Jonathan Beekman is the founder and CEO of Man Crates, a Redwood City, Calif., online purveyor of unusual gifts for guys. Choices include an exotic meat jerky sampler shoved into a wooden crate, an outdoor survival kit packed in an ammo box, and an entire section dedicated to zombie preparedness. They’ve also pioneered “intentionally-difficult-to-open” products, as most of their gifts must be opened with an enclosed crowbar. Beekman says his family had an unusual take on gift giving when he was growing up — each gift could cost a maximum of $50 and had to be something they built or bought used. His favorite? When he was a roller-hockey obsessed teen, his father built him a hockey goal for the driveway made out of PVC pipe. Beekman started Man Crates in his apartment in 2011 and funded it in part by selling his motorcycle and securing $1,000 in seed funding from his wife. The business now counts 40 full-time employees. He graduated from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2009.
In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?
Man Crates makes brag-worthy gifts for men.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
I got married right before starting business school in 2007. One of our happily married friends stressed the importance of permanently carving out time to spend together independent of everything else. Over the past eight years my wife and I have been through business school, two startups, and a toddler, and we still have date night every week.
What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?
With my first business we started out as a new kind of gift registry. We hit some roadblocks and eventually pivoted to gifting on Facebook, which meant focusing less on what our customers wanted and more on ways to spike the app’s viral spread. We lost sight of what initially got us excited: trying to make gifts more meaningful. Before I knew it, the day-to-day slog started to feel soul-crushing. I realized that for all the ups and downs of startup life, part of the magic of being an entrepreneur is being able to choose which problems are worth spending your life trying to fix. As soon as you start chasing other people’s ideas, “big market opportunities,” or fads, you’re pretty much sunk. Just build what you want to build.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on how to build a great business?
When you first start a company, you’re starting from zero and there’s a hundred things constantly competing for your attention. Given all the ambiguity, it’s easy to fall into the trap of working on “comfort tasks” — well-defined tasks that seem valuable, but ultimately won’t help you figure out if people want to buy what you’re selling. At Man Crates, I could have wasted a lot of time negotiating with suppliers, fine-tuning our business model, getting our supply-chain systems up and running — all before ever talking with customers. Instead, I decided to focus 100% on trying to sell product as quickly as possible to real customers out in the wild. I ignored everything except those things that were stopping me from selling. As a result, we moved very quickly and were able to validate the idea in weeks rather than months or years. Even if you’re only selling vaporware, anything that prevents you from getting validated learning and sales from real customers as quickly as possible is likely a waste of time.
If there was one thing that has enabled you to be successful as an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Hustle. My parents were in Christian ministry when I was a kid and there were times when money was tight. My mom recognized an entrepreneurial streak in me early and always encouraged that in me. She regularly bought supplies for my crazy ideas and mentored me as things worked or failed. I started by selling candy at school and homemade pretzels at every baseball game in which I wasn’t playing. I enlisted friends to collect old newspapers under the guise of recycling so we could make papier-mâché sculptures and sell them out of my old, red Radio Flyer wagon to the same people that had “recycled” the papers. I even went through a surprisingly profitable phase of making mophead dolls, which are exactly like what they sound like, and selling them to my mom’s friends. Through all the ideas, my mom taught me to be bold and just go for it. Failure is temporary. You’ll have 1,000 other ideas.
How do you come up with your best ideas?
I’m lucky to work with people I trust who give me license to have crazy ideas. A small kernel of an idea can very quickly become a full-fledged brainstorm when you have like-minded people that enjoy riffing on interesting things we hear from customers, read in the news, or dream up at happy hour.
What is your greatest achievement?
I think there are very few life events that compare to having a child. But I think the achievement isn’t in that first moment, but in leaving this world knowing that we invested our time where it mattered and raised our kids to be kind-hearted, generous people of which we and the rest of the world can be proud.
What do you consider your biggest failure?
Not starting my professional entrepreneur career earlier. I had a ton of entrepreneurial hustle growing up but then I fell into the system and the same rut as everyone else. The high achievers I knew went into investment banking and corporate finance so I followed that path, too. I wasted time doing things I wasn’t passionate about and I wish I could get those years back.
What values are important to you in business?
At Man Crates we have four core values. The first is customer delight. Customers are the entire reason we exist and the reason we come to work every day. It’s also really fun when you can go out of your way to make someone’s day. Second, we want to create an empowerment culture where employees feel responsible for making Man Crates the kind of place they want to spend most of their waking hours. We encourage people to make their mark and leave Man Crates better than they found it. The third is tenacious teamwork. We want to play like champions in both victory and defeat, punch above our weight and persevere in the face of adversity. And the last value is fun. We’ve got a quirky, irreverent culture that influences everything from customer interactions to the products we sell. In my opinion, life’s too short to take yourself too seriously. Fortunately, I think our employees and customers agree.
What impact would you like to have on the world?
I would like to change people’s perceptions of gift giving from a largely burdensome social obligation into an opportunity to build memories and make people laugh. We get precious few opportunities to tell the people around us that they matter. I want to live in a world where people make each of those moments count.
Why are you an entrepreneur?
I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve been wired for entrepreneurship since I was a kid. And as an added bonus, I get to spend my days working at a company called Man Crates, dreaming up ways to make people happy as we help them build better relationships with the people they care about.
What was your first paying job?
In high school I worked for a company that remodeled hotel rooms. A few friends and I spent the better part of the Phoenix summer ripping up flooring and carpet. We figured out that we could make a lot more money by recycling the foam padding underneath the flooring. It was a very small perk of an otherwise grueling job. But that summer taught me that even backbreaking labor in miserable heat can be fun if you approach it with a positive attitude and an adventurous imagination.
What is the best business book you have read?
The Everything Store by Brad Stone, which is about the founding of Amazon. I loved it as entrepreneur therapy. It’s helpful to look at a company that has become so successful and peer behind the curtain to see how much adversity even Amazon had to deal with in the beginning when they were getting the business off the ground. I find that reading about the struggles of other entrepreneurs has a way of helping me keep seemingly very similar challenges of my own in perspective.
What businessperson do you most admire?
The people I admire most are our board members, investors, and mentors who spend time investing in me and our employees. We’d be nowhere without their continued support, encouragement, and advice.
What is the most valuable thing you took away from your time at Stanford?
Learning to be more attuned to how people around me are feeling. It’s easy to think of business as being dispassionately rational, but when you’re working with people, you very quickly realize just how important understanding the emotional side of the work is as well.
What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?
Easy. The bacon alarm clock. It cooks bacon on your nightstand so it’s ready when you wake up. Sure, it might burn your house down, but is there a better way to wake up than to the smell of hot bacon?