Mike Thornburg, CEO, Emblemax Corporation
About This Episode
Mike Thornburg, the owner of Emblemax, joins the Go With John show to share his journey as an entrepreneur. He discusses the challenges of being a small business owner faced with always chasing the urgent and finding the time to scale a company. Learn from his experience how to grow your business without being hampered.
[00:00:02] All right, you’re in for a treat today, just wrapped up a conversation with Mike Thornburg, president of Emblemax in Chantilly, Virginia. We had a great conversation about what it means to hustle as an entrepreneur and how Mike has learned to scale his business. You are also going to love to hear his encounter with the Houston Police Department regarding a UPS shipment that got hung up at a center. So hope you enjoy listening as much as we enjoyed having this conversation with Mike Thornburg.
[00:00:45] So welcome to another episode of the Go with John show today I’m sitting down with Mike Thornburg. So do I call you Mike or Michael? Mike. Mike, I’ve always called you Mike, but I’ve learned from doing this that that I’ve actually been mispronouncing some people’s names that I’ve known for 20 years. And then we sit down. So, Mike, so you bought my company that I used to own marketing mania and you owned a company called Emblemax.
[00:01:14] Tell us a little bit about how how did you get into. You’re an entrepreneur. I’m an entrepreneur. You and I have known each other now. Since when was a 2004 ish. Yeah. So we’ve known each other for quite a while and we continue to work together on some projects and. But how did you get into the promotional products industry at Emblemax.
[00:01:35] Well so the, the journey for me sort of kind of took a lot of different turns and passed. I’m from a Delfi Marilena small town in P.G. County. I grew up there and I, I my, my dad had a sporting goods shop. They sold string screen printing embroidery goods to teams, high schools, clubs. He was a he’s a small his small partner in a sporting goods shop, I should say. And that’s kind of where I was babysat as a kid when I was five, six, seven, eight, 10 years old. I go to the sporting goods shop and during the summers and didn’t have a babysitter. And that’s where I was babysat. My brother and I and I learned how to screen print embroiderer. And I just got you sitting around there so my dad would give me like five bucks for to work all day, catch and shorter. And eventually I learned how to run the embroidery machines and screen voting machines. And it was kind of fascinating. Yeah. So what do you mean catching shirts? What does that say when you’re a spring break T-shirts, you you put the ink on them, you run them through a dryer. Right. Which cures the ink on the shirts. And then at the end of it, somebody has to catch the t take your shirt off the dryer.
[00:02:35] I like yeah.
[00:02:36] Kind of like a pizza conveyor belt at the pizzas. Come on me to catch the pizza and put it in a box. Yeah. So I catch the shirts and box them up and put them away or run errands for other sales people at the place. So it was, it was very I didn’t realize at the time, but I was sort of learning a skill, a trade skill. And my dad didn’t go to college and I sort of just it was kind of what he did. I learned that skill there. I we I we did we actually it was kind of exciting because is the name a company was Marleau Sports. They’ve since been sold, but they did uniforms for the Washington Redskins, the Wizards with bullets back then, the Capitals. So high school, college professional teams, those are very exciting. I’d go to Redskins Park and deliver, I guess, watching football team park now or whatever. But but but I’d go to the park there and see the equipment managers and we constantly running over uniforms. Back then, the Redskins or the football team would send fans over to our company to make them uniforms if they wanted to day. But jerseys had come over to Marlow and we printed Dave Buss Jersey and Russell was sporting goods, did all the uniforms that we print them, and we’d sent them over to them. And and they, you know, fans would come in the shop to get Redskin jerseys. Now, licensing, it’s changed a lot. That was years ago. Right now, this is like in the eighties. So I learn a skill there. I eventually went on to Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland. And yeah, and there was a lot of famous people that graduate from that school and then went to University of Maryland, where I met my wife. I graduated from there. And actually my first job was like Lilly ran across the street here at Northwestern Mutual in Old Dominion. Nice. Very nice. I spent a lot of time in this like this in the rate we are today.
[00:04:25] So today we’re actually recording in the long and foster office in McLean, Virginia. So a lot of people have been asking me, where are you doing your recording? And I’m like all over the place. What can you tell us? So thanks for getting that in. Yeah, so so we are we’re McClaine.
[00:04:38] So you started across the street, so I sold life insurance and disability and financial instruments to people, individuals. My focus was on doctors and lawyers. I saw them disability insurance, life insurance and work with their investments with Northwestern. It was a great experience. I did that for a couple of years. I spent a lot of time in the local area here. I bought my engagement ring from Diamond Creation’s, which is right around the corner here.
[00:05:04] Also young, like twenty four, twenty five year old and I knew nothing and. Right.
[00:05:08] And the gentleman over there who owns that, Harry S. have kind of taught me like about diamonds and rings and all the stuff. We don’t know anything about these younger kids. So I have a fond memories of this like area. This is sort of where like I started everything. My father passed away in ninety five when I was working over there. I spent a lot of every single day I’d go to George Georgetown Hospital in the Lombardy Clinic to see him. He was there for like six months, but he passed away and I got tired of telling people they’re going to die and become disabled. So I, I just lost all my mojo. But it was just it came to like. So I left that Northwestern and I went to work at the sporting goods shop with my dad. It was a small partner involved in he had passed away. My mom was doing the accounting. So I want to go there just to sort of keep her company. I worked there, Marleau Sports for probably six or seven years, but I worked their whole my whole life before that during the summers, and that I moved to Alexandria, Virginia to handle that territory, selling to clubs, high schools, colleges, professional teams like their uniforms and sports. And then one day I got stuck on the Wilson Bridge driving home. It was it was in 19, I want to say it was nineteen ninety-nine. I was driving to funny. You were from Vienna. Yeah, I was driving to Vienna for their select basketball team travel uniforms. They didn’t. We did uniforms. Right. It was the it was the day after Thanksgiving. On a Friday. I was the the president of Vienna at the time had ordered uniforms and somebody else, they didn’t come in. He called me four days before they had these select teams. One hundred and sixty kids. They had tournaments over the Thanksgiving weekend. And he called me four days before saying, hey, can you bail me out? My other provider didn’t come through, so I had to get uniforms in front of myself. We were we were Marleau closed on that Friday. Yeah, I had to come in the morning. I got there at 6:00 a.m. and printed them till midnight. I ran to Vienna from Marleau. Sports was enforcible Maryland. I ran from forcefield to Vienna in the middle of night. Cell phones were just coming in.
