In 2001 Seth Haber, 33, was working in Boulder, Colorado as an IT specialist with McKesson Corp., the giant healthcare information technology company. It was his first real corporate job, but it didn’t take him long to figure out that it would likely be his last. On weekends and vacations Haber pursued his love for the outdoors and camping, eventually developing a lightweight, portable nylon hammock for sleeping that became the first product of his company, Trek Light Gear. In a conversation with business writer Susan Caminiti, Haber describes what it took to leave his well-paying corporate job, why it’s important to do what you love, and how listening to your gut can be the best business skill an entrepreneur can develop.
SC: Was there a specific day when you realized that corporate life just wasn’t for you, or did it happen more gradually than that?
SH: I can’t pinpoint an exact day, but it did happen pretty quickly after I joined McKesson. I had a clear path of seeing my boss, and his boss, and his boss’s boss and I knew I didn’t want to be doing this for the rest of my life. I didn’t see how, even at a senior level, I would have any impact on the bigger picture. Plus, when friends would ask, ‘So what do you do for a living?’ I never really felt like I had an interesting answer to that question.
SH: It happened very organically. I loved camping and had been doing it my entire life. But as I was getting older I was having some frustrations with it, especially with the sleeping. I’d wake up in the morning in my tent with this hot, stuffy feeling and couldn’t wait to get outside. When the weather was nice I would set up my sleeping pad outside the tent and that was much better. I loved camping, but just wanted the sleeping part to be better.
SC: How did you come up with the idea for the hammock?
SH: A friend of mine suggested it. There were camping hammocks on the market but they were pretty much just big balls of net that would get tangled. The first night I tried sleeping in a hammock wasn’t the most comfortable, but it was still 100 times better than sleeping in a tent. That’s when I sort of had my light bulb moment and began looking for other materials for the hammock besides the netting. I found this lightweight, parachute nylon material and I knew I was on to something. It solved my problem, but the more I spoke to other people about it the more I knew it was a great idea. Everyone was so enthusiastic.
SC: How else did you spread the word about your product?
SH: In 2003, I had a manufacturer make 100 hammocks and I sold them all at the Boulder Creek Festival over Memorial Day weekend. Even though I saw this great reaction, I still wasn’t thinking of this as a business. I just saw it as a way to make a little extra money during the summer.
SC: When did you start to think of this as something other than a weekend hobby?
SH: I launched the website for the hammocks in late 2004 and then in 2007 opened a kiosk in downtown Boulder. Since I was still working at McKesson full time I had to hire people to work the kiosk. That’s when I started thinking about leaving my job. I’d work these festivals on the weekends and talk to people about the hammocks and love it. Then when I had to go back to work on a Monday, it was awful. It was like the feeling you get going back to work after a great vacation. Except it was happening every week for me. After a while I started feeling like I was living this dual life—like I was Batman on the weekends and Bruce Wayne during the week.
SC: How did you make the decision to leave McKesson?
SH: First I started asking lots of people—business associates, mentors—how do you know when it’s time to take that leap? The best and most consistent advice I got was, you’ll just know.
SC: Did you?
SH: Sort of. In mid-2007, my company outsourced a whole bunch of people in my department and offered severance packages to those of us who were going to leave. I just knew in my gut that this was the sign I was looking for. I took the severance money, socked away a whole bunch more, and started full-time with Trek Light Gear at the beginning of 2008, running it out of my home.
SC: What was it like making that transition from a corporate job to your own business?
SH: I went at it with the same attitude I do with everything: if you don’t know how to do something, just research it and figure it out. I didn’t go to business school, so for me everything was learning on the job. Before I started hiring people, I wanted to make sure I understood every aspect of running the business.
SC: What’s been the biggest challenge?
SH: Doing as much as possible with as few resources as possible. I didn’t get showroom and office space until earlier this year. The business has grown through the website and the kiosk. I have one full-time employee and two part-time workers. I could have grown the business faster if I had brought on more people, but I wanted to stay in control and not have the expenses get out of hand. This business has been financed with credit cards, lines of credit, and cash flow. There are no outside investors.
SC: How has the company grown since you started doing it full-time?
SH: Well, last year we started selling on the Home Shopping Network. We had a few time slots on TV and we’re also on the HSN.com website. In June, Amazon will be stocking our entire product line, which now includes T-shirts and tote bags. Up until these two, I had only been doing direct sales, but HSN and Amazon were too big to say no to.
SC: What advice would you give other folks considering leaving a corporate job to strike out on their own?
SH: Give it a go. I want to spend my time on something I enjoy. Isn’t that the reason for starting your own business in the first place? But keep in mind if it fails, it’s not the end of the world. If Trek Light Gear doesn’t work out I can always get a job. So don’t let yourself be paralyzed by that fear.
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