The seemingly never-ending pandemic has resulted in  all kinds of disruptions to supply and demand. There's been a run on exercise equipment, for one, and at Unorthodox Ventures, we found ourselves uncomfortably in the thick of it when we tried to provide a healthy in-house substitute for the padlocked gym.

Just a week after our community gym shut us out, we decided to go shopping for a universal gym. What we anticipated was a fairly straightforward transaction. What we got instead was an exhausting slog through a course strewn with obstacles.

More than a year later, we still don't have equipment that works, and we're still negotiating with the dealer about who owes what to whom. And, while we're not quite finished, we're far enough along to see the finish line, and the banner above it reads: You Should Have Bought Direct!

It's a lesson we learned a long time ago when we had a choice to make about how we would distribute our products. We chose correctly then as a company. We chose incorrectly more recently as consumers. Direct or distributor: What route should you take for your products? Glad you asked.

Chatting Inside the Box

Choosing the equipment we wanted was easy. Getting it was anything but. Our quest for, well, let's just call it a "Pathetic Multi-Station Home Gym" turned into a grueling marathon, because like so many companies, "Pathetic" clings to a musty and totally ineffective sales strategy. It forces customers to buy through distributors, turning what could be a simple sale into an exercise in frustration.

Our odyssey began when we first tried to call the company. Naturally, there was no phone number, only a chatbox, at that time. Our inter­locutor inside the box told us we needed to find a dealer in Austin, where we're located, and sent us to another website that looked like it was new in 1996. But at least it had a phone number. We dialed, and then had a confusing exchange with a sales­man, who immediately hung up on us after hearing what we wanted.

When our order was finally placed, the salesman informed us he was going on vacation. With one foot out the door, he assured us our equip­ment would be shipped in two to three weeks.

Three weeks passed. No home gym. We called the salesman, who was now back from vacation and assured us he had a fabulous time. When we told him our predicament, he asked if we had contacted the third-party logistics provider. Then he hung up on us, again. (Was this some crazy salesman gambit?) Later, he called back and told us we could expect our equipment within a week.

Eventually, our home gym arrived. Oh, happy day! But when the driver opened the back of the truck, we saw that the pallet it sat on was facing the wrong direction for the forklift to extract it--and there was the little problem of 600 pounds of other equipment piled on top of our crate. The driver looked at the pallet, looked at us, and asked, "Man, how are you guys going to do this?" Good question. But it was all hands on deck, and somehow we got the crate out safely and into our warehouse.

A few days later, an installer appeared. The guy was as thin as a cigarette and exuded the old-school aroma of unfiltered Camels. He told us that he had never assembled a Pathetic Multi-Station Home Gym but was ready to give it a go. He stared a while at the directions, which happened to be printed in Chinese, and scratched his head. Eventually, he said he was missing four packs of weights. We called the salesman. "That's weird," the salesman said, before hanging up. He called back to say that he just happened to have four packs of weights at his office.

In hindsight, we should have expected all this, simply because our quest to acquire a Pathetic Multi-Station Home Gym forced us to travel through the territory of distributors, a well-known badlands--a treacherous and infuriating place.

We didn't ask why that would be, but the salesman shipped the weights, and the following week, our trusty installer returned. He said he'd make sure the home gym was put together right, even if it took all day. Four hours later, he looked at the machine, looked at the instructions, and looked at us: "Guys, I can't do it any­more." Oh, no. Why not? "I'm missing a bearing."

This time when we called, we talked to a higher-up, because the salesman was on vacation--again. (Reminded me of one former employee whose grandmother died six times.) The boss reassured us that we had "a real fine gym." How would we know? We hadn't used it. A bearing was eventually located and delivered. The installer returned a third time, late on a Friday--too late to finish installing the cables. He asked if we were open on Saturdays--Monday was his day off. Um, no.

Finally, the installer finished, or so he said. But it was his first time installing a Pathetic Multi-Station Home Gym and, unfortunately, he got it all wrong. The counterweights were backward, and instead of using hand tools, as directed, he overtorqued with power tools, which caused bearings to break when we attempted to take things apart and correct them.

At this point, we basically gave up on ever getting a working home gym.

Nobody Can Pump Your Product Like You Can

Fast-forward six months, when we got a call on our office landline. No name, no company--just a mes­sage: "Hey, I need you to call me back about your payment." Huh? We assumed it was spam and ignored it. Two weeks later, another call. This one got picked up. It was the home gym salesman's boss's boss. He said, "It looks like you've paid only half of what you owe us. We know you had some issues, so let's talk about what we can do."

What we could do, he said, was pay another $1,500 on top of the $3,300 we'd already paid. We told him that was crazy. He offered $350 off and free shipping next time. But there was free shipping this time, and there would be no next time. We offered $600 to be done with it. He said he'd take it, and that he was quitting anyway so it didn't matter to him. He then hung up on me. Obviously, we weren't the only ones who had reached the breaking point.

In the meantime, we'd tried to inform the company of the installer's shortcomings, and they tried to tell us he didn't work for them. But of course he did. When they forwarded our com­plaint, the installer contacted us to say he was disappointed that we didn't think he did a good job. Say what? So it goes, Kurt Vonnegut wrote. And it's still going.

In hindsight, we should have expected all this, simply because our quest to acquire a Pathetic Multi-Station Home Gym forced us to travel through the territory of distributors, a well-known badlands--a treacherous and infuriating place. At every turn, there are obstacles designed to impede you and encounters that leave you questioning your pur­chase--after all, plenty of other companies sell exercise equipment. Some of them even care whether you buy their product or not. Buying home equipment from Peloton, for example, was a breeze. That's the difference between selling direct and outsourcing to a distributor.

This "pandemic business lesson" only further confirmed what I've always believed: Nobody can sell your product like you can, because nobody knows or cares about your product like you do.

Years ago, when Big Ass Fans had just started to spin, the idea of bypassing distributors was viewed as sacrilegious. Distributorships were deeply entrenched in business, especially in manufacturing. And while most manufacturers still rely on them, the internet has given people alternatives. Many startups and even some established com­panies have adopted a direct sales model.

Selling direct may seem like more work, but it's actually less. There are so many advantages, the most important being that you really get to know your customers. At the fan company, we talked to them all day, every day. Real voices, not words in a chatbox. When you're a small business, establishing direct contact with customers is crucial. Dealers, distributors, and gargantuan online retailers only interfere with the connection. As our experience shows, middlemen are often muddlemen.

Today, we're in the process of moving our offices, and when we're settled in, we'll be buying new exercise equipment. But this time it will be from a company that sells direct, because using a distributor is all pain, no gain.