[00:07:20] I had to put my hand. My phone was burning like off the hook. Are you worried? I’m like, I’m trying, man. I’m doing the best I can. I’m trying to make America for you here, but just work with me. Yeah.
[00:07:30] And I get over there and I get to the Wilson Bridge at eleven fifty eight fifty nine and the drawbridge goes, oh the Robinson terminal, the, the, the newspapers, The Washington Post were coming through and I’m first in line at the gate and I’m banging like the little garden gate that came down. Yeah. And I just said to myself, God, I just finished crushing myself all day. My cell phone keeps ringing and all these coaches are upset. It’s it’s midnight on a Friday night. They have games the next day. They don’t have uniforms at this guy’s house waiting for me. Yeah, it’s not my fault. I’m thinking I’m the hero. I should have said no. And I’m just like, that’s when I just I couldn’t take anymore. I said, if I’m going to, like, print all this stuff, do all this, I’m going to I’m going to do it for myself. Right. And so but I don’t want to compete with I eventually get their the uniforms. I think he he might have all the coach were mad at me. So I’m thinking he must have told him that I kind of bailed him out here. But either way I delivered the uniforms again. You took the bullet too. I took the bullet, yeah.
[00:08:27] But that Monday morning following that, I went into my office and I told the main majority partners at the company who I respect and love them dearly. I said, I’m giving you my six month notice where I’m leaving. Yeah. To go into business for myself. I’m not going to go into the team sporting goods. I’m going to go into the corporate market doing something totally different, like similar. And that’s when I, I left that business to start my first business in ninety nine. Nice. Which I, I had a partner in that business started out of my house. Right. We grew, it started adding the capacity of screen printing embroidery in-house facility in Alexandria.
[00:09:01] Did you, did you start screen printing in your house. In your garage.
[00:09:04] I did. I start, I actually I, I insulated the whole garage and had planned to do it. It wasn’t zoned for voyeuristic screen printing. But, you know, when you’re hustlin, I mean, this is a kid. I had paper routes and and landscaping business. I started when I was 14. And so when you’re hustling, you just find a way, right?
[00:09:23] Yeah. I knew a lot about screenplay embroidering. I started outsourcing it and I wasn’t happy with the vendors that I was using because because I felt that I knew more about the screen printing broader than they did that I’d have in the early days. We’d have issues on companies that are suppliers. They’re doing the printing for us. Our contractors aren’t coming through and give us excuses.
[00:09:49] And yeah, I know you didn’t you couldn’t control the timeline. No. Right. Right. So you couldn’t tell and he would just work an extra couple hours.
[00:09:55] I let me and let me I’ll put on my other stuff in your facility for you. Then I could do that then. Right. So really it’s very difficult. So bring it in. House was is extremely important to me because when you’re when you’re hustling, you just want to be out of control everything.
[00:10:08] Yeah. And it’s and it’s hard and I think most folks don’t know. And I mean you and I have a lot in common, you know, from from a business ownership perspective, because I started my marketing company in nineteen ninety seven and I didn’t have experience screen printing, but I said to myself, how hard can it be.
[00:10:26] It’s actually a lot harder than you think when you did a pretty good job. I was at your facility a number of times and you did a good job.
[00:10:33] Yeah well that was you. You didn’t. I don’t think I didn’t meet you until 2004 ish. Maybe 2000 throw it. Actually, that’s not true because how I met you or I met. I met.
[00:10:43] Joe, in your in your company in 1997, when I started marketing mania, I didn’t have any money and and it really was a huge turning point in my life. And so I didn’t have any money for marketing. And I had I started this company marketing mania out of my house, just like you did. And I was all by myself. I didn’t have any anybody at all helping me. And I I went out and just started doorknocking and I went and back then, I think it was a lot easier to to to solicit in office buildings. But I went around Tysons Corner. I went around Herndon. I was walking every day, every single day. I went out and I went through so much shoe leather. I had a pair of Johnson and Murphy wingtips and I wore them out and I got them resold and resold and resold. And then the guy that was doing my shoes says, this is the last time I can’t resolve them again. You’ve got to get another pair. So I got a new pair and wore them out. And all this happened over, you know, two or three years.
[00:11:46] But but I actually cold called on your company to try to sell you what you do.
[00:11:54] So I walked in and I was talking to Joe and he was standing there. Really nice guy. He’s not saying anything. And I’m telling him what I’m doing and all that. And he pretty much said, you know, that’s good, John, but that’s what we do.
[00:12:06] So Joe, Joe brought me in and showed me his facility and and I actually started doing business with you guys. We actually so so it’s really amazing, you know, how everything played out and you eventually ended up buying my company. So it’s just really amazing that I met you guys. What was the name of your company originally was? It wasn’t emblematic at the time, was it? It was. It was geographic.
[00:12:34] Geographic, yeah. So I left my I left my business. I found it.
