Warren Buffett famously compares his business to art. He says his company is a canvas, and he paints what he wants. I thought of Buffett when Peter Keller, the founder of Fringe Sport, an Austin, Texas-based seller of barbells, echoed similar sentiments.
“Fringe Sport is my art,” Keller told me. “What we create for our customers, employees, and the broader society is an art.”
I first interviewed Keller for this podcast in 2021. He’s also a former Practical Ecommerce contributor. In our recent conversation, he described his priorities — business and life — and his motivations for running Fringe Sport.
The entire audio of our conversation is embedded below. The transcript is edited for length and clarity.
Eric Bandholz: Welcome back, Pete.
Peter Keller: It’s good to be back. You and I have had similar entrepreneurial paths. I’ve been doing Fringe Sport for 12 years, and you’ve been doing Beardbrand for 10.
I’m opinionated about strength and conditioning and garage gyms. That’s my business. Sometimes I see companies that have had more success, and I think maybe I’m just too pure and say too much. Perhaps that has caused some missed opportunities.
I’m not an artist in the traditional sense. Fringe Sport is my art. What we create for our customers, employees, and the broader society is an art. I’ve heard artists talk about seeing the sculpture inside a piece of marble or wood. That is something that I think about in terms of the potential of your brand or company. How close am I to freeing the art? Could someone else have done a better job?
Bandholz: You have a strong management background.
Keller: Yes. I have an MBA and managed an online housewares store before Fringe Sport.
One of my business partner’s metaphors is that you should run your business like a third-century trader — what’s the cash in the bank? If a business has money in the bank, that probably means it’s doing okay. If there’s no cash, something’s wrong. So there’s a lot to be said about cash accounting.
But there are definite advantages to accrual accounting. One is managing the cost of goods sold. It fluctuates widely with cash accounting based on when we pay our freight bills. But our revenue for cash and accrual is nearly the same. So our monthly profit varies using cash accounting. And that can confuse outsiders looking at our books.
Bandholz: What keeps you motivated and engaged?
Keller: I’m a member of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a non-profit networking and support group. Some businesses are boring, and some are exciting. I sell barbells which, to me, is exciting. One member asked, “Peter, there’s a sexy business, and then there’s sexy money. Which do you want?” And I said, “Oh, I want sexy money.” I think about that a lot.
But I have a friend who had a very unsexy business and recently exited for extremely sexy money. I can’t disclose it, but let’s say it would knock your head back. And good for him. It’s a real lesson. Do we run our businesses for ourselves or for future owners when we exit?
After I got an MBA from the University of Texas, I founded Fringe Sport, in 2010. I went to my favorite professor, who taught marketing, a couple of years later. I described Fringe Sport, what I’d built. It wasn’t big.
I will never forget his response. He told me, “You’re wasting your life. You’re talking about a few hundred thousand dollars in revenue a month. You’re talking about shipping barbells from point A to point B. You need to work for a multinational. You need to make $500,000 a year. That’s what an MBA is supposed to do.”
And I was sitting there. I thought, “You’re my favorite professor. You’re shitting all over my dreams.” But I told him, “Okay, cool.” And I never went back to his office.
We all have differing motivations for running a business. You’ve criticized yourself for doing a disservice to Beardbrand as if it’s not living up to its potential. But I disagree. You’re building something amazing. I’ve seen many of your customers who love the brand and what you do. Many of your employees feel the same way, as do your partners. How is that a disservice?
Bandholz: I have to remind myself of that constantly. I try to enjoy the journey. Slower growth in a drama-free work environment is okay. Where can people follow you?