Sixteen years ago, Ethan King was a struggling artist by day, taking out the trash at a strip club by night. The turning point came when he was carjacked at gunpoint, and he escaped with an epiphany to turn his life around. Tapping into his passion for collegiate Greek life, Ethan and his then-girlfriend-now-wife launched stuff4GREEKS.com as a school project, with $700 and no outside funding. They bootstrapped it to become what is now a multi-million dollar eCommerce brand for specialty fraternity and sorority gear. A few years later, they opened Zeus' Closet - a state-of-the-art retail experience in west midtown Atlanta, where you can personalize your clothes through advanced design, screen printing, and embroidery. Ethan manages several other businesses and brands, and is the President-Elect of Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) Atlanta. He is passionate about running, reading, traveling, and spending time with his family.
Shantel: Alright, Ethan we are excited to have you on the Imagine More podcast. Welcome.
Ethan: Thank you, thanks for having me.
Shantel: Of course, we're excited to learn more about your entrepreneurial journey. Will you kick things off with telling the guests a little bit about - or our listeners, a little bit about how you got started?
| THE LIFE-CHANGING MOMENT |
Ethan: Sure, I guess it's all about deciding how far you want to go back. But, I'll go back to around 8th grade- I would say middle school, I was always into art- fine art, drawing, painting and sculpture. And, I knew I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. I wanted to be a fine artist. The challenge with that was my parents did not want me to be an artist because they said "artists only make money when they're dead." So I made it my life goal to prove my parents wrong and that's what keeps me motivated. But, so my journey from that point- you know in high school, I actually was fortunate to have an art teacher who taught us on a college level. I had my work in several exhibitions around the city, won lots of artists. SO I went on to major in fine arts in college. Then when I graduated it turns out my parents were actually right. It was very tough for me to get a job. SO I was basically unemployed. For a brief time in my life I was a starving artist, so to speak. So at that point I decided to go back to school and take some graphic design and web design classes, because I figured that was the easiest route to actually making some money with some artistic skills. So I started doing some freelance graphic design and web design. Basically getting clients wherever I could here and there. But it was really tough. I was living in a very tiny apartment, sharing it with like four people- one bathroom apartment. I remember nights where I really had no income and had to eat microwave popcorn for dinner. I was working at a strip club. My steady job was actually working nights behind a bar in a strip club and taking out the trash, which was very humiliating. But eventually I got a breakthrough, and sadly it came at a time where- it had to be one of those life-changing moments where I was kind of jolted. I was robbed one night actually, at gunpoint. Someone carjacked me, and I was scared. I really thought this guy was going to kill me because I didn't have any money. It seemed like he was on drugs. But I got away from the situation and something gave me the epiphany that night and I lived through that, to turn my life around and not use any of my artistic talents for- like I was doing some of the raunchy flyers and stuff for the strip club I was working at. Something just told me "hey stop doing that" and use your talents for something else- something good." And I made that vow that night that I got robbed and I never did it again. And really things started turning around for me. And shortly after that I got a full time job at a newspaper. I became the lead graphic designer. I was still doing freelance graphic design work and started a spinoff company called "Stuff for Greeks" because I was in a fraternity in college, my girlfriend at the time was in a sorority so we kind of did it as a project. "Let's start a website where we sell fraternity paraphernalia"- this was back in the early days of the internet so I'm telling my age here. But it was a bit of a novel idea at the time. So we started StuffforGreeks.com and to our surprise- now we started as a graphic design company for Greeks where we would design their party flyers and posters, websites, t-shirts. But people eventually started asking us for fraternity and sorority jackets, clothing, outfit like their entire chapter. We were like "well we don't do clothing but we'll design it for you and you go take it somewhere and get it made." Well, people kept asking and asking and these were people from across the country. We finally said "yes" one day. We had no idea how to make custom clothing but we said "yeah, we'll do it." A customer paid us some money - $200 for a jacket I think for a sorority jacket- very elaborate design. We accepted her payment and then we had to go figure out how to actually get it done. So that's how we got into the embroidery business with Stuff For Greeks. We ended up that year getting about maybe 130 jacket orders. I was still working my full-time job. My girlfriend, who was my wife at that point, she was working her full-time job but we started to realize that if we debuttered our energies towards Stuff 4 Greeks then we could help the company grow. So I left my job, and focused on Stuff for Greeks. Then a year later she left her job. We bought a house, moved the business into the basement and then three years after that we outgrew the basement and we opened up a retail store called "Zeus' Closet." We called it "Zeus's Closet" so that it would have a loose correlation to the Greek World but we also decided to focus on other verticals like corporate apparel, teams, little league teams, things like that, churches, just individual personalized apparel. So that's what we do now. That's my main focus- Zeus' Closet. We help people show their passion on their fashion, and we're like a tattoo shop for your clothes.