[00:12:38] I use jam graphics, created this software called Shop Works. It’s used by six other companies in our industry to run their production facilities. So it’s really it was really awesome stuff back then. And so I left my old company. We had used their software. When I first started, I, I went to jam graphics and they had this software called Soft Shop Works. Sorry. Right. And I purchased it for my first company. I used it and I met Joe and another guy, Jay, that owned Gem Graphics. Back then when I sold my business in 2003, I came to jam graphics. I was going to I was going to start another one similar business and start from scratch and do the same thing all over again after I sold my other business and they said, Would you like to buy this business? And I created a company called Emblem Acts. And I said, well, I don’t know. And I talked to Joe. And Joe said, what do you what are your guy’s plans? And Jay, the owner of demographics. Well, the software side of the business is just exploding. So I’m going to dedicate full time to that. I’ve been doing it anyway. It’s just it’s just time because, you know, software is obviously a little more lucrative far as margins go than many other industries. Right. So and I said, Joe, what are you going to do? And he goes, wow, I’m going to go into real estate.
[00:13:51] I mean, I was like, well, real estate.
[00:13:54] And I said, well, I don’t know a ton about this business, but I do know you, Joe and Joe is an incredible guy. He just knows a lot about the industry, knows more about screenwriting than I do. And I don’t meet many of those people in our industry. And I said, well, I will purchase this company so I don’t have to start over from scratch and building facilities, but only if you stay. Yeah. So I convinced him to forgo his real estate career and stay and and that was gosh, eighteen years ago in thousand. And he’s he’s amazing. And I, I added another partner to our business guy named Kevin Cohn from my, my former company. So and we have we have some incredible people there. And so in two thousand and six I guess you’ve been doing contract work with a couple of years and and I always admired how you ran your business. I guess you came from a different. Perspective, I grew up screen printing and throwing ink on shirts all day, whereas you this was new to you, so you learned it from a different angle and you are much more into the strategic marketing and sales part of the side of the business. Right. Whereas I think I get caught up sometimes in the making sure we get the production done. Which hinders your sales marketing efforts.
[00:15:11] Well, it’s really tough when you’re a small company and you’re you know, because I was doing all the sales for my organization so I would go out and sell, sell, sell, sell, sell. And then the guys that I had hired to do the production couldn’t keep up.
[00:15:24] So then I would end up in the production side of it for a period of time trying to catch up. So there was this constant oscillation of, you know, feast or famine. We had too much work to do, not enough work to do. And it’s really tough when you’re small. So you’ve you figured out how to how to do it.
[00:15:41] But so let’s take a quick break. And when we come back, I want to hear some of your stories about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. All right.
[00:15:55] This is Mike Thornburg, president of Miramax Corporation, we’re a vertical decorator of T-shirts and promotional products. We create effective branding solutions and deliver them fast. Let your business speak for itself. So people who see you today, remember you tomorrow. Visit us at Emblem X.com. M b l e m X.com.
[00:16:23] Hey, we’re back with Mike, owner of Embla Max in Chantilly. So Mike, tell us, what is it like?
[00:16:30] Everybody always thinks as business owners that we’re sitting in the back office. We got our feet up on the desk and and we’re not really doing a lot of stuff.
[00:16:41] Tell us, what is it like from your perspective to be a small business owner? What is your life like?
[00:16:48] Well, the small business obviously is, you know, well, it’s all consuming. I mean, I think as we get older, we start realizing the importance of spending more time with family. You never regret spending more time with your kids and your family.
[00:17:01] So that’s something we all learn. But in the realm of a lot of business, I’ve been hustling all my life and that’s one of the detriments to growth of our business.
[00:17:14] And you can you could do a paper route. You could do a you could do landscaping business. You can do a promotional products business screen for body business or real estate. You can hustle and be successful in almost anything in life. I’ve learned it could be investments, it could be anything. And but you reach up, you reach a plateau when you’re constantly hustling that you can’t scale. And that’s been the challenge of my whole life. When employee has an issue, you need something that’s the most urgent thing. When a customer has a major issue, that’s the most important thing. And and when you’re hustling, you chase all those things and you’re constantly keeping everybody happy. And and the urgent you know, the there’s tons of books on, you know, books on this.
[00:17:58] But when you’re constantly chasing the urgent, it’s very difficult to scale a business. And I’ve been hustling my whole life and and successful a lot of things. But my biggest challenge has been scaling. Yeah. And I’ve learned a few things that I’m still always learning and trying to get better at as far as like scaling. One of the most important things I learned, and it’s unfortunately it’s taken all the way that this pandemic to sort of.
[00:18:27] Teach me this even more when you have a little bit more time to reflect, is it’s very important to create and communicate clarity to the organization and that’s something I hadn’t been doing previously. I’ve just been handling things myself, doing it. And then you reach a ceiling because you never get anything done. And so I haven’t had clarity and I haven’t communicated what we’re doing as a company which creates which which helps. If you do that, you create alignment. Everybody’s wrong in the same direction. For example, this year in the pandemic. My focus was to pay every employee the entire time, even the hourly employees that work in our production that may average 35 or 30 hours a week. I paid them 40 hours every single week of two thousand during the twenty twenty during the pandemic. Right. And that was important to me and was kind of important that our that our employees knew. That’s our goal. We’re going to lose a lot of money. Last year, were you thinking this right? We’re going to lose a lot of money last year because some of our industries we work with are hurting. Some are doing great. Yeah, we see the broad spectrum of different businesses and it’s sad and exciting at the point to why some business is booming, but some businesses are really hurting. But our goal was to I wanted to pay all their employees and make them feel secure for the whole pandemic. And luckily, we’ve done well enough the previous few years that we had some money in the bank to do that. And I’m not sure that everybody appreciated that, but I think they do. I think the government was fighting us by handing out big checks for people that weren’t working, which kind of had some some tough effects on small businesses, because I’m I’m fighting against the government to keep people employed, which was which was very difficult there for a while because I’d get back well, if I wasn’t working, I’d be getting almost just as much and. Right. And that was tough.
