Matt Miller spent the first 9 years of his career as an Air Force pilot, before entering the corporate world to work at both Abbott Laboratories and Valassis. While a top performer for both companies, his long term desire was to start a business and be his own boss. A good friend one day mentioned the gum ball machines he and his young daughters owned, and that conversation began a 10 year business quest that has brought Matt’s company, School Spirit Vending, to the cutting edge of both the vending and school fundraising industries. Today, School Spirit Vending’s Hassle-Free fundraising program is helping schools across the country raise money in it’s own unique way.
Zephan: Hey, Year of Purpose podcast, this is Zephan Blaxberg, and today, I am joined by Matt Miller. Now, Matt spent the first nine years of his career as an Air Force pilot before entering the corporate world to work at both Abbot Laboratories and Valassis. Top performer for both companies, his long term desire was to start a business and to be his own boss. A good friend one day mentioned the gumball machines that he and his young daughters had owned, and that conversation began a ten year business quest that has brought Matt’s company, School Spirit Vending, to the cutting edge of both the vending and school fundraising industries.
Today, School Spirit Vending’s hassle free fundraising program is helping school across the country raise money in its own unique way. And I’m sure we’ll talk about that in just a minute. So, Matt, how are you doing today?
Matt: I’m doing awesome, Zephan. Thanks for having me on!
Zephan: Yeah, man. So let’s talk about what is School Spirit Vending?
Matt: School Spirit Vending is a hassle free fundraising program that was founded with the idea that if we could do some of the fundraising for schools ourselves instead of them having to mess with it, we’d have less kids out on the street selling stuff to support their schools, and more educators spending their time educating instead of worrying about fundraising.
Zephan: Which is probably much more effective. Because I remember back when—I graduated high school in 2007, so eight years ago now. I remember being back in elementary/middle school. They kind of pumped you up, they brought people in to do this huge event. You’re convinced that you can win a free limo ride or something if you sell a certain amount of popcorn in these tins. So it sound slice it’s a much more effective way of raising funds and kind of giving back to the school at the same time, right?
Matt: Right. I mean, we don’t replace the big event fundraisers with what we do yet, but every little bit helps, and SSV is just one of the companies that I own that we kind of work in that fundraising space. And my ultimate goal in the next few years is to enable schools to utilize our program to completely get out of the fundraising business themselves. So that’s kind of where we’re headed. We’re not there yet, but SSV is the foundation for all that.
Zephan: So there’s a bigger goal here. There’s a bigger picture and dream for all of this, which is really great and that’s kind of something that I present to our listeners quite often, is we talk about everybody’s got this bigger dream or this bigger goal. You and I both have this mentality of creating passive income and having financial independence. Tell me a little bit about your stance on just, you know, why we should look into entrepreneurship and being a business owner and what benefits that you get and how you get to live your life.
Matt: Yeah, uhm, most of my life I spent working for somebody else. So a lot of this is still relatively new for me, but I spent thirteen years in the military. I was an Air Force pilot, and then spent eleven years in the corporate world. I found out during that period of time that I don’t like being told what to do and I thought the corporate world was gonna change all that, then I found out that wasn’t the case. I’m grateful for the positions that I had in the companies I worked for, but the challenge is, what I found was the rules are always changing and they were never changing in my favor. And I never had any say in the change. And even though I was a top performer with both companies, I didn’t have as much control as I wanted.
One of the beauties of being an entrepreneur is you do have control. Now you also assume all the risk in that regard also, so there’s many people out there that don’t have the personality type, I don’t think, to be an entrepreneur because of the risk factor. But if you’re willing and able to assume the responsibility to get yourself up in the morning and discipline yourself to do what needs to be done, the sky’s the limit. And it’s an exciting time.
I mean, when I walked away from the corporate world, I bought my first house, I moved four and a half hours away into the country. We got about six acres and have a homestead where we are working more towards self-sustained living as well with our own garden, raising our own animals, that type of thing as well. But I get up in the morning, I do what I want when I want. I don’t have to ask anybody except for my wife if I can go somewhere or do something. It’s a completely different dynamic in a completely different world. But it’s taken a lot of work, obviously, to get here.
