TE 27: Ryan Kulp: A Serial Entrepreneur

EPISODE SUMMARY

Ryan Kulp has been an entrepreneur from the time he could walk. At 10, he was selling popsicles he made by freezing KoolAid. In the 7th Grade, he was kicked out of school for selling fireworks on campus. By his Senior year in High School, he’d left his parents home and was working on his own – making gold tooth grills! 

Just before signing to be a Marine, Ryan was convinced by his parents to accept their help and go to college. While in college at Georgia State University, Ryan interned with several great companies such as Target, Red Bull and Microsoft – while, at the same time, starting two different businesses while a student.


In today’s episode, you’ll learn

  • Lessons of determination & courage.
  • How to try new things.
  • How to determine the value of yourself so others do not give you an inaccurate valuation.
  • The secret of patience. 
  • What a REAL entrepreneur is!

FULL SHOW NOTES


CHILDHOOD ENTREPRENEUR

Ryan Kulp seemed to have been born an entrepreneur. He started out at age 10 making and selling popsicles out of Kool-Aid water and selling them at the neighborhood pool. But, the bug wasn’t cured. Later, he started selling candy at school

That entrepreneurial effort landed him in the principle’s office in the seventh grade. That business started off with Christmas candy canes “I pulled them off the tree and I took them to school with me that following January when we got back… word spread around the block, and there I was selling candy canes [out of a Tupperware container] for fifty cents to a dollar.”

LIKE MOM, LIKE SON

Ryan says that memory is so vivid for him because he found a box from an old PalmPilot phone with old papers in it. One of the sheets was a typed piece of paper titled “Candy Cane Income” from 2002. “It said how many candy canes I’d sold, and collected, and what I sold them fore, I tallied, adding numbers… I was practicing price discrimination, and it was really interesting to look at.”

Ryan says that even though he used bad terminology at the time (being only in the seventh grade), he’s confident some of the accounting concepts came from his mother, who has been an accountant his entire life.

LIVING ON THE EDGE – IN THE SEVENTH GRADE

Ryan then upgraded his merchandise, “I went from selling candy canes to selling fireworks.”

“I started emptying my book bag of workbooks and those gel pens, and I started selling Black Cats. Just putting explosives in my backpack.”

After becoming “the richest kid in school,” as he describes it, Ryan then got busted by the principle. Or, as Ryan refers to him, “the fed’s.”

“I think I’ll remember that day forever,” Kulp says, “I was in this AutoCAD, fun, art kind of architecture class… making a house on a computer with some 3-D modeling software… then, in come the SRO (School Resource Officer). He’s got a gun, and I think like, ‘I’m already dead.”

He says he already knew, “I was a kid, I was living life on the edge.”

After being kicked out of school for a few days, Ryan says that wasn’t his biggest disappointment in his early entrepreneurial endeavors. “I think the bigger bit of discouragement came from.. my fear of consequences from my parents.” He says the major driving force became the sense of overcoming those “telling me you can’t do whatever.That was kind of fuel for the fire.”

ENTREPRENEURIAL DATING

Ryan continued his money-making ways – even using a date with a waitress to make money.

He tells the story of, having lost his driving privileges, at an Atlanta Metro restaurant, when his friends dare him to ask the waitress out. She agrees, and Ryan tells her she’ll have to pick him up.

Before going on the date with her in mid-December, a few weeks after he asked her out, he makes a flyer using a Charlie Brown doodle. “I created this four by four panel of flyers on an 8.5 x 11 page and it said ‘Christmas Tree Removal, $7. Call here.”

“She picked me up,” Ryan tells with pride, “and she drove me around, this was our date, and I sat in the passenger seat, I hung out the window and I just stuck flyers on mailboxes.”

This continued through a number of neighborhoods near where Ryan lived.
“I got a great response,” he says, and I was flooded with calls… my parents just had to relent and give me access to my car again.”

After Christmas 2006, he picked up trees and dropped them off at a fires station.

As for the relationship – “I stopped seeing or hanging out with the girl. So, all in all, it was a good day.”

RYAN HATES SCHOOL

Teenage Entrepreneur host, Jordan Agolli asks Ryan about high school life and Ryan responds that so much of it was a blur to him. “I didn’t want to go to school,” he says, “I hated school so much that I didn’t have the capacity to see that college would be probably pretty different.”

Ryan says he hated high school because of the juvenile kind of maturity stage of the people in high school.. everyone’s trying to be cool, and everyone wants to fi in. Everyone wants to be unique.”
Yet, he says, “it’s a lot of kids who don’t feel comfortable in their own skin. And everyone is kind of serving two masters…. demanding parents and teachers.”

GRILLIN FOR DOLLARS

In May 2008, Ryan graduated high school and started a new, quite unusual, business endeavor – making gold grills for customers.

“March 2008 was my 18th birthday, and I moved out of my parent’s house on that day.” Living in a friend’s basement, “skipped a lot of school senior year… graduated in May, that was the fist time I saw my parents in a few months even though they lived a little down the street.”

