New Business magazine’s Bob Huh interviews Build-A-Bum founder, Ethan Wanker, a 23-year-old California native who didn’t attend Harvard, but did drop out of San Diego State in his junior year.
In the 18 months since its launch, Build-A-Bum has created 18,500 jobs, generated a $60B valuation, and rejected buyout offers from Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, and India.
Build-A-Bum has BUMs, or Business Underwriting Managers, overseeing Build-A-Bum employees in every major city in the US, Mexico and Central America.
Based in San Francisco, the bum capital of the world, Wanker works closely with his core team, all dropouts from state colleges. Wanker refuses to hire anyone from the Ivy League or Stanford.
New Business: Ethan, your company, Build-A-Bum, is an incredible, heart-warming success story. Can you tell our readers how you came up with this innovative idea to help millions of the destitute and homeless?
Ethan Wanker: Great ideas are generated by simple moments of inspiration, Bob. I think it was a Wednesday, and I’m driving out of Costco and there’s always this shirtless guy with a sign blessing me, but he’s also asking for a donation. You know, like Kickstarter on the streets. I would always give the guy five bucks and throw in a banana, they’re so damn cheap at Costco, and he’d always smile and thank me.
NB: So you gave the shirtless bum a banana and five bucks. That’s it?
EW: No, no. I stopped to talk to the guy. I don’t know why but I did. Maybe I was just curious about where he lived, did he have a family, and how much did he get in handouts, that kind of thing.
NB: Most people don’t give a rat’s ass about the homeless? Why did you care?
EW: (shrugs) Like I said, guess I’m just a curious guy. I think it’s curiosity that leads to those great ideas that lead to inspiration, Bob. So I start talking to this guy, he calls me the Banana Man, and he surprised me because he’s a pretty sharp freeloader, Bob, very coherent and lucid. Told me 83% of his contributors were women, global warming generated bigger handouts, and Donald Trump was a self-righteous asshole. I was impressed.
NB: Wow, it sounds like he was doing a little market analysis. So where did he live, in one of the parks nearby?
EW: (laughs) The shirtless dude lived two streets over from my folks in a four-bedroom ranch! He was making, on the average, $375 bucks a day six days a week, $117,000 a year, Bob! And without paying a cent to Uncle Sam! I almost shit my pants!
NB: I think I shit mine.
EW: There we go, Bob. I think it’s curiosity that leads to that scatological moment that leads to that great idea that leads to inspiration.
NB: So what happened next?
EW: The light bulb almost blew up, Bob! I asked Costco guy to have a coffee and he said sure, he just had to put his shirt back on. He told me without the shirt his margins increased 45%. So we went off, sat down, and drew up the future of Build-A-Bum on a Starbucks napkin.
NB: And hold on, Ethan, because I have to know where you came up with that clever company name.
EW: (laughs) Yeah, I think kudos go to my wife Ginny for that one. We were brainstorming over some Chinese takeout and I really wanted the company’s name to be something alliterative, you know… something that rolled off the tongue. And I was stuck on Funding for Freeloaders but Ginny kept saying that was politically incorrect. (Shakes his head) It was Ginny, because she brought up that store we both liked when we were kids! You remember Build-A-Bear?
NB: Sure! You stuffed your bear after picking out his eyes, nose, clothes and all that shit. You made your own teddy bear.
EW: That’s right…and what a perfect analogy for Build-A-Bum! We’re picking out the appropriate desperate looks, ratty clothing, and just the right amount of dirt and grime for our bums. Our marketing team is writing those heart wrenching pleas for their cardboard signs and it’s not any more of that “I’m a vet” or “I’ve got 4 kids, a wife and a hamster” shit. And this written stuff is pretty moving, Bob. I mean, some of our bums have even made licensing deals with Hallmark. So to get back to your point, yeah, instead of making teddy bears, we’re making bums. But these are bums making a difference, Bob. These are bums with real lives and real dreams now. It really is beautiful, Bob.
