Nick from Ranger Up on entrepreneurship, why most business books suck, & his hero Captain America
Nick Palmisciano commands an empire of apparel sales, MMA sponsorships, digital content, and social media mastery as the Founder and President of Ranger Up. Started in 2006, the company is on track this year to hit $10 million in revenue, and that's due in large part to the former Army officer's ability to overcome significant challenges.
Palmisciano founded the company while pursuing his M.B.A. at Duke University, after he started printing funny military-themed t-shirts for ROTC students there. Now nine years later, it's a business that continues to grow.
WATM spoke in depth with Palmisciano about his business challenges, how he overcame them, his future plans, his heroes, and much more.
Photo Credit: Youtube/screenshot
We Are The Mighty: When you refused a promotion and went all-in with RangerUp, it was a huge risk. Do you remember what you were you thinking at that moment?
Nick Palmisciano: I was scared, to be honest. I was scared about giving up the security of the whole thing, but I also felt very free for the first time in ages, you know, because I just — I controlled my destiny, you know, and being able to control your destiny is a very American trait and it's something I didn't fully appreciate.
Like I thought of myself as an entrepreneur when I was doing it part-time, but you know, when poor performance means you don't get a paycheck it hits home so much more, and I'm sure you realize that ... but you know you feel alive because you kill what you eat, the company grows, you get a paycheck, the company grows, you get to continue paying employees. [If] the company doesn't grow, it dies, and you fail. So it's a lot more exciting and a lot more rewarding when you do well and hits a lot more than a normal job when you do poorly.
WATM: Do veterans have an advantage or disadvantage in starting their own businesses?
NP: We have both. So the statistics show that veterans do better than any other population in the country at starting their own businesses and maintaining their own businesses. I think that's true for a couple of reasons: One, we have endured a lot, and we are used to a situation where at first we are not the best at something, [and] we have to work really hard at it and, over time we get a skill set. Those are incredibly helpful attributes. When you've actually done hard things several times, it makes the next hard thing easier to accomplish.
The other thing is that we genuinely like to work in teams and we are happy when other people succeed, but the military is built around [the idea that] you learn something, and then you achieve a level and then you teach other people how to achieve that level and your success is married to their success. That's not true in the civilian world. People are a lot more self-centered — whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, they are focused on their own promotion, their own skill sets, their own growth, and they don't think about the team as much as military people do.
So that's the upside. The downside is that the military makes things very easy for us, and that's probably counterintuitive because nobody looks back at their military experience and says "Man that was so easy" but they tell you "If you want to go to this next job, you go to this school. If you want to go to this next job, you need to do these things in the unit. You need to have these jobs."
There's a structure to the whole thing. There is no structure in entrepreneurship and when I see people [who] are trying to start business that are really sputtering, a lot of times they're coming to me, they're coming to other entrepreneurs and they're saying that they're looking for advice, but they're really looking for me or others to do all of the work for them and they just want to knock down these easily set up targets. And that's just not the way that entrepreneurship is. You have to go into nebulous situations and figure out a way through and there's a lot of suffering in there and you might be great for two years and then something else comes in and changes the whole game, and you have to rethink everything that you're doing.
So there's good and bad. You know on the whole, I think you're better off being a veteran, and the statistics show that, than not, but there are things that kind of bite us in the ass too.
WATM: How about in the corporate world?
NP: Um, again, it's kind of — it's a two-pronged answer — thinking that you are better than people, or that you are owed something, or that they all suck because they're civilians, you are setting yourself up for failure. So if you go in with that approach, which a lot of people do, and then complain that no one wants to hire vets, you're not going to do well, because frankly, nobody wants to be treated like sh-t. No one want to be looked down upon, so if you go in with a negative attitude, then people aren't going to like you and you're not going to get hired. If you go in with the same attitude that you had when you went into a new job in the military — "I don't really know what I'm doing and I have to rely on the people around me to teach me everything I need to know, but be proactive in learning everything that you can," — you're going to do extremely well.
Every time I had a new corporate job, I spent most of my time for the first few weeks basically talking to everybody that was in the group — no different than somebody coming into a new unit [and] figuring out how the unit works what the SOP's were — and then after that after I felt like I had a handle on it. Then I was going to best practices and other organizations, the internet, etc. to figure out how I could improve my job, the organization, and take it to the next level in any number of areas.
