Why did you start the business, what was the catalyzing event?
From 1990 to 1996, I was a commercial airline pilot (Flight instructor, freight pilot, and then First Officer for the Delta Regional Atlantic Southeast Airlines). In 1996, I quit flying for a living and took a job as an aircraft broker for Universal Jet Trading (UJT) in Washington DC. UJT was owned by the family of friend I had made during college, Brian Westrick. It did not take long for me to realize that I had the entrepreneurial spirit, so I quit and started my own aircraft sales company *. Things were great until 9/11. On the afternoon of 9/11, I had numerous clients tell me that they were buying aircraft since “their employees were never getting on a commercial airliner again.” None of those clients ended up buying an aircraft. In July 2002, with one kid in daycare and a newborn home with a now non-working mother, I launched TrafficSafetyStore.com to pay the bills.
How did you find your first customer?
Google Pay-Per-Click (PPC). It worked great from day one and remains our #1 source of new customers. We pay Google an obscene amount of money, but we track the Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) by each product category, some we see 12-to-1 returns. Our lowest return is 8-to-1 so, as long as they keep doing that, we will keep paying them money.
Describe your first office/location.
I started the business from the same home office where I sold aircraft. The plan was to start a ‘Drop Ship Business’ where the product would ship directly from the manufacturer to the customer. Unfortunately, three times in the same month, a vendor sent a copy of the invoice that was supposed to come only to me with the product as the Packing Slip. It’s funny, even though most of our customers are municipal or military buyers and it isn’t their money, they still begrudged me on the small margin I was making as a Drop-Ship-Seller. I decided then that in order to give our customers the quality experience I wanted, we needed to have the product in stock. Therefore, I rented a storage unit near my children’s day-care center. I would drop the kids off in the morning, swing by the storage unit to pick up the products I had sold the day before. From there I would take them home and box them in my kitchen, then drive them to the local UPS Customer Center. After six months of that, I rented a small 2,000-ft2 ‘flex space’ with a small office and crude loading dock.
What’s the most creative thing you did to get your business started, or kept it going through a tough time?
(If you recall that asterisks back up by when I left Universal Jet Trading) – There was always a lot of turnover in the aircraft brokerage business. Salespeople moved around a lot, usually violating their employment agreements by taking their clients with them. I still remember when I told my friend Brian that I was leaving UJT. We went for a walk around the building. I was above board with him that, while I did not see myself as a competitor, I was staying in the industry. However, for those clients who want to come with me, when I did deals with them I would pay his family their portion of the commission. While I am sure Brian had been told the same thing by others when they were leaving the firm, I meant it. Therefore, every time a client who I worked with at UJT bought or sold an airplane, I would drive over and hand Tom Westrick a check for the commission he would have made if I still worked there. People told me I was an idiot for doing this…. “They’re not entitled to that”, or “everyone takes clients when they move on.” While that may be true, it didn’t matter to me. I was not going to steal from anyone, let alone my friend.
What does this have to do with the question? In January 2014, Brian Westrick joined our company as Chief Operating Officer. Brian brought with him an incredible amount of e-commerce and business knowledge from his career after he left UJT. During our time together, Brian has helped me guide the company through several crisis (“That Time Will Ran Us Out of Money”, “That Time Will Ran Us Out of Money #2”, COVID-19, etc…) He’s been a steady hand during all of these, helping to make growing our business fun, and increasing revenue over four times what it was in 2013. Our company would not be where it is today were it not for Brian, so the grand total of those payments I paid Tom Westrick for deals I did with former UJT clients is the best money I ever spent to maintain my relationship with Brian Westrick.
What’s something quirky or superstitious you do as a CEO?
I think the team would vote that I am bizarrely open. Meaning, while it certainly does not happen often, when we have to terminate any associate, we have an all hands meeting immediately. I mean literally, as the person is leaving our parking lot, where we discuss what just happened. We obviously do not get into personal details and don’t disparage the person; we simply set out the reasons that lead us to the decision to part ways. Part of that is we take questions from the team. ‘Did we consider other alternatives?’ ‘How many meetings had this person had with their team lead before it was determined that they were not going to change?’ We then finish by inviting people to come and talk to us or email me directly if they feel the person was not treated fairly or, and more importantly, did we depart from our values when we reached that decision. I am a huge believer that honesty and transparency ‘kill mildew’ and keep things fresh. The last thing I want to encourage is the ‘water cooler talk’ about who was let go and why.
What was your last job working for someone else? What was your favorite day job?
Last – Corporate aircraft broker for Universal Jet Trading and the Westrick family.
Favorite – Regional Airline Pilot. When you were flying with someone you liked (aka locked in a phone booth with another person for four or five days straight) there was no better job on Earth. There was a Captain I was ‘paired up’ with two straight months in a row – Frank Conner. Frank was a Navy pilot flying F4 Phantoms in Vietnam, so he was exactly 20 years older than I was. We got along great. Our wives would even come on the weekend overnights and we would all go out to dinner. By the end of the second month, Frank and I intuitively knew what the other was doing almost without speaking (which we still did anyway since we both flew ‘by the book’).
Where did you come up with the name for your company?
People may not realize it now, but there was a time when the internet was not built for shopping. It was more informational than commercial. So, when I launched the website TrafficSafetyStore.com in 2002 to sell safety products on-line, I included the word ‘store’ so people would know we were a commercial site. You could actually buy things from us. While I cannot deny it worked, after 18 years, we are all tired of it. It’s dated and is sooo 2002. That is why, during the COVID pandemic, we worked with a major ‘branding agency’ and have change the company name to MUVZ, Inc.
MUVZ came from interviews with employees, vendors and customers about what does this company stand for. The most common response was “we get it moving”. Be “IT” an order to a customer, a Purchase Order to a vendor, a tracking number, whatever it is….get it moving. MUVZ.