Shantel: That is an amazing story and it kind of shakes me up just hearing the robbing at gunpoint. Is that something you still reflect on often and kind of keeps you inspired in going in the company? Or you've moved past that?
| TOMORROW ISN'T PROMISED |
Ethan: You know, it does keep me inspired in life in general because it reminds me that tomorrow isn't promised. I'll never forget that feeling of being close to death and then realizing that you're still alive. That is an indescribable feeling, I don't know if you've ever had a near death experience but it could really wake you up and change your life. And it wasn't a near death experience like- you hear about people laying on the hospital bed and seeing the tunnel of life. It wasn't quite like that but it was pretty scary. You could literally see your life flash before your eyes and you realize you still have life and what it's done for me is create a sense of urgency. There are a lot of things I want to accomplish in this world and when I'm tempted to think "oh I'll do that in a few years," or "I'll do that later in life," I'll flash back to that moment and I'm reminded that those future years aren't promised, so do it now.
Shantel: I love that. Has that sense of urgency created a mentality I suppose that, like you can't not do that ever-long to do list or are you just now really great at prioritizing as well?
Ethan: No, I'm honestly terrible at prioritizing. I would say that my to-do list is ever growing because I'm always getting new ideas, new inspiration, and it just keeps getting longer and longer. But I also cross things off. I just use mostly for my to do list I just use traditional pen and paper and I think it's important to get the reward of crossing things off when you accomplish them but they do continue to get longer and longer. I've just accepted that it's a never-ending thing. I believe that in life if you really work to get to the end of your to-do list and have nothing else to do, then what are you gonna do that? Just die? You have to have something to keep going. So even if you hear about elderly people who, like you hear about a couple that's been married for a long time, seventy years, and then the spouse dies, and then shortly after that the other party dies. Even though they weren't sick or anything. And it's because they feel like they don't have anything else to live for. So I've just accepted that I always want to have a to-do list because I always want to have something to live for.
Shantel: Yeah, I know I love that. So you mentioned you guys decided that there was a point in the business where if you focused on it full time you guys would be really successful and so you quit that full-time job. Was it a financial point that really sparked that conversation or so many orders? What was really that turning point that had you guys sit down and be like "okay, we need to switch gears."
| SIDE HUSTLE TO FULL-TIME JOB |
Ethan: That turning point came when you know, you're basically moonlighting and you have a side hustle and a full-time job. You're burning the candle at both ends. So we were extremely tired. I was working at the newspaper all day and then come home and have to do customer service and fulfill orders for Stuff 4 Greeks at night. Basically getting no sleep, frustrated and I'm seeing the money come in but you're on that ledge and you're scared to take that leap of faith and step away from your security blanket of a job. I always remember that teetering point where I thought about stepping out but I was like "no I'll lose the security over here." And to be quite honest, what helped is my manager and I got into an argument at work. It was over something really silly and she basically was accusing me of an error that was not my fault, it was another person on the team's fault. But instead of delivering it, I just turned in my letter of resignation because I said, "hey that was the push I needed to focus on my business anyway." They were very nice people, and I still have a lot of respect for the company to this day. I wish them very well, but I remember when I turned in my letter I told her I was starting my own business and I would never be an employee again. And that was 14 years ago or so.
Shantel: Wow. We've actually never connected about this offline but I have a similar story working as a bartender and I thought that I could do both, work the nights there, and the weekends there just so I could pay the bills. And I did hit an equal breaking point and quit and it was probably one of the best decisions, looking book.
Ethan: Yes, of course. For this success. I didn't know you were a bartender, I could totally see that.
Shantel: Thanks. Yeah, if you ever need a drink you just let me know. So you talked about how you had this elaborate jacket order and you guys weren't at that point sure on exactly how to fulfill it and make it happen. Have you always had that "figure it out" mentality or it's just something that you've learned as you've grown your businesses, that you know, you don't always have to know right away, but you just have to have kind of the mindset to figure it out?
