Part One – Everyone Should Get Fired
I was 23 years old, going to business school while working at a local car accessory shop. It was my dream job but I’d been over worked for months. I had a bad attitude and I was starting to think I could make more money tinting, it wasn’t long before I was fired.
I’d been learning how to tint windows at the accessory store. We were dead slow, it helped kill time and it was a challenge. No one else could could figure it out. Right then I realized this skill was a commodity I should learn. I’d been practicing for just a few months before getting fired.
To tint glass you take a very thin plastic film and apply it to the glass with soapy water to alter its appearance. The process looks a lot easier than it actually is. If you’re good, you can make good money and choose your own schedule.
For this new business of mine to work I needed a place to tint windows, money to buy materials and referrals so I had cars to tint. I’d managed to piss off my former employer who I was relying on for referrals. They thought I’d reported them to the state for a dangerous ventilation system on their paint booth and they were right. Only I’d made that complaint three months prior, when I was overlooked for SEMA. Either way, it didn’t look good for me.
My plan was limited. I needed three shades of tint and the tools for the install each roll cost $200. I borrowed $700 from my Mum for my first order. Next I had to find customers and a place to work on their cars.
Part Two – Selling window tint, in Michigan during the winter is hard.
Andrew Matlock. That is the name of my first customer. I will never forget that name.
He’s became a good friend since this but on that day he was more than a new friend, he was my savior. Andrew had a Ford Mustang he wanted tinted, looking back almost everything went wrong. I lost money, but I saw the potential and I wanted to try again as quickly as possible.
For my workspace I’d agreed to pay a flat rate per car to local stereo shop. It was winter and a heated garage was essential. By the time I’d paid to fix the multiple ways I’d damaged Andrew’s car. I broke the rear defroster and burned a hole in the headliner with my heat gun. I realized my arrangement there wasn’t going to work. I need a place more accommodating to my limited budget.
I needed another car to tint and a more affordable work space. I’d heard about a detailing shop on the outskirts of town so I went and visited. It was a perfect match, within in minutes we had an arrengement. Fred, the owner was detailing part-time and very dedicated to his family. He wasn’t interested in doing a lot at the shop and had no problem with an eager young guy coming in.
Fred and I saw eye to eye instantly. He was a classic Michigan guy, loved hockey, his wife and spending time with his two sons. My best friend Nate knew Fred and his family well from years of hockey. Nate vouching for me sealed the deal, I got a key and was told to do whatever I wanted.
I negotiated percentage deal on my earnings, which protected me from a slow start and gave Fred income from an otherwise empty shop. With cans of discounted paint, my best friend Nate and I revived the entire shop. It looked so clean, plus we had a banging stereo. Now that I had a shop and a place to wash our cars, we had our clubhouse. At 25 this is like hitting lotto.
Part Three – Figuring Out How to Tint – No YouTube Tutorials in 2006
I’d not really been taught how to tint. I’d been shown a couple times by a kid we’d subcontracted out for the accessory store. But he was fired after the second car due to him sucking and he couldn’t show up on time.
So I spent my time reading on a tint forum, followed by a lot of trial and error. I wasted so much material. Thankfully most of the cars and trucks were easier models and I was willing to redo any mistake. Great service can make up for a lot.
As my skills improved I knew to take on this market properly I had to have an advantage beyond price on my competition. A niche or feature that made my shop the no-brainer decision over anyone else. I’d decided this feature was “shaved edges” a trick I’d read about online. To do this you use a file to trim the film right to the edge of the window. I tried it on a car and it looked amazing, it was time to sell.
Sure, you can get it tinted there for less… but do they offer shaved edges?
Part Four – Promotion
If you attended Northwood University or lived in Midland, Michigan during this time I was stuffing TG TINT down your throat. I was relentless in my promotion, I needed business badly.
The city I lived in was small (40,000 people) but there was also Northwood University. An automotive geared business school that I was also attending. The school was a non-stop car show, they even throw one annually for new cars. The students run it, there was a Ferrari Enzo there the year I graduated. They don’t fuck around.
Many of the students came from wealthy families with car dealerships or other large businesses. There was a culture of owning and frequently upgrading very high end cars. That worked out great for me. I made shirts and stickers with a military stencil font saying “TGTINT.COM” they were on everything.
1 – Northwood University. I promoted aggressively and leveraged every relationship I had for referrals. A nice thing about attending a business school was that everyone respected the hustle, even the faculty. I was likely the only student to have his own business hire him as an intern for the required internship credit.
I thought I’d get shit from the school for finding a way to focus on my company, but they were impressed. This was not a public school where your suffering through college is a required character builder. The campus was full of kids with these insane hustles, often you’d wonder why they were even attending.
2 – The local automotive market. Window tinters were a rare thing in the north. It’s too cold to worry about the sun. The ONLY reason you’re getting tint is because you want to look good or want privacy. I had to create a need. This meant creating commissions and incentives so folks at the dealerships and shops who would sell clients for me.
3 – The internet. This might sound like a no-brainer but this was Michigan in 2006. Facebook was new and only available to college students (Northwood market access). I created a business page and promoted tinted cars NON-STOP to the students. I also found a cheap web design program and made a simple website. Anything I could do to make my competition look unorganized, slow and outdated was my goal. I wanted to stand out and at this time.
Even shitty web promotion was cutting edge
Part Five – Vegas
The SEMA show. This was my Mecca. A pilgrimage to the largest automotive show in existence, I couldn’t even comprehend it. Over the years I’d been overlooked on several occasions for trips with employers to SEMA. I wanted to get there so badly. Northwood had an organized student trip but Nate and I had a better idea.
To gain entry to SEMA, you must have automotive business credentials. This restriction is how Northwood would persuade students to attend as a group but it was too expensive for us, we couldn’t afford it. If we could find cheap flights, share a hotel and use my business to could get in we could afford it. Also, the only people from Northwood who made it into SEMA with their own shops were kids with some kind of a hookup.
I felt so badass rolling up to the booth at SEMA, proudly presenting my shitty business card showing that I, Tim Gordon was the President of TG TINT and I’d like entry. As Nate’s card would clearly explain, he was my VP. He’d also like to come in if you don’t mind.
Our game plan in Vegas was simple. Meet and try to impress as many people at our dream employers possible. Picture two kids in poorly fitting suits running around in a massive convention hall bothering sales reps with not a moment to give. Our persistence that day was rewarded with stacks of business cards, that we had no idea what to do with.
The added perk of being a shop owner at SEMA was that we were invited to these parties that we didn’t know existed. Each window film supplier had a night for the week long event and they went BIG. This was their chance to steal valuable clients. By day two we were in a limo, partying with some bad mother fuckers from LA headed to some house party being thrown by Johnson Window Films.
I was probably worth $1000 in business, at best.
The night was memorable, I ended up jumping into the pool as I’d decided I wanted to be remembered. You know, just in case I wanted a job there in the future. When a college senior is with his peers “bringing the fucking party” is an obvious quality to showcase.
This trip had a very “coming of age” feel to it for the both of us. We partied and hustled looking for work. We narrowly avoided a brawl on the strip. Nate was a true friend, he took a punch and lost his glasses that night. Looking out for me after I learned why you don’t run your mouth on the strip at 2am. I paid for the rest of that trip, Nate had expensive taste in glasses.
Part Six – Life can be hard, business is easy
In January of 2008 Nate passed away. We were both a few months from graduating from Northwood. This was not an easy time for anyone who knew him.
Part Seven – This Business Has a Shelf Life –
Once I graduated I knew I would want to do something beyond owning a tint shop in Midland, Michigan. It was hard to run the business knowing it would ultimately end but my family had no ties to Michigan and I hated the winters. There was no question we would all be leaving and I wasn’t going to be the last one out.
That spring before graduation I started the job hunt. I found one solid option but that would take me to Pennsylvania. It was a dream job in the worst location possible, it was the same as Michigan. I’d always dreamt of going to California and making a life for myself there, somehow.
Nate dying was a driving force on how I made decisions that year. Super cliche but I wasn’t afraid of dying, I was afraid of not living. I could picture myself, in a basement in middle of nowhere Pennsylvania drinking… wondering “what if I’d moved to California”.
The business continued through college and developed into a solid income source. It was covering almost all of my tuition. I was really fortunate, this was a creative way to earn a living while allowing me the flexibility I needed for my school schedule.
Part Eight – Gaining Confidence
Running my own business while in college is one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. I didn’t realize how little I started with until I began to write this story. It was less than nothing!
The school I attended was a private business school and a champion of entrepreneurship. This meant many of my classmates came from very wealthy families who owned successful companies. One of the more memorable expierences I remember was when I went to a friend’s lake house. Sitting out on the water were two half-million dollar Cigarette boats.
There are two feelings I distinctly remember from the first time I rode in one of those boats. The first, adrenaline from reaching 112 MPH in the shipping channel while jumping a freighters wake. Thats the Miami Vice feeling.
The second, when I realized the amount I paid for my tuition that trimester (close to everything I had, as usual). It was less than what it cost to fuel this boats rampage down the St. Clair River. I cannot explain this feeling in words.
This was on a different level, I’d never seen anything like it. Witnessing firsthand, what hard work and risk taking had provided their families was all I needed. If they could do it on their terms, then there was a chance that I could too.
Part Nine – Someone Will Hire Me
As graduation was nearing, I could tell deep down I wanted to go to California job or no job. I felt like I’d always regret the decision to not take this risk. I went back to my stack of business cards from the trip to SEMA. I needed a job and after going through them all I had one lead. SolarGard Window Films in San Diego.
Their sales manager Denver liked me, he let me know that normally they want someone with more experience than me. Still he promised me that my shop ownership experience and degree would go into consideration, but no guarantees. That was good enough for me.
I sold my 1994 Volvo 850 Wagon for $1500. My rent was going to be $750 and I could borrow a car from my parents to get to California. When I get hired by SolarGard I’ll get a company car was my plan. With my dog and full car I drove from Michigan to Oceanside, California. To a room I’d rented sight unseen (that wasn’t smart).
I called to let Denver know I was moving to California. I had a feeling they’d hire me as long as I didn’t fuck up my interview and pass a drug test. It worked.
Years later both Denver and his boss came to me and let me know they were so impressed that I would hold onto a business card for seven months. Follow up consistently and move to there without any guarantee of a job. It took a lot of effort it felt good to know it was noticed.
I’m writing this from my house in California. So we know how the story ended. I wanted to add, there were so many people who helped me with my business and my move west. You know who you are and I truly appreciate it