That's the approach that you need to take to figure out what's going on and then figure out how you can be most valuable and see what you can bring to the table, as opposed to "let me tell everybody here how things should really work, I was in the military."
So just like anything else, going in humble with the intention of truly being helpful as opposed to trying to rise above other people is going to make you successful.
Photo: US Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael Holzworth
WATM: How do we get over that "I'm better than you" military mindset?
NP: I try to flip it around for people. You know, when people get out [of the military] and go to college and college students are making gross assumptions about them, you know about how having post-traumatic stress is going to result in them doing something insane, or about killing people or about this, that, or the other thing ... all the stereotypes that you hear about college students.
How much does that infuriate them? How much does that make them want to have nothing to do with these people, does that make them feel like they're a fish out of water in this organization?
Flip it around and treat somebody like that because they don't have the same experiences that you had, and guess what? You're the a--hole. You know, so stop being an a--hole.
You go in and you're walking into their organization. You wouldn't walk in from basic training, or for that matter, walk in off the street to basic training and [say] "alright check it out drill sergeant, let me tell you how it really is." Because they're gonna be like who the f--k do you think you are?
It's no different. It's no different walking into a company. You can't walk in one day and tell everybody how it is or how it should be or, the way that it should work or that they're all wrong, because you don't know what you're doing — no matter what experience you have — you don't know what you're doing. You don't know how that organization [operates], what they do on a daily basis, and you don't know the constraints and you don't know the personalities involved.
You know if you flip it around, it suddenly sounds ludicrous, right? It's the same thing.
WATM: What do you think was your biggest challenge with RangerUp, and how did you get through it?
NP: [Sighs] There's a new one every year, man. Honest to God. There's a new one every year. You know, the most dramatic challenge I went through [was that] I went through leaving corporate America and literally a month and a half later I was going through a divorce, so I rapidly ran out of personal [funds]. I sold everything that I had, mutual funds and all that stuff, and I was down to $1,300.
And the key there, just like the key has been in every other time that I've had a crisis with the company is to focus on one thing at a time every single day and try to improve. You know, whether it's marketing, whether it's inventory management, whatever, because if you take a step back and you look at all of it, all the problems and all the challenges, it's overwhelming.
So, you know, putting it in military terms, right, if you can sit back and say I want to conquer the country of Iraq, that's an insane task that requires many people thinking and assessing and even then it's challenging but when you break it down: The first thing I need to do is, I need to take this city, I need to take this block, I need to take this street, [and] it becomes manageable.
So sometimes, especially when everything is sh-tty, and when cash flow's tight and when you don't have enough inventory ... when sales are down for the month and there's a new predator or whatever it is. When things are very challenging, you've got to narrow them into a list, because otherwise it's overwhelming.
You put one thing on the list at a time, you do it until it's done, and you do it so that it's high quality, and then you do the second thing on the list and when you knock things out like that and you go through the formula of A, B, C, you find yourself in a better position after several miserable weeks.
If you just try to solve it all at once, you get nothing done, you can't sleep at night, and it doesn't improve. And so, I went from being a dude that had a lot of money to a dude that had $1,300 to his name and had maxed out credit cards.
But by knocking out one thing at a time, the next month I had $1,350, and the next month I had $1,500, and you know, I've taken that approach with everything. So every time something goes wrong, you have to assess, what is it?
Well, this time I have too much inventory in styles that weren't really selling, how did that happen? So you figure all that out, and what I know is that I need money right now to make a sale on this inventory that isn't showing, even if I take a loss on it because I need to get cash into the system, then how do I figure out how to do that next time? What led me to this?
So you need to go through the steps and at some point, like right now we have a very fancy inventory management system, we use algorithms to determine that we built based on our analysis and how many of something we should order. But that didn't happen in a day because we f--ked up, and then we fixed it, and then we f--ked up again and then we fixed it, and as long as you don't make the same mistakes, over time you start building a business that is very efficient and very sophisticated.