[00:20:13] So did your folks work or did you lose anybody to anybody?
[00:20:16] We didn’t really lose anybody during the pandemic. We didn’t actually we didn’t lose anybody during the pandemic. But I did get some pushback from employees when the federal government started handing out was it six hundred dollars a week? And it’s kind of like, you know, there maybe some of their friends or other people were home doing nothing, collecting checks. Right. And they’re having to come in to work. They didn’t I didn’t make you know, during the pandemic, we ebbed and flowed how much we went for a couple of people and a shift at a time, maybe two or three people come in a day and we’d alternate who will come in. But they all got paid forty hours a week, everybody full time. But it was tough fighting, fighting the government. Right. You can’t win. Right. So that was tough. But over time they realized I’m still going to have a job. So that kind of went away. Yeah.
[00:21:03] So that’s and that’s one of the things too.
[00:21:05] And I think folks don’t realize and, you know, you kind of have the same role that I had in my company where you’re going out and you’re meeting with the customers, you’re on the front line with the customer. When you sit down with a customer they don’t really want to hear. Yeah, no, actually, you don’t even want to really share, like, what are the real world problems you’re dealing with back at your shop.
[00:21:22] So you got to go out and put on a happy face and and sit down and take orders and offer ideas. And you’ve got to be creative and you got to bring things to the table that people are going to get excited about buying. At the same time, you’re trying to hold your whole organization together back in the shop. So, you know, that’s that’s that’s that’s definitely tough. And now tell me about, like, vacations and things like that. So when you were, you know, starting now two thousand, four or five, six, seven, how often did you take vacation?
[00:21:52] How how what was your situation? It was tough, especially when in the first business, when you’re really hustling, I left my first sporting goods job and went into business for myself. And, you know, partner, there’s a lot of pressure to keep going. That was in the ninety nine was the height of the the dotcom bubble.
[00:22:11] Yeah. And bust. And we actually did extremely well as we were actually we did extremely well during that time frame. Yeah.
[00:22:19] But was a lot of pressure to keep going and we didn’t take, we didn’t take vacations and we didn’t take vacations. My family, my wife and I, we would go somewhere kind of local and I’d always be like, you know, joining them. A day later, my wife, my wife and I had a daughter at a time. Yeah. You know, I join them a day later and and and I was always late to the vacation. So finally she wised up and said, hey, mom, I’m booking a flight somewhere, so you have to be on the flight.
[00:22:48] And so then it became not joining them, you know, a day later, a car right away. I have to be on the plane a certain time. And the funny thing is, I I’d have to pull all nighters that night before. Yeah. Just to get that flight. I leave my office and meet them at the airport and fly off somewhere for a week. So that was that was the only way she can get me away. Right. Because it’s hard. I mean, I mean, you’re responsible for everything and you’re bootstrapping and you’re just getting started. I mean, it’s all back on you if you don’t have the money to pay the bills and.
[00:23:18] Yeah. What do you do. Yeah. So yeah. So and you use the word hustle a lot.
[00:23:21] I think, I think I agree with I think there’s probably a lot of younger folks out there that don’t really realize, you know what that. But when you’re starting a business and everything is on you, there’s there’s a level of anxiety and there’s excitement and there’s like an adrenaline like pulsing through your veins literally 24 hours a day, you probably wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, especially when you are starting with ideas and all. I can do this. I can do that. And you want to you know, you get back to your desk and you’re working, but it just never it never shuts down. I think anybody who has gone through what you’ve gone through or what I’ve gone through to start a business and get it off the ground and keep it running, you’ve got to put in that seven days a week for years.
[00:24:04] Right. And you kind of feel like it’s never going to end, right, don’t you? Yeah. You get into that grind. Yeah.
[00:24:10] And you, I think, care deeply.
[00:24:15] And I think everybody who’s successful cares deeply about what they’re doing. Right. My my doctor cares deeply about my health. I think you care deeply about your customers in real estate and in business. I care deeply about making sure that that my clients get the best service that I can that I can offer. And I think you’ve got a couple of great stories when when you just told me before we fired up the microphones about how life is, I mean, how your business interfered with your life and you had to fly to Houston.
[00:24:46] So tell us tell us a little bit. And I guess I’m trying to paint a picture for the folks out there of what kind of sacrifices do you have to make if you want to be a successful business owner? Right. What, so you’re at a barbecue and what’s going on at your house?
[00:25:01] It’s in the two thousand seven or eight ish time frame, right.
[00:25:08] Where the barbecue and at your house. And God bless my wife for hanging with me through all this thing. She’s amazing. She’s like a she’s a software executive and she’s like, you know, it’s a whole different world.
[00:25:18] Yeah. She lives and I do a small business owner. But so we’re at my house at a barbecue. I invite a couple of friends in the neighborhood over one one of the gentlemen coming over as it happens to be a chef. That kind of worked out OK. So I’m just starting to grill some things on for a barbecue Saturday. Saturday night. Yeah, Saturday night.
