This story is part of a new series on “How I landed the job,” going step-by-step through job changes and negotiations at some of Charlotte’s best places to work. To be considered for a story, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The career path, as told by Caleb
(Lightly edited for clarity and brevity.)
I was an English major and wanted to be a copywriter. I started interning for an ad agency in school and one day the boss came in, gave me a stack of business cards, and said, “Start calling. You’re not on creative anymore.”
I started developing a passion for biz dev, within the advertising and marketing sector. I moved to Charlotte and it was hard to find a sales job in that industry. My first outside sales job was selling copiers door to door for Technocom. They drop you off in SouthPark and you walk building to building. You hand out fliers and sell stuff.
(Editor’s note: That’s brutal.)
As you can imagine, that doesn’t work well in SouthPark. You can’t walk into Allen Tate and say I’m here to meet with [CEO] Mr. Riley. I thought, how can I get meetings, and pay the bills? I was having coffee with a buddy and said, what if I send letters in cigar boxes?
I went to a cigar shop in Ballantyne and bought all their old boxes, $3 or $4 a box. And we started doing it for fun, sending it out, and it worked. People thought it was so cool, and for a while we had an idea – this is where the original company Southern Favor came from. (In the end the brand didn’t really work and fell by the wayside.)
But when I would try to get job interviews after I left the copier sales job, I sent a bunch of boxes to ad agencies in town that I wanted to work for. I cherry-picked nine or ten and got six responses asking me to come in.
I got a job with a NASCAR team as a director of sales, a Sprint Cup team, and then it was same thing all over again. It was an awesome job, but it was a tough sell asking for sponsorship the same way that much larger organizations did. It was a very difficult sell.
That was when some of the engineers started helping me build the boxes. We’d bring sponsors to the track – the big thing in sports is that you sell the experience. One of the VPs of marketing was like, “This is so cool. What you’re doing is building ideas and thought into products.”
Product companies mass produce, and ad agencies have great ideas but they convey those through paper and 3D mailers. No one builds ideas into products.
“What do we send to this ‘too much money’ company? He’s got three houses so how do we get his attention?”
By the end of 2014 I left the race team. They were awesome; they let me build boxes out of the race shop which was really cool. I had like $1,500 saved up and after rent I had like $600. It was pretty irresponsible actually, I spent all of that on making about 40 samples.
I had a connection with Coca-Cola Consolidated, one of Mr. Harrison’s right hand guys. Right before Christmas I had a meeting with Red Moon Marketing. I wasn’t able to schedule the meeting with the gentleman I wanted to meet with at Coke, but I was just going to drop the box off there (near my Red Moon meeting).
I go to the campus and get on the elevator but I forgot my security pass. You can’t get up to any floor without the pass but all of a sudden the elevator goes up to the 6th floor to the executive suites. The doors open and the guy I made the box for steps on the elevator, out of all the people that work at Coca-Cola.
So I say, “This is weird, but I made this for you. It’s a new business I’m starting and I’d love to talk to you about it.”
After Christmas he called and loved the concept, and thought it could work for their big CEO summit. A week later we had our first deal with Coke for $4,000 and the day I got paid was the day I ran out of all my cash. It was such a blessing. So that’s what gave us our first lifeblood.
From Coke we got our first sports deal with Auburn for a huge donor appreciation campaign. We sent a box to Auburn to one of their athletic directors. We had a picture of the locker room and Photoshopped the director’s name onto a jersey in a locker. She loved it, so that was our first sports team deal.
Getting into summer it got rough. Decision makers are on the road, it’s slow. But I prayed about it and felt I was supposed to pour everything in (not get another job, or get investors or family money). I was completely bootstrapped.
I had connected with the NY Mets and sent a box to their owner. That was our first biz development deal. They hired us to create boxes for CEOs of 40 top companies they wanted to have conversations with. It was crazy. They got half of the meetings they wanted, 20 meetings out of 40 messages. From there we got our largest deal yet, with the Pelicans.
“The thing with pro sports is once you’re in, you’re in. They want to know who you’ve worked with.”
Even working for the NASCAR team, they were like “Ehh… We’re the Mets.”
The Pelicans placed an order for almost 300 units, then the Cavaliers, the Indians, Cincinnati Reds.
The biggest one was NFL owners gifts for the Super Bowl, another crazy story:
We were originally Southern Favor, but when I realized there was a disconnect I shortened it to SF with a simple logo that looked cool.
The 49ers were hosting the Super Bowl and had been charged by the host committee to give the NFL owners something local from San Francisco. When the marketing team saw my logo, they assumed we were from San Francisco and shortlisted us above everyone else who was trying to get the deal. We were up against people who sell Louis Vuitton and companies like that.
So they were looking for something to give the owners when they got to the hotel, and I’m just in shock. We got it. “Oh yeah, no problem.” Definitely fake it till you make it. That was our first NFL deal.
When all the owners got to their hotel rooms they had a box on the bed. We built a custom size for them, and they put wine, saltwater taffy, stuff from Bay Area in the box. They were well received. I went to a trade show in Pittsburgh about a month ago where people go for gifts and several of the teams came up to me. Like Mr. Rooney – who owns the Steelers – has the box on his desk and loves it. It’s crazy.
You’ve mentioned working 80-100 hour weeks, and tensions can run high with big clients and short timeframes. Do you ever miss the 9-to-5?
I don’t think I could ever work for someone else again. I love it. I’m not even passionate about woodwork, I’m passionate about relationships. I spot opportunities and try to maximize that. I’m starting an e-commerce version of this and working on a software company with my dad who’s a developer.
I love startup stuff, I love the build and excitement. I don’t get tired of that but it can get overwhelming. Last July was our worst month, but this July is our best with over $70k in sales. We signed a three-year deal with University of Texas and with Madison Square Garden for the Knicks and Rangers.
Does it get overwhelming? Sure, but it’s still exciting. I’m not ready to throw in the towel.
Is there any career advice you’re glad you’ve ignored?
Yes, definitely. There are a lot of paradigms that get taught to us through the American dream system. Go to college, get the job working for five years – it’s very very process oriented. I didn’t want to work for a company for five years.
One of the things I got criticized for a little bit out of school is that I didn’t work very long at each place, I think about a year. I knew what I wanted. I had background in advertising, I wanted to get experience in sales, get really good at sales so I could start a business. I was so focused on that goal.
I would tell my bosses that I want to own my own business someday and they would advise me to go much more slowly. I get people that want stability but if you want to be a business owner, it’s kind of selfish but you have to know exactly what you want and strategically plan how you’ll get there. My thought process was never, what will this look like on my resume in 20 years?
I might tell people not to be quite so honest (laughing). An employer doesn’t necessarily want to hear that, but for me I want to hire people like that.
“I want people who want my role or want to start something new because they hustle harder than anyone else.”
There are enough smart people out there – if I bring someone on for two years who then starts their one thing, I’m stoked for them.