In the coming weeks I'll be posting interviews with the successful entrepreneurial millionaires featured in 21 Questions for 21 Millionaires. Enjoy.
Millionaire 6 Steve Rosdal
Retired: Co-Founder, Hyde Park Jewelers
Bachelor’s in Economics
Theresa Byrne referred me to Steve after hearing about the book from Ashley Andrus.
First, I’d love to get to know you and your background.
I was born and raised in Queens New York. I went to school in upstate New York and then got a job on Wall Street, but the market back then was awful. There was no volume, it was a different market; there was no money to be made.
Was it your dream to work on Wall Street?
No. I got into Cornell and was pre-vet, but then I worked on a farm one summer and realized I didn’t love blood or suffering and it wasn’t for me, so I never went on.
I graduated with a BS in Economics. My first job on Wall Street paid me $11,000 a year, and it really wasn’t enough in New York to get an apartment, to go out and have a life.
One day I figured the only way out of New York was to escape. I wasn’t able to have a good life there and decided I would start over. It didn’t matter where I went, I really didn’t care.
B:Did you know what you wanted to do once you got there?
No, I had no idea.
I was in a rut. You don’t have a lot of friends in New York because people at work might live in another borough. It’s a tough city in a lot of ways.
I already decided to move to either Denver or Atlanta. Then I saw the Robert Redford movie, Jeremiah Johnson, that was filmed in the Colorado Rockies and thought, “I like the four seasons and I’m a skier” so I came to Denver.
I came at summer time and I wanted to take a month or two off. I moved to Capital Hill, within blocks of Cheeseman Park. A bunch of people played volleyball there every day and I met some of them.
One of them, who went by the name of King, a doctor at Denver General, was collecting Indian jewelry. I didn’t know anything about Indian jewelry. I didn’t even know there were Indians that made jewelry, but he was collecting it. He was going to the mountains to Frisco to check out this old pawn store that had a lot of old Indian jewelry, which, when that was around, was good stuff. I had never been to the mountains so I went up there with him. I got interested and thought it was really neat.
I was told basically you get on I-25 and there are Indians in Albuquerque. I had nothing better to do. My life’s savings, which at the time seemed like a lot more than it would today, was $1600. I took $800 and went to Albuquerque to buy some Indian jewelry.
There were tons of places to buy Indian jewelry; I don’t think I bought anything from the right spot. I just went into stores and I spent $800. I came back, got together with three or four doctors from Denver General and sold half of what I brought back and got all my money back, so I kept going.
I used to commute from Denver to Albuquerque on a regular basis. This was during the old road system. It was a longer trip than it is today, but I’d commute like that was nothing. I actually looked forward to the commute.
It seemed to be a good business, but it wasn’t a great business. It was a lot to do, but it was a growing business. Everything I got I put back into the business. It’s not like I ever had a lot of money, but I had a growing stash of jewelry.
I started trading with the Indians. I got to the source; I got on the reservation. I was able to buy much better and about a year after I started I was selling to the same stores that I originally bought from.
From King and his doctors, the business grew from various people along the way. Caribou Ranch was a major recording studio in Nederland at the time. All the big groups came through Colorado and recorded there. I met somebody and became known as the “Indian Trader.”
I had a store in Aspen. It got to be very tedious because I had to travel to Albuquerque, come back to Denver, and then drive to Aspen.
B:You were savvy enough after a year that you were selling to the same people you had bought from previously?
What really happened was about a year into it, I believe it was Time Magazine had Jill St. John on the cover and she was bedecked in Indian jewelry: earrings, necklace, Concho belt. It was a fashion statement. There was an explosion of Indian jewelry. People wanted it after they saw her in it. The designers started using it, Ralph Lauren started to use it, and it just became this thing.
It’s still the only fashion I know of that started in the middle of this country, worked its way to both coasts and then oversees. It started basically in Aspen, with the Jill St. John thing.
I would go down to the reservation and did most of my trading off the Santa Domingo Reservation. I moved to Albuquerque and lived there for about a year-and-a-half because you had to be on the reservation at 9:00 a.m. or else you weren’t going to buy anything. Once the department stores got in, it was crazy.
The people that were buying right off the reservation sold to stores and to other traders. I could have walked off the reservation and sold everything I had.
We had a system. I would take this shoulder bag and about $10,000 or $20,000 in cash everyday, go to the reservation, and spend it. I would then go to the Albuquerque airport, pack it all up, and put in on a Continental Airlines jet. They would open the package in Denver and there would be people that were there to buy.
It was every single day, seven days a week. We started with my $800 and about a year-and-a-half out we were at a $1.5 million in sales.
B:How did you do that?
Just the way I told you. The biggest thing was probably right time, right place.
I was this pseudo-hippy guy making a living, but not much more, from doing something that all of the sudden everybody wanted.
In saying that, I had friends down there that went out of business in the same time period. They just didn’t get the right things, didn’t have the right contacts, didn’t know what to do with their money.
Some people made it, some people didn’t make it, but it was the easiest thing I ever did. If you worked hard and you were honest and fair, you built a business. It was hard not to, even with no money, which is where I started. You can’t really look at $800 as having enough money to start a business.
Did you build the business step by step or did you have a master plan in mind?
I had no master plan. I was playing volleyball.
B:Did you just take the next logical step at each turn?
I think you make mistakes.
When the department stores hit, it was the best time and the worst time. We were selling truckloads of Indian jewelry. However, we were ending the fad.
The way I feel about things like this is when it gets big enough, the department stores take it and that’s the last step. They will take it and do it and do it and do it. They don’t have the same kind of integrity because they just want it cheaper and cheaper.
The department stores wound up buying stuff that wasn’t Indian, stuff that was made in Hong Kong and Mexico, and selling it for Indian. They were buying turquoise that wasn’t treated. It was the beginning of the end.
We chose not do that. We wanted to be our pure selves – right answer and wrong answer. We end lined the business for ourselves; we couldn’t compete. American Indians don’t work as cheap as people in Hong Kong, who at the time were working for pennies an hour.
It was not a situation that we chose to play in. But we found scrimshaw in the Northwest on whales’ teeth and walrus ivory the Eskimos made. We bought a mastodon tusk and got with a company called The Alaska Silver and Ivory Company. We went back to all of our department store customers and said, “This is the next thing.”
They bought into it.
How did you know this was going to be the next big thing?
We didn’t – it wasn’t.
We had come up with our own brands of jewelry and everything we did was successful, so we thought that this was something that hadn’t happened yet. We came out of jewelry, put all our money into scrimshaw, and sold it into the stores.
All those department stores do the same thing: if it doesn’t sell, they send back the items. It started backing up on us. We were out of money; we were very close to bankruptcy. We were too big of an organization to just go back to selling to little stores. Our business went from the top of the line and one of the biggest in the country to very little money.
We didn’t know we were making a huge mistake. We made a bet because we felt that we knew better. We’d run these ads in Indian Jewelry magazines: “Change or die, Scrimshaw.”
In our minds we were the pioneers, we were the big guys. We had a national reputation. We just never thought that we wouldn’t be successful.
We had a lot of scrimshaw and no place to go with it so [on someone’s suggestion] we opened up a gift and jewelry store in Tamarac Square.
Many stores in Tamarac Square were jewelers and we were the smallest. We had no fine jewelry; we had ceramic, lots of scrimshaw, and stuff that was out of the realm of the 1970s. We had small ticket items so it was a longer haul. We worked very hard for a number of years. Michael, my business partner, and I were the salespeople along with one other person.
In business today, I think you can’t make a lot of mistakes. We made tons of them through the years.
Why did you have that luxury and it’s different today?
Competitors back then weren’t as strong as they are today. If you had a lot going for you in the way of your personality, relationships, integrity, and working hard, you had a shot.
Today, if you want to open a clothing store, you’re going to have to compete with Polo Ralph Lauren. Starting small in a retail situation unless you have a new product nobody else has, how do you compete against that kind of competitor? It’s hard and you stay small.
Today if you pick the wrong location, you’re probably not going to be there. We picked the wrong location, but we survived it.
When we were picking a location we could have pretty much been anywhere we wanted. The Bagel Notch, a bagel deli from New York, picked backside of the mall. We said, “Bagel Notch, they know what they’re doing. If they want to be back there, we want to be back there.”
The Bagel Notch survived a few years and went out of business. They didn’t know what they were doing and we didn’t know what we were doing either because we followed them.
We survived [though]. There was an opening in the city for a jeweler like us. We had an eye to what was going on and we picked the right lines, worked really hard, and about a year-and-a-half in we started selling watches. Every jeweler in this town was traditional, meaning they had no eye to fashion, they didn’t do designer jewelry; they did just the classics. We were doing designer bands and things that today are commonplace, but back then people weren’t doing it.
The 1980s were a very opulent, fashion forward time, and we were the guys. We picked the brands out as they developed. We were able to have relationships back then and we picked whom we wanted to represent, which carried and carried so that today if you’re a designer and want a store in Denver, you’re going to come to Hyde Park first.
Is that because of your reputation in the previous business?