Zephan: Oh, sure. And it’s one of those things where we live our life a certain way that’s pretty harsh for quite some time so that we can live the rest of our life in a way that most people never really get to. That’s really neat that you said—so you guys are working towards being sustainable. Maybe talk a little bit about what you have going on there. So you guys get your own food and things like that?
Matt: Yeah, as much as we can. I don’t know if you’re familiar with a gentleman by the name of Joel Salatin. He’s out of Virginia and he’s kind of the father of today’s modern day sustainable living movement, and when we moved out here, I had the opportunity to spend three days out at his pace in Virginia on an intensive program he does each summer and really learn from the best. I’ve done a ton of reading and research along the way also.
And so we started small initially with just a few chickens and a garden that the first year didn’t produce anything, and slowly over the last four/four and a half years, I’ve put together an operation—you know, we’ve got several hundred chickens. We’ve got three pigs down the hill right now that will be making their way to freezer camp before long. We’ve got relatives that raise cattle, so we’ve always got beef in the freezer as well. And then we got this extremely large, three thousand square foot series of raised bed gardens now that during the summer months, we got the ability to provide the majority of what the family needs.
One of the things that we did—our place was kind of a blank canvas. There weren’t any trees really on the property or whatever, and the very first thing I did was plant several hundred trees, about sixty of which are fruit and nut trees. And this year we will have our first peach harvest here in the next month or so. We’ve got a huge area full of blackberries that are about ready to start produced blackberries and be harvested in the next few months. Almond trees, apricot trees, apple trees, you name it. And it takes four to five years in most cases for most trees to actually start to produce something. So it requires a lot of patience, but we’re finally to that point where that patience and that tending of those trees for several years is gonna pay off and should have years’ worth of, quote-unquote, passive benefit from taking the time of planting those things and tending them over the last few years.
Zephan: So that’s a really neat example of passive income, because, in a sense, you know, you’re saving the money of not having to go to the supermarket each and every single week. You’re able to feed your family. And on the same lines, you probably have an amazing looking grounds around your house. So kudos to you for doing that.
We actually have a great episode with a friend of mine Marc Angelo of the Valhalla Movement. He’s all about tiny houses, being sustainable. So really cool episode kind of along those same lines, just for people listening to check out later.
So that’s a really neat side effect of entrepreneurship. We get these neat opportunities to do things like that that not only create an income but wealth in the sense of not a monetary way. Like, we’re getting wealth from our lifestyle and our living and that’s really amazing.
Now, tell me a little bit about where this idea for the vending machine stuff came up from. Because so many people are like “Well, this is great. I’ve love to start a business. I don’t know what to do.” you had some great experience in the corporate world, you pulled away, I’m sure, tons of leadership skills in the Air Force, but how do you come to “We’re gonna do vending machines and we’re gonna make a difference in schools with it”?
Matt: Well, to start with, I mean, it was just simple gumball machines. And the biggest thing I would encourage your listeners to do is get over yourself. Meaning, you know, most people are too, quote-unquote, good to have a gumball machine, or whatever, but you know what? You gotta start somewhere. And I didn’t know a thing about vending eight/nine years ago, and I put my pride on the shelf and did what I felt I had to do at the time to support and provide for my family, given some of the circumstances I was dealing with in my corporate job and some of the decisions that were made.
And that was just a foundation. And after about a year and a half of figuring out the whole vending thing, I had about a hundred and fifty locations around the Huston area, purely door knocking and getting out there and figuring out how to sell and figuring out how to help restaurant owners and business owners in the area with their needs. And, you know, from there, ’07 and ’08 hit and there weren’t as many people going out to my locations as had been previously.
So I was a little frustrated, and it was right around that time that I had four young kids that I didn’t know from my neighborhood that didn’t have parents with them come knocking on my door selling stuff. And I was like “There’s got to be a way to get these kids off the street and maybe tie what I’m doing with vending in with what they’re doing with fundraising in the schools…” So kind of hatched the idea from there, and then a good buddy of mine who’s an elementary PE teacher, he and his wife came by for dinner one night and I shared with them what I was thinking about and he said “Well, let me talk with my principal and see what she says.” And a couple weeks later, he called back and said “Hey, we got approval. Let’s give it a whirl.” So we set up our first test school and things went much better than I anticipated. And then it was just a matter of figuring out how to market to those schools much like I figured out how to market to the local businesses with my gumball machines several years before.
And it was a process. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, did a lot of stupid stuff. But eventually we figured it out, and today we’ve got an entire system in place to where we can have somebody come in and teach them exactly how to do what we do successfully. And if they’re willing to follow what we do over a period of time, the result they will achieve should mirror the results of many on our team.
We’re actually in the process of taking that system to a completely new level to where, my guess is, by the time this is broadcast, we’ll actually be a full-fledged franchise and that will enable us to expand to some other parts of the country that we’re not in right now because of the regulatory environment, etcetera, in those states. So it’s an exciting time. It’s been a ton of work to get here. Like you said, you know, you gotta be willing to do what others around you aren’t willing to do to live like others can’t. And we’re reaping those rewards but still in the trenches every day. Doing new things but doing them on our own terms, which is pretty cool.
Zephan: Yeah, that’s really great. What do you think—if I asked you like your top three tips for, you know, if you could go back and talk to your younger self right about the time where you were in the corporate world kind of edging on leaving. If you could tell yourself anything back then, what would it be? Because, obviously, going and knocking on that first door probably didn’t happen very easily. Probably took mustering up a little bit of courage and kind of falling face first a couple of times just to get it right. So what advice to you have?
Matt: I think the biggest thing is get started and figure it out. Too many people have what I call information constipation. That they feel like they’ve got to figure out everything first before they take the first step. And, in a lot of ways, I think that they’re shielding themselves from the actual activity that’s gonna be necessary to succeed. Forget all that stuff, you know, and get out and do it. You’ll figure it out. There’s very few things that you can’t recover from, mistake wise, and as long as you’re willing to learn from every failure and mistake you make, it’ll be alright and you’ll move forward.
And the one thing that I’ve learned for my career that has allowed me to have success is that I’ve been willing to do that. My idea, initially, was geared towards the high school level and sporting events and temporary tattoos and all that kind of stuff and customizing that type of this. Well, what we found out was kids in that age group don’t have any desire to interact with a machine like ours. So great idea, but it didn’t work. But the younger kids absolutely loved it, and we morphed and changed and kinda learned as we went. And all you got to do is find one thing to succeed in. the challenge is most people are still thinking about, thinking about, thinking about, thinking about that one thing, whereas guys like myself—and I take it yourself as well, Zephan—have gone out and we’ve failed seven or eight times and have found our one thing a lot quicker because we were willing to fail.
Zephan: Oh, yeah. The one thing a lot of people don’t realize, who’ve been tuning into this and watching me for a while now, we’re probably—we’ve gotten about twenty-five episodes down since January. It’s now may. And I didn’t always start in video. One of my first jobs was in the food industry. I’ve done everything from being a pastry chef in a gourmet bakery to running a tractor around a summer camp. So you’re not gonna fall upon your passion or the one thing you’re best at right away. At one point, I actually had to take a break from doing video production work because I had lost my job at a marketing company that got bought out, and I worked at Apple for a year/year and a half. So accepting and kind of rolling with the punches is really a big key to making it these days and being able to move and change around.
This is something that I think your generation and my generation both kind of experience, is there was this pressure to grow up. You go to college, you get a degree, you get a job, you hold it for thirty years, and you retire. And so, when I talk to my parents and my grandparents, they have no idea what I do. They just don’t understand. So they just keep asking the questions of “Are you paying your rent? Are you able to afford your food?” cause they don’t even know what this whole world is about.
In one of your questions that you sent over to me, you said something along the lines of something about “unbusiness” or “uncompany” philosophy of business? Could you tell me a little bit more about that? I know Tony Hsieh from Zappos just gave his employees an ultimatum of they don’t have this management level thing “and if you’re not okay with it, we’ll give you three months’ severance package.” And actually, they had like two hundred people out of their thousand some employees leave. So what is this sort of “unbusiness” or “uncompany” idea?
