In the tenth episode of the Consumerism Commentary Podcast, Tom Dziubek interviews Jim Wang and Erica Douglass. Jim Wang is the creator of Bargaineering and Grill Maestro, and in today’s interview, Tom and Jim discuss a variety of tips for creating a successful and frugal barbecue for July 4.
Erica Douglass is a business success blogger who sold her first business for $1 million. She coaches small businesses at Erica.biz. Tom, Erica, and I discuss her entrepreneurial experiences with building her own business and suggestions for anyone who would like to prosper while self-employed.
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[00:00] Introduction from Flexo
[00:51] Interview with Jim Wang
[01:25] — Bargain tips for grill shoppers
[02:22] — Charcoal grilling
[04:12] — Preventive maintenance for grills
[06:38] — Meat buying tips
[09:25] — Other cheap ways to keep guests happy
[11:03] Interview with Erica Douglass
[11:44] — Erica’s teenage job
[13:07] — How Erica made a million dollars
[17:04] — Obstacles Erica faced in starting her company
[19:46] — Successful personality traits in entrepreneurs
[20:37] — Tips for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to beat poor startup success rates
[21:35] — More tips for entrepreneurs
[23:03] — Business goals for entrepreneurs
[24:23] — How Erica’s handling semi-retirement
Flexo: Welcome to Episode 10 of the Consumerism Commentary Podcast. I’m Flexo. In today’s episode Tom Dziubek speaks with Jim Wang from GrillMaestro.com and Bargaineering.com about saving money on your summer barbeque. And after the break I join Tom to speak with Erica Douglass, business success blogger from erica.biz.
Tom Dziubek: Welcome to the Consumerism Commentary Podcast. I’m Tom Dziubek. Ah, summertime, when the air is filled with the sounds of kids playing and the smell of hotdogs and hamburgers cooking on the grill.
Up to this point most people’s grills have only gotten a moderate workout, but with the Fourth of July closing in on us, many people’s grills are about to go into overtime. But what if you are on a budget? Are there any ways you can save money and still keep you friends satisfied and entertained?
Jim Wang: Thanks for having me on the program.
Tom: Jim, let’s start with grills since, well, since it’s hard to host a barbecue without one. This may be the best time for some people to seek a replacement for their existing grill will either be that they discovered it doesn’t work anymore. Maybe that it’s just too small. Do you have any good bargain tips for people going grill shopping?
Jim: I always like going with a charcoal grill. I usually find that charcoal grills are cheaper because if you go get one of those Weber grills it’s a very simple system. It kind of looks like a can and it’s got an area for the coals. You got the grill and you got the cover.
You can really get one of the smaller ones for $20 or $30, even larger maybe $50 or $60, something like that. When you get into the propane it starts getting a little more expensive because of the systems involved. But if you want to get really simple get the Weber Grill and it’s generally very cheap, very easy to put together.
Tom: So go with simple charcoal then. I guess you are a big fan of charcoal?
Jim: I’m a fan of charcoal.
Tom: Is it just because of the cost or because you like the flavor of charcoal grilling?
Jim: I like the flavor of charcoal grilling. Some people think that propane is a lot easier to manage because all you need to do is turn a switch and light it and away you go. But I find that charcoal gives you the ability to get a little closer to the cooking process.
While it may take a little more time to get the coals going and things spread out, you get a little more control over everything. So, I’m a big fan. Also the cost. You really can’t beat getting a $30 or $40 grill and being able to cook as well as a propane grill that may cost you $100 or $150 to $200.
Tom: Do they make charcoal grills big enough to keep people satisfied or at least allow the chef to cook a lot of burgers and hot dogs at one time?
Jim: Yes, they definitely do. They have charcoal grills that are as big or bigger than propane. Because really, I mean, part of the reason is because when working with charcoal, manufacturers are aware that people that cook with charcoal are probably savvier with the grill. And so they can get larger and larger. All your competition grillers, barbecuers, they are always using these huge monstrosities of grills, and those are all charcoal.
Tom: Oh, really? Interesting.
Jim: Yeah, because there’s the stigma with propane, because propane is just a gas. It’s a sense that there is no love in it.
Jim: You buy the tank and while I like our propane grill because it’s quick. You turn it on. You are ready to go in a few minutes. Then you shut it off and then you leave. You don’t have to worry about the coals cooling down and the safety issues of that. But I think charcoal is where it is if you want to go budget.
Tom: Let’s stick with charcoal grills here. Let’s talk about preventive maintenance on these grills. What do people need to be concerned about for the long-term health of these grills, be it on a day to day basis? Oh, I guess charcoal grills are pretty easy to maintain considering all you are going to deal with is the charcoal briquettes and perhaps the lighter fluid, right?