But at the beginning it's like "hey, how many of these should we order? I don't know, 100? 150?" And now it's… I don't want people rounding because we found two years ago that by rounding up to the nearest 12 shirts, we added $80,000 of inventory, 3 or 4 shirts at a time, and that money needs to be working, not sitting on the shelves.
You see what I'm saying? It all kind of builds.
WATM: I'll follow up by asking, specifically, because you brought up the thing with $1300, how did you break that up, what was your priority there? It's daunting, you're looking at your account and seeing that you only have $1300, and you've gotta make money. What were the manageable tasks that you found got you to $1350 in the next month?
NP: The first thing was figuring out where the money was going, [and] where are we spending. One of the the big things back then was we really valued things. We were a smaller company, doing what the other people were doing, and we really valued things like athlete sponsorship and trade shows, and you know all the things that all the other companies are doing that everybody tells you are critical.
[We] just kind of walked through that and asked, is this critical? What does it really cost to do a trade show? What does it really cost to have an athlete? And then you figure out what the value of having these things really is. We almost don't do any trade shows anymore because the average trade show ended up costing around $27,000 when all is said and done, and you just don't get that kind of return. It's just a thing that somebody created that people do, and everyone goes, "oh you've gotta be involved in this or else you're not really in the industry."
Well that's not true at all, but that's what everybody says. And you know, we do sponsor athletes, but we only sponsor our kind of athlete, and we figured out what that meant.
Inventory. It was a big issue back then and I was trying to figure out why sales weren't growing — why we were very profitable, but we had no cash on hand. So it was a simple Excel spreadsheet where I rank-ordered all of the styles by sales and then to the right I put their inventory value and then I realized that I was getting 80 percent of our sales on about 20 percent of our inventory, and the other 80 percent of our inventory accounted for 20 percent of our sales.
It was embarrassing because I knew this stuff from business school, but it's completely different when you're in it, day to day, and you think about things like if I only print this smaller number, it's gonna cost a dollar something more per shirt and that's gonna be a ton of money — and it is a ton of money — and it's not hundreds of thousands of dollars in useless inventory, and there's no science to that.
It's hard to balance what's appropriate. Is it profitability or is it cash flow? You've gotta strike a balance, like you've gotta hold some inventory or you can't sell but if you have too much inventory you have nothing available for investment.
So we did a fire sale on that 80 percent of the inventory and much of it we took a loss or did breakeven on, and then all of a sudden we had some cash and we invested that cash into styles that sold, and we were able to then create more styles and started developing styles more routinely.
All of these things were things I was working on over several months and the low point just happened to be at that $1,300 and so I had already been working to solve the problem. And it finally started clicking that following month, like all of a sudden these new styles were coming in, we were selling more, we had a little more cash on hand. I was able to pay myself a little more, and it wasn't a ton more — like another $100 or $150 a month — but that little amount made all the difference. So you kind of chip away at these small things and they add up to be big things very quickly.
WATM: What are the tools you use on a daily basis to be more productive and get things done?
NP: I'm not a really fancy guy even though I have an appreciation for a lot of these crazy apps out there but really at the end of the day there are three tools that I use all the time.
Excel is the lifeblood of everything I do and I am an Excel ninja. People say that they are an Excel ninja because they can do a couple of basic formulas but there is nothing I cannot do in Excel. Spreadsheets are very complicated you know, drop down menus and like it's just ... [being] able to very quickly look at data and convert that into a few possible directions that you should go and that you should look at, is invaluable. If you're gonna start your own business and you're one of those people that's like "Oh I'm not good at that, or I really don't know that much about Excel," take courses, start figuring out how to do analysis, [because] it's really important.
The second thing is Quickbooks; I don't care if you're a brand new business and you only have $400 in sales, start using Quickbooks, start figuring out how all the different sheets work and fit together and constantly be looking at your business to see what's going on. If you don't know, then your success is just dumb luck.
You have to know what's going on in the company. And then the last thing is just that I use the notepad on my iPhone and Tom [Amenta, COO of RangerUp] has Evernote or whatever the hell it's called, and a few other fancy things but I just use the notepad every day and write down what I have to do on this day, and if I don't get these things done then I have failed.
