Being an entrepreneur isn't just a way to make a living. Being an entrepreneur is a way to make a life: Your way, on your terms --and sometimes even wherever you wish.
That's why some entrepreneurs choose to travel while starting and running their businesses. That's why some entrepreneurs choose to move to another country.
And that's why many aspiring entrepreneurs would like to do the same, but they hesitate because it seems too hard or too risky.
That's why I talked with David Karon, co-founder of KHDK Electronics, the guitar pedal company he started with Kirk Hammett of Metallica. (I've written about how David and Kirk run the company, interviewed Kirk on why to he decided to start a pedal company in the first place... and even done one, make that two Inc. videos with Kirk.)
David lives in Prague. KHDK pedals are manufactured in Kentucky. They have a number of distributors -- and thousands of customers -- around the world. At first David was nervous about starting a company while living a "nomadic" lifestyle... but now he wouldn't have it any other way.
And after reading this, you might choose to have it that way, too.
Why? (Headings are mine, the rest is in David's words.)
1. The language barrier is not an actual barrier...
I work with some people that occasionally don't much English, but that's okay: We still accomplish the things we need to accomplish.
In Europe there are many different languages, but language hasn't been a barrier at all. Motivated people who want to work together will always figure out a way to make it work.
That's especially true where design is concerned. Artists are particularly willing to find ways to make it work. There are times we get stuck, but though the magic of online translators, we can always move forward.
2. ... Even with key partners.
Our engineer is Czech. One of the reasons I'm living in Prague is to be close to him.
When we first met his English was pretty limited. Now, in the context of engineering and tone and sound, we have no problem understanding each other. We figured out a way.
I like to say that I have pub-level German and Czech. I can go into a restaurant and order. I can go to the grocery store. That's pretty much my level of ability. And that's okay.
3. That's why you should never decide whether or not to work with someone based on language.
We've never decided whether to work with anyone based on the language they speak. It's totally a business decision: Is this a person that embraces the same goals we're trying to achieve?
That's the reason you would choose to work with someone who does speak your language... and it should be the same reason you choose to work with someone, even if they don't.
Besides, the "language challenge" is one of the fun things about running a company this way.
4. You can find plenty of great partners...
It sounds funny, but we sell Kentucky-made products in Asia. (Laughs.)
Around the world, we work with established distributors. We did try to go down the path of handling distribution in Europe ourselves, but there are so many different regulations for bringing electronics in from the U.S., that process was extremely difficult to navigate. Each territory of the European Union has different regulations. It was a far from inexpensive proposition. So we went with distributors.
Giving away a few margin points makes more sense than trying to deal with all the administrative headaches, as well as all the time and expense.
5. ... As long as you work hard to find the right partners.
To find the right people to work with, we talked with friends in the business, asked who they use, got a lot of feedback... we started with word of mouth. Then we met with our short list and picked the few who were the best fit for us.
We're trying to create a family. We're in it for the long term, not a quick in and out. So we looked for people who would help us build our business, who were comfortable with a slow growth rate... we want partners who will help us expand, who are willing to stay with us over the long term.
6. Don't be afraid to consolidate manufacturing...
In the early stages, when we considered manufacturing in Europe to save on distribution costs, we checked out some facilities... but ultimately it made more sense to stick with one U.S. facility.
The same is true if we had chosen a Chinese manufacturer.I would feel I needed to be there every four or five weeks to verify quality, etc.
We picked the manufacturer we use because we don't ever want to worry about how the factory is run and how our products are made. I have such confidence in them that it's not an issue for us. They've become great partners.
That's key. If you plan to work at different places around the world, you need good Internet connections and really good partners you trust to look out for the best interest of your product and your company.
Our factory has exceeded our expectations as a partner. It's definitely a special relationship.
7. ... Even if that means your Plan B is really Plan Z.
Pedals are not the only thing our factory produces. And they've in business for a long time. Will they go under? I don't think so. So while you do need to have a Plan B in the back of your mind... for us, that's not a concern.
Even with our rate of growth, and every curve ball we may have thrown them, they're always up for the task.
8. Trusting is easy when it's easy to verify...
I try to visit the factory once a year, mostly just to get face time. And I've met many of our distributors, and I see them four or five times a year. Trade shows makes that easy. But I've never actually met our Chinese distributors; it's all by email and phone.
We communicate with everyone at least once a week, but that tends to be more about where the brand is going. We communicate to look forward, not back.
As far as our factory, our failure rate is well under 1%, and that includes other issues, like shipping damage or user error.
9. ... And it's also easy to treat your customers well.
If a customer has a problem with a pedal, we handle it by email... and if we can't resolve it, we replace the unit. So, we've had no real customer issues because we're steadfast about treating our customers like family.
The most important thing to us is how our customers feel they are treated. We focus on a lot of other numbers, but our most important metric is customer satisfaction.
We genuinely believe that if we treat our customers well, we will grow.
10. And speaking of growth...
In our first year we did roughly four times the sales volume we originally projected. Partly that's because our first pedals were extremely well received, but it's also because we kept our expectations conservative.
We tried, and still try, to be realistic with what we hope to do. We think it's better to out-perform projections than to dream up astronomical numbers that you can never hit.
Plus, building the best products we can takes time. The world won't change if we don't release a certain pedal on a specific date. We try to follow a rough timeline, but what matters more is that each new pedal is perfect.
For example, we had a pedal we planned to release a couple of months ago... but at the last minute we thought of a way to make it even better, so we pushed back its release. We have a bass pedal coming out very soon, and we took the time to make sure that one is perfect, too.
That's why we don't hype new products ahead of time. We want the time to get it right.
11. The lifestyle makes it all worthwhile.
My father owned a business and when I traveled with him, the first thing he would do when we arrived somewhere was look for a phone and a fax machine. He's still amazed that I can travel and conduct all of my business with one device.
And it's been great in terms of family. My family can travel with me. I don't miss time with my daughter. That's really important. And I feel like she sees the work ethic involved, and even though she's just three years old, she already appreciates that sometimes we have to do work. She already understands.
Running a business this way provides a good first-hand example of what it takes to be an entrepreneur... and to be a family, too.