstarter. I didn’t know if I should launch a Kickstarter right now with everything going on and delighted again when all of the George Floyd murder stuff was happening. To focus on the Black Lives Matter, give that space and not to try and launch something amidst that. I launched it and here we are selling masks and Analog cards and everything else. Business is good, but talk to me in a month or a week and maybe I’ll be back on the low again.
It’s a cool testimony to the rhythms of life and of business and how it ebbs and flows. There’s so much to momentum and there’s so much to going through hills and valleys. I appreciate your ability to talk about both. I know you’ve had some incredible lows amidst these highs, but what is consistently some of the hardest part of owning and running Ugmonk and going this path?
For me right now, this has nothing to do with business, but it has more to do with life. It’s being a dad to two young kids and being a husband when you have all day to work in your business. I don’t know what I used to do with my time, but I spend it all working on Ugmonk. When you’re limited in time, mental space, emotional space and actual physical sleep, it’s definitely been some trying times with how am I going to keep doing this? Understanding what does it mean to delegate and bring people in. My sister-in-law has taken over all of our operations and has been a huge help in a million different areas.
Growing out of me, doing it all, strapping on my back and be like, “I’m going to muscle through this because I physically can’t anymore.” I don’t have unlimited time and going through the lows of the frustrations of trying to balance all of those things and excel in all of them. I’ve dropped the balls more than once. Juggling all the balls there is to run a business and the many different parts, it’s not simply recording a podcast. It’s not simply writing a book. You’ve got to keep all of these things going and 39 other things and no one ever sees behind the scenes.
What is being a husband and what is being a father? Have those roles changed you or even taught you about life and yourself?
I’m super vulnerable. The honest side of it is like it’s brought out a lot of ugly parts of myself. I want success. I want to be working. I want to be doing these things more than I want to be loving my kids or being there and being present with them. It’s so hard to not whip out the phone when I’m outside playing baseball or something, playing a little wiffle ball and check my phone and check an email and fully focused and present with them. I’m a work in progress when it comes to that. I have a long way to go. That’s part of like growth, understanding those things and being aware of those, but definitely balancing all of that stuff. Keeping their priorities in line and putting family first, not putting work first is the hardest thing for me. It’s a struggle.
I relate to that as well. I got married and it’s such a sweet mirror to see yourself more clearly and to realize sometimes we do value things more than we should, like success or work. I’m grateful to have a partner that is quick to remind me of those things and help me see more clearly of like, “Is this important?” It’s like, “No, it’s not.” We trick ourselves into thinking that all the time.
I’ve got to give my wife a lot of credit because she’s like the reset centering force. She’s always been super supportive of what I’ve done with Ugmonk. She even encouraged me to go full-time with it when things were crazy and not stable at all. At the same time, she does a good job pulling me back from this alternate universe. You can live in this online world and be obsessing over things that don’t matter to be like, “Snap back into it,” and teaching me to be present with our kids and be present with her. Left to my own devices, it would not be pretty. I would certainly probably be a workaholic.
Are you an Enneagram guy at all? Are you familiar with that? What is your Enneagram number?
I’m a three wing four.
We share that. I’m the exact same.
We dove into that. When something’s talked about a lot online, to the point of I didn’t want to hear about it. It’s beaten to death. You’re like, “Can everyone stop with this Enneagram stuff?” I was a big naysayer for a long time. Finally, through a series of friends challenging me and opening my eyes to what it was, that’s been the single biggest tool for me becoming self-aware of a lot of these motivations and stress and where I turned to even in my marriage and in friendships. It’s been a huge tool for growth. If anyone’s reading to like “Enneagram, why does this thing keep coming up? Can people shut up about it?” It takes work and it’s hard. It’s not simply assigning yourself a number and being like, “Cool. I know I’m this number.” It’s been a way for me to see myself because I’m not great at stopping to look in the mirror. I keep going.
What are the resources or tools that you’ve used with it? There’s a million now related to the Enneagram, but what have you found to be most helpful resource-wise? As a fellow three, I want to hear some more about what you’ve found to be healthy and unhealthy within how you express yourself.