B:You built all new relationships with these designers?
B:You built a name there.
We were young, in our 20s. Every other jeweler in this town was second generation, 50-years-old, and did it the way their fathers did it. We were able to just do it differently. Nobody taught us it. We were first generation and just did it.
We made a lot of mistakes, but we also did unique things. I had a friend who was selling Famous Amos cookies when Famous Amos just stared. Nobody in town had them; not a grocery, nobody. In our store we built an island for Famous Amos cookies and sold them. It was the only place in Denver you could get them.
I don’t think we made a penny on Famous Amos cookies ever, but the amount of traffic and conversation that we garnered from having this island of Famous Amos cookies was huge.
B:Was that the intent, to drive traffic?
B:The intent was to sell the cookies?
I don’t know what the intent was...Here was the intent: I’m friendly with you, and you tell me, “I’ve got this unbelievable cookie and I’m trying to find stores to sell it to in Denver,” but you haven’t sold it to anybody. I try the cookie, I love the cookie. I say, “Wow! Let’s sell it at Hyde Park.”
We made a lot of mistakes, but we built a place people wanted to come and they wanted to see and we always had something different and new. Thirty some-odd years later it has a national reputation.
I left last year, but Michael got “Jeweler of the Year” this year in the multi-store category in the country by one of the big magazines who has that contest every year. It’s not like I’m bummed out that I wasn’t there, that I didn’t get it. It was something that I could feel good about because that was part of me; it didn’t happen in one year.
Did you have a spiritual background growing up or do you now?
I was brought up in the Jewish religion, although I don’t think I’m very religious. I don’t go to the synagogue every week. I go during the high holidays. I do believe in God, but I believe in people.
[For] some people I’ve met along the way in different industries, and in Bazi too, everything is God: “God wants me to do it, God gave me the talent.” You see athletes that way. The way I look at that is although I believe in God, I believe that that comes from the person; either they create it or they don’t. I think anybody could be successful, but the only ones that will be successful are the ones that believe. Not only believe they can be successful, but create it. Have a game plan. Know what is takes.
I didn’t and I was lucky. Today, I couldn’t have done that. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say that. Maybe in the Internet you can put in $800 and with your brain come up with something that somebody buys for $100 million in two days. In any other traditional industry or business, I could not take $800 and parlay that into what I did. I don’t think I could today. I don’t know how you do that today.
You get some breaks and then you make some mistakes. It’s how you take advantage of the breaks and how you deal with the mistakes that will probably get you to success or not. It probably is not as easy as it was to do things. But on the other side of that, I believe that anybody can do anything they want. It’s a principle that you first of all have to take responsibility.
If you want to be successful, find out how other successful people that do what you do, do what they do. You want to try to make it easier on yourself. Find out what it is and then create it happening.
That’s the mistake we made with scrimshaw – it was new, and nobody was doing it.
But then again Indian jewelry was new and nobody was doing that. I guess because we did it with Indian jewelry we thought whatever we were going to do was going to work. Looking back at it the smarter thing would have been to do a little scrimshaw and test it with one department store; put $250,000 into it instead of buying $1.5 million of inventory.
Did you ever set out to make a million?
At the same time, if you were to have said to me when I started my business, “Are you going out to make a million?” I would have said, “Why not 10?”
Who wouldn’t, if they’re young, think they’re going to make a million, which, by the way, isn’t that much any more.
It doesn’t sound like you had a concrete plan where you said, “We want to open up the Hyde Park store and we’re going to be at $2 million by the end of three years.”
We never had a concrete plan, but those days I believe you didn’t have to have a plan. Now, I think you have to have more of a plan. It’s very competitive and your competitors have a lot of capital. There’s not a lot of open space, meaning places that are working where people aren’t in them.
You had a lot of hutzpah, a lot of belief in yourself. Where did that come from?
I think I developed it. I don’t think I had it in college or even in those Wall Street days. I think it probably happened with the 33 years in the business, of building the business of having a lot of employees, of finding out what was important to myself and people I dealt with.
What are you passionate about and what were you passionate about as you were building your business?
In the beginning I was reactionary, it was just minute-to-minute: “This seems like a good idea, let’s do this.”
Now it’s interpersonal dealings; relationships; creating things, whether it be a relationship, or having a new conversation. I’ve always been interested in politics, although these days I’m kind of turned off with it. I can have political conversations with people or debate certain things.
How did you balance time with your family as you were building your business?
It was tough. We were very socially engaged, very charitably engaged, and there were always meetings or events or this or that. During bigger times of the year and holidays I’d work until 9:00 p.m.
If I went back, I might have changed some things that way. There were a million meals I missed with Aaron and my wife at the time, Lynn. There were a lot of things that didn’t happen.
It’s really hard to say, “I want to put this much time into family, this much time into work.” When people have your number and they call you and say, “I’m coming in after work, I want to buy a diamond ring, be there,” you’re there. You have a payroll of 70 people; you’ve got to keep it all going somehow.
Would you say your journey was relatively easy or hard?
It was easy for me because when I look at it I think I’m fortunate. I’d have to say my life for the most part worked out.
B:Did it work out like you ever thought it would?
I never thought of the future much. It was the 70s.
A lot of the literature out there says you need to have a firm goal in mind, you need to plan your steps, and you need to know step by step what you’re doing.
The people that I’ve talked to so far are more geared toward flying by the seat of their pants. They know what they want, but a good number have just taken the next logical step and said, “Whatever’s right here in front of us, let’s just deal with that; whatever comes is in the future so why worry about it?”
But wouldn’t you say that most of the people you’ve talked to, if they were giving advice, would say, “plan.”
B:Yes. Why is that? Because you do now?
It could be a number of reasons. One reason could be most of the people you’re talking to are probably a little bit older and like me they might not think the outcome would be the same for them today. I guess I’ve been saying I think it was easier back then, in the 1970s. There were openings; there were spaces you could fit into.
The other reason is if you’re finding entrepreneurs, the entrepreneurial story is different than other people that are successful. The entrepreneurial story happens where people are floating around in life and something presents itself and they just go for it. I don’t think you can plan that. I don’t know how you plan that, because you don’t know what it’s going to be.
In somebody’s life there have got to be maybe two or three, maybe five or six, major opportunities that they stare at right in front of them. It depends on if they take the step, which is the belief, that starts them creating their experience with that opportunity.
I think that’s an entrepreneurial-type person and I think that if you’re speaking to entrepreneurial-type people, and I put myself in that realm, we probably all have a similar story about right time, right place; but the answer is not that that right time, right place would have worked for everybody. It worked for the people who grabbed it, seized the moment, and went with it believing they would be successful, full speed ahead.
In some of these situations people crash and burn. Probably every one of those entrepreneurs will tell you when they were close to bankruptcy. It’s just part of seizing it, believing it, doing it, and then maybe you made the wrong choice, and then you get through it and the next one it hits.
Your moment wouldn’t have worked for other people, but there are five or six moments in everybody’s life that if they grab them can turn into something?
Maybe somebody has 10 moments in their life and somebody has one, and that might be the luck part of it. It’s not just being presented the opportunity, it’s making it work, it’s creating it working.
There are opportunities and it’s a matter of that moment in time that probably is defined when you make the decision to either go forward or not to do it.
Who is it that takes advantage of it: Is it a personality type? Is it a work ethic type?
I think you need a work ethic.
There’s a lot of ways to skin a cat. You just have to know the important ones to make it right. It’s a matter of the belief and creating it, knowing you can. Just knowing you can.
That’s what an entrepreneur does. He sees an idea, and says, “With that you can do this and that.” Then that guy, instead of doing a major study on it, takes it and runs with it and does what it takes without the plan.
The plan comes around after you’ve done it and you’re successful and if you do another product, you say, “OK, now we’re going to have a plan.”
The first go round is just gut and energy, hard work and enthusiasm?
Do what it takes.
B:Then the second go-round involves the due diligence?
If somebody asks me about opening a store in a mall I’d have 40 questions for them. But when we did it I didn’t have 40 answers nor anybody to ask any questions.
How do you know when you’re making the right decisions?
Evidently I can’t tell you that – scrimshaw.
I don’t think you can run things that way. If you have to make sure you make the right decision, you probably won’t make the right decision. You won’t feel comfortable because you don’t know if it’s the right decision.
You have to be willing to take that chance. You have to have the leap of faith. You have to have something out there that makes you an entrepreneur. Otherwise, put your money in treasuries and collect the three to four percent the rest of your life. And that could be the right decision if you start out with enough money.
You didn’t have a mentor along the way?
What is success?
If you’re poor and you’re happy you’re in better shape than if you’re rich and unhappy. I see both. I see a lot of people with money that are absolutely unhappy, and if you’re unhappy, so what? What’s money going to do for you? But if you don’t have money and you’re happy, surrounded by happy, loving people in your life, I’d take that.
Is there anything that you would like people to know?
I don’t think so. It’s not as much about me doing this interview for other people; that wasn’t part of my thought process. When you called I thought, “Sure, I’ve got an hour-and-half for you. Why not?” I have an hour-and-a-half for almost everybody.