Swansea entrepreneur cranks up earbud business
Tyler Douthitt wants to let you know up front: Running your own business is not about getting Lamborghinis and flashing $100 bills like you can see in online videos.
In reality, the 34-year-old self-employed businessman said it’s all about grinding out results by establishing business contacts and working hard.
About a year and half ago, Douthitt began selling earbuds, primarily to online customers across the country. School districts nationwide are now some of his largest customers because earbuds can be purchased for 55 cents and the school can provide each student with his or her own set of earbuds, he said.
Douthitt, who runs his company, TFD Supplies, out of the basement of his Swansea home, recently met with the News-Democrat to talk about his online business:
Q: Can you talk about your background?
A: “I’ve always had an interest in business. I had a gift wrapping business when I was about 10 in my house and all I had for prospective customers were my parents and my sister, so it didn’t ever get that big but I always kind of had an eye for that. When I was in high school in the mid to late ’90s and the internet boom was all happening and there were websites everywhere, people doing all this stuff kind of sparked my interest. I have my degree in computer science from SIUE.
“In 2005, I started working with my parents’ company. My Dad started an internet security type of thing, not like firewall things but security cameras, DVRs, things like that that people would put in a home or business.”
Q: How did you get into the earbud business?
A: About 18 months ago, Douthitt stepped away from Advance Security, the online company operated by his father, William Douthitt, in his Belleville home.
“I was always kind of sourcing things in our country and overseas to try to find the right products at the right prices. I started selling on eBay, which then lead to Amazon and my own site as time went by. But I started getting good at that and I would try different things. Lots of things sold OK, lots of things didn’t sell at all.”
One of the items he sold was earbuds.
“I was selling them individually and that was OK, but shipping costs ate into everything so much. Then I started as kind of an experiment, selling them in a more bulk market like 100 quantity for groups and organizations that would need a lot and it all just kind of went from there and the eBay sales went up and then I moved to Amazon and those went well and then I did the Prime on Amazon and things really went from there and I’ve just grown to scale along the way.”
School districts are one of his largest customers and he now targets them directly by going to school principal conferences.
Q: So kids in a classroom use devices and then they need earbuds?
A: “Yeah. A lot are going one to one and they all have a Chromebook or some kind of tablet or some kind of device and a lot of the curriculum has audio components and I think it’s a lot easier, they can all go more at their own pace or replace something with kind of more privacy than having it all hear at the same time … A lot of schools are using headphones and are transitioning to the earbuds because the price is so much more affordable and because the price is lower, all the students can have their own.”
Douthitt also said it’s more sanitary for each student to have individual earbuds. “I really wouldn’t want to share ear stuff with someone else and I’m not a person overly concerned with germs,” he said.
Schools can order multiple colors so teachers can color code the earbuds for a room or a grade. Also, schools can order earbuds in their school colors.
Q: Why has TFD Supplies been able to thrive?
A: Douthitt said the base price of 55 cents for earbuds is one of the reasons why he has had success. “And that was ironically kind of picked out at random … ‘Well, that sounds like a good, round number’ and then kind of stuck with that. That’s one of the big things. And we go to these conferences … They’re all probably already buying headphones or earbuds … They’re all blown away by the price, they’re blown away by the fact they can get school colors, blown away by the turnaround time, the volumes available. Like if someone says, ‘I need 30,000 earbuds tomorrow,’ I can do that. And that’s something not that many places can offer. I think that definitely helps. The pricing, the selection, those are the two main things.
Q: Along with running TFD Supplies, you post commentary and business advice on various social media accounts. What prompted you to do that?
A: “I started realizing the earbud market is probably not going to last forever. I know that technology evolves and you never really know how long the good times are going to last. So trying to think how to best capitalize and prepare while times are good if I start pushing some sort of personal brand that that could … in time yield some sort of reward in terms of speaking.
“I try to give lessons from my life, mostly things that are just on my mind. I try not to judge others whatever choices they might or might not make. It’s always some person throwing around $100 bills and the cars and the women and the whole ‘Start a business and this is what it’s like to be an entrepreneur.’ And I think that’s really not right. Most people that push that have never built any kind of business to give any kind of credible advice on. I figure the only way, if I’m going to have any success with a personal brand, long term, the only way is to be authentic and be me. Just be authentic and say what’s on my mind, what I’m going through or not going through.”
Q: What is it like being self-employed and running a business from your home?
A: “It’s hard to strike a balance sometimes because people said before and I never really understood so much until I was there. Self-employment, I’m a firm believer it’s a lifestyle and a business is a lot like having a child. There’s never a day I’m not a parent and there’s never a day I’m not a business owner.
“If something important with either one of my kids or the business comes up, there’s not anyone to pass the buck to besides myself. Especially realizing probably one of the hardest parts of striking a balance is the amount of work that I put in is directly related to how much money I make. … I don’t want to become that kind of person that’s working 14 hour days every day and barely seeing my family. For some people that works great for them and I have no problem with that but that’s not something I want to be.”
About Tyler Douthitt
- Age: 34
- Family: Wife, Karyn Douthitt, and two young children.
- Job: Owner of TFD Supplies, an online business that sells bulk orders of earbuds on Amazon Prime and directly to schools.
- Contact: On the web, tfdsupplies.com and tylerdouthitt.com. On social media, his accounts include Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Outlook on self-employment: “I’m a firm believer it’s a lifestyle and a business is a lot like having a child. There’s never a day I’m not a parent and there’s never a day I’m not a business owner.”