Former Musician Uses Innovative Hiring Strategy to Scale KC Electronics BusinessDavid Cawthon
Aaron Thomas was a musician who needed a day job. He didn’t plan on becoming a business owner with an innovative approach to staffing. But that’s how it played out. Now, Aaron’s electronics resale business GearBrokers is in its seventh year, and his team has very little turnover.
The discipline to be a musician – and an entrepreneur
Aaron knew at a young age that he wanted to be a musician. He studied percussion in college. But after school, he came to realize that the dance of auditions, bands and travel wasn’t going to give him the kind of life he wanted. The winter months were slow, so he answered an ad to market products to sell online.
“I went to work for that company, and it was a kind of a mess,” Aaron says. “I got to the point where I realized I could do this in a much more ethical way, so I started doing it on my own.”
Aaron had experience around small business. He’d worked for years for Explorers Percussion and had seen firsthand that entrepreneurs wear many hats. Some days they’re accountants; other times they’re teachers or politicians. Some days, all three.
“So much goes into making a business part of the community,” Aaron says. “That, and starting from the ground up, was appealing to me.”
He started GearBrokers working with an associate. After parting ways, Aaron looked around and realized he and the three current employees would carry on. They just needed help.
Getting the band together
Building an effective team is part planning, part luck. Aaron started by hiring fellow musicians who needed day jobs. After he exhausted that pool, he turned to social media to find staff.
“We’d bring people in, identify their strengths, then figure out how to make our processes work to their strengths,” Aaron says. “I just needed people. It was backwards but effective.”
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It worked for the employees, too. The musicians needed flexible jobs and an employer who understood if they needed to be gone for a week or two.
“I said, ‘You tell me what you can do, and we can work with that,’” Aaron says. “It was hard to do that for a couple of years. Now, most of those people have moved on, most in music. But I have a staff now that is functioning with those same processes we put into place.”
Molding processes around people might sound wonky. But it’s working. Workers are happy, and almost all new hires are referrals from current employees.
“I’ll say, ‘I want to hire this position because we’re receiving stress in this area, and we can mitigate it by hiring a staff member,’” Aaron says. “Inevitably, someone will come into my office and say, ‘I know this person, his strength is X, I really feel he’d be a good fit for what we do and our culture.’ Nine times out of 10, that’s the person we end up going with. We’re so fortunate, especially with the struggles a lot of people are having with staffing right now.”
Roles and staffing evolve because Aaron is open to new ways of doing things. He’s learned he doesn’t have to do EVERYTHING himself. And GearBrokers has automated some of its processes – not to get rid of jobs, but to make them easier.
“I want people who are putting in the sweat and emotional equity to be able to do their job without being exerted,” Aaron says. “People who want to be here, I want to make sure they’re taken care of. It’s not about reducing employees – it’s about making jobs more accessible so they can then ID other things they can tackle. For the last three years, we’ve been trying to use automation in a positive way.”
All of these shifts and changes help GearBrokers evolve.
“I’m creating a place where I want to work,” Aaron says.
Taking entrepreneurial direction
Aaron’s “backwards but effective” staffing approach may be unique. But it’s held up to scrutiny by the best. In spring 2020, Aaron participated in ScaleUP! Kansas City, a selective program that helps business owners get the skills, perspective, coaching and connections to scale their businesses.
“In ScaleUP!, there are mentors to guide you though all kinds of challenges,” he says. “I recommend having a business coach who’s not doing what you’re doing and who can see your work from a different perspective. They can see things I can’t because I’m stuck in the day to day. I don’t know if we would have survived 2020 without ScaleUP! KC.”
The coaching and emotional support made a big difference, especially in a tumultuous time.
“People held me accountable,” Aaron says. “They’d say, ‘You’re doing this wrong, do it like this, here’s why. Here are some options, here’s my experience – but before you do anything, go talk to this person from a different background.’ You get a whole lot of different experiences. It was a great 35,000-foot view from a strong support network.”
The ScaleUP! team’s support has been invaluable. But GearBrokers has also flourished thanks to guidance from a perhaps unlikely source: the bank.
“When I had been in business a year and half, getting a bank to talk to me was nearly impossible,” Aaron says. “But when I found the right bank, they thought we were right for an SBA loan. And they took months and months to work through that process with me. They saw potential in what we were trying to do. I listened to them and did what they were asking of me. If they can help you, they will. That’s been my experience.”
Notes for other entrepreneurs
Like so many new business owners, Aaron didn’t know what he didn’t know. But now he has some words of wisdom for prospective entrepreneurs.
“Anyone who’s looking at it from the outside and wants to own a business is seeing the positive things, like flexibility and the potential for better income,” he says. “But if I could go back in time and tell myself anything before I got into this, I would say, ‘Trust people, but verify everything they say.’ I’ve made that mistake more than I’d like to admit. It’s such a cliché, but going that extra mile would have saved me heartache.”
“I’d tell them, ‘Get ready for a life when you never clock out,’” Aaron says. “If you’re working a job, you clock in, do a task and clock out. But as a business owner, if the alarm at the warehouse goes off at 3 a.m., guess who’s getting out of bed? Or if accounting needs to get done on New Year’s Eve, you’re staying home.”
Realistic expectations aside, sometimes the best thing an entrepreneur can have going for them is … nothing.
“I didn’t have anything to lose,” Aaron says. “Failure was going to teach me how to do things better, not make me lose my house, because I didn’t have those things. Embrace failure when you have nothing to lose. I realize now I had something special in not having anything. What I had to gain was knowing how to do it better next time. That’s entrepreneurship: being able to fail, accept it for what it is and then change what needs to be changed.”
Being the skilled musician that he is, Aaron encourages other entrepreneurs to listen and learn.
“I’ve never been the smartest person in the room,” he says. “The guy sitting in the corner listening to everyone else talk is the one who has all the information. That person is learning while everyone else is talking. I’ve always tried to be the person who is listening.”
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