Matt: Well, the whole thought process is, after spending all my time in the military and in the corporate world, since I was starting my own thing, I was gonna do it my own way. And I looked at all the things that I liked about the corporate world, and about the military, and I kept them. And all the things I didn’t like, I got rid of. If that makes sense.
As an example: I love my family. Got three kids, my oldest is a freshman in college and my youngest two are in high school still. And love spending time with them. Love them being part of what I do. And because I was able to start it, family is a huge foundation of what we do. In fact, we encourage our team to involve their family in all aspects of what they do. And what’s neat is we now have the second generation that is getting involved with what we do as they turn eighteen and nineteen years old. They were a part of what mom and dad were doing, doing simple things like assembling vending machines and helping run routs through whatever to being with, and they learned along the way. The got the entrepreneurial bug just like their parents, and now they’re out duplicating what mom and dad showed them how to do within our program.
That just—that’s what excites me and gets me up every day. Another thing, I hated being a number. I hated always being challenged. You know, “What have you done for me lately?” type mentality in the sales world. Quotas and all that type of stuff. I wanted to be left alone and just do my thing. And if I was performing, then allow me to do so. Well, I have built my business to where I don’t have to rely on anybody else for what I do, so it takes the pressure off. Matt’s not worry about paying his own bills by what Joe does or doesn’t do. And in the process, it allows us to be a blessing for everybody that’s involved. It allows folks to grow at whatever pace they choose to grow at, so that it stays a blessing for them.
So just to have no pressure, to be a family organization, and to teach people how to passively derive income. All those things are very unique and very different in the business world from what I’ve found. And we’re thriving because of it.
Zephan: And that’s really where everybody wants to be. Is they want to thrive, they want to be able to live life on their own terms. Let me ask you this: what was your favorite—I would say mistake, but I’m gonna rephrase it as journey or experience in this process? What was kind of one of the big stumbling blocks where you were like “Huh, that kinda sucked, but we’re just gonna get back up and keep going”?
Matt: The biggest stumbling block, no doubt about it, was financial. When I was working in the advertising world, my first full year with Advo at the time, I was number two sales rep in the entire country. I had been—I’d done some multilevel marketing stuff in the past, so I’d been used to presenting and selling and all that type of thing. So I just didn’t have my military background to rely on. But what happened was my manager was frustrated withal the press and accolades that I got, so the second full year, when she got around to giving out quotas, she decided to increase my quota 96%. Now, the average in the office was between 5 and 10%. That decision that I had no impact on whatsoever cost my family eighty thousand dollars the next year and put us in a huge hole. And I realize real quickly after running some numbers that it was gonna be next to impossible for me to work myself out of that whole any time soon, relying solely on what I was doing in the ad space.
So that’s where I went out and started doing other things. I was selling books online, on half.com and eBay and Amazon and Alibris. And we collected aluminum cans for a little while. We kind of did whatever we had to do. I got to the point, Zephan, where literally I got turned down for a payday loan of a couple hundred dollars. Here, quote-unquote, America’s finest former Air Force pilot can’t even get a couple hundred bucks from a payday loan place. And because they don’t look at credit rating, they look at your back statements. And I’d had three overdrafts the month prior, so when I brought that statement in, those three dings were enough for them to say “Sorry, we can’t loan you any money.”
So I mean talk about being absolutely at the lowest of lows. But I knew it was situational. I knew it was based on circumstance. I knew it wasn’t me. And so I kept plugging away. Kept doing the best I could at work, and like a duck on water that just looks like it’s there, Cool Hand Luke, but it’s paddling under the water like no tomorrow, that was me. I had a bunch of other things going on on the side until something hit. And the vending is what hit. Vending is what stabilized our situation. And then having the Aha! moment to go into schools was what finally got us out of the corporate gig and allows us to do what we want to do today.
You know, I look at that as a valley moment. If you look at the mountains, I lived in Colorado Springs for four years going to school out there, and there’s nothing that grows on the mountain top. All the growth occurs in the valley. And that was a valley in my life where a lot of growth occurred. I believe, now, God put me through that so that I could learn and empathies and be better able to relate to folks that I do business with on a daily basis and that I work with, in many cases, on our team, because I’ve been there and I’ve worked my way out of that and so I can from experience share them my ups and downs that they can hopefully learn from and benefit from as they go through their journey.