Or, at the very least I take it and I move it on to the notes for the next day. But every single day I am trying to knock out certain things. So those are the three very simple tools that I use constantly. You open up my computer and there's always six or seven Excel sheets open and I get a daily Quickbooks report with a list of various things that are important to me along with a scorecard that the various managers inside the business provide me on a weekly basis and I hold myself accountable with my phone which is always with me.
WATM: I'd be really fascinated to learn what your creative process is like. You guys are churning out videos, blog posts, social media, memes, all kinds of stuff. How do you decide what's good, who's coming up with this stuff? Can you take me through what that's like?
NP: We have a really good creative team and that's me, Tom Amenta, Jack Mandaville, Patrick Thomas Baker, and all of our designers. It's just a really good group of people, but it also extends to anybody [who] wants to be involved.
So sometimes we have, I don't know, three organized meetings about various topics in terms of creativity every week so one is the design process, one is videos, and one might just be general ideas about projects you take on.
But then also there are people like Jack, Pat and I that are literally always thinking about this kind of stuff. Like I'll wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and jot down some stupid video idea or an article I want to write or whatever, and it hits me and I put it down.
And you know, our whole concept is we want to entertain our friends. That's the way that we look at our business. How can we entertain, educate, or just generally amuse our friends? If we do that right everything falls into place. And if we don't do that right, we're just another t-shirt company.
WATM: Tell me about the movie "Range 15".
NP: Range 15 is a post-apocalyptic comedy. Think of it as "The Hangover" after the apocalypse with veterans leading the charge to save the world. And in terms of the plot that's kind of what I can give up right now.
The main character in this movie is going to be Mat Best. He's got the high cheek bones and the steely blue eyes so we thought it was a no-brainer, and then the rest of the Ranger Up and Article 15 crew who I'm with, Dakota Meyer, Leroy Petry, Tim Kennedy and we just got a really interesting call that I did not expect from another well-known military celebrity that is interested in being involved.
And he has already had a very popular movie done about him, but he has never done a comedy before, and I think we're going to be adding his seal to the mix here. But the concept here is that veterans are always portrayed in a certain way in movies, even positive movies. It's always about sacrifice and suffering and they always end up worse off from their experiences. And that's really just not the case. I mean it's the case with some people, sure, but on the whole veterans are the most industrious, fun, can-do people that I've ever met and that I think most people will ever meet and so we just wanted to have fun with it.
So for example, we've got two Medal of Honor recipients in this thing and they're poking fun at each other and the service. And they're in a movie that could be described as one of the most ridiculous movies that you're ever gonna see anywhere, and they're doing it because they should be able to do it. Nobody should be able to tell these guys, "you can only do this type of film" or this kind of documentary.
No, because they want to do the same kind of thing that we want to do. They want to amuse our friends, they want to show them that you can do anything. I mean for all, for any negative threads that are on us doing this silly movie, at the end of the day, in 24 hours we've raised almost $200,000 [Editor's note: Now it's almost $500,000] to do a movie for our community.
I'll be honest, the folks at IndieGoGo spoke to a mutual friend and had told them that we were going to launch and they kind of ignored it. And the president of IndieGoGo called and his question to them was "Who the f--k are you guys?" Because he didn't understand, he did not understand how we were doing it, and it's because people don't understand the community and understand what these kinds of things mean to the community.
It's gonna be a good movie. It's gonna be really funny and it's going to be for us, and because we're doing it for us we don't have to compromise the message at all. We don't care if someone's offended by it. We don't care if this isn't Hollywood appropriate, and if this isn't gonna do well in the Asian market. We don't care about any of that stuff.
Because we're doing a movie that our fans want us to do. And it basically breaks all the rules. Our IndieGoGo campaign wasn't set up the way IndieGoGo says you should set up a campaign, our marketing strategy isn't what they say you're supposed to employ, we're not relying on Hollywood interviews, we're not relying on press and we're not relying on any of this stuff and we're doing it hardcore, direct and social.
And we're on pace right now to be one of the largest funded movies ever on IndieGoGo, and I think that speaks less about us and more about the community.
WATM: What about the decline of the military comedy in a post 9/11 environment? Why has that happened and were you actively trying to combat that?
NP: You should be able to have fun with it. And we saw the same kind of thing with some people with "Enlisted."
Military veterans are not saints. And I don't mean that in like we aren't good people, but you do not need to bow down to the altar of the veteran. We're regular people, and we should be able to make fun of ourselves. And if you think that veterans can't because they have to live up to some standard or stereotype, that's your problem, not ours.
I think most veterans have a lot of fun, are funny people, enjoy life and don't want to be stuck with this view that they are droids that are serious and boring people. I think it's unfair and we want to shatter that.
WATM: It seems counterintuitive to work with Article 15 Clothing, which outsiders would view as a competitor. How do you explain that relationship? It seems antithetical to the norms of business to be friends with companies creating such similar products.
NP: With Article 15, we have a very similar ethos. Those guys genuinely care about the veteran community; it's not just window dressing. So they're genuine guys and I like them personally, but the second part of it is that I don't think it's a zero sum game. I don't wish failure on anybody.
We grow, they grow. Grunt Style [another military apparel company] grows and it's not a bad thing [because] these people are employing veterans and doing good things. I'll be honest with you, I haven't had a single year where we haven't had triple or double digit growth, so I've got no reason to complain.
When you sit around and look at competitors and worry about what they're doing, and worry about other people, you are stagnant, you're not improving, you're not creating new products. You're just worrying and you're trying to go backwards. When you [should] look forward you grow.
That's what we do, so I worked with Article 15, and we became friends, I gave them some advice here and there, and as a result of that mutual trust we kind of hung out and came up with the concept of doing this together and it's been a really good partnership.
You can ask them the same questions and I'm relentless — that's my personality — so from the moment that we decided to do this, I'm the guy who is annoying the sh-t out of everybody like "hey, we gotta do this, here's our timetable, hey, we've got to get the lawyers to do this, we've gotta fill out this form and here's the script notes. I need this and I need that."
And Jarred [Taylor] is a promotional genius, Mat is a very creative dude, he's hilarious, Jack [Mandaville] is hilarious, and everyone is kind of bringing something to the table. Individually I'm not gonna say, "could Article 15 have not done this without us?" No, I would never say that. They're motivated guys, and they could have done it, same with us, like we could have done the same thing.
But together, we're unstoppable. And I truly feel that way. Working together on this, we're unstoppable. We're putting up numbers that are shocking on IndieGoGo because the general population has no f--king idea who any of us are. But we're still putting up numbers that are a quarter of what Broken Lizard just did with "Super Troopers" and that's a movie that probably 20 percent of America has seen and loves, because we work great together, and have been able to kind of check egos and just work really hard.
So, for me it's just been a win for everybody and it's been an awesome experience.
Photo: US Army Sgt. Michael Maclleod
WATM: You were an Army officer, so I'm curious as to what terrifies you more: leading a unit of soldiers, or leading your own company? Or is it similar?
NP: It's really different. And I also think it's different because as you get older you think about things differently too. Like to think if I was this age, and if I were to take a platoon now, I would have been a lot more afraid than I was then, because when you're 21 or 22 and just out of Ranger School, you feel like you're unstoppable and you're surrounded by guys who feel like they're unstoppable.
Deploying was definitely nerve wracking because, a lot of people say this, but I was one of the guys that really loved everybody in my platoon even if they were a pain in the ass, and I really looked at them as my family. And it was terrifying to think of losing somebody. But I was fortunate that I wasn't in a position where that happened. So, I was a young guy and felt invincible and never was faced with some of the bad things that happened to other people.
The stress is different though. The stress of a business is constant, and it's not something where there is a clear, there's no clear enemy right? It's just this constant stress. Do we have the right inventory? Do we have the right ideas? Do we have the right advertising strategy? Oh crap, this thing went wrong. We need to fix this. The shirts came in wrong, the movie title headline is off because of X,Y, and Z, the lawyers didn't get us the paperwork in time.
So now, my brain works 24/7, and it's never over. In the nine years I've been doing this, I've basically had this constant stress in the back of my head, whereas the military, the stress has much higher peaks but shorter duration.
You get back from deployment and that stress drops significantly, then you deploy and the stress peaks. Within an entrepreneurial endeavor, the stress never goes away. It's just always there. There's always something you could be doing. That was a convoluted answer, but in the worst situation, [there's] no question about it that the military is more stressful. On a day to day basis it's more stressful to be an entrepreneur.