Jim: Yeah. The basics are pretty simple. The one thing you have to be careful of and this is true for propane and charcoal grills is keeping the grill grates clean.
That’s the number one maintenance tip for any type of grill. And what’s nice is that since charcoal grills are so simple, even if you do let gunk get stuck on it and it rusts and you don’t feel like using it again, you can buy a replacement fairly cheaply at like Target, Wal-Mart or even going to Home Depot.
I think maintenance on propane grills is a little trickier because of all the things that are involved. You have the burners. You have the fuel lines. You have…
Tom: The ignition.
Jim: The ignition, the grease trap. So you really need to be careful about keeping that stuff clean. I have a funny story about some preventative maintenance that I didn’t do, which is the most basic in a propane grill and that’s emptying the grease trap.
What happened was I got sent a leg of lamb and it has all this fat on it. And I didn’t want of the cut it off because that’s where all the good flavor is is in that fat. So I put it on the grill and I closed the lid. It’s dripping, the fat’s just dripping down like I opened up a faucet or something. It caught on fire.
It hit the grease trap and that caught on fire and then it melted the lining for the grease trap because there’s a little bit of rubber underneath so that if there were any spillover it doesn’t spill down. That dripped down to the fuel line. And this was all because I didn’t clean out the grease trap prior to using it.
Tom: Now, let’s talk about what cleaning out the grease trap usually entails. I know my grease trap looks like an empty can of green beans that just hangs from the bottom of the grill.
Jim: Yeah, for most it is. Unfortunately on the design of the grill that I bought it is actually a really large plate that isn’t very deep. And that’s probably the most poorly designed grease trap I had seen.
And I didn’t think about it when I was getting the grill but normally all you do is you slide it out and it looks like a can. It’s usually very deep and you just go over to the trash and you pour it out or wherever you dispose of grease.
Tom: Let’s talk about meat. Most people are hot dogs, hamburger-cookers, sometimes steak. Are there any good recommendations that you have for purchasing meat for your barbecue? Maybe you would be able to find bargains. Any other cheap cuts of meat that might be good and still wind up impressing your friends?
Jim: I am always a fan of barbecuing chicken. I love making wings on the grill. That smoky flavor really adds a lot to chicken and we like to do sides, thighs, drumsticks, any of that stuff. You put it in some barbecue and then you put it on the grill.
One thing to be careful of is that barbecue sauce does have sugar and it burns very easily. So if you leave it on to long it’ll just burn to a crisp without actually cooking the chicken itself.
Jim: Some other things, if you are not having a very large group, fish is something that we love doing also. You get one of those baskets and you put some salmon steaks on there, and those turn out pretty well. Another great thing, again with fish, cedar planks, we love doing this with salmon and you just get some cedar planks, you soak them in water for about 45 minutes beforehand, and then you put it on the grill and put the salmon steaks on top, and it really pushes in a lot of that cedar flavor.
Jim: But with fish, it is not something you want to do if you’re having a big party with like a dozen or 20 people.
Tom: How easy is it to put on cedar planks, are they something that you would just lay on top of the grate or would you actually go and remove the grate and lay the planks down in its place, or would that just burn?
Jim: That will just burn. Yah.
Tom: Yeah, I figured.
Jim: You will leave the grate on, and then put the planks on.
Tom: Yeah, important tip. If you use cedar planks, leave the grate on.
Jim: Yeah. Otherwise when you come back it’ll have smoldered and you’ll just taste smoke, which is probably not ideal.
Tom: One thing I did notice too now, is a good tip that I’ve used in the past, most people will go when planning their barbeque, they’ll go and purchase their meat a couple days ahead of time so they don’t have to worry about it on the day of the barbeque. However, I’ve noticed that in many cases you go to a grocery store, the meat manager will go and mark down any meat that is due to expire that day, or at least have a sell by date of the day you’re purchasing it on. I’ve saved up to like 50 percent in some cases on just buying ground meat.
Jim: Yep. They do that a lot. And they’re just trying to get — this is all stuff that is still good.
Jim: It is just getting to the last couple of days. The supermarkets know that you are going to buy it; you are probably going to stick in the fridge for a day or two, maybe. And so they want to get rid of these things now before you take it home and it gets bad.
So you go in, and you will get like a dollar off, two dollars off, three dollars a purchase, and that will save you money, especially if you are just going to use it that night.
Tom: Absolutely. Now anything else that you recommend for keeping your guest entertained and satisfied without spending a whole lot of money?
Jim: I always find that getting creative with your simple basic hamburger is always a fun way to go. I had a friend who has this great recipe. What he does is he gets some cheese and some jalapenos, which will work if you are a fan of hot and spicy food; and he takes the ground meat and he wraps it around the cheese so that it kind of cooks and melts at the same time.
Jim: I guess it’s an inside out cheese burger with a bit of jalapeno in it.
Tom: Hey, trust me, you can never go wrong with jalapeno on something. And, you know, that’s just my personal preference too.
Jim: Me, too. I love spicy food. And I think its part of that creativity. You know, you can start asking for friends: “What sort of burgers do you like?” and start making these unique little style type burgers.
It can be as simple as getting some onions, green peppers; chopping it up, adding some Worcester, some soy, some garlic powder and just mashing that up into a burger. And it’s not expensive, because ground beef is usually fairly cheap relative to steaks and other things. So you can always go that route.
Tom: Jim, thanks for taking time out to talk to us today.
Jim: It was a pleasure. I had a great time.
Tom: That was Jim Wang, founder of Grillmaestro.com; and also of personal finance website Bargaineering.com. This is Tom Dziubek, and thanks for joining us on the Consumerism Commentary Podcast. Stay tuned, after the break we will be talking to Business Success Blogger, Erica Douglass.
Tom: Welcome to the Consumerism Commentary Podcast. I am Tom Dziubek. With unemployment numbers still on the rise, it’s allowed many people to take that extra time available to them and focus on their hobbies. Some entrepreneurial spirits may have taken their hobbies and turned them into side businesses for a little extra cash. And with a little more spare time on their hands, may now be thinking about making that side business a full time job.
Today we are talking to Erica Douglass of Business Success Blogger who coaches startup businesses through her website, erica.biz.
Erica, thanks for joining us today.
Erica Douglass: Hi, thanks.
Tom: On the other mic here at Diced Rhino Studios in lovely Hamilton Square is Flexo, founder of some startup called Consumerism Commentary. Flexo, thanks for making the trip out here.
Flexo: You bet.
Tom: Erica, I was looking at your bio out of your website. It seems you have a nose for making money, even at a young age. Now how did a 14-year-old girl from Indiana find a way to earn some impressive scratch in 1995?
Erica: I started looking for jobs that allowed me to work for home and even in 1995 on the Internet most work-from-home jobs were scams. You know, the old envelope stuffing and all of that stuff that really doesn’t actually work; you just send the money. But my parents coached me on how to find one. They said basically, "If they want you to send them money then it’s a scam." [laughter]
And I said, “Oh, I got it!” So I went on – I think it’s now CareerBuilder, but it was something else back then. I don’t remember the name of it. It was a website. And there was a search engine optimization company that was looking for people to work from home to submit websites for search engines. So guess who got to fill out the forms? That was me. And they paid me pretty well to do that.
Tom: Yeah, especially if you are 14 years old. I mean that’s really impressive. And it beats flipping burgers at the local Burger King.
Erica: Yeah, I got paid per contract. It turned out to be about $12.50 an hour. Of course, it depended on how fast I could hit that control C, control V, copy, paste, copy, paste. But I got to the point where I could do it really quickly and I could use a lot of keyboard shortcuts.
Tom: Let’s flash forward here a little bit. How did you get to make a million dollars?
Erica: It takes a while. I don’t want to mislead anybody. I think people assume that I started this business and then like a year later I sold it for a million dollars. That would be a real cool story. But it actually took me about six years to build my business to a million dollars.
Flexo: And that is still pretty quick. Was this business related to the search engine submissions or was this something else?
Erica: It is interesting that you ask that. The business that I started, that I eventually sold for a million dollars, was a web hosting company. So just in case we have any non technical people out there, what…my friend, who also runs a web hosting company, calls us "Internet plumbers." We are the people who make the websites on the Internet work. We host the backend of websites.
So all of the images and text that you see on a website has to be hosted somewhere on a computer, and that’s exactly what we did. We had a space in a big data center and we put up hundreds of servers. And it started out where I was doing web design and web development work; I was a guru PHP programmer. My clients needed some place to host their websites. And I had had really terrible experiences with a lot of hosting companies.
That’s a pretty common story. There are a lot of really bad hosting companies out there and only a few really good ones.
Tom: I am sure Flexo can tell you stories.