As far as resources go, The Road Back to You is probably the starter book for everyone. If you want to learn more about it, figure out what your number is, figure out what that means, it’s not a super deep book, but it’s a great way to get a framework of what the Enneagram is teaching. You’re learning about yourself. This isn’t like a 30-minute thing where you do the study, you get your results and you’re on your way. That’s the difference between why I was fed up with people talking about Enneagram numbers, whether it’s like a joke or a meme about certain numbers. I don’t get this to doing the hard work and introspective work and being honest with yourself. There’s a podcast called Typology by Ian Cron.
He interviews all different people, all different numbers, all different types. He’s an amazing interviewer. He does a great job of pulling things out of people. What I learned was when I heard some other people that were also a three talk, I was like, “That’s me. I was saying that yesterday,” or that kind of thing. It gave me a framework to start to verbalize things. I’m not great at being introspective or understanding the way that I think. When I heard other people talk about it, it helped me and have this framework to overlay, to give things a name, to talk about what was happening. The second part of your question is, how is that expressed in me as a three? I’m very driven. We’ve been talking about all the things that I like to do and enjoy doing. I love to optimize things. I’d like to make things more efficient.
If there’s a better way, I’m going to try and do it. I don’t like to half-ass anything. I want to get it to the point where it’s like, “This is so good.” That can be anything to the point like annoying people where I’m making sourdough bread. I’ve obsessed over it probably a little too much, but I enjoy that. I enjoy this process of taking a simple thing and doing it the best I possibly can. There’s this self-competition versus me being competitive with others. It can look different ways for different personalities, even within the number three on the Enneagram. I don’t care to compete with you or compete with other entrepreneurs, but I compete with myself and I’m always trying to level up myself. If I know I can do it better, I want to keep doing it better. That can be a great thing if it’s channeled. That can be a terrible thing if it’s in vain trying to prove myself and show everyone else how great I am.
I relate to that in deep ways. What type is your wife?
She is a nine. We don’t have to get super deep in this because it won’t make sense for a lot of people that aren’t familiar with it. It’s like, “What are they talking like this language?” As a three, when I’m motivated and healthy, I’m doing things, I’m achieving things. I’m getting a lot done. In unhealthy, I go to a nine, which is more complacent, more indecisive, more could be considered slothful or lazy. When a nine is healthy, they go to a three. We flip flop numbers. When a nine is healthy, they’re moving more towards a three and they’re getting things done and taking the lead and doing that. There’s this interesting tension. What it’s done is it’s opened both of our eyes to each other to be like, “This makes a whole lot more sense because you’re normally going to gravitate towards being a nine. I’m normally going to gravitate towards being a three. There’s a lot of tension that can come from that.” I would say anyone that wants to learn more about themselves or their partner, their friend group, their employees. It’s been helpful.
A lot of people will relate to the hesitancy and the annoyance of people that are throwing around the Enneagram mindlessly. As I’ve heard it described, John Mark Comer does a good job of this, but he talks about how it’s a great tool for understanding yourself. It’s not great to project onto others. That’s an important key.
You’re not your number. Your identity doesn’t get zapped out of you and you become your number. It can almost be used as an excuse like, “I can’t help that. I’m a three, I have to be this way.” What it does is rather than assigning necessarily like some of the other personality tests assign you character traits. You are a good leader or you’re good with people, you’re a good team player. That’s fine, but that’s basically telling you to do more of that. Where the Enneagram is telling you, “Watch out. If you’re wired this way, you’re prone to do this, which is not the best way to grow, but you should be growing towards these other numbers.” It gives you like a path to not change your DNA or change yourself, but to be self-aware, to grow towards and stop and think about it. It was either Ian Cron or one of the authors that have read, they called it the rumble strips in life and the Enneagram is the rumble strip. As soon as you’re getting off course, it’s like, “I’ve got to be self-aware. I’m doing that again. I’m being the bad part of my number.”
I like the idea of, “Am I healthy or unhealthy?” That’s the spectrum that we’re always moving to one side or the other. The goal is to be trending in the right direction or aware when we’re not. How has your faith impacted or informed your work or the decision-maker or even how do you integrate faith into the facets of your business in life?Learn how to be still and enjoy the simple things. Click To Tweet
It’s had a huge impact on my entire life, what drives me and even what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Stewarding the gifts that God gave me is a huge part of it. Doing things with excellence is not just to prove myself, but I do believe we’re called to do things that way and do things the best of our abilities. The way that the company operates, Ugmonk is not a Christian company, but the company itself, I want to reflect the same principles of treating your neighbor like yourself, working hard, being humble and all of those things that are not necessarily achievable. Our principles of we’re not going to take shortcuts. We’re not going to try and scam somebody out of something.
