Elkhart e-commerce entrepreneur John Webber has found early success in business, but he’s taken an unconventional route inspired by his father and his Christianity.
Casual in demeanor, yet passionate and focused, the 28 year old launched his first company at age 15 and now runs four enterprises that pull in millions of dollars a year.
He helms Dragonfly Footbags, a maker and distributor of footbags or “hacky sacks;” Ad Stream, a website design and search engine optimization firm; StrataShops, which sells factory-direct outdoor furniture online; and his most recent creation, Carved, which makes wooden cellphone cases and skins and sells them online.
With $4.3 million in sales in 2012, StrataShops ranked No. 326 on the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest growing companies. He’s hoping Carved’s annual sales will hit $2 million next year, putting it in the Inc. 5000 list also.
One might think Webber boasts the pedigree of an Ivy League school, but actually he stopped going to college after completing two years at Indiana University South Bend. After bouncing back and forth between home schooling and public schools, he never even graduated from high school, instead quitting school after his junior year and later obtaining his GED.
He quit IUSB after two years because “everything was exploding” for him in the business world.
“I’d come into work in the morning, and StrataShops was doing like $10- to $15,000 in sales a day,” he recalled. “I had 10 employees. And I’d sit in a class to write a resume. So I’d write my resume and hand it in, and the teacher’s like, ’Well, you should do it this way.’ And I was like, ’Well, I actually read people’s resume to hire them, and this is how I’d want it.’ It was just kind of pointless after awhile.”
Webber said he has no desire to obtain a bachelor’s degree, and when he looks at job applicants’ resumes, he doesn’t care if they have earned college degrees. He’s also not that fixated on technical experience.
"Everyone here, except (one employee), didn’t have a clue about what to do when they were hired,” he said during a recent interview at his Carved shop, a leased industrial space in Elkhart. “It was all learned on the job. But they’re fantastic people. They’re excellent people to work with.”
Webber loves starting companies and admits he might have too many going right now. This time of year, he spends about 90 percent of his time at StrataShops, because outdoor furniture sales are strongest in the summer, and 10 percent at Carved. That will change in the fall, as people buy Carved’s products as Christmas gifts and Apple rolls out its newest iPhone version.
He tries to get the businesses to the point where they can run themselves. Some of them actually do. A couple of years ago, he built about 160 web search directories, which are keyword-searchable sites that organize local businesses by their function, such as pet groomers. The server that runs the sites costs him about $200 a month and generates about $50,000 a year in ad revenue, and Google does all the work.
What drives him
Webber says he’s not a millionaire yet, at least not in terms of cash in his personal bank account, although his businesses, combined, probably have about $1 million in cash on hand.
"If I had $1 million in cash, I’d consider it a waste right now, because there’s so much potential, so much stuff we could be doing.”
Webber doesn’t view his products as a means to make cash. Instead, their sales fuel his true love: creating new things.
"What do I need a million in cash for?” he said.
He and his wife of six years, Sarah, don’t spend it on their lifestyle. They worked hard to restore a 1989-built home in Goshen that had been repossessed. He drives a modest Subaru Impreza, a salvage vehicle that he bought on eBay. He finally caved during the harsh previous winter and bought Sarah a new SUV because her Mercury Cougar slid around too much.
Webber said one of his main objectives in business is simple.
“Have fun,” he said. “To me it’s like a challenge. So the profit means that I’ve succeeded in meeting the challenge.”
Asked if he has any long-term personal goals, Webber took a long pause.
Then he spoke of how Sarah is an obstetric nurse on the birthing floor at IU Health Goshen Hospital. He envisions some day opening up a clinic in a developing country, utilizing her skills as a nurse and his in logistics. Doing so would be in service to the Lord, he said.
His true calling
Many of his employees at Carved first met him through their Elkhart church, Living Faith Fellowship, that his father, Malcolm Webber, founded. Webber said his Christianity plays a huge role in his life and the way he tries to run his businesses.
On the wall at Carved hangs a chart marking a contest that his employees made up to see who can memorize the most Bible verses. Webber had to have one of his staffers explain the contest to a reporter, but he clearly liked it.
“When I’m on my deathbed, it’s far more important to me to have people standing around me who love me, that I took care of, that I did right, that I didn’t rip off, that I didn’t try to take advantage of, than it is to be rich,” he said. “I would be perfectly happy at the end to have a tiny little bit of money, to have raised my kids to be smart.”