Ethan: Hmm, I don't know if I've always had that mentality but that was one of the earliest times I could remember. I'm not sure if I've had that mentality when I was a child. You know what, actually I did because that was something that my mother instilled in me. To have deductive logic, deductive reasoning skills. To this day I think that is the most important skill that anyone could have. That's what I look for when we are hiring new team members. In fact, I will weigh deductive logic skills overcoming in with a skillset already done. It is more important to me that you can learn something fast, figure it out with limited resources than you coming in with a long resume, skillset in a certain area. So deductive logic, I credit my mom for that, she did instill that in me at an early age and yeah, I used it to get our company off the ground. Now I will say that my employees, my team members, it does frustrate them a bit because I have the tendency to say yes to everything, even something that we have never done before. Then we have to figure it out as a team now, so it has more repercussions for my team and my wife. And I know they are frustrated and it's kind of a running joke in the office.
Shantel: It's like that "shiny object syndrome." A little bit.
Ethan: Yes, definitely.
Shantel: So actually this is on that resourcefulness and the logic point that you just made. We're hiring for an office manager and it's our first step into that position, and questions that you ask when you're looking for new teammates and new employees, how do you gage their resourcefulness and their deductive logic? Do you have questions that you ask, what are some best practices in figuring out if that is ingrained in their personality?
Ethan: Yes, definitely. I could give you a few example questions and I will do that but at the end of the day, you have to put people to the test. Because people can get really good at answering questions and giving you BS. Then you really put them in the seat and they can't perform like they need to. So what we'll do, we do behavioral based interviews, we follow top grading. Let me think of some of the questions that will test for resourcefulness. Well, first of all, your interview process, your hiring process, is not just about questions. It's the whole exercise of the interview. So the first thing we do is give them a test to complete, like a pre-screening test to fill out. More than half of the applicants won't do the prescreening test so that automatically filters most of the people out who aren't diligent enough to follow instructions.
Shantel: I love that.
Ethan: Then if they score a certain amount on that prescreening test, we'll schedule a phone interview with them. When we schedule the phone interview, we don't call them, we'll say "well, call us at this specified time." That way, we'll see how well people follow instructions, how punctual they are, how well they figure things out. So they've already kind of jumped through two hurdles before we even talk to them. So then when we are talking to them on the phone screening interview, we'll ask things like "tell me about a time, or tell me about a system improvement that you made at a company where you worked in the past?" Or "tell me about a time when you were phased with a quantity vs. quality issue, and which one did you chose and how did you come to that conclusion?" We have a whole list of questions that kind of hint around their resourcefulness and then, of course, we'll have them come in for a face to face interview. If they pass that point, we'll actually train them. We'll do a mock twenty minutes of training of a certain task that they'll be performing every day. And then we'll tell them to do the thing that we just showed them how to do, purely based off of that training. And we'll see how well people paid attention, how fast they learn, and if they took good notes or note, and how they will actually execute on something.
Shantel: I love that. Thank you for sharing about the mock training. That's a neat set we haven't implemented yet. Do you use hierology?
Ethan: We do.
Shantel: Okay, the prescreening survey sparked a cord with us and it reminded me of that. We are also big fans of that program.
Ethan: Yes, they are invaluable. I'm so glad I found that.
Shantel: It's great to be able to filter through resumes very quickly, send bulk emails. Love the program so I'll definitely hyperlink that to the show notes. I would love to switch gears to your girlfriend, now wife. So are you guys still working together in the business, and if so, how do you split those roles?
| SOLDIERS ON THE SAME BATTLEFIELD |
Ethan: Yes, we are still working together in the business. She left her job in 2005 so it'll be twelve years now that we've worked together full time in our business. And I think that one of the reasons we do work together so well is because we have very clearly divided roles. So my background is more graphic design, creative, artistic, marketing, strategic. Her background is dealing with HR, payroll, insurance benefits. She actually worked in employee benefits for eight years before she came to work in our company full time. Employee benefits, payroll, HR, all that stuff bores me to tears. I would rather pluck my eyelashes out, then deal with it. So I am very fortunate to have her because that's her area of expertise. So we do well staying in each other's. Now of course, there's overlap, we use each other as a sounding board for things. But I think it's very important to have that division of labor. But, more so on a more spiritual standpoint, I feel like it's important in a relationship to fight a battle, side by side with each other. That way, you know you deal with a lot of struggles in business and we're more like teammates and soldiers on the battlefield together, and that brings us closer. Whereas a lot of couples fights against each other so we try to focus on the side by side battling with each other, instead of fighting against each other.