NB: Wow. I can feel it, Ethan. And you had your first pitch meeting a week later. Tell us how that went.
EW: It was with one of the big VC firms in Palo Alto and first, they wouldn’t let us in the building because Costco guy didn’t have a shirt. But he was instrumental to my pitch and so I bitched and screamed and finally they said okay. He didn’t have his shirt, he hadn’t washed his hair since forever, and he was wearing dirty, torn jeans and flip-flops. He stank and really looked like shit, the kind of guy you never, ever made eye contact with. And he stood right beside me during the pitch. It was awesome.
NB: So you got all these billionaire, preppie VC guys holding their noses and probably wondering what the fuck?
EW: Exactly. But, Bob, when they saw my PowerPoint presentation, when they saw my metrics for Build-A-Bum, well, shit…then the only thing they smelled was money.
NB: They loved it, huh?
EW: Did they love it, Bob? I had a term sheet on my desk that afternoon offering $40 million for a piece of Build-A-Bum. Just a piece. Shit, I felt like a suddenly very rich pimp.
NB: Incredible success story, Ethan. So where are you now?
EW: Build-A-Bum has thousands of bums on street corners, in parking lots, off freeway exits, and they’re killing it! Every one of these guys is bringing home over a hundred K a year, of course, we keep 20%, but that’s the cost of business. Like I said we’re picking out their rags, writing their material, nothing you wouldn’t do for Beyoncé or even the President. It’s just we’re doing more than any fucking politician by actually giving these people a life. Don’t forget every one of these bums now has Blue Cross, dental, and free Uber pickups taking them to and from their begging stations.
NB: Shit. Do you have any openings?
EW: (laughs) Are you a little crazy, Bob? ‘Cuz that helps. And I’m not done. We offer a 401K plan in which we match dollar for dollar up to 5%, can you believe that? And every one of these derelicts is paying into Social Security too. We’re taking care of these guys long-term, Bob, and the government loves us too! Republicans and Democrats! It’s all about increased tax revenues and less spent on handouts! And well, there’s that whole urban blight thing too.
NB: You mean keeping the homeless and the neighborhoods safer? Taking the tents off the streets and out of the parks?
EW: Yeah, that. Zuck might give 99% of what he makes to charity but how is that helping the guy in the straw hat God blessing you and walking a three-legged dog? Build-A-Bum is about altruism and humanity, Bob. Well, that and the bottom line.
NB: So let me get this straight. You’re helping tens of thousands of panhandlers…
EW: And their families, Bob. Don’t forget their wretched families. So we’re helping hundreds of thousands of these vagrants.
NB: Okay, okay. We’ve got all these folks now contributing to society, or taking I guess, but then giving back as consumers and taxpayers. In turn, the government is getting their money and also ridding themselves of a costly, and sometimes criminal, element without spending taxpayer dollars.
EW: (nodding) Yep, and we’re saving lives too, Bob. You cannot believe how many of these bums were in really bad shape. But then you try begging in Cleveland in the winter. Your feet would turn black too. Did I mention after six months on the street we give two weeks paid vacation?
NB: But what’s next for you, Ethan? And what’s next for Build-A-Bum?
EW: We’re just getting started, Bob. We’ve obviously had tremendous success in all the major cities, but what about smaller cities, towns, and villages? They’ve got plenty of bums too. And we’ve had these other countries calling us, well, except for Greece where no one even wants to beg for a good living. I just had another email from India and can you even imagine that opportunity, Bob? Probably wipe out the caste system and that’d be pretty cool.
NB: But how can you scale, Ethan? The opportunity is too huge. It’s beyond huge.
EW: (smiles) Because Build-A-Bum can do what Apple and Google and the rest of those guys can’t do. And remember, there are many more bums in the world than computers.
NB: So what are you planning, Ethan?
EW: We’re going to franchise, Bob.
Mark's book Build-A-Bum and Other Stories of Life and Death is now available on Amazon!