Newsweek article by John Drummond

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.
Enterprise;My Turn
By John Drummond; Drummond lives in Marietta, Ga.
745 Words
19 February 2007
Newsweek
U.S. Edition
English
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.

good to see the unicycle community getting more popular!

Yeah i saw that yesterday. I wish it was about bedford or Kris Holm but at least its unicycling.

Yeah, I read that about 4 days ago, linked from UDC. Pretty cool.

Many congrats to John for the awesome life changing event, awesome business and great press.

congratulations!!! But what about unicycle.com/brasil??? I‘m asking cause it‘s extremely hard buying good unicycles up here. And the demand is growing, not only old time riders like me need those unis, but new riders are popping up. I sincerly hope it could work soon, but I aslso know it‘s a matter of time and commercial deals.

Cafi

If it were not for the Drummonds and Unicycle.com, Bedford would have a lot less product to sell. And Kris Holm may or may not have gotten into the unicycle business without a good way to get the word out about his products. I don’t think most people realize the impact John Drummond had on the world of unicycling by being the one to grit his teeth and do it; start an online unicycle store and know how to grow it.

Congratulations on the great article! Now I’ll have to go out and get me a copy of Newsweek!

Thanks guys! I submitted the essay in October. When Newsweek called last week to arrange for a photograher, I said “that’s great…what for?” But I’m thrilled that they accepted it. I’ve always fancied myself a writer, but I sell unicycles and banjos instead. I do love my job, and I’m grateful to all who help support our small enterprise.

John Foss, thank you for your kind words and your continued wise counsel. Amy and I are grateful to you and Jacquie.

Raphel, thanks for posting the essay here!

It would be funny to transport some of the kids here back to the 80s or even the early 90s and have them try to buy a unicycle. Good luck finding one that could stand up to the abuse of todays riding. Good luck even finding out how to buy a Miyata or anything other than a Schwinn.

UDC is a very well run company. They have the best customer service I have ever experienced. It’s great to be able to actually drive to the headquarters/warehouse and meet John and Amy. It’d be a really fun place to work. Ya’ll keep up the good work!

I went to my local 7-11 to get a Newsweek. They have a pretty good-sized newsstand, but no Time and no Newsweek? A whole bunch of tattoo magazines though. Do I need to think about moving? The guy behind the counter acknowledged the encroachment of the tattoo magazines, and said their Time and Newsweeks were sold out.

So then I went to a supermarket. Huge magazine rack… uh… hmm… No Time or Newsweek either? Oh yeah, they’re in the check-out lines. Hmm. People, Star, National Enquirer, Weekly World News, all easy to spot. Finally found Time and Newsweek (was relieved to see they at least carried them). Paged all the way through the Feb. 12 issue. Damn! Feb. 19 must not be out yet!

Thanks for the chuckle, John! I called our local Borders Books to get extra copies. They have the latest issue, but it does not include the Enterprise section, where my essay appears. I’m getting a few extra copies to send to my mom & dad in Florida. :slight_smile: