Calvin Johnson | Developing a Costco Home Delivery Service Company, Adventure Travel, and Building Great Company Culture
Smart Business Revolution

Calvin Johnson is a serial entrepreneur, speaker, and coach. He founded a Costco home delivery service company in 1989 which he later turned into an e-commerce office supply company and office coffee company. He generated about $300 million over the years before selling it in 2021. Calvin now runs ClubNeed, an adventure travel company and The Culture Kitchen, where he helps businesses develop their company culture through research, speaking, coaching, workshops, and retreats.

Calvin Johnson, a serial entrepreneur, joins John Corcoran in this episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast to talk about how he started a Costco home delivery service company, how he pivoted, and how he later sold it to a Fortune 500 company. Calvin also talks about organizing adventure travel for EO members, helping founders build their company culture, and his advice on building a happier workplace. Stay tuned.

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Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:

  • Calvin Johnson explains how the idea for a Costco home delivery service came about 
  • How Calvin pivoted his business to e-commerce in the early 2000s
  • Why Calvin started to focus on workplace happiness and office tours
  • Calvin talks about adventure travel in Nicaragua and a race in Maui
  • How the COVID-19 pandemic affected Calvin’s business — and his journey selling the company during this period 
  • Calvin’s plans for ClubNeed and The Culture Kitchen and his advice on building a happier workplace and better company culture
  • Where to learn more and get in touch with Calvin Johnson

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Sponsor: Rise25

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Cofounders Dr. Jeremy Weisz and John Corcoran credit podcasting as being the best thing they have ever done for their businesses. Podcasting connected them with the founders/CEOs of P90xAtariEinstein BagelsMattelRx BarsYPO, EO, Lending Tree, Freshdesk,  and many more.  

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Rise25 Cofounders, Dr. Jeremy Weisz and John Corcoran, have been podcasting and advising about podcasting since 2008.

Episode Transcript

Intro 0:10

Welcome to the revolution, the Smart Business Revolution Podcast where we ask today’s most successful entrepreneurs to share the tools and strategies they use to build relationships and connections to grow their revenue. Now, your host for the revolution, John Corcoran.

John Corcoran 0:40

All right, welcome everyone. John Corcoran here. I’m the host of this show. You know, check out some of our past episodes if you are new to the show because we got all kinds of great episodes in the archives with smart CEOs, founders, and entrepreneurs of companies and organizations ranging from Netflix to Kinkos’, YPO, EO, Activision Blizzard. I love to ask successful entrepreneurs about the relationships that got them where they are today. I’m also the co-founder of Rise25 where we help connect b2b business owners to their ideal prospects. And in this episode, we have got Calvin Johnson. And Calvin founded a company back in 1989 that was originally a Costco home delivery service, turned it into an e-commerce office supply company and office coffee company, did about $300 million over the years, absolutely nutty run, and then sold it in 2021. And now he has an adventure travel company. And he also has a workplace happiness research, speaking, coaching workshops in retreat business. So we’re going to talk about all those things, really passionate about workplace happiness. 

And this episode, of course, is brought to you by Rise25 Media, where we help b2b businesses get the clients, referrals, and strategic partnerships through podcasts and content marketing. You can go to our website to learn all about it. Alright, Calvin, pleasure to have you here today. And first, let’s start with we were talking about it beforehand. We’re recording this in March of 2022. And there’s a war happening between Russia and Ukraine. And you had some team members who are out of the Ukraine, how are they doing? How are you hearing about that?

Calvin Johnson 2:14

Yeah, thanks, John. Yeah, they’re safe, we still stay in touch with them, even though we’ve sold. So we had four girls over there. And they’ve all got out and their families of God they did even before the invasion. So thanks for asking.

John Corcoran 2:28

That’s great. It’s got to be, you know, as your team gets bigger and bigger, you know, our team was touched by typhoon in the Philippines, earlier this year, and a couple of, you know, team members, they lost their homes, their family members lost homes. And, you know, it’s hard because it increases the chances that you’re going to know someone who’s touched by world events. Absolutely. And I imagine you experienced that over the years, you know, 911, financial meltdown, different things like

Calvin Johnson 2:57

that. I mean, it just really hits close to home. I didn’t actually travel over there. But, you know, it’s, it’s, I don’t know why it’s just, it’s so close to home that it feels like you know, I’m in Vancouver here. It feels like if Vancouver was to get bombed. It’s a very modern city. And it’s it’s I’m just fixated on watching the news. And it turns out for the best guest. Now,

John Corcoran 3:19

take me back. So you started this business in 1989. And you saw an opportunity, you know, you saw local Costco. And this is an opportunity, by the way, that it kind of exists to today, because I’ve bought things at Costco, they’re too large, and I want to get them to my house. And you have to find a way to get that there’s a talk about where the idea came from.

Calvin Johnson 3:41

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I should have called it Instacart. Back then. Hmm. But, yeah, I mean, long story short, I was working. One of my only jobs before actually founded a company and I worked for a large exercise company. And luckily, I had a great manager as 90 of the time, and I got brought into a meeting at Costco and Costco every year would have, you know, they’d sit down with their vendors, and they’d say, Okay, I’ll take the rowing machine, I’ll take this and, and, you know, some of the equipment, they didn’t want any more because it was too big, and customers weren’t buying it. And in that meeting, I’d said, Well, maybe no, maybe we could deliver it or something. And my boss afterwards said, That’s a stupid idea. I thought it was a great idea. So I just went back to Costco and said, you know, hey, I’ll go buy a truck and start delivering out of that one store. And, you know, 19 year old didn’t know what I was doing and, and they took me up on it. And, you know, over time we grew that into you know, many of the costs go as cost goes, were coming up and I started with IKEA and, and we really scaled that business up but in the end, I really hated it. I hated that business, because it was a glorified b2c Moving Company with two or three strategic customers. So you know, I wanted to try something else.

