How I Became a Big Wheel; Let go by IBM and deeply in debt, a family man turned his childhood passion for unicycles into a thriving online start-up. Then he added a banjo business.
By John Drummond; Drummond lives in Marietta, Ga.
19 February 2007
Copyright © 2007 Newsweek Inc. All Rights Reserved.
It was supposed to be a hobby–just a part-time thing to generate a little extra money. We didn’t think we could make a living at it. I thought I would work at IBM for 30 years and retire, just as my father had. At that point I had only seven to go. The dot-com bust began in early 1999, about the same time we launched Unicycle.com. The odds seemed stacked against us. Online companies were folding. We had no experience running a company. Amy was an at-home mom to our three boys. I had just earned a degree in journalism by attending college at night. We were deeply in debt.
Without telling Amy, I scraped together $700 to buy a business license and six unicycles. I’d been riding a unicycle since the age of 12, but quit four years later when I started driving. At 41, having gained a pound per year since high school, I was anxious to get trim. Diets didn’t work for me. I tried running but my hips protested. Swimming only increased my appetite. I took my old unicycle out of storage and rode about two blocks from my home, then had to walk it back. I had no leg strength. But I went again the next day, and the next. Within a few months I was riding five miles per day on the sidewalks in our neighborhood and the weight was coming off. People would often stop me and ask, “Where do you get a unicycle?” I began to see an opportunity.
That opportunity gained momentum in June 1998 when IBM announced the HomePage Creator, designed for nonprogrammers who wanted an online store with credit-card processing. My research showed that only two Web sites were selling unicycles and local bike shops had none on display. I found other unicyclists online and read their complaints about the lack of cycles and parts.
Unicycle.com went live on March 31, 1999, an event that was largely unnoticed. We had announced our grand-opening date on a unicycle newsgroup a few weeks before–but no one showed up. Eleven days later we finally received an order confirmation–not for a unicycle, but for a $13 rear-view mirror that mounts on sunglasses. We were so excited! By April 30 we’d sold $1,000 in products. Our new toll-free number brought even more orders, with Amy juggling calls, changing diapers and getting Wishbone to stop barking. By the end of October, we were averaging $11,000 a month in sales. Then I lost my job at IBM.
I was stunned. IBM had always provided for me. Now Mother IBM was gone. At first Amy didn’t believe it, then she burst into tears. We had a young family and a new mortgage. I couldn’t qualify for unemployment insurance because as owner of Unicycle.com I was self-employed, not unemployed. I took on a freelance writing project but never got paid. Then came a Christmas miracle. Orders began pouring in. Sales in November reached $22,000. In just eight months our little part-time business generated more income than my full-time job would have. In December, sales reached $55,000. I sent a thank-you note to my former IBM manager, telling him it was the best thing that could have happened. A few months later, IBM included Unicycle.com in a national ad campaign. In August 2001 we bought a new 3,200-square-foot office and warehouse.
Unicycle.com now appears to be the world’s largest retailer of unicycles, with franchises in seven countries and more in development. I still pedal five miles almost every day, and I still enjoy it at 49 as much as I did at 12. Our mission now is to encourage others to follow their dreams. We launched Banjo.com in 2003 and it’s growing at a faster rate than Unicycle.com has. With a lot of help and a lot of prayer, we’ve turned two of my childhood hobbies into successful businesses.