Shantel: Well that's nice to have that common thread. You guys are just trying to grow the business together so you're not fighting each other ever, you're just wanting to grow the company.
Ethan: Right, now we do fight sometimes. I'm not going to make it like we don't ever fight. I don't want to stay in the rosy picture here. I think all couples have their struggles but when you put it into perspective, the things we argue about are very minor.
Shantel: Fair enough. Is there anything you wish you knew when you first got started as an entrepreneur?
Ethan: When I first got started as an entrepreneur? I wish I knew about core values earlier in my career, in my entrepreneurial career. We use core values all the time and I feel like that term gets overused. But I look at it like this, when you're starting out in your early stages of entrepreneurship and your workload gets heavy, the first thing you say to yourself is "oh man I wish I could clone myself" or "If only I had more hours in the day." Well you obviously can't clone yourself and you don't want to hire people who are exactly like you, but you do need a framework. It's important to have a framework that your company follows of a behavioral pattern that your company follows, because the reason your company got to where it is, is because of you. So your ideals and the way you make decisions, those are your company's core values. It took me a long time, I had to hear over and over and over again before I actually formed company core values and put them up on the wall and shared them with my team. But that made all of the difference in the world and it actually kind of helped me "clone myself" in a way because now all of my team members, drilled in their self- conscious- and our core values, I'll share them, are promises, accuracy, logic, and systems. It forms a nice acronym- PALS. Well, promises, just do what you say you're gonna do. If you make a commitment to a customer, you're gonna get this by Wednesday, get it to them by Wednesday or even earlier. Accuracy. If we create a design proof for a customer we promise that it's gonna look exactly like the proof. We do it accurately 100%. Logic. It's what we talked about earlier. Resourcefulness. When you're thrown a curve ball, figure it out. Use drawn earlier scenarios and figure out what to do in this scenario. Don't come ask someone else the question, use logic. And systems. When you do something, don't just keep it in your head, document the system step by step so you can make the workload easier for the next person. Those were the core values that I extracted out of my head. Put them on paper, put them on the wall. We even have a company creed that we recite at every staff meeting and that has made things so much easier. I love my team, they are super dedicated and they help take things to the next level.
Shantel: I love that, and I actually have to- so we've connected offline in the EO organization, which we'll touch on, but you gave us this idea to kind of bring to our company and we've made an acronym of our core values as well and we touch on them in every meeting so I appreciate you mentioning that because I believe it's completely shifted our business as well and hopefully people can take that piece of information and bring it back with them.
Shantel: Yeah. Do you incorporate those core values into some of your interview questions as well?
Ethan: Oh, most definitely. Most definitely. In fact, our- we rewrote, and restructured our interview format and have it in sections based on those core values. So, we have a set of questions about- does this person uphold their promises? Do they do what they said they're gonna do? We have a section on accuracy, and then we have a section on testing their logic skills, which were some of the questions I described to you earlier. And then we have a set of questions on systems. And then we score them on each one. We even use our core values for quarterly employee reviews. We should probably do that more frequently than quarterly. But we do it like a report card, so for each area we grade someone A through F on each core value. Then they get a GPA, and we give it to them. We grade them and we have them grade themselves and we look at discrepancies between the two, if there are any.
Shantel: I love that. We started to incoprorate that in our yearly reviews, and now in 2018 gonna start to do that quarterly as well. One piece that we added is that they rate the company on how well we're living up our core values, which was pretty eye-opening as well. There's one core value of ours and it's innovative that we need to continue to work on so it's actually a big focus in Q1 for us. But, I thought that was pretty interesting for them to rate us on the core values as well.
Ethan: I mean, that's a great take away. It's very important. A lot of times it's very hard for us as business leaders to hear feedback about ourselves, but that's very important. That's good that you're doing that.