WATM: Living or dead, who are your top 3 heroes?
NP: George Washington is the best president we will ever have. I've read just about everything written on the man and people have no idea how much that dude did for the country and for our way of life.
Cheesy I know, but my father came over from Italy when he was eight years old, volunteered for Vietnam, served for six years, got out and used the GI Bill to be the first person to go to college in our family on either side, graduated valedictorian, and sacrificed significantly so that my mom and my brother and I grew up thinking anything was possible, and essentially made it so that we did make anything possible that we wanted to do.
And then third, gosh, you know the third one is a tough one, I'm not really a big hero worship kind of guy but I'm gonna go with Captain America. I'm serious. I'm going with Captain America because no matter how bad it gets, he sticks to doing what the right thing is and he never allows his principles to be shaken.
WATM: You want to start a new business instead of RU. What is it?
NP: That's a tough one for me to answer because I have so many offers on the table right now. If I wanted to do something completely different I would do something that involved absolutely zero inventory.
So we're kind of doing something that's been a dream of mine for a long time, and that's to get into the movie business. I mean, we might get into doing this movie and realize that we all hate movies. You know I enjoy doing advertising work, I could also see myself at some point disengaging from business and spending some time doing some nonprofit work.
It's tough for me, because literally every day someone is trying to buy us, get us involved in a new business or hire me or Tom or somebody away from here. So I almost can't even answer that.
At the end of the day, I want to work with really good people because the business almost doesn't matter. I don't even really like T-shirts. I tell people that all the time. But I really like my customers. And that's what keeps me in the game with RangerUp.
If I had the opportunity to take over a $200 million business, but the focus was on football players or something, I don't think my heart would be in it and I don't think that I would be as good at it. Working with good people, and customers that I believe in, that's kind of what motivates me. I need to care about what I'm doing.
I was in a position in corporate America where I was making a lot of money, I was on pace to make a bunch more money, and that taught me that I really don't care about money. I mean obviously, I need to eat and I need to take care of my family, but I don't need to be Kanye or Mayweather blowing 100K at a strip club. That's not gonna make me happy. So whatever I do, the work has to be worthwhile.
WATM: What's the #1 business book you find yourself recommending to people?
NP: I don't really believe in business books. They're just cheesy, they're narcissistic, they're people telling you how great they are, for the most part.
I would tell you that Ryan Holiday wrote a really cool book called The Obstacle Is The Way. It's not really a business book but it is a great read and it's founded on the principles of stoicism. And if you want to go back even further, read Marcus Aurelius. One of the great things that I learned from Ryan, and this is just from personal interaction with him, is that if you want to know something about a topic, any topic, walk into the bookstore and find the oldest book on that topic that's still in print, because if it's still in print, it's because it's a good book.
If it's a new thing that someone famous just wrote, it's probably a piece of sh-t, and I've found that to be true. And I've started reading older and older books, and the classics, and philosophy, because I find that to be a lot more valuable than reading about some dude that just launched an app and is 25 and trying to tell people how to run their life and run their business.
Sometimes people are really good, sometimes people are really lucky, [and] sometimes people are really good and can't tell a story. Read old books.
WATM: What about a military-related book?
NP: That's tough. I really like Gates of Fire, I really like Starship Troopers, the book, not the movie although the movie's fun. The Long Grey Line, that's a great book. Black Hawk Down. There [are] so many great books out there it's hard to pick just one. Sean Parnell's Outlaw Platoon, that's a new one. I really enjoyed that book and Sean is a great guy. That probably makes that book even better for me, but to say that I have a favorite is pretty challenging.
WATM: Last thing: Where do people go to learn more about you? Besides RangerUp.com, do you have a personal website, Twitter account, Instagram, or smoke signal that you would recommend? Video you would want people to watch?
NP: @Ranger_Up is my Twitter, and that's me tweeting 90 percent of the time. I don't have a personal account yet but I've been getting kicked in the ass to start one so that's coming soon [laughs].
Watch the "How to Get a Job" series. That's what I care about. Just figuring out how to get people set up for success, so if the question is what am I about, that's gonna be the best video for that.
WATM: Thanks so much, Nick.