58: From Living on Change to Changing the World

58: From Living on Change to Changing the World

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Time to Thrive

From Living on Change to Changing the World

Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.

~Robert F. Kennedy

I grew up in Spokane, Washington, where I live now. So did my brother JC and my cousin Adam. My first entrepreneurial endeavor was in the seventh grade, when I got my dad to use his membership at Costco to buy those big tubs of licorice. I’d take one, stick it in my locker and make ten cents a piece selling them at school between classes. It was my first successful business — until IA was shut down by my principal.

I’d always wanted to do my own thing, and college was not it. I figured I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer, and there was no entrepreneur class, so when I had the opportunity to run my own business, I thought, why not try it? I never looked back.

My brother JC was a huge influence on me. He thought of starting the first kiosk business that he owned in Chicago, making key chains and license plate frames. I worked for him for six months until I knew enough to go out on my own. I got myself a cargo van, filled it with stock, and drove up to the Canadian border. Then I drove all the way down the coast to Portland, Oregon, stopping at every mall, telling them about my product and putting in applications to set up kiosks. I didn’t have any money so I slept in the van. Worked out of it, too.

The first bite was from the Southcenter Mall just south of Seattle, the largest mall in Washington State. From day one it was successful, and I worked every day for three years until I could start hiring people and get a break. Eventually I had fifteen sites set up all over the country. I did that for about thirteen years, until the market got saturated and my dad got sick, when I ended up selling all of my kiosks and moving back to Spokane.

After the move, it was hard to find work and we started losing a lot of money. My cars were repossessed. I was in danger of losing my house. My brother JC was in the same predicament. My cousin Adam was having trouble, too. No one wants to be on welfare, but that’s where we found ourselves, all three of us looking for jobs and barely scraping by. I had to. I had no food, two kids and my wife… I used to have a different opinion of welfare, but once I needed it and it saved me, it changed my whole perspective. It was the safety net I needed.

Then JC had his idea. He remembered 2001, when he was the meat manager at a grocery store. He decided one day to see if people would be interested in buying forty-pound cases of chicken at a lower price instead of having the store separate it out, cut it up, put it on foam trays and wrap it, which would up the cost by at least two dollars per pound. He bet if people knew what kind of money they could save, they’d definitely go for it. He put out a sign-up sheet.

Nearly 1,000 people signed up. JC ordered $250,000 worth of chicken, when his budget for everything from the market was only $90,000. They told him he had probably just blown a ton of money and probably wasn’t going to be there much longer. Not only did he sell the two truckloads of chicken he had already ordered, he got enough orders that he needed another half-truckload to fulfill them! He sold more chicken than had ever happened before in the history of the company and actually ended up going on a speaking tour around all the chain’s different locations. It became kind of legendary.

JC never really thought he could do that regularly, so he let it drop. When he moved to Spokane and everything was circling the drain he thought to revisit that earlier idea. We made a deal with local brokers for the chicken, and by word of mouth alone we got orders for over 850 cases of chicken. It was crazy how well it went! The economy was tanking, people were losing jobs, and we were selling chicken for $1.49 a pound. Everyone was excited, especially us now that we could pay our own bills. With that, Zaycon Foods was born.

When my brother had the idea to do “Chicken Across America,” we thought he was crazy. We were comfortable staying in Spokane, but here he was suggesting we do the same thing all over the country. We sat down and thought a bit about how we could get the word out to all the people we’d need to reach to make the plan a success. My cousin Adam and I went on the Internet looking for food bloggers and coupon bloggers, sending them messages saying we’d give them forty pounds of our chicken if they promised to write about it. We didn’t say what to write, just to tell the readers.

We then split up and drove around to every blogger’s house — about 450 of them — to deliver cases of chicken. I drove from Miami to San Diego. It was great! Everyone blogged about it. By that time we had a website set up where people could register for events, so when we opened up the sale it was crazy! We were just watching as people signed up, one after another. In the end, we sold twenty-eight truckloads of chicken. Then we realized. How on earth were we going to deliver twenty-eight truckloads of chicken? We hadn’t even thought that far! We just thought it was an awesome idea. There was no business plan. We were creating something that had never been done before. In fact, if we were the kind of people who created business plans, we would have failed because the business plan wouldn’t have worked! We just had to go ahead and think on or feet.

It was stressful, but comparing the stress of being on welfare to the stress of building a company, I’d take the stress of building a company any day. To go from zero, literally zero, watching your cars being repossessed and your house about to be taken away… Going through that really humbled me and helped me understand where my priorities needed to be… I wanted to help people.

My father passed away in 2009, my mother in 2012, and I felt like there were gaping holes in my life where my parents had been. I also knew that just having “stuff” would never fill those holes. But helping people? That’s the real measure of success. That’s what makes me feel whole again. This company has made it possible for people all over the country to succeed in ways that might not have been possible without the extra money they save by buying their groceries from Zaycon.

We even won an award from the Post-Harvest Project for being environmentally conscious and producing zero waste, something no one thought was even possible!

In the summer of 2012, one of our bloggers asked if we would like to be on Good Morning America. Um, yeah we did!

They came out and filmed one of our events, and then a month later we taped an interview segment. When it aired, we had over 25,000 people come to our site to sign up. It actually crashed our server, but it was incredible. Having GMA’s support really legitimized our brand, and the whole business just expanded.

More recently I started working with members of Congress to help get a paragraph added to a USDA farm bill to start a pilot program that would enable people on food stamps to use their EBT cards online, where they can get better deals for what they need. All online grocery companies will benefit from the program, but ours will be the first company to implement the change.

When you want to change things, people are so quick to tell you that you can’t do it. All that does is motivate me even more. Everything you know was created by people who are no smarter than you and I, and you can influence it, you can change it. This experience has taught me that you can change things. You don’t have to accept your situation.

With a little courage and a lot of goodwill, anyone can change the world.

~Mike Conrad

To see the Good Morning America piece about Mike and JC Conrad and their company, use this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTgUj27ebCw

And to learn more about Zaycon Foods, visit www.zayconfoods.com

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