Erica: [laughs] Yeah, I am sure. Every tech person who has had to deal with a large traffic website has had to deal with a crappy hosting company. So the hosting company I had, had, the owners ex wife had literary walked off with my server. So I had this piece of hardware, the server of this computer, in their data center. And they divorced and she got mad and she stole his keys and grabbed his truck and took off with all the servers. [laughs]
I kid you not. I was really upset because all my data was gone. I had backups. But unfortunately my backups didn’t work. So this is my terrible experience. So when my clients started asking me, "Well, what hosting company can you recommend?" I was really leery, because here had had one that the guys ex wife had just walked in and stolen my server.
So I decided to start my own hosting company. And I was working at the time or I just stopped working for a start-up company that some of the techies might remember called cobalt networks. We made little blue servers; we made little cubes and racks, or what they were called. I was IT support at cobalt. And in exchange for doing some IT work for some of the sales guys, they had given me a couple of cobalt servers.
And since they were great for web hosting, I found a local data center and set them up and I told my clients: "Well, tell you what. I will host your websites for you."
And I did. And we grew from two servers to 14 to 16 to 80 to 100; and it just kept growing and growing. I was really surprised. But people wanted a hosting company where they could come meet you face-to-face. You know hosting companies are typically run by either geeks, who want to hide out in the server room and they don’t want to meet anybody, or, they are run by super uber business people, who are like the Wal-Mart of hosting companies, you know, they outsource everything, low-cost this, and you never get to meet anybody face to face.
So really what I started to thrive on was meeting my customers. And since I lived in Silicon Valley and my hosting company was based in San Jose, I got a lot of Silicon Valley’s hottest startups to come host with us, and as they grew we grew and we become more profitable. So eventually I was able to sell the business for over a million dollars.
Tom: What obstacles did you have to overcome in building your company? I am assuming you didn’t have to worry about marital spats, at least in that respect.
Erica: I have stayed single; I am not married. There are many obstacles. A lot of people ask me a question and they say, "Well, how was it that you were able to build your business to a million dollars when so many other companies, including most hosting companies fail?" And I see it as a difference in the way I ran my business. I was committed to running my business fulltime, and I was committed to making sure that my customers were happy. And I don’t see that commitment in the majority of business owners.
Most business owners… there seem to be two extremes. I was actually writing a blog post about this, but I haven’t got it quite flushed out yet. There’s the one extreme where you just want to make money as fast as you possibly can, and that’s not going to work. And then there is the other extreme where you are like really passionate about a topic but you have no idea how to make any money with it, and that really doesn’t work either.
And so you have got both of these. And lot of people making money catering to the people who have a passion, and then a lot of making money catering to the people who just want to make a lot of money really quick, but neither of those are really the total successful path. You have to have a passion about something, but you have to be willing to turn it into a business and market it full-time and take that leap.
Tom: You received an investment from your family that helped you build your company, would you have been able to be successful without that investment?
Erica: Looking back, I started my company in July 2001 and I received the investment from my parents, which was actually the money my grandmother left to my dad when she died and my dad did not need the money so he gave it to me in exchange for me writing a business plan which I had not done previously. [laughter]
So, I had to write a business plan, I had to learn how to do that and I did. So, in September 2002, they made that investment. So, my hosting company was all ready growing really well but since I was really young, I probably would not have qualified for a typical bank loan.
Now, that I am older and have an established credit, I probably would be able to just get a bank loan or something like that, which I highly recommend, by the way — the Small Business Administration, if you are in the US; there are lots of banks willing to lend to small businesses — if you are the owner and you have a good credit history. My company did end up getting a Small Business Administration line of credit as well later on. But, yeah, taking the money from my parents helped me grow the business faster. I do think it would have been as successful with or without the money, I just think it would have taken longer to get there.
Flexo: Are there some personality traits that lend a person to being an entrepreneur a little more than someone else? I guess I should ask, are there certain ways that people can look at themselves differently and determine that they have some entrepreneurial spirit within them, or are there just certain personality types that this would not be a good option for?
Erica: I think the main personality trait you are going to find in any successful entrepreneur is confidence, and it is confidence that their venture is going to work and that they have the right solution for a certain number of people. You have to be willing. When somebody comes to you and says, "Hey, I need an xyz provider," you say, "Hey, we can do that," [laughs] and if you cannot do that, be the first one to say, "Well, you know what, that is not really who we are but here is somebody who can help you."
Tom: Success rates for starting businesses, unless you happen to be in the Silicon Valley during the Internet boom, they are pretty low. Now, what do you suggest for aspiring entrepreneurs who would like to beat the odds and succeed with their business?