Shantel: Thanks. I'd love to talk about how you optimize your day. I know you're super busy running multiple companies and now have taken on a leadership role in the Entrepreneur's Organization. How do you optimize your day?
| JUMPSTARTING THE DAY |
Ethan: So, in an ideal world, every day would be like this: I'd get up and the first thing I'd do is meditate, and then exercise. Because I feel like when I do those two things, that's the foundation of my day. And they both really help me clear my head. So, meditation I just started doing that last year. I actually took a class in transcendental meditation. It was a four-day class. You could find out more about it at tm.org. I'm the type of person who needs the one-on-one training to really do something well so, that's been hugely beneficial in my life. So I'd start out my day with that so I could think clearly. And then, I'm a runner so I love to go for a nice long run, do some cardio, some high-intensity cardio. And I listen to audiobooks and podcasts while I'm running. So, having that jumpstart to my day really helps me optimize things. I try to plan out my schedule, I live out of my calendar. I try to have everything mapped out for the week. The night before, I look at what's coming up the next day so I could sleep easy. But, you know, I gotta say, this is all in an ideal world. By no means am I one of those people who does it every single day, gets up at the exact same time. In fact, I'd say that's my greatest flaw. Consistency - I really really struggle with that. I'm a very spontaneous person and very haphazard, and my schedule changes from day to day. But I found that when I do start my day with meditation and exercise, that I have a better day.
Shantel: Okay. How long do you meditate for?
Ethan: Twenty minutes in the morning, twenty minutes at night.
Shantel: That's amazing. I'm going to have to check out that tm.org. I've only really been able to- not only, well ten minutes is what I've tried to commit to get started on it. It's a lot more challenging than I thought. But forty minutes a day is amazing.
Ethan: It is very challenging,
Shantel: Wow. Thanks for sharing the tm.org. Okay, Ethan I just have a couple more questions for you. And first, what is next on the horizon for you and Zeus' Closet?
Ethan: Oh, great! So, I'm very excited we are opening up another location for 2018 for Zeus' Closet. We also just launched a franchise program so we are opening up Zeus' Closet to franchisees who want to come and run their own Zeus' Closet. We've been working on that the whole past year, 2017. It's been a very long process and we're really, really excited about the future. In a world where retail stores are closing left and right, the retail side of our business has actually been doubling year over year for the past few years. So we're doing something right and we're extremely humble and grateful and we just want to continue to deliver that experience to as many people as we can throughout the world.
Shantel: That's great. So, new question, just thought of it. So I guess you've been doubling every year on the retail side, has eCommerce been a piece of that at all and do you see retail shifting?
Ethan: Our eCommerce portion has been - it's been growing but at a much lower rate. There could be several variables, I mean we could be cannibalizing our own sales, that has something to do with it. But there's also more competition out there. Advertising is getting more and more expensive. You're competing for face time with customers, Facebook marketing is getting more saturated and more expensive because more people are catching on learning how to do it. I mean, I think online is great- it's awesome, it's just you have to stay on top on trends, and I do think that it's getting more challenging to stay in front of people. There's also more competition online so somebody can start a website tomorrow and compete with you across the country. You know, for a long time we had number one- well we still do, actually- we still have number one ranking on Google, organically for a lot of the keywords that we fight for like you know, fraternity line jacket, things like that. But, now Google- the sponsor listing, they have what? Three of them, four of them, at the top of the page now? Whereas they used to only have two little small lines. So now you have to scroll down to see the organic listing. So it's an always changing platform and you just have to stay on top of the trends.
Shantel: Yeah, absolutely, and thanks for sharing that. What would be the best piece of advice that you've ever received that you'd want to tell people that are interested in starting their own company?
Ethan: That are interested in starting their own company? The best piece of advice is "go where the money is first." Go where, like, stick your toe in the water. People say throw things at the wall, see what sticks. Do that before you go all in to one thing that you believe in, because what if you're wrong? Instead, throw a few things at the wall and when you see something stick, and when I say stick I mean someone has actually paid you money for it. Focus on that thing and grow that. And don't be scared to pick it. As you're growing that thing, then you might see something else over here. But you don't want to spend too much time- we talked about the shiny button syndrome. The problem with the shiny button syndrome is if you go too far down a rabbit hole and you've wasted too much time and resources on something that may not pan out, instead what do they call it? The minimal viable product to get it out in the market to see what catches on fast. Really fast, and then when you see something that works, double down on it and move forward.
Shantel: I love that. And Ethan, how do people get in touch with you if they want to learn more about you and your company or have any follow up questions?
Ethan: Sure, you could find me on the Linkedin or you could email me- Ethan@EthanKing.com. If you want to learn more about Zeus' Closet- it's Z-E-U-S closet .com like the Greek God. If you're in a fraternity or sorority, we got some really cool paraphernalia. Check us out on stuff4greeks.com. You could actually take the shortcut and type in s4g.com.
Shantel: Great! Well, thanks Ethan. I really appreciate you being on the show.
Ethan: My pleasure! Thanks for having me, Shantel.
Shantel: Of course.