Zephan: That’s great. So it really doesn’t come without its own struggles. And I actually—I made a video just this past week talking about it’s kind of like a roller coaster where too many people get right here, just before they’re about to go down the other side, and they give up. And it’s one of those these where it’s like you could be on the edge of something amazing. And, you know, so just pushing a little bit longer.
So you—I guess you’re teaching people how to do this now? You have kind of a franchise program where people can do this all across the country?
Matt: Yes. After—it’s May 2015. But mid June 2015, we’ll be a full-fledged franchise. We’ve expanded with a distributor model up until this point, which is slightly different. But we have a similar system in place that we’re just building on as we move forward. There’s a lot of parts of the country, like the north east, that there’s a lot more government regulation, etcetera, and in order to satisfy those regulations and be doing things correctly, I was counseled several months ago to take this step. So we made a huge investment and now we’re in the process of just finalizing the legal to make that happen.
Zephan: That’s amazing. So, you know, clearly, it’s really starting to pay off now, and I’m sure a year or two from now, you’ll be looking back on those challenges and those struggles, realizing that it was worth the hassle and the grit that you had to bear for quite some time and it’s truly going to pay off.
What’s the best way for anyone kind of interested in this to get ahold of you to find out more about it, maybe learn a little bit more about School Sprit Vending?
Matt: Yeah. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. The URL is ssvbusiness.com. And our school facing website is schoolspiritvending.com.
Zephan: Awesome. And so this is gonna roll out sometime within the next month or so, which is really awesome. I’m sure you’re stoked for that and hopefully making a bigger difference in how schools fundraise.
Matt: Yeah. I mean, ultimately. There’s a lot of schools out there that we’re not working with yet, and if our model works where we currently are in several thousand schools, there’s no reason why it can’t work in a bunch of others. And we just have to put the infrastructure in place to support that to make it happen. And then find others that want to duplicate our proven system in their area and follow a proven system so they don’t have to figure it out themselves.
Zephan: That sounds like a great plan. Well, for anybody listening who’s interested, definitely check out those website links. We’ll be sure to post them and our transcript on the Year of Purpose website.
Any last thoughts, any books or mentors that you recommend people checking out that might help them as far as if they’re going into business for themselves or just looking for motivation?
Matt: Yeah, a couple books to start with—first off, Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. If folks haven’t read that, they need to pick it up immediately. It will completely change their thought processes as to how they make money. The second business related book is something called E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber. That’s a classic that’s been around for a number of years, but it really, really gets to the heart of small business and building a business that will last.
Otherwise, I encourage folks to get a mentor or a coach. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Dave Ramsey. Dave is a well-known financial guru and I was at an event of his sixteen months ago, ran into a good friend of his who was Dave’s, believe it or not, very first advertising client twenty years ago, but the name of Aron Walker. I think you’ve had a conversation with Aron. Anyway, we met, hung out that week together, and I was like “Man, I’ve got to find a way to get around this guy on a regular basis” and ended up contacting him a couple months later, we did lunch, and here I am several months later and hired him as a coach, and I’m also part of one of the mastermind groups that he hosts. And has completely, completely changed my life to have somebody that I can be accountable to. To have somebody that has been even more successful in business that I have, to be a sounding board and a big time investment that many people would look on as an expense but is the foundation and a lot of the reason why we’re headed in the direction we are today. And I’m grateful to him and his mentorship and coaching.
Zephan: A lot of great advice there. Definitely picking up a mentor. I actually have a mastermind group I’ll be heading over to in just a couple hours here. We meet every single month. So, for everybody listening, I know we’ve mentioned it a couple times, but creating a mastermind group, whether it’s a small group of two or three people—usually they recommend keeping it relatively small. I know some of them are larger, closer to ten or fifteen. But definitely pick yourself up a mastermind group if you’re looking to become an entrepreneur, if you already are. It’s really a great way to have a sounding board for all of your ideas and to get some feedback on what you’re doing.
Matt, it’s been great having you here. Congratulations on everything up until this point. I think that you have something really neat going on there with the sustainability and hopefully we’ll see some really cool stuff happen with your business in the next month!