Webber said he and Sarah plan to have kids at some point. It annoys her, but he’d be happy not to leave their children much money at all if he still happens to have some when he dies.
“I wasn’t raised with it,” he said. “I didn’t have an inheritance. I’ve seen it ruin people.“
Responding to a question about how Christianity affects his business, he keeps talking, his words coming faster and more emphatic.
“I believe as a Christian that I have a much higher calling than to make money. I believe my calling in life is to live like God wants me to. As (business contacts and customers) walk away, I want them to feel like there’s something more. It’s not just a smart kid doing things that make a ton of money. If they come back and ask me about it, to me that’s the ultimate goal. If I can spend 10 minutes witnessing to someone... we have this life. You know it’s fleeting. The concept of what happens after that is a huge deal.”
That philosophy drives his approach to customer service and management, he said. Employees are empowered to reject products for quality reasons before they are shipped and to make decisions regarding unsatisfied customers.
“If you were to buy a case from us and then call us and say, ’I really don’t like the way this case looks,’ the answer you would get on the phone would be, ’You know what? I’m going to ship you out a new one today,’“ Webber said.
The word of mouth and positive web reviews that kind of customer service sparks are well worth Carved’s cost to make that replacement case.
Customer driven production
Carved makes most cases as they’re ordered, but they do stock a small number of designs they believe will sell well over the next couple of weeks because it’s more efficient to make 10 at a time than it is to make just one.
The company thrives on social media, testing most new designs on Instagram or Facebook before planning production.
On a recent afternoon, customer service manager Mindy Comino was busily downloading new orders.
"We just launched a new product, so we’re getting swamped with orders for them,” Comino said.
"How many are we up to now?” Webber asked her.
"I think there have been like 23 in an hour,” she replied.
On a typical day, Carved ships about 100 individual cases, plus up to another 100 cases wholesale to retailers. Prices vary according to the complexity of the design, but many hover in the $30 range.
Amazon also stocks Carved’s cases, which drives sales to people who might not even know about Carved, but simply go on to Amazon and search for ”iPhone case.“
Webber said he is constantly scouring the web to keep track of what his competitors are doing. Only one other company made solid wood cases when Carved started. Only one competitor sold plastic cases with wood veneers. Now there are at least 20.
"I tell (Carved co-founder Grant Sassaman) I’d rather look at people in the rearview mirror than look at people in front of me.”
Webber credits his father, his biggest mentor, for pushing him to learn about web design as a teenager.
It was 2001, about the time of the dot.com crash, and Malcolm saw web design as a solid future industry that he figured his son would enjoy. He bought him some books and software, and John started learning it. At the same time, one of John’s friends bought him a hacky sack online, and John suddenly realized he could build a better hacky sack sales website than those he was finding. Dragonfly was born.
Malcolm recalls initially discouraging him from the Dragonfly startup, thinking hacky sacks weren’t the greatest idea because they didn’t seem to have much growth potential. But John told him he was just having fun.
He now imports thousands of them a year from Pakistan, with annual sales having leveled off at about $200,000, and has become one of the world’s biggest hacky sack distributors.
Malcolm, a native Australian who moved to the United States in 1985 and Goshen in 1997, said he is not surprised by his son’s early success.
"Growing up, John was always very creative,” he said. “Also he was a very deep thinker, very articulate, a strong communicator. As a young boy he developed a vocabulary very quickly and never gave up on things. He was always one that would experiment. Let’s try this, let’s try that.”
Malcolm travels the globe as a faith-based leadership development consultant, so John and his five siblings were exposed to many different countries and cultures growing up. Malcolm said that helped sharpen his intellect and imbued him with a sense of compassion for those who don’t live as comfortably as most Americans.
Despite his love of learning, John was never comfortable in traditional schools, and that’s fine with Malcolm.
"School for someone like John is really boring,” Malcolm said Monday, July 28, in a phone interview from China. “That piece of paper carries a lot of weight. It’s sad because that piece of paper doesn’t necessarily represent maturity and knowledge. The way we learn is much more complex, through experience and relationships. Sadly, in school a lot of it is just running through dry curriculum.”
Malcolm said he’s very proud of his son, and he anticipates greater things in the future.
"Absolutely,” he said. “Not to put pressure on him, but I expect this is just the beginning.”