[00:25:37] And the guests get there, I and I get this phone call and we had a client that that I’m not sure if they still do this, but they but they’re still around. But they they used to launch all the the multibillionaires who’d pay twenty, thirty million dollars to get going to rocket into space and. Right. And when the space program here kind of dwindled down a little bit during the 2000s, they a lot of these billionaires would go over to Russia and they launch these rockets out of Russia and they go into space and do their thing for a little while. But we had one one client that needed some patches for this for this multibillionaire that that was going into space and. They had order from another place. Patches are mostly made overseas in China, and you can do them domestically, but they’re very expensive and they take a long time because we don’t have the the capacity in this country as they do over there and overseas. So they they gave me like a week’s four days notice to get patches in because their other supplier didn’t come through. And I told them it’s going to be tight. We’re going to we have to get them over the volume. You want five hundred patches with this big logo on it that’s going to go on the side of the space flight suits. Yeah, they got come over from China. They’re going to arrive in Houston on Saturday. That was the last day the the the flight doctor that was headed over to Moscow. That’s the last person from the US to go over because they left me in quarantine for two weeks. And once they’re in quarantine, no one can be around them. So they don’t get sick or anything right before they launch up into the rockets. So the flight doctor was leaving Houston on Saturday. And so those patches had to be there to his house so he could physically take them over to Moscow. Right. So everything was good. U.P.S. somehow didn’t come through the patches, got stuck in the Houston distribution facility on a Saturday. And I get this phone call Saturday night. The patches didn’t get there. And as a client, they did a fair amount of business with this, a pretty significant amount. Great client. But it was they were desperate. I said, well, OK, the patch didn’t get there. So we’ll work on this on Mondays because. No, no, they have to like they have we have a person with a Moscow passport. We have to have the patches. I was like, what do you have to have? The patches are can you just get the patches a little bit later?
[00:27:54] But they were desperate and so they basically had to have those patches. It was Sunday. Yeah. At the airport.
[00:28:01] They had to have them. Well, they had to have them in Moscow as soon as possible because the all the crew were going into quarantine in Moscow probably that Monday or Tuesday. So they don’t have to have them over the weekend, but they had to get them there.
[00:28:14] Right. So you had so there was a person in Houston from this organization with a Russian passport? No, no. They sent somebody from the DC area with a Russian passport. I got down to Houston to be near me because I told my second, you were in Alexandria. I was Alexandria, Virginia. Right.
[00:28:29] And take a step back. The patches to these people, they’re spending millions and millions of dollars are a huge deal. Like they had to have these patches. And because they’re they hand them out to their comrades before they go into space on their mission. And it’s just hugely important to them. So it means the world. So a couple of dollars patch is not a couple dollars patch. That’s why we’re we’re doing all this. Right. But so I head down to Houston. There was last tracked in the distribution facility in Houston. I head down there.
[00:29:02] It’s so you leave your barbecue, leave my barbecue sauce and you had to get over to the chef like you’re in charge of that. I’m out of here. I apologize. You’re right.
[00:29:11] No explanations that anybody really. You just like. I got to go. Yeah, I got to go.
[00:29:15] OK, my wife looks at me. She just knew I had to go. So I felt she go to the airport. I go to the airport by ticket at the airport.
[00:29:23] I fly out. I fly out Sunday morning like first thing as a first ticket I could get Friday morning. I get down to Houston sometime in the evening. Yeah. And that’s Sunday night. It’s the UPS facility. There’s no movement there at all. That’s Sunday night. I was aware that the Packers in the in the in the distribution folks UPS facility arrive at 3:00 in the morning at the at the Houston distribution facility to do their sorting before the hour, three a.m. Monday morning or three a.m. Monday morning.
[00:29:59] I go to the Valero gas station. I’m just I’m I’m walking around like a father. Wait for a baby to be born. Yeah. To go over the UPS facility to find this box with these patches.
[00:30:07] Goguryeo had been tracked their last scan and knew was there. And I was fearful that the trucks, whatever, that leave the USPS facility would go out and I’d lose it. It’s a whole lot.
[00:30:17] So you’re at the Valero gas station. Yeah. And who do you run into?
[00:30:21] So there’s a few officers there, just kind of police officer, police officer shooting breeze.
[00:30:25] You knew you were totally still getting ready to commit a crime. Yeah, I mentioned the gentleman’s name. Who was flying in the space.
[00:30:31] Yeah, I saw him. His life story. Yeah. I was like, he’s got five hundred patches over there, one mile away at that distribution facility.
[00:30:38] And you taught him how I’m going to get him. And you may be getting a call. You told the cops.
[00:30:43] I told the police officers there. I was like, look, I’m going over there. I mean, I have that. You understand? I was I’m desperate. I have to have these patches. Yeah. They were actually kind of helpful.
[00:30:53] And they said, well, one of them knew somebody that worked in the in the sorting. Yeah. And they said they do get there like three, three thirty in the morning to do their sorting. Right. For the the rest of staff come in. Right. So you’ve told me the time the employees go in. So that was like great news. So I like sweet. I’m using this to go in the employee entrance like three o’clock in the morning.
[00:31:11] So I said, well, if you get a call or something, you know, it’s about I have to have these patches. Once I had the patches, I don’t care what happens to me. I just got to have these patches, like, please, just. And so it was kind of tongue in cheek, so I had a rental car I headed over to the U.P.S. facility is like three thirty four in the morning, right. I went in the employee entrance. I told they kind of see me in there. I don’t have a badge or anything like that. And the what would you do with your car? You had a rental car. So I took the rental car. Actually, I was fearful that these trucks were going to leave and they might have my patches. And this because the customer is sending like a a person with a Moscow passport. They were on there flying down to meet me, assuming I’m going to track down these patches. Right. And so I had to have these patches right. So I took the rental car and I blocked the exit where the tractor trailers leave. I was just fearful. I don’t know what happened. Maybe they were scanned there. Maybe they’re in this truck. Maybe they leave. And so I blocked the exit where the tractor trailers leave the sort to head out to the local distribution places. Right. Maybe head back to other places so nobody can leave. They’re not the patches can’t possibly leave there. I was just so like I was going to check these patches. And so I, I head over in the facility. I start freaking them out. Finally, the manager was like, you got to get out of here. And I was like, well, can I come back and help look for the patches? Like, you understand, I got to I told the story. I was like, I got to have these patches. I got to have these patches. So she calls the police because I because I wouldn’t leave. Right. They come over now. Was it the same cops that were at the border? I didn’t recognize the police officers, but I think they had known about the story. So they must have talked. Yeah, I didn’t I didn’t read radios. Yeah. Yeah. I didn’t recognize in the police officers came over. Right. But they they actually took me and said, sir, you’re going to have to like they must have known the manager of. Yeah. So you’re going to have to leave the facility. They escorted me out, move your rental car and and and they didn’t arrest me but they escorted me like with me got me out of facility. Right. Made me move my car and exit the premises. The manager said, I have your cell phone number. I’m going to call you as soon as we find these patches. Right. I was like, please, please, please. Just yeah. I’d be sitting over there and the police officer says, why don’t you head over to that, you know, over the gas station and wait for her call back to the Valero. And then finally, I got yeah. Finally eventually, like 6:00 in the morning, they found him and I opened up in front of the whole staff at UPS. It’s like a it’s like a huge celebration to wake and open.
[00:33:43] I got to tell you, open that box, making sure they weren’t missed. You know the business, right? Yeah, I guess they were misprinted.
[00:33:50] Oh, my God. Oh, that’s a whole nother thing, right? Oh, the wrong color. Please have a spelling and everything on.
[00:33:57] OK, so so I grabbed the patches and I head over to the airport. Yeah. Houston, I meet the the envoy that I hand them to him. Yeah. Escort him to the tarmac. Yeah. Watch this. But I don’t know what they did.
[00:34:09] They buy you a ticket.
[00:34:11] Right. They bought it back then. It was, it was you’re allowed to go through the ticketing. You came and get on to the to the. I actually I think I bought the ticket to the flight to Moscow.
[00:34:21] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. No, no. I just bought a ticket to get I think I bought a cheap ticket somewhere to get on that concourse so I could go with them and physically watch the plane take off, which I did to the window. That’s dedication. Yeah. Oh I just like you don’t go through all that like you just have them gets you have the envoy missed the flight or something. And as soon as he left I called them and said, hey, he’s taken off his flight.
[00:34:45] Yeah. And so that was and really you don’t really get.
[00:34:50] Too much out of that, but I made a client tremendously happy and they don’t know the back story of all the things they don’t, they probably remember that they ordered them from somewhere else. They didn’t come through, but they do remember how they feel when you do something for them like that. And so that person that the company still client today.
[00:35:07] And you know what? And and how much did you charge them for all this extra stuff?
[00:35:11] The patches where I didn’t charge them anything. The patches were I can’t remember the time bills like a three to four hour past. Nothing. So nothing at all or nothing. Yeah, exactly.
[00:35:20] Yeah. So you bought the plane ticket to get down there, the plane ticket to get back and you went through, almost got arrested and bought another ticket to get to watch the patches get on the plane. But see that’s that’s what it takes. Yeah. That’s what it takes. People people. Don’t forget that. Yeah. Your client will never forget it. But I think most folks out there that you run into every day don’t realize what you’re doing right. And then you go back to work on I guess you don’t get back to work till Tuesday. And this was this big, monumental deal to you. But now you just got to go back and deal with people calling in sick and somebody wants Friday off. And, you know, but but that’s what it is to be a business owner. It’s a pretty amazing story. You should be really.
[00:35:57] I mean, there’s there’s tons of the stories like that. I mean, I’ve had when I first bought the business in town, the current business jam graphics, I bought that business about two years into our business is Max. You know, I had an employee embezzling money. And so and in those situations, it’s all of a sudden it’s like all the other employees come out with pitchforks. Yeah. It’s like, no, no, no, no, no. We got to resolve this problem. And and it turns out that employee, eventually they they paid back all the money in its entirety. And that was more important. Getting the money back then. Right. Then teaching this person a lesson. Right. We had white collar crimes. It was it was everything. This person could have gone to jail for a long, long time. Yeah. And they didn’t I mean, but but they had paid some consequences, but it wasn’t about teaching. Teaching them a lesson wasn’t more important than taking care of our employees and get the money back. Yeah. Because that’s our employees money in their raises and their bonuses and their things. And that was the most important. And so we got to that situation as well.
[00:36:57] Yeah, I remember that. I remember that that one is probably not too. It was probably the time frame of of when we acquired your business. Exactly.
[00:37:05] Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. So so what other kinds of things do you. Well, I’ll tell you what, let’s take a quick break. And then when we come back, I want to hear a couple more stories and some of that some of the big lessons you may have learned. Sure.
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[00:38:06] All right, we’re back with Mike Thornburg, emblematic. So, Mike, let’s talk a little bit about lessons you’ve learned. And I think one of the things that you said you had a lot of struggles with over the years is scaling. So what are some of the things you’ve done to be able to scale because scaling you are well, so yeah.
[00:38:24] So I mean, my whole life, just through different businesses, I’ve you know, you find a way, right? So you’re hustling your whole life. You figure it out. Yeah. You find a way to figure it out. Yeah. And I think that’s the case for most entrepreneurs is you get going and there’s other folks that, that do a lot better in scaling from the beginning is folks who never really got in the trenches of the small business. They graduate with some incredible degree and given venture capital money. And and that’s a whole different realm that I’ve never experienced. Right. But so but scaling is being my biggest challenge because you want to kind of get things done and do things. And what I’ve learned is, is the importance that I kind of mentioned earlier was during the pandemic that we have a chance to take a step back. And and I’m constantly evolving and working on this. And I’m not there yet. But it’s exciting, the fact that I’ve come to the realization what I need to do to get there to scale my business now. And we’ve done a good job, but done a great job of scaling. And so the first thing I is most important is, is to create and communicate clarity to our employees and get them all line in the same direction. And that’s the first thing. And the second I kind of touch them on that briefly earlier.
[00:39:36] But but the second thing and I kind of had this backwards, it’s more important to assemble like an all star cast before you start trying to create the system or system to organize or the processes. Because if you if you start with the processes first, which I used to do, you end up doing everything yourself and nothing gets done.
[00:39:58] Right. And so that’s what I kind of had backwards, that it took me forever to learn. And I’m like, I’m working on progress every single day. We all are. Yeah. And I and we have incredible team where I am right now. And I’m trying more to embrace the rock stars that we have. Right. And get them all on board and aligned and communicate clear and concisely what we’re doing and then build our systems together. Right. And I just had it all backwards. I, I thought I had the answers. I thought I could work on the systems, the processes. And again, you never get anything done. So everything’s in chaos. Right. And this is my evolution that I’m constantly going through. I’m going through now. And I’m extremely excited because I think I finally you know, you’re I’ve got one year experience of forty times. Forty years. Right. Right. So it’s just I finally got it. I finally get it. And so this is what I’m working on. And as I watch other luckily we have hundreds and thousands of clients and not one hundred thousand clients but hundreds or thousands.
[00:41:03] But but and it’s wonderful watching all these different businesses scale. You know, the one thing they have in common is they bring these all star teams together and then they build the processes. And I’ve had I’ve had one entrepreneur client of mine in the software related business that probably did five or six different businesses. And he sold to his businesses for hundreds of millions of dollars. And it’s just it’s just amazing to watch some of our clients grow and have one one company that that did a wheel resurfacing that started out with one truck that does wheel resurfacing like metal wheels on cars, aluminum wheels, like I should say. And now they have like seventy. And so it’s just wonderful to watch these businesses scale. And and the one thing they all have in common is they have a clear and concise direction. They build their all star teams and then they get the processes down. And when you do that out of order, that’s when you’re you spend your whole life hustling. And that’s what kind of.
[00:42:04] Yeah. And I think and I think, you know, it’s interesting. One of the guys in my sphere that I talked to all the time, he says if you have the right people, the processes don’t really matter that much.
[00:42:15] And if you have, you know, incapable people, the best processes in the world won’t fix that.
[00:42:23] So, yeah, you’re right. It is.
[00:42:25] I think Jim Collins in his book, you know, built built to Last, that’s kind of like the theme of that book. And it’s most definitely true. I mean, you need the need to the rock stars, the players first right before you start, you know, working on those processes.
[00:42:38] Right. So what else what else have you done to scale any other tips for the folks that may be listening?
[00:42:44] I mean, those are the main things. And I think you’ve got to understand your strengths and weaknesses and and my strengths are, you know, my I’m sorry. My weaknesses are I’m always chasing the shiny object. The latest urgent thing with an employee matter or or this or that, you’re always chasing that. And if you have the all stars and. They keep you focused, they keep you in line. Some of my I mean, some of my mentors in my life. My father was my greatest mentor because he just worked hard. I learned a lot from from just hustling from him. My other mentor will be my wife, actually. She runs a software division of a software company of a 400 million dollar budget. She’s in charge of employees. And it’s just amazing to watch her scale and her strengths are just complete opposite of mine. And it’s just really interesting to watch these people, how they scale and how they do approach things a little bit differently. One of the things I, you know, kind of off topic here of scaling, but one of the things in business for me is, is is helping other people. Right. And, you know, we have had success stories of employees that are from I think we have four, maybe five continents coverage of employees from different parts of the world. And it’s amazing. And we do I do you do job interviews for people. That’s that’s normal. I have one employee that started with me and I believe it was two thousand nine, paid nine dollars an hour, had no skill whatsoever. But just a hard worker is still with me today. And this person, you know, chasing the American dream, watching these people, helping these people, he just bought his first house two years ago. And the story with it and it’s amazing to watch when you can help people like that. Yeah, it’s it’s more empowering and and better than anything I could ever do for myself. Right. And and this individual. The funny story about this individual, I got a call one day about six or seven years ago, and I was getting interviewed by his prospective brides family kind of guy.
[00:44:49] That’s what I’m used to. I used it for interviews. But here I am getting interviewed by his perspective in their culture.
[00:44:56] You know, they have to interview to see if they’re the daughter of the family is a good fit for this person.
[00:45:02] Right. Did he at least warn you you were going to get did he? Because he’s from Bangladesh. Yeah.
[00:45:07] And it was it’s a role reversal. I’m used to interviewing employees for a job, but I wasn’t you know, I talked about him in relation to is you good for some bried is like, you know, that was very interesting. But he gave you a forewarning and it was it was very interesting how, like, you know, you have a father or a brother calling about their daughter, their their sibling.
[00:45:30] Yeah. And there was it just one call or two separate calls. There was different there was different calls. Yeah. Yeah. And so they’re very protective of their they’re not joking around, you know.
[00:45:39] And you feel responsible for that, that it changes how you look at your your employee. Like I became his family member at that point because I’m standing up for him as a as a great person chasing the American dream. Yeah. And is he good for this? And I have no idea, but he’s a great person. So it was very interesting.
[00:45:58] But, you know, and that’s one of the amazing and I’ll tell you, Michael, sorry. I’ll tell you, Mike, this is one of the main reasons I wanted to do this podcast. This is my you asked me before we started recording, why do you want to do this? And I think the big, big driver for me is stories like that. And and I said it yesterday during during a session we were recording. Everybody’s got a story. And when you’re especially when you’re in the D.C. metro area, you know, we have so many cultures and so many people from all over the world.
[00:46:29] And you learn so much about all the I did not even know that that was a thing that you would call and and and check up on a potential spouse in a in a culture.
[00:46:43] So that’s that’s amazing.
[00:46:45] And it’s yeah. I felt I felt honored. I mean, wow, this is this is this person’s life. And so that was yeah. That was amazing. But it stayed busy.
[00:46:52] Those those are the things that people don’t realize. You know, when you own a business and you’re out there on the front line and you’re providing service and you’re interacting with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people every year, the the the experiences and the stories you get in the situations and the things you learn from people is just mind boggling. Oh, you know, and it’s it’s really amazing.
[00:47:13] So any last thoughts you have about or any final words of wisdom you may have to a young Mike Thornburg out there who’s thinking I might want to start my own business or I want to be an entrepreneur. And before you answer that, I want to I want to say, you know, it seems like the world is really different today. I don’t run into a lot of people who are out there.
[00:47:38] You used the word hustling a lot and really hustling is really just working 18 hours a day, seven days a week and trying to make the best of every minute of every day and really being focused and driven. You know, you’re you’re in the marketing business. Are you running into young people that are working like you used to work and like I used to work? Are you running into that or is it?
[00:47:59] Yes, I am. And the reason why I use that term. Is because the successful and the great thing is in our business, I get to touch them in the real estate business we have we have real estate agent clients, we have mortgage bankers, we have settlement firms. We have tons of clients in every arena you can imagine. And it’s a wonderful to you have you on the pulse of what’s working in those industries. Yeah, but the most successful businesses that we’ve worked with in the last number of years, I use the word hustling because we’re watching those folks. It’s that the gentleman who had the company that that started from one truck resurfacing wheels to like seventy five or a gentleman who came in one day was going to do, you know, in a T-shirt business where probably 50 percent of our business is T-shirt related and marketing stuff as well. There’s a gentleman that came in about six or seven years ago and he wanted to start a T-shirt line, well, we get about five or seven phone calls per week of somebody’s going to see T-shirt line. Right. And I mean, and I warn them, like, you know, it’s it’s all about the marketing. Like anybody can print a T-shirt, this or that. It’s about marketing, what you’re going to do with it. And this gentleman really was like using social media, digital marketing and really hustling. I use the word hustling. And because you watch them every single day, he’s posting on Instagram and everything and and really marketing his product and for a certain target audience. And he’s built his brand. He takes up about a thousand hundred square foot of one of our warehouses of just his T-shirts now. Yes. It’s a DC centric product he sells with with with with stuff related to the D.C. marketing area. And he’s doing tremendously well. And it’s just wonderful watching him, you know, use the word hustle again. Right. You might during the pandemic, he might need, you know, twenty five hundred masks for a thing. And luckily, he’s connected to our facility where we do the production where we can we can produce 10000 T-shirts a day easily. And and so he has that resource. But but he he started the early days and started marketing his product. Everything has done tremendously well. And so watching these small businesses, the ones that are successful, are the ones that are out there. I use that term again, but they’re hustling.
[00:50:13] But no, no, no, it’s not a bad term.
[00:50:15] I just think you have to be able to scale it so you can’t do it all yourself. Yeah. Yeah. And that’s where your your star players come in. Yeah.
[00:50:20] So what is your advice to the young entrepreneur today that wants to go out and start a company today or start or they’ve started in the last year or two? Do you have any words of wisdom for them?
[00:50:30] Unless you have you’re going to get some venture capital, some mega millions thrown your way and create a spark or something, or you have a spark come and come and save you, which I don’t know anything about that realm. As an investor, I’m familiar with it, but.
[00:50:42] Right. But I mean, all I’ve ever known is old school grit, grind and work and hustle, bootstrap. And you do it yourself. And I know, John, watching you among many of your businesses, you’ve been successful every single one. And the recurring theme is you got to get out there and do it. I mean, it’s a lifestyle. It’s you’ve got to live and breathe it and you got to love it. And if you love it, you never worked. I’ve never worked a day in my life.
[00:51:06] I print T-shirts or I have people that print T-shirts like, you know, that’s crazy. I work. You kidding?
[00:51:13] I mean, the work part of it is you work dealing with the, you know, the employees and the issues and things like that. But like I mean, I get to come in and we have clients across the board, like the biggest banks to the real estate. Like I mean, our client base. We have we have five universities that we do all the marketing of their uniforms and things that come in from Nike under armor. We print them, send them back. And it’s but the biggest thing is like you’ve got to do something that you love. And I didn’t realize that I love this T-shirt business until it reverted back to my childhood. That’s what I grew up in. T shirts. My dad. Yeah. And and so that’s what I’ve been doing now because I didn’t realize I love it because I tried, you know, entering the financial world, which I enjoy helping people plan for their financial future. But you do something you love. You never worked a day in your life. Right. And so that’s the biggest thing I advice I’d give to to young entrepreneurs out there, find something you love or something you’re good at. Right. And if they can find both your set. Yep. That’s great.
[00:52:12] And I would just add, just like you weren’t going to let anything get in between you and getting those patches on that plane in Moscow, I would say to the young folks out there, don’t let anything get in between you and your success.
[00:52:27] Oh, yeah, nothing. The American dream is alive and well. It want it. Just go get it. Excellent. Mike Thornburg and Emblemax, thank you for coming in today, John, for having me.
[00:52:41] All right. Hey, Mike Thornburg, thank you so much for coming in. A lot of great stories and information there. We appreciate it. If you want to learn more about Mike and his company Emblemax you can find him at Emblemax.com go out and build something extraordinary.