Steve Jobs was often called the great tinkerer. He didn’t invent the graphical computer interface or the portable phone. He improved existing ones. And so it is with Spencer Jan. He wasn’t the first to produce a portable fireplace, but the Solo Stove, his version, upended an entire industry.
He told me, “Many entrepreneurs are looking to solve a problem — making a better mousetrap, improving on something. The best products are often iterations of earlier versions. We launched with one stove. We didn’t have a grand vision to expand.”
That one stove is now Solo Brands, Inc., a public company (NYSE: DTC) that originated with the acquisition of Jan’s business.
He and I recently discussed the origins of Solo Stove, the decision to sell part of it to private investors, and the emotions of watching others operate it. Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript is edited for length and clarity.
Eric Bandholz: Tell us about Solo Brands.
Spencer Jan: The business started in 2010 as Solo Stove. My brother Jeff and I launched it with $15,000. That’s all we had. It turned into Solo Brands, a publicly-traded holding company.
Bandholz: I was blown away with the product, a miraculously burning stove.
Jan: We’re not engineers. We’re tinkerers. Many entrepreneurs are looking to solve a problem — making a better mousetrap, improving on something. The best products are often iterations of earlier versions.
Think about Tesla. As innovative as it is, it’s still a car with four wheels and a steering wheel. For us, it was a matter of tinkering and finding something we could sell online directly to consumers.
Having grown up in Canada, we camped and spent time outside. Those were our fondest memories. We naturally thought about the camping space. We started digging around. We watched a lot of YouTube videos. Camping stoves was an area where we could unleash our creativity. That’s how it started.
We launched with one stove. It was small, lightweight, great for one person. It would fit in a pot. You didn’t need an extra footprint. We called it Solo Stove.
We didn’t have a grand vision to expand.
Bandholz: Ecommerce platforms were limited back in 2010.
Jan: Right. Shopify had barely got going. There was 3dcart, Volusion, a few others. Magento was there, but it was more complicated. We stumbled upon BigCommerce, which was the platform we chose. We loved BigCommerce’s pricing model. It was around $30 a month. That was it — no percentage of sales.
Bandholz: You bootstrapped the business. At what point did you decide to expand beyond a single brand?
Jan: Here’s the context. We exited the company in 2019. We sold part of it to private equity investors and became board members. We transitioned from operators to advisors — attending quarterly meetings, reviewing financials, offering support where needed.
In 2020, we sold more of the company to another private equity firm. That was a much bigger valuation. We took more chips off the table. We still, in 2022, own a chunk of the company, but in 2020 we left the board, which was then comprised of two private equity groups. They ran the show.
The strategy of an initial stock offering came from the private equity owners. They explain their vision in the S-1, the filing U.S. companies submit to the Securities and Exchange Commission when they go public. SEC filings are where I get my information from because I’m no longer an insider. I don’t talk with them.
I’m still invested in the company as a passive investor, so I hope it goes well as an investment. Solo Brands, Inc. is now on the New York Stock Exchange. The ticker is DTC.
The aggregator space — acquiring multiple brands — is still unfolding. I’m an entrepreneur. I found momentum, growth, and compounding effects when I focused on one thing.
Bandholz: You sold in 2019. Walk us through that decision.
Jan: In 2016 it was still just my brother and me — no employees. We didn’t have an office; we worked out of our homes. We used third-party fulfillment providers and other vendors for various tasks.
We wanted a lifestyle business, one that offered a balance for careers and time to ourselves. By 2016 the company was growing beyond what we had envisioned.
We regrouped. We asked ourselves, “What are we doing? How is this business going to improve the quality of our lives?” We concluded that if it continued to grow, we would pass the baton to someone else.
So in 2016 we started exploring a sale. But the response came back that the business wasn’t salable since we had no employees, staff, or systems. A buyer couldn’t step in and keep it growing.
We regrouped and spent the next three years building a company to sell. That was our focus.
By 2019 we were receiving unsolicited interest. Most of the inquiries came from private equity firms. They had a lot of money and offered us the highest valuation.
Bandholz: What were your thoughts about being involved in the business after selling it?
Jan: We still believe in what we built. People are running the business — managers, CEO, CFO. From scrappy entrepreneurs in a garage to now, it’s mind-blowing.
I would still put my money on the company. But every potential buyer will ask, “Why are you selling if it’s so good?” Part of the answer is, “I’m not selling all of it, just a majority stake. I still want some of it.”
By taking some chips off the table, we received financial stability, but we still have upside.
Bandholz: You’ve sold the company. You’re off the board. You’re rolling in money. Now what?
Jan: To be honest, it’s tough having nothing to do. It’s hard to get motivated. When you’re financially free, you have to dig deep to discover what’s meaningful. I’ve spent a lot of time doing that.
I enjoy meeting cool people like yourself. I get much satisfaction from helping others in a no-strings-attached fashion.
I’m trying to figure out how to help more people at scale. I’ve considered creating grants, contests, or other vehicles to help entrepreneurs. That’s what I’ve been working on.
At the moment I don’t have any grand ideas for starting another physical goods brand or product. I’m content. I’m able to regulate my time.
Bandholz: How can listeners reach out to you?