After graduating, he says, “I didn’t have any prospects… I wanted to do something a little bit different, so I started making grills.”

He would make grills out of white gold for people who would send molds of their teeth, and create custom ordered golden mouthpieces for customers. “I did that for several months,” he says, “making grills, dripping off FedEx overnight packages.”

Eventually, he asked himself, “do I want to make grills forever?” That’s when he started visiting the Marine recruiting office. He’d visit the office two or three times a week.

“I was really interested in the Marines for multiple reasons. One, I felt like, ‘hey, I can do something for the country, maybe go to school later, make a couple bucks, travel the world, there’s some cool things there.”

Then, one night before signing to enter the Marines, his parents called him to their house and said ”we respect the military and all that, but we’d rather you not go. And, if you go to school, please go to school, we’ll help you out.” He agreed.

PLAYING THE GAME OF SCHOOL

Ryan then applied to Georgia State – and was rejected.

“I realized I can treat the game of life [as] doing this, and getting that credential, and scooping up this connection. And I thought I could play it as an inside game to myself.”

The rejection from Georgia State triggered in him that the “game” he was playing was unacceptable.

“I’m no longer just kind of apathetic about these things, I’m truly dissatisfied, and kind of insulted, that someone, or some entity, would think that I’m unworthy to go and give them money to sit in a quiet classroom, and just do my thing.”
That rejection motivated him, “I was really driven by that, just this rebellions ‘don’t tell me what I can’t do kind of thing,’” Ryan recalls.

COLLEGIATE BUSINESSMAN

Once he was accepted to Georgia State, he came to love the experience. “I was this kid, hated school, hated everything about it – college was awesome.”

“In college,” Ryan explains, “people were trying to be adults, which was nice.”

While a student, Ryan worked on campus with the program board. “We would put on concerts, and comedy shows… I was kind of the concerts guy. I booked about 70 shows, I personally did the audio (live sound) for about 60 of them.”

The group brought in acts like Gym Class Heroes, Trey Songz, comedians like Kevin Hart.  “That was how I was able to continue this passion even though I was succumbing to academia.”

MARKETING TRAINING ON THE JOB

Ryan worked as an intern for Microsoft, Red Bull and other great companies while a student at Georgia State. “80% of what I learned about marketing and branding came from Red Bull. And a lot of that is, in hindsight, just realizing the things that I didn’t understand back then.”

He describes Red Bull as “less of some energy drink company with a great brand; they’re more like an amazing brand that just sells energy drinks to keep being a brand.”

Ryan also interned with Target and Blackberry while at Georgia State. “Working with big brands in college was a great primer on [bureaucracy and office politics]. And, it was a great way to decide I’m not interested in doing that when I grow up. I’ve had enough of that as a 21-year-old.”

ON CAMPUS ENTREPRENEUR

Even as a full-time student interning with all of those great companies, Ryan was still hustling as a student. “I started two small companies in college. The first was called Party Pig” – which planned parties, much like he planned events on the college committee.

“I thought, ‘hey, I could just take this party event planning experience and make my own money off of it.’ So, we started this company called Party Pig.”

The second company produced badges, like pin-on political buttons. Ryan started that business with no upfront costs, other than an additional DBA for Party Pig, LLC called “Mylar Designs” after the type of plastic that goes on top of the buttons.

Ryan says he sold “$5,000 worth of buttons before I had any equipment, or any inventory. I took the check, deposited it not a brand new bank account with our business, and ordered the equipment.”

He says he learned how to make the buttons and was about a week late with his first delivery. “Our first customer funded that company. And then it went really, really well.”
Mylar Designs ended up doing all of the buttons for Georgia State’s athletic department, and getting inbound demand for the business. Ryan says in the last 9 months of his college life, “we did well over 100,000 buttons.”

That generated about $20,000 of “side money” while interning at Red Bull and taking classes. That profit was after he paid other students to help him make buttons.

CAN’T FIND A JOB? CREATE ONE

Ryan tells how, even with all the amazing internships he had, with all the creative business experience, he wasn’t able to land a job after graduating in May 2012. “So I did a Kickstarter campaign in the fall of 2012 to write a book.” He raised $1,500, “and then I had to write it. So I got most of it done at a friend’s birthday.”

Ryan rented a cabin in the North Georgia mountains for a couple of days, took a friend up in November and cranked out about 35 thousand words, and even sold a few copies of the book, Professionalism in Flipflops.

“It was basically just me telling stories about what I learned about business, and work, and office politics, and bosses. From the difference between what I learned about all of that in college classes versus the lessons I learned from actual internships and working with big brands.”

He published the book on Kindle around Thanksgiving 2012, and “within a few days, a guy in New York city emailed me and said, ‘hey, I run a small neck company, and saw your book, we should chat.’”

Ryan was flown to New York where he worked with the company in December and offered a job doing digital marketing in New York City in January 2013.