Erica: Well just to clarify, I was in Silicon Valley during the Internet boom. I moved here to San Jose in 1999 and I think it would have been harder to start a company in 1999 than it was when I started it in 2001. I started a company at perhaps the worst month ever [laughter] in the history of the United States to start a company, July 2001, because if you remember what happened a few months later was September and everything crashed. So here we are, all ready locked into long-term contracts in July and then September happens, and wow, everything is suddenly called off. So, it was really rough. I do not think it was easy to start a company then.
Tom: Do you have any good tips for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to start their own business?
Flexo: You mentioned some things all ready like being dedicated to working full time at their own business and keeping their customers happy, but what other specific suggestions do you have?
Erica: I think you have to learn marketing and you have to know sales and you have to be OK with sales. I certainly was not OK with sales when I started. I think a lot of people have a mis-perception of sales because they feel that sales is that slimy dude at the used car dealership when you walk in the door he is trying to sell you a crappy car that does not run and he is trying to make it look like a brand new Mercedes and people think, “Well I do not want to do that,” and I say, “Right, I would not either.” Sales to me is about finding what your customer wants and then seeing if you fit there, and if you do, being confident enough to make the offer and learning how to market your business is key too.
My new business will be teaching people how to market their business online through blogs and other tools. I have learned a lot about how to market my business online but how to market your business online is just one part of it; it is knowing where your customers are, it is knowing how to reach them, maybe it is by telephone solicitations, maybe it is direct mail, maybe it is setting up a blog and setting up an email list, but you have got to figure out where customers are and then go to them.
Flexo: You managed to build your company and sell to a larger company for a good amount of money. Is that the goal that most entrepreneurs should look to for their own business, and if so what do they do after that point?
Erica: I think there are two options. I think that one option is to build what is popularly coined now is a lifestyle business, and I think Tim Ferriss started that but I could be wrong, I think the lifestyle business is one where it is flexible for you, it works around your schedule, and it makes you a significant amount of income. It might be a full-time income for a business that you only have to work to a few hours a week on.
The key with a lifestyle business is finding the right people and then outsourcing to them, making it look very good to your customers and making sure that the people that you outsource to are extremely high quality. So, there are lots of lifestyle businesses and then there are businesses that you can build and sell.
So, I think you need to determine, when you start your business, do you want a lifestyle business that you can run for the rest of your life casually, or do you want a business that you can sell for a few million dollars and then live off the net proceeds? It is up to you. I do not think there is one right or wrong way to do it. It is just something that you need to think about when you are starting your business.
Tom: Erica, you are semi-retired. How are you handling your un-retired part of life right now? What are you doing with yourself?
Erica: I am writing on my blog at erica.biz. Unfortunately, recently, I have been dealing with some health problems and the good news is I have been seeing a nutritionist and it appears that my body is not regulating insulin properly. So what that means is I am really tired all the time. It has been getting progressively worse and I am finally on some supplements that are helping me to feel better. In fact, this has just been the past two or three days.
The retired part of me was really figuring out, after I sold my business and I had released this huge mound of stress from my life, figuring out who I am beyond my business and how to cope with being just me and not the owner of a hosting company. I think it is difficult to diagnose health problems when you are really stressed and what I did recently was I went to a conference, I spoke at the conference, for the first time, I pitched from the front of the stage. I sold a product while I was on stage.
I was very successful with that. I sold to 11 new customers. I got home, I started working on the product, trying to get my customers in the door and basically collapsed from exhaustion. It was really difficult.
The blog post I am working on now is how to deal with that sort of thing when it hits your business. My customers have been really supportive of me, thankfully, and I have been in communication with them about it. I think communication is really the key to ensuring that things do not go really badly, if something personally bad happens to you…
Erica: … you have to be constantly talking to your customers, constantly saying, “This is the status today.” Do not feel like you are talking to them too much. There really is not a point of too much communication. At least once a day you should be in contact with them saying, “This is what is going on with me today.”
The good news is they are extremely supportive and I have been able to retain all of them as customers, they are not upset with me, as far as I can tell, and they are excited to get their blogs up and running. That was the product I sold, was called “Turn Your Blog into a Business,” which I will be releasing online. It is just important to communicate with them. That is what I discovered and I am really pleased that they have all stuck it out with me and I am really pleased that I feel like now I am on the right track toward health again.
Tom: Erica, thanks for taking time out to talk to us today.
Erica: Sure, I am happy to. Thank you.
Tom: That was Erica Douglass, a Business Success Blogger who coaches startup businesses via her website, erica.biz. This is Tom Dziubek along with Flexo and thank you for joining us in the Consumerism Commentary Podcast. [music]
Updated May 7, 2014 and originally published June 28, 2009.