Every entrepreneur has a story. Every story has something instructive and inspiring. Today we get to hear the story of Steve Thomas, founder of Detroit Athletic Co. The retail industry is notoriously difficult, but Detroit Athletic has managed to thrive by offering more than just products: they are a kind of keeper of the sports traditions of the city. There are some great lessons here about the value of engaging your customers in a social way, adaptability, and good old-fashioned hard work. Oh, and we couldn’t let Steve escape without some Detroit sports predictions…
Praxis: Give us a little history. How did you get into the athletic apparel business?
ST: The business evolved slowly from a peanut stand on the corner of Cochrane and Kaline Dr near the grounds of Tiger Stadium into a souvenir stand. It continued to grow a few new items at a time until eventually we had the makings of a retail operation. Within three years, my family opened what was then known as The Designated Hatter on Michigan Avenue, a brick-and-mortar store that quickly became a fan favorite for Detroit sports enthusiasts.
Praxis: When you started selling peanuts, did you imagine a big retail operation like you have today? Was that a dream, or something that just kind of evolved on its own?
ST: When my brother David and I were running the peanut business, you would have thought we were running General Motors. We took it very seriously and our father would explain how a business grows and how to parlay profits. We were avid savers and we reinvested almost every penny we made. I’m not sure that we realized at the ages of 11 and 13 that it would become what it is today, but we most certainly took what we were doing very seriously.
Praxis: Did you have role models to look to and learn from? Was entrepreneurship something you saw around you?
ST: My father was and is a phenomenal entrepreneur. He built something pretty incredible out of nothing but hard work and an incredibly strong will. He is also a great teacher in the sense that he always leads by example and wasn’t afraid to let us make mistakes so that we could learn through trial and error. My dad grew up in the (then) Briggs Stadium neighborhood and learned how to make a buck on game days by parking cars on abandoned property. His father died at the age of 49 when my dad was only 12 so he had to learn how to be self-reliant at a very young age. He has some of the best entrepreneurial instincts I have ever witnessed.
Praxis: What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
ST: What has always surprised me is that, even when we were very young, many people seemed to be envious of our success and not supportive. This would include various family members (not immediate ones) and the public in general. I learned a lot about human nature by standing on a street corner in the city of Detroit exposed to people from all walks of life. It never made sense to me that people could be upset by the success of others. It wasn’t until I discovered Ayn Rand’s writings and what she coined, “Hatred of the good for being the good” that I came to understand it philosophically. Anyone who doesn’t believe it exists should go to any urban setting in America and try to make a living on one of its street corners.
Praxis: Biggest challenges in your industry?
ST: The retail business is hard by its very nature. It’s like trying to constantly hit a moving target. But I also realize that any industry faces similar challenges.
Praxis: Your operation was bricks and mortar only for a long time. How did you make the transition to online sales? Was it tough?
ST: The online portion is far more sophisticated and complicated than the brick-and-mortar store. I think it looks easy to outsiders but my experience has been that when they try to stick their toe in the water, so to speak, they realize in short order that they are in over their heads technologically. It takes an incredible amount of skill and tenacity to run an online business. That is why, as a percentage, so few of them are actually profitable.
Praxis: Detroit Athletic has a great Facebook presence. You’re kind of the go-to for Detroit sports history and facts. It’s not intuitively obvious to many people how that can help a business. What prompted you to use social media, and how does it enhance your business?
ST: There has always been a social aspect to our retail business — even before the advent of the Internet. We consider ourselves the keepers of the archives when it comes to Detroit’s rich sports history. The Internet and social sites like Facebook and Twitter have simply become new outlets for us to take our message to a much broader audience.
Praxis: What motivates you day in and day out? Do you have a personal mantra or guiding philosophy?
ST: When I leave this world, I hope it is said of me that I did more than my fair share to advance human freedom. To me, that is what it’s all about.
Praxis: Advice for young entrepreneurs?
ST: Perseverance is the key. As an entrepreneur, you get to fail a lot! In fact, there is often more failure than success. The key is to stick to it no matter what. Sooner or later, if you don’t evade reality, you will figure things out and be able to make a profit. But it is a constant battle and only the most dedicated survive.
Praxis: You pick: give us a Tigers post-season prediction, or a Lions regular season record prediction…
ST: The post season is always a coin toss not matter how good your team is, but I am fairly certain that the Tigers will make the post season for the third consecutive time. It will be the first time that has happened in more than 100 years (1907-09). As for the Lions, 8-8 would be a blessing.
Praxis: Thanks Steve, and we wish you continued success with Detroit Athletic Co!