LEARNING THE CURVE

Ryan says he spent the first half of 2013 learning about technology. The steep learning curve to get to the point of adequately marketing the tech company included learning about HTML, fundraising, startups, and minimally viable products.
“We’re talking about messaging, and positioning our products to these different use cases, and all these different terms. I’m like ‘what does that mean?’ And, then, I’m thinking back to Marketing 101 class, right, with the five “P’s” – price, product, positioning, placement. And everything kind of – I guess I’ve been on this lag where stuff crystallizes a few years later.”

That year was an interesting one, he says. One which was a great learning experience in digital marketing. And then, almost a year ago, Ryan “had this idea to build this platform for artists… I understand the pain points of the starving artist, so I converted that to visual arts, painters and photographers.”

“I started building this product, and that began the next chapter, I think.”

HOW I QUINTUPLED MY INCOME

Jordan picks up the story and says an article Ryan had written about the next chapter is how he came to meet Kulp. “You wrote a blog post called “How I Quintupled my Income,” and our mutual friend, Vance, introduced us.”

Jordan asks Ryan for a summary of the post.

Ryan explains that, while his first job was in New York City, it doesn’t mean that he made a lot of money. Plus, living expenses in the big city are high. “I didn’t really know my worth, so I took the salary (under $50,000 a year and some stock options), moved to New York, ate chili pretty much every day, every meal, whatever I could do to get by and pay my bills and never, ever, ever, ever get into credit card debt.”
A year later he left that job wanting to discover how much he was worth. “After I quit, I started going and meeting people. That turned into this post that you’re talking about. I spent January, February and into March meeting a ton of entrepreneurs, a ton of founders of companies, whether it’s on a phone call, or meeting them for coffee and just pitching myself.”
Ryan would tell them he wanted to help them. “Sales isn’t about convincing, it’s about helping,” he says. He would tell these business leaders, “I want to help you grow, I want to help you get more users, I love your product, I like what you’re doing here, and what about that.”

“When you approach them as a potential candidate, and say, ‘I get what you’re doing, I love it.’ Then you already have your foot halfway in the door,” Ryan teaches, “because they’ve been waiting for someone to meet them and say that to them.”

After starting his meetings with entrepreneurs, offering to work with them a few hours a week, within a few months, Ryan says, “I was racking up a new client every week or two, and I got up to – my best months were netting 12 grand a month from freelancing” compared to $2,400 a month after taxes in previous jobs.

MOTIVATING FACTORS IN RYAN’S LIFE

Jordan turns the interview to the question “what do you think drives you? What is the motivating factor that makes you want to take over the world?”

Ryan says he can’t help but resonate a bit with the main character in the movie Office Space. “I really want to take over the world… I really kind of want to do nothing… and, so that’s kind of what I’m doing now… all of this big game.”

“Ultimately, getting to the highest point for me,” Ryan explains, “is being able to settle and hangout… I don’t think we’re created to work, I think we love building things.”

He continues, “I’m trying to channel work into a way that makes sense for me personally, and if that passion goes away to kind of pull all nighters or try to work 80 hours a week, then, I’ll cut it off.”

LIVING A LEGACY

Jordan then asks Ryan what, with this mindset, does he hope his legacy to be.

Referring to a joke by comedian Dane Cook about leaving a legacy. “He said, ‘so I came up with how I’m going to leave my legacy… I went up to a kid eating ice cream and I just smashed it into his face.’ And he (Dane) said, ‘you will remember me forever.’”

“I think if he’s kind of hinting truths that his legacy could just be smashing ice cream in a kid’s face, I’d be happy with my legacy being writing a really terrible book and then hanging out in the woods or something.”

He concludes on his legacy by saying, “if you go to Georgia State University, and walk around campus for a few minutes, you will see someone with a book bag, or gym bag with a button that I held in my two hands. That’s — right now, that’s my legacy. And everything is is TBD.”

ADVICE FOR A YOUNGER ENTREPRENEUR

Teenage Entrepreneur host, Jordan Agolli begins wrapping up the interview with a final question, “if you could go back in time and give advice to a younger version of your self when it comes to business, what would that be?”

Ryan says it would be “Patience.”

“I used to be a very, very impatient person. And there’s definitely benefits to that. If you’re building product, and you’re applying pressure to your team, and you’re making things move, and ship around, and whatever, but realizing that not everything has to happen today or yesterday, can be really soothing.”

He continues, saying, “if you sprinkle in patience and give yourself time to figure out what it is you really want to do, then you’ll make better choices.”
“The second thing,” he says, “is that entrepreneurship, in business, doing your own thing, having autonomy or control, it is not about getting rich.”

Referring to some bad keynote speeches he’s heard on the topic, “and the first thing they say is ‘who in here wants to get rich, who in here wants to be an entrepreneur and make a million dollars.’ … the oldest definition [of “entrepreneur”] that I come across is ’moving resources from areas of low yield to areas of high yield.’ That’s entrepreneurship.” Ryan states.

He concludes, “it’s about the fulfillment that comes from building something. All of the money stuff, and the make a million dollars and buy your own island… those are just the side effects of being really good at entrepreneurship.”