When he was only 12 years old, a young boy found a small space in his garage where he set up a makeshift desk made out of a piece of plywood for the tabletop and four used tires for the base. When asked what he was doing, the boy responded: “I’m setting up a desk. I want to run my own business”.
Years later that boy, now a man, is indeed running his own business. AJ Ogaard runs multiple businesses, in fact, from an advertising products company to a speaking and publishing venture. Why? For the freedom to build the life he wants while helping others, and the chance to branch out past what being “just an employee” offers.
While sometimes scary and uncertain, self-employment offers tremendous opportunity, something AJ Ogaard covets. His main business, Toolbox for Biz, is what is traditionally called promotional products. Ogaard doesn’t like to use that phrase because of its negative connotation. “The term ‘promotional products’ is perceived by some as, ‘Oh, you just sell stuff’”, says Ogaard, who sees himself more as a consultant or a problem-solver. “Yes, we offer screen printed pens and shirts, or embroidered hats. But it’s not about the sale. It’s about helping people, offering a service and making a connection. You have to build and earn trust. And you have to assist your customers in building and earning their customers’ trust.”
GROWING BUSINESS IN TOUGH TIMES
2009 and 2010 were difficult years for many small businesses. Toolbox for Biz was not immune to the downturn. To survive, Ogaard had to come up with new ways to market, new products to promote and look at new ways to gain exposure.
One of the first changes Ogaard made was to look at his product line and see what could be added and how he could create a niche market in order to be unique and distinct. He reviewed a lot of new products and in 2009 decided on two new areas which he felt offered something different.
The By Design Tees promotional shirts have special themed designs pre-printed onto the sleeves. The strong, vivid images depict different industries and hobbies including EMS, healthcare, military, and sports. “I’d never seen anything like these shirts before”, says Ogaard. “I decided to offer them to my clients. We can customize the shirts by adding a logo to the front or back, and they have the benefit of colorful images on the sleeves without paying extra for multiple color printing. I found these shirts were great for team building exercises, special events and both for-profit and non-profit organizations.”
The second product he added was By Design Patches – embroidered patches selected because of their low cost and extreme flexibility. “Money is tight for all businesses right now. I thought patches with company logos or images on them would be a cost-effective way for many businesses to get their brand out there without breaking the bank.” The patches are high quality and embroidered, and customers can place them anywhere: on jackets, bags, hats, and shirts. “It’s a lot less expensive than embroidering on a polo shirt for example…and just as nice.”
SOCIAL MEDIA: THE BIG HURDLE
The biggest change Ogaard made was the jump into social media. “Social media is the new way of doing business. It doesn’t replace one-on-one interactions, but accentuates them. I got onto Twitter, started a business Facebook page and really began to make connections outside of my regular circle.”
Ogaard has made mistakes with social media just like everyone else. He had to learn how to “tweet” and needed to figure out content for his Facebook page. Should his tweets be all about business concepts and thoughts, or should he promote products? What would he put on his Facebook page that showed both the business and the personal side? Slowly over the past year Ogaard has learned what works and what doesn’t, and he is still learning in this ever-changing landscape.
The biggest challenge was creating his blog, the TBX Connection. TBX Connection went through several renditions in terms of content. “I started out wanting to profile successful businesses and business leaders”, said Ogaard. “I still do, to some extent, but now I have also added a more “human” element to the blog. Mixing business with personal stories is how successful companies are growing. People want to know the faces behind the businesses.”
The TBX Connection blog now features interviews and profiles but also posts about putting passion into everything you do, overcoming obstacles, and regaining focus. 2011 will highlight marketing tips and case studies. “I was going to stay away from talking about my clients”, states Ogaard. “But then I realized the stories behind the needs should be told. Rady Children’s Hospital (who cares for children battling illnesses such as cancer), for example, wanted backpacks for children to bring personal belongings and medical needs to and from the hospital. Eisenhower Medical Center needed screen printed T-shirts to build awareness within the community for their annual ‘Heart Walk’ event. It is truly about making a difference and being a resource to assist and build a connection with people”.
FINDING YOUR NICHE
In the business world there is a lot of competition. Coffee houses, graphic artists, PR agencies, Realtors, and stores are all fighting for the same limited customer base. As someone in the promotional products business, Ogaard knew he faced stiff competition. “There are so many promotional companies out there just undercutting each other to get the job. They sell for the sake of making a sale and that’s reflected in the lack of care and interest in each person and business”, he notes. “Quality is sacrificed for quantity. My goal all along was not to sell someone 1000 pens. Yes, I can provide pens to customers, but I want to establish a relationship with them…find out what makes their business tick. What do they really need? Do they need pens? Or do they need something else? It’s not about making a sale for me. It’s about finding out what I can do to help another business succeed.”
So though he can provide anything a customer can dream of to imprint their logo on, Ogaard decided to focus primarily on apparel. “All people wear clothes, and people pay good money for moderate quality shirts and hats in stores. My thought is, why not provide people with something they need anyway and have them become walking billboards for my customers’ businesses? Apparel is where it’s at.”
According to Ogaard, the screen printing and apparel imprinting businesses has grown so much in skill level over the last few years that companies can have shirts and clothing designed that can stand up to anything found in stores: jumbo prints, wrap prints, bling, laser etching, water based grunge inks, and nailheads. “This is one of the reasons why I like apparel”, remarks Ogaard. “Because of the possibilities. T-shirts, tank tops, hoodies, polo shirts, hats, and even bags…people love a good-looking quality piece of clothing and will wear my clients’ logos around. And when 500 people do a heart walk, for example – well there’s a powerful image for you. Everyone on the same team, wearing the same shirt in order to share a powerful message”.
The main reason why Ogaard is able to stay in business is that he values his customers and does everything he can to provide quality service. “You have to be extraordinary to get noticed”, notes Ogaard. “You have to listen to your customers – really listen – and help them figure out what they want. You have to share some of yourself, and build a community. It’s not enough to just offer a service – you have to become valuable to your customer.”
MOVING INTO THE FUTURE
What’s next for this entrepreneur? “Writing”, says Ogaard. “I am working on an e-book. And I am working on a memoir about a whole other interesting chapter of my life”. (He won’t share more – yet.) “I am also developing another blog that will help people realize their dreams – finding themselves and their inspiration – something that will help them change their lives.”
Anything else? “Speaking to people. Nothing beats talking to people face-to-face and getting their immediate input and feedback. The energy and connection you feel with a roomful of people who have the same goal is amazing. I have a lot of experiences, successes and failures to share. Maybe I can help other people not make the same mistakes.”
Ogaard is trying to offer the tools he has learned along the way to help others. “I’ve had some very intense and interesting experiences in my life,” he says, laughing. “I am trying to share those things that I have learned. I’ve been around the block – more than a few times. How much to share? Only time, and feedback, will tell.”
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Written by Gianna Brighton