John Corcoran 4:56

How big was it when you realized I hate this? I hate my company. Think think we were

Calvin Johnson 5:02

doing 12-15 million a year? Wow.

John Corcoran 5:07

You know, a lot of people would kill to have a business of that size. What do you do when that happens? And you realize you built a business that you know, by any measure, phenomenally successful, but it does drain your happiness.

Calvin Johnson 5:18

Well, the margins were so low. And, you know, and I just knew that, you know, one day that she was going to drop on some of these customers. So you know, when you’re dealing with, you’re a small player really dealing with, you know, big multinationals like Costco and, and IKEA, and I didn’t know enough at the time how to scale nationally. So you know, it didn’t feel like we were that successful. It really we just had a bunch of moving trucks and you know, moving drivers not to knock any listeners who were in the moving business. But it just was Yeah, it wasn’t a very happy time. And but along the way, we started to pick up these customers that would say, you know, hey, deliver me a skid of copy paper from Costco as Oh, that’s a different cost. That’s a b2b customer. And every Wednesday, we deliver two skids of paper. Wait a second, then I learned the difference between b2c and b2b and recurring revenue. And so that’s where we slowly started to pivot away, it took a few years to peel away the office to build up the office side and to kind of shut down the home delivery side.

John Corcoran 6:25

Yeah, cuz you have to build up those clients. And you have to replace that revenue slowly over time. Yes. And then you started moving into e-commerce, I think it was around the mid 2000s.

Calvin Johnson 6:34

Yeah. So as we pivoted, then, you know, e-commerce was fairly new. So we were really a catalog retailer of office supplies, that’s the way off spies were sold to big wholesalers, and you had these big thick catalogs. And we did well at that. And, as e-commerce started to come, I knew this was going to be something big. So we were really early adopters, in e-commerce. And almost out of the gates, we had about 50% of our sales online, which at that time was, you know, a miracle.

John Corcoran 7:02

Number. Yeah, in the mid 2000s.

Calvin Johnson 7:04

Yeah, and email marketing, we didn’t really do any social media marketing, even, even as of last year, before we sold. That’s not really where our clients were. But, you know, definitely, email marketing was a new adoption. For us that was really, really successful, especially with new tools that came out, and, and then just started to build up the office supply side. Right.

John Corcoran 7:27

Now, at some point you become really passionate about workplace happiness, and you develop this unique culture to your company, where you built out a distribution center that was designed like a Caribbean home or something along those lines, talk a little bit about how you have evolved?

Calvin Johnson 7:48

Yeah, where I really got inspired was some of the large customers that we had these movie studios and gaming companies in Vancouver that and you know, when we would go visit them, and they were already drinking all that Kool Aid, you know, they’re pulling stuff out of Silicon Valley, and, you know, feeding people and, and great coffee and nap rooms and all that and, and really kind of got me inspired what’s what’s going on here, this is different than my law firm customers that are kind of boring. And so it kind of took me down this rabbit hole of happiness in the workplace and mission vision values. And so I would start to bring a lot of that back to likey. And over time, then we kind of became a little poster child of, you know, trying these new ideas, and, and, of course, decorating our offices to I love, I go sailing in the Caribbean all the time. So I thought, well, let’s just make it like a Caribbean beach town. And man, it was great for recruiting too, because you’d bring somebody in and they’d look, I get to work here. And so it was a lot of fun. You know, going down that journey of just trying new things in your own business.

John Corcoran 8:57

And you also got to the point where you were doing dozens of tours of your office per week, people would come in from out of town to come tour your facility. Talk a little bit about how that came about.

Calvin Johnson 9:07

Yeah, yeah. You know, again, trying out all these new, interesting ideas, then I was part of the EO Entrepreneurs Organization. And so I started with a lot of EO people saying, you know, Hey, I hear you doing some cool things and want to come take a look. You know, before, you know, we were kind of just booking tours where people would kind of come through and we’d show them not just not just the offices in general, but you know, kind of some of the philosophies behind what we would do top grading. You had a library we’re going to joke about, you know, we had this huge library with all the books, a lot of this stuff. And people would say, Well, you know, aren’t people gonna steal the books and, you know, take them, take them out of the library and not bring them back? And we’re like, No, it’s the opposite. It’s actually really hard to get them to read it.

John Corcoran 9:57

You have those there, but it was an issue of getting people to read them.

Calvin Johnson 10:00

Exactly, you know, but the Nap Room was a hit. And, and so you know, there was a, and of course, you know, just other philosophies that we would try and teach people on the tour also, that tie back to Rockefeller Habits or Traction, things like that if your listeners know about those books. Now,

John Corcoran 10:17

you’re mostly a regional company in the Greater Vancouver area, right? So good geographically. But I know you got into adventure travel. Well, how did that evolve? How did the travel component bring in it was it just from a personal passion about traveling and if you’re not wanting to build this into my business somehow, yeah, it