We want to do honest work. We want to do it ethically. Those principles have to be the paramount of everything that we’re doing versus the quick, easy fix, getting off base and where money is the driving factor. You see some of that in the motivation of what I’m doing. It’s not necessarily explicit. We’re not hiding Bible verses in the bottom of our shirts or something. The idea is I want to do things well. I want that to be a reflection of God. I don’t think I do it perfectly, but that is why I’m trying to operate a lot of the things, the principles that we’ve talked about, that’s why I’m doing it.
That integrity piece is so huge. It does stand out. That’s what’s cool is letting the work speak for itself. It’s powerful versus words. Maybe what’s behind the words it doesn’t always back that up. That’s a great way to go about it. One of the things I’ve also seen that you were part of was supporting a charity through your business. I’m curious to hear where that came from and what that’s brought for you personally.
We work with a charity called Rice Bowls and they feed kids all around the world, specifically orphan kids, who otherwise wouldn’t have food. The way they do that is they support the orphanages with the food budget, which is 80% of what it costs to run a home. All of these children’s homes that they support were able to support through Rice Bowls and they do the actual on the ground work to get them all set up. We’ve been working with them for several years. It was more of a personal choice to not to be a Toms shoes where we’re giving one for one and necessarily be a socially good company that makes all the headlines for that. It was more out of on the personal side, what do we want to do?
How can we give back with some of the success that we’ve had and help other people? That’s been cool too. It’s eye-opening being able to connect with Rice Bowls grow our company and being able to increase the number of meals we’ve been able to provide. We’ve had hundreds of thousands of meals that we’ve been able to give because we’re able to give from some of the profit that we make. Being able to travel. We’d been down to Central America and Honduras and Nicaragua, and got to see the kids, hang out, play soccer, spend time living at their home for a couple of days. See where the money is going and complete the circle, not for the social media picture and not the wave as a banner. Every time you buy a product, it goes here. To be able to fully realize that has been cool.
That’s tangible, real impact, which you can’t substitute. It’s got to be a fulfilling feeling. That’s awesome.
It makes us more passionate about it too because when you’re there, it’s not simply writing a check to a charity and I don’t know what happens. We’re seeing the food being delivered as we were there that we had contributed to. We can’t travel now, but I would encourage anyone that wants to get involved to go and be present to wherever the charity is doing the work because it makes it real.
I want to start bringing this to a close, but as you mentioned before, one of the things that we also share a love for is sourdough. I have not dived into creating my own. I’d love to experiment with that eventually, but I’m curious what your best sourdough is. Do you have any extra flavors or ingredients you put in? I don’t know anything about making it, so I’m ignorant. The second question is how do you like to eat your sourdough?
Sourdough bread, it’s been a thing that I was introduced to Tartine, which is a bakery in San Francisco. It’s still there. My friend took me there and I couldn’t believe how good a single slice of bread tastes. This is mind-boggling good. It was a slice of toast with butter, maybe some jam on it. Since then, I’ve learned more about Tartine. I’ve watched all the videos and all the processes and been intrigued. I didn’t know anything about what sourdough was. I’ve been saying for years, “Someday, I’m going to try and make my own sourdough.” Between kids and work and everything else, it’s still crazy right now. Through the baby stages, I could not even think about doing anything.
I finally got all the tools for it. I was like, “I’m going to give this a shot.” Going back to my obsession of deep diving into any topic to the point where I’m neck deep into it. I started this in January 2019. I’m starting to learn the ins and outs of what does it mean to make sourdough. It’s a several day process where you take the starter and then you’re feeding the starter like a living little pet. You’re giving it flour and water every day, twice a day. I follow a blog. Everything that I’ve learned is basically from this one blog called ThePerfectLoaf.com. Maurizio, who runs it, is phenomenal. He explains things in great detail.
