US Army vet Nick Palmisciano put some funny words on a T-shirt as a hobby while getting his MBA at Duke. Thirteeen years later, that hobby has morphed into a $20 million apparel and media company, Ranger Up.
We spoke with Nick on the day his first feature film, the seriously twisted zombie apocalypse comedy Range 15, hit theaters (and hit them hard.)
Finding that great idea
"I left the US Army as a captain after serving for six years in 2003. I went to Duke for my MBA. I was surrounded by a bunch of classmates who were guaranteed success, because no matter what they did, they had generations of wealth and connections to rely on. It was a shocking change from the egalitarian meritocracy of the military, so to stay balanced I volunteered with the ROTC, taught them mixed martial arts and small unit tactics.”
"The students were always complaining that they didn’t have cool military T-shirts. Everything at the time had been skulls and snakes and 'Death from Above'—they looked like biker T-shirts. So I started making funny T-shirts for my students, not charging anything for them. I had one with Saddam Hussein looking just like Ron Burgundy in Anchorman, and it said, 'You stay classy Iraq.' My students loved them and said that I should start a company. But I didn’t right away."
Taking that big risk
"After I graduated, I got a great job at John Deere. I launched the T-shirt company as a hobby. And soon, my 'hobby' took off and I was getting great notes from people in Afghanistan and Iraq asking for more shirts. I had to hire people because I couldn’t fill the orders out of my house anymore.”
"At the same time, I kept getting promoted at John Deere. It got to the point where I was a manager of mergers and acquisitions, which was a couple of billions-dollar division. One Friday I heard I was going to get promoted again. I did some soul searching over the weekend and gave my notice on Monday. I felt like if I took that bigger job, there would be no way I could break away from that money train. I jumped into entrepreneurship for real at that point."
Under the gun
"Initially, it was hard. I almost bankrupted myself. It was a big change from making a 6-figure salary with a hobby business on the side to running it as my sole business. I went through a divorce and was renting two rooms out of my buddy’s house, one for me and one for my two small children.”
"I sold all of my stocks, maxed out two credit cards and I had $1,300 left to my name. Then the next month I had $1,350, then $1,500, and it just went on from there. It was rough in the beginning, but there was no temptation to call back John Deere and ask for my job back. I knew there is nothing worse than regret."
Business is always personal
"I’ve always been a person who sets a goal and goes after that goal, and I think I learned that from wrestling more than anything. You get out of wrestling what you put in. It’s such a brutal sport. When you lose, you personally lose. And when you win, you personally win. It’s the most emasculating thing ever to lose. And so that sport helped shape who I am."
Finding lessons in rat turds
"In the military, what people don’t realize is that you are often put in a position that you’ve never been in before. When I showed up in Kosovo in 2000, my platoon was charged with guarding this Serbian church that the Albanians wanted to destroy. So we lived in an embalming station next to this church. And the first night that it rained, there were rats in the ceiling, and water came through the roof and rat feces poured down on us. We got covered and my platoon sergeant actually got tuberculosis from the whole thing. And we were sitting there laughing at this insane situation and we realized that we needed to fix the roof.”
"None of us had ever fixed a roof, but we had to figure it out. The locals saw us doing this and started coming to us with all kinds of electricity issues, work issues, transportation issues—I spent the majority of my first deployment acting essentially as the mayor of a small town. I wasn’t trained for any of this, but I couldn’t call in some expert. You either solve a problem or you don’t.”
"When you’re an entrepreneur, you have to understand that no one is going to swoop in and save the day. People think entrepreneurship is exciting and fun, but the truth of the matter is that it is a grind. It’s not about the end zone, sitting on a beach with a drink, it’s about solving problems. You have to enjoy solving problems for your customers and for your business."
Beyond customer care
"I make it a point to respond to every email and every Facebook message I get for Ranger Up. It might take me a while, but I make sure to do that. Over the years, I’ve developed a real rapport with some fans. They know that we’re genuine people. So we get everything from people reaching out to us saying that they love our stuff to vets saying that they are in duress and are contemplating suicide.”
"We help people connect with organizations that can provide help. I’ve personally gotten on the phone with despondent people. We really care about our customers. They’re more than customers to us, and we’re more than just another company to them."
"The company always has to evolve. When Ranger Up started, we were the only military lifestyle brand. We now have 26 competitors. So you always want to be growing. First we went into blue jeans, then leggings and liquid metal signs. Now we’ve made a big boy move: a Hollywood movie. Ranger Up’s goals have always been to inform and entertain, and the ultimate way to entertain is through a movie. Ours has William Shatner, Danny Trejo, Randy Couture—this is really the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder.”
"This was a huge risk. If this thing flops, it’s going to hurt—it’ll hurt our business and it’ll be embarrassing. But I hope we can inspire a group of veterans to see that there is literally nothing they cannot do. We had all kinds of obstacle and were able to overcome them all. For better or for worse, we have made a Hollywood movie without Hollywood. We wrote it, produced it, acted in it, and I think it is pretty good! You can find out where it is playing on our site.”
"Warning: Don’t bring your kids!"
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This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com. Minor edits have been done by the Entrepreneur.com.ph editors.