Prisoner Turned Online Vape Shop Entrepreneur Tells Why It’s Never Too Late to Be Successful

 

I left prison with fifty dollars, last year we turned over six million 

I sat in the waiting room, maybe they should call it the leaving room. Hard benches, surrounded by hard walls and stern faces. Today was my last day a number and I eyed every muscle twitch of the guards, hoping that their next move was to set me free.

Don’t come back

My name was called, I signed away a few rights, handed a brown envelope with £49 in and told to not come back. I had no intention to and with that I walked into the cold morning air of a January in rural England. 

Before prison, I had all the trappings. A psychotic model ex-girlfriend who got naked for money, modern apartment, fast thirsty cars and an insatiable habit for things that come in powder form.

You know those films, where stockbrokers sniff cocaine off the office toilets at work? Well in real life, it’s the boss who gives you the gear. Real talk.

I was going for a jog the other day and just started laughing to myself about the sheer insanity of some of it – but it’s no way to live long term. Fast forward to my release and for the first time in years I had a clean slate.

If you want to solve a puzzle that’s tough to crack – let me know the answer on how to get a job with a criminal record. 

If you were my wife you would be high maintenance said an old boss of mine. I can put my hand on my heart and say he is 100% true. I am a difficult employee – I guess I just have a hard time fitting in a particular shaped hole.

I think I have always been like that, but when your parents take your back in the house and your 30, you need to show willing. I took the approach of applying for jobs with a cover letter that pre-handled the prison matter. I wanted to be upfront and in this naïve, romanticism, thought someone would see this diamond in the rough. 

Essentially I was saying, “Hey what’s the one thing that could immediately put you off me – well, here it is. So, about that job???”

I think in 200 applications I got one call back. That person, I still remember now. I thanked her for seeing past it. Turns out she hadn’t read it. Never heard back.

Stick your hand in a gutter once in a while

My uncle saw my plight and an opportunity for off the books labour, so squared me up with a labouring gig on a property he was renovating. I wouldn’t have dreamed that getting a degree and working in the City of London would end up with me cleaning an old toilet u-bend to reuse it again.

But if I am being truthful, I loved the honest days work type of job I was doing.

Learnt a lot too. Leaking gutters are the origin of a lot of expensive house repair works. Easiest DIY job you can do. Just stick your hand in a gutter occasionally and feel liberated. Scoop out the leaves and your good for a year or two.

We all get imposter syndrome, embrace it …

I was happy with the simplicity of life, but my girlfriend had other ideas. I think she could see that the whole fall from grace had made me fearful of doing anything on my own again. She was right, I was petrified, and I suppose I had this imposter syndrome.

Decade on and I know that is just a feeling most of us get. Doesn’t matter if you are the CEO of Delta or a 1st round draft pick for the NFL. You might be big in one pond, but we always worry it won’t carry over – it’s human instinct. 

If we didn’t have fear or stress we wouldn’t learn to sharpen our skills. These days I embrace that.

So back to my pushy girlfriend. She wanted me to do more with my life, trying to motivate me in a positive way. I did have something that I had toyed with trying and I’ve always been the ambitious type – or just a hustler. 

I had quit smoking through vaping back in 2009, but at the time the products were poor. Much like a razor, the spare e-liquid cartridges were limited to specific products. If you were out of your supply, you could only use the items made by the electronic cigarette you used.

It was very much, the consumer is the slave to the manufacturer so it didn’t strike me as ready for the big time yet. But, it worked for me, which meant it was in my mind. 

I set up Vape and Juice in 2013, toward the end of the year. Initially it was just going to be an online electronic cigarette shop. I’d learned a little about blogging, SEO and all the rest and thought I’d give it a crack.

I paid a touch over a grand for the site and no sooner had I logged into the back end to begin promoting it, it fell flat. 

Lesson in business No.1 : Do some research first

There’s me thinking I am the first in the market, only to find out two important things. Firstly, I wasn’t, not by a long shot; secondly Google and Facebook had already banned advertising on it.

How to lose a thousand pounds in an hour. Admittedly, I’ve definitely done worse before prison, but this was a good chunk of my savings I had begun squirreling away. 

Failure is a great teacher and now before I start anything I definitely check if an idea is new or I’m just going to be pushing a ‘me-too’ idea. Back then I was still rash old me. I sat on the website for a while doing very little, thinking how was I going to grow this, when my Dad suggested I open up a bricks and mortar vape shop.

We didn’t have any, where I lived, so with the remainder of my savings, £4000, I got into the retail game.

My only experience of retail was 2 weeks working for a clothes shop when I was 16, but I fancy myself as being able to learn most things. Being adaptable is an important skill if you want to start your own venture.

In the early days you must be able to do most things in your business. You can’t do it forever, but if you don’t have capital behind you, it’s just the only way. You’re in for a shock if you think running your own business means freedom. That said, when it’s your own baby, you don’t count the clock.

We opened the shop with counters salvaged off ebay, very little stock but a ton of passion to make it work. If you have nothing else – have that. Have passion in spades. If you don’t believe in your business or your idea (after sanity checking it of course) then no one else is going to either. 

That first shop paid for itself in a few months, helped by the fact I worked in it every day and we spent little on kitting it out. You can’t run it like that forever and eventually you need to get help in. You also need to make sure your ‘beta’ version improves as demand appears. You don’t want some opportunist popping up with a better experience offering.

Fast Forward To Now

6 more years have gone by and we went from that first Vape and Juice store that did £60 on day 1, to turning over £4.5 million last year. A lot has happened in that time. I’ve lost both my parents, had a kid and that pushy girlfriend, well now she’s my wife and a Cancer Survivor too. 

This year we parted company with most of our shops to allow us to focus on bringing the local vape shop experience online. We want to give that same offline bricks and mortar ‘Mom and Pop’ feel, but in a contemporary shopping space.

If you need advice on the best vape starter kit, we can do that online too, with a human run webchat. You don’t find bots in a shop, so you won’t find them on our website.

We were the first vape shop to do no minimum spend free shipping and some day in the future, we just want to be the first one on people’s fingertips.

No matter where you are in life, no matter what trouble comes your way, there’s always time to start on your big lifetime project. If I can do it coming out of prison, penniless and dealing with losing my parents, bringing up a toddler and a wife who needed Cancer surgery – then it’s time to do you.

 

BIO:   David Mason is a regular blogger on all things startup marketing related. He runs a small business podcast called the Mason on Business show, SEOFairy a content marketing agency and is the founder of Vape and Juice, the UK’s local vape shop.

 

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