He’s also a software engineer or developer. He’s able to break things down practically, but also, he writes in a cool way that it’s understandable. Sourdough is flour, water and salt. That’s all that’s in it at its core, and then the bacteria and the yeast that grows naturally. It’s like taking three elements and making something great. I’ve done all sorts of things. We’ve done sourdough pizza, regular sourdough bread and versions of it, sourdough donuts. I’ve tried every variation of it and I’m having a ton of fun with it. It’s something that’s not in front of a screen. It’s something you get to all enjoy, have friends over, eat together as a family. It’s been a fun hobby.
Have you ever heard of Messenger Coffee and Ibis Bakery in Kansas City?
I’ve definitely heard of them. I’ve friends that live in Kansas City, but I’ve never been to either.
It’s like the Kansas City version of a Tartine. They did a great job. It’s the simple pleasure of life, some bread and butter. I’m set. I’m like, “Thank you, God. We’re good.” It’s been a good day.
If it’s fresh out of the oven, cut a slice and slather on some good butter and you’re golden. That’s all you need. The bread is so good.
Looking ahead, what do you see for Ugmonk in the next 5, 10 or 15 years? What is the vision you have now?
I’m good at casting vision and have too much vision. It can drive my wife crazy because I’m always thinking about what’s next. At the same time, for Ugmonk, I feel like the vision is a bit nebulous. It’s a bit ambiguous because I know where I want to go, but I feel like it could easily change based on how quickly things change and how we adapt. If I was describing it right now, I would say it’s more physical products around making a better productive, well-designed office desk set up space. You’ll see me focus more on that. Gather and Analog are hints at that. We’re working on some other stuff in the background to continue elevating that idea and the same audience that’s attracted to it. Ideas around productivity and getting things done, but also well-made physical products.
I love to have a handful of one-off questions and you can go as short or as long as you want on these. Less, more, and none. What do you want to do less often, more often and not at all?
It’s probably a lot of things. We all have bad habits. I’ll say less often, probably be consumed with what I do. Working can be an obsession and can be an escape for a lot of us. If there’s anyone else that’s running their own business, they know that can be the thing. Less stressing over that because in the end, our time is short and these things don’t matter. More of, I say more sourdough. Living in the moment, living in the now, it’s like these phrases get thrown around a lot, but it’s true. I have such trouble stopping, pausing and enjoying and being grateful for what’s going on. The good things that are happening because I’m so quick to go onto the next. I want to learn how to be still and how to enjoy the simple things. For not at all, I don’t even know. I might have to come up empty on that one. Maybe cheering for the Patriots or something. That’s a deep answer. As a Philadelphia Eagles fan, I can never cheer for them.
Do you live in Philly?
I live outside the city about an hour from there.
What do you believe to be true that you wish everyone else believed?Everyone is gifted and is more creative and has more abilities than they'd like to admit. Click To Tweet
That everyone is gifted and is more creative and has more abilities than they’d like to admit. That people would believe in themselves more, that they wouldn’t give up and fall into the rat race of what everybody else tells them they should do. We have more choices than we realize.
If you could spend a year studying one person dead or alive, who would that person be?
Dieter Rams is a designer that I have always been a big fan of and is an icon in the industrial design space. I’m intrigued by his work, by his design principles. If you look up the ten principles of good design, a lot of what I’m doing, I’m nowhere on his level or close to his level, but I’m fascinated with the way that he saw things. The way that he tied in design, not as a decoration, but as this simplifying and this process of enhancing life through simple objects. I’ve probably read and watched everything about the guy. He’s still living in. It’s fascinating to learn from people like that who had considered a true master at their craft.
What book or books have had the biggest impact on you?
I don’t read as much as people might assume or I don’t know. Some friends are like, “I’ve read three books this week.” I’m not a huge reader. I have read a lot of nonfiction, a lot of things revolving around psychology and business and things like that. The earliest books that had an impact was Seth Godin. Pretty much everything that Seth Godin has written was the thing that opened my mind to this whole world of building a brand. Having permission marketing was his idea, his concept that he coined. It’s the idea of talking to people when they want to hear from you versus spamming them and throwing ads in their face. He wrote a book called The Purple Cow, which was about standing out and doing something different. All of these concepts that are pretty much common sense, he distilled it down into a unique way. Those were all things that were highly influential in where I am. There are other books. Essentialism is a great book. I think I need to reread that every six months or something. Getting rid of the extra, focusing on what matters from a business perspective, from a life perspective. That’s had an impact on me too.
I remember hearing an interview with Greg and I’m impressed with him and his work. Just a few more. What question do you ask yourself the most?
“Am I doing the right thing?” It’s probably the question that I would ask myself. Going back to the Enneagram three and the vulnerable side of a three is the impostor syndrome. The people know that we’re all faking it until we make it. There are times where people look up to me and they’ll ask me questions like I’ve figured this all out. I still feel like I’m figuring it out. None of us have done this perfectly and we’re all a work in progress. It can be hard to admit to some of that, but the doubts are always there. No matter what level you’re at, everybody will doubt themselves.
If you could teach a class for a semester, what would you teach and why? It can be whatever age group you think.
Probably like a high school group on what it looks like to build a design-driven brand. Maybe not even design-driven, but what does it look like to build a company or a small business and show them what I’ve done through doing it and opening their minds to, “You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to necessarily follow this path.” If you want to be a CPA or a doctor, that’s great. There’s this whole other world that I feel like at that time in your life you’re not necessarily exposed to. You start to realize like, “I can do these other things.” For me, the earliest thing that I remember being completely enamored with was Johnny Cupcakes, who started a whole t-shirt company based around putting cupcakes on t-shirts.
He created these bakeries where they didn’t sell anything baked. They sold only t-shirts. People would come in looking for cupcakes and they’d be selling them t-shirts. He’s making a living. A friend told me, “This guy is selling t-shirts for a living?” That’s insane. You can’t sell t-shirts for a living. Here I am several years later, still selling t-shirts for a living. Going back to what I would teach them, we have our blinders on so tight and through education and these things, we’re not exposed to the endless possibilities that you can do as a career. It would be interesting to see what that would look like. I don’t know anything about what high schoolers are like or into. I’m so far disconnected from that. It would be a fun thing to do. I have to learn more about TikTok and what all the cool kids are in.
The last question, the one we ask every guest that comes on is if you could send a morning text reminder to every Up and Comer out there, what would you say and why? This would be a short message from you via text every morning.
Keep showing up. One foot in front of the other. There are going to be days where you’re looking down and you’re not ready to push through. Whatever it is, whether it’s working a career or building your own business, to keep showing up and keep giving it everything you’ve got.
Jeff, this has been a pleasure. Thanks for taking some time to come on. Where is a great place for people to connect with you, to find stuff about Analog, Gather and all your work?
My main site is Ugmonk.com. We are the only Ugmonk out there so it’s easy to find. You can always google it. I am @Ugmonk on social media. You can hit me up on Twitter, Instagram and then the Kickstarter for Analog. It’s at Ugmonk.com/analog. That will forward you to the Kickstarter.
I’m kicking myself for not asking this sooner, but what is the origin of Ugmonk?
I was surprised he didn’t get to that since it seems like you did a good bit of research on me knowing a lot of depth on my story. I’ll give you the short version of this. When I was starting was now called Ugmonk, it was this side project of designing t-shirts and trying to get them out there. I didn’t have a name for it. I didn’t plan on starting a business. It wasn’t like I was registering paperwork or anything. In fact, I didn’t have any texts, no stuff set up, because it wasn’t supposed to be a business. We haven’t disclosed where the origin of the word Ugmonk came from. The way we came up with it was trying to get clever with different design words. Looking up in the thesaurus and trying to come up with the things but they were all lame.
My brother and I were chatting probably on Yahoo or AOL instant messenger back then. We were saying, “Why don’t we do something weird, something that doesn’t make any sense?” We started looking up URLs because it’s so hard to get a URL. We threw Ugmonk out there. There were no results. We were like, “It’s short. Let’s go for it.” We got to define what Ugmonk is. If you google the word Ugmonk, I don’t know what it is. There are 300,000 results. They all come back to our sites. It was a happy accident, but we didn’t do any naming studies and focus groups. We defined what Ugmonk is.
Be sure to send Jeff a shout-out and support his work. Jeff, thanks again for coming on and sharing your story with us.Everyone is gifted and is more creative and has more abilities than they'd like to admit. Click To Tweet
Thanks for having me on. It was fun.
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