From Guantanamo Bay to Made in the USA Manufacturing: Matt Bulloch’s Journey to Building TentCraft

How can a U.S. manufacturer pivot and adapt during a crisis to not only survive but thrive?

 

In this episode, Matt Bulloch, founder and president of TentCraft, shares his journey of transforming a small custom tent manufacturing business into a thriving company that played a vital role during the COVID-19 pandemic. With a background in the Army National Guard and a chance encounter that led him to entrepreneurship, Matt brings a unique perspective on leadership, innovation, and the importance of domestic manufacturing.

 

Matt discusses the critical decisions he made during the early days of the pandemic, including quickly retooling his company to focus on medical tents for drive-through testing and screening. He shares how TentCraft’s ability to customize products and manufacture domestically allowed them to respond rapidly to the sudden demand for outdoor medical facilities.

 

Throughout the conversation, Matt emphasizes the importance of creating a strong company culture that values trust, teamwork, excellence, communication, respect, and a little weirdness. He also delves into the challenges of launching new ventures and the lessons he’s learned from both successes and failures.

 

Matt opens up about his bold decision to invest heavily in aluminum inventory during the uncertainty of the pandemic, a move that ultimately paid off as TentCraft was able to produce a record number of tents for healthcare and education clients. He also shares his vision for the future of his industry and his aspirations to build a constellation of U.S.-based manufacturing companies.

 

Mentors that Inspired Matt:

  • The investor who offered to bankroll TentCraft and introduced Matt to the tent industry, giving him the opportunity to become an entrepreneur
  • John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, whose philosophies on the citizen soldier and political utility influenced Matt’s decision to enlist in the military and his perspective on service
  • Clay Christensen, author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” whose ideas on separating startups from the main business to foster innovation have guided Matt’s approach to new ventures

LISTEN TO THE FULL EPISODE HERE

Transcript

Intro  

Welcome to another edition of inspired stories where leaders share their experiences so we can learn from their successes, how they’ve overcome adversity, and explore current challenges they’re facing.

Anthony Codispoti
Welcome to another edition of the Inspired Stories podcast, where leaders share their experiences so we can learn from their successes and be inspired by how they’ve overcome adversity.

Matt Bulloch (16:28.966)
Perfect. Feeling good.

Anthony Codispoti (16:43.173)
My name is Anthony Codaspodi and today’s guest is Matt Bullock, founder and president of Tentcraft, a rapidly growing advertising supply business that manufactures custom branded tents used for outdoor promotions. Founded in 2007 and headquartered in Traverse City, Michigan, Tentcraft is a veteran owned small business. Matt actually served in the Army National Guard where he was called to active duty and spent a year in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, guarding detainees.

Tentcraft manufactures the world’s toughest custom tents and structures right here in America. They are rooted in humility, hard work, fun, and a little weirdness. And you know I’m going to ask about some of that weirdness. Their company motto is to make it better for businesses, brands, and agencies. Now, before we get into all that good stuff, today’s episode is brought to you by my company, Adback Benefits Agency, where we offer very specific and unique employee benefits.

that are both great for your team and fiscally optimized for your bottom line. One recent client was able to add over $900 per employee per year to their bottom line by implementing one of our proprietary program. Results vary for each company and some organizations may not be eligible. To find out if your company qualifies, contact us today at addbackbenefitsagency .com. Now, back to our guest today, the founder of TentCraft, Matt, I appreciate you making time to share your story today.

Matt Bulloch (18:08.166)
Anthony, I appreciate the invite and you’ve had quite a career as well. So I hope we get to, I hope I get to hear a little bit more about your story from your perspective.

Anthony Codispoti (18:17.251)
I’d love that too. So Matt, tell us in your own words, what does Tent Craft do?

Matt Bulloch (18:23.398)
So we are a US manufacturer of primarily pop up tents. So tents with company logo company logos that are used for outdoor sampling for sponsorship for promotion. If you think kind of any fun outdoor event where people gather and and there’s a tent and then related wide format printing, whether it’s a banner or some sort of back wall or flag or table covers, we do a lot of stuff, printed stuff for the mobile marketing industry.

Anthony Codispoti (18:52.195)
And so who’s the typical client? Are you serving the promotional products industry? Are you working directly with brands? Would an end consumer ever come to you to buy something?

Matt Bulloch (19:02.342)
Good question. Our revenue is almost evenly split between advertising agencies and well -known brands. And so there are event marketing agencies headquartered primarily in the big cities that plan these outdoor promotions or outdoor activations for their clients. And so there could be one agency that has 15 clients. Maybe it’s Ford, F -150, and Tropicana Orange Juice, and Ocean Spray, Cranberry Juice.

And so they’ll purchase tents on behalf of their corporate clients for an event in Times Square or traveling promotion, maybe at a middle school, trying to get middle school kids to drink more cranberry juice. And then well -known brands like an Under Armour, a Geico, Metro PCS has been a big customer. That’s about half our revenue. Another half of our revenue originates as a result of our online marketing efforts. So a lot of pay -per -click, both Google and Bing, where people search

branded tent, custom tent, tent with logo, marketing tent, hopefully are served an ad or find us organically, which is always the holy grail, come to the website, request information, and then talk to one of our salespeople.

Anthony Codispoti (20:12.354)
And so obviously there are other companies that do similar things to what you guys do. Why does somebody ultimately choose to work with tent craft? What are you guys doing that’s special?

Matt Bulloch (20:22.854)
So the model has changed a little bit over the years. I do think we manufacture a better product. And so when the company started, the pitch was we were actually reselling an Italian product. The pitch was, why would you ever put $1 ,500 at Custom Graphics on a $200 tent that the first time the wind blows, it’s going to turn inside out or tumble across the field? And so we were manufacturing the highest quality tent on the market, or reselling at that point, excuse me.

And then the Chinese companies got better. And so where the tents that were in the US were just terrible, they got better and better. And they manufacture iPhones and high -tech equipment in China. It’s just whatever the market is demanding. So then we were a step ahead of them on speed because that New York advertising agency that has an event next Wednesday, they’re willing to pay a premium to have everything there and look perfect on Tuesday. If you can’t get it there until Thursday,

they’re willing to pay nothing. And so our speed is still a big advantage because we’re vertically integrated and we manufacture everything in house, we’re able to customize in ways that other companies either can’t or won’t. And so when we customize a lot of products, you know, maybe a bike company has a tent, but they want to be able to mount iPads on the legs and hang a bike from the back of the frame so they can actually show what they’re selling. We’re able to do that.

And then because we are able to customize, that gives us really good insight as we develop new products. And normally we have kind of a year to year headstart before we get knocked off with other companies. But I believe we’re the only US manufacturer of these pop -up style tents.

Anthony Codispoti (22:09.91)
is that right? The only one in the states that’s manufacturing them here.

Matt Bulloch (22:13.958)
Yeah, as with a lot of products, I think people just went overseas and the industry went overseas. I believe some of our competitors now do some US sewing, I think because we were eating their lunch with how fast we were. And so kind of for the big order for US soccer where they want 300 to 400, maybe they’re manufacturing that in Asia. But for the smaller orders or for the advertising agencies or the quote unquote, like professional marketers that need it high quality, need it fast.

That’s where we really thrive and where I think the other companies have been playing catch up.

Anthony Codispoti (22:47.777)
So if you want it made in America, or you want it made fast, or high quality, it’s Tent Craft. Those are your flagpoles.

Matt Bulloch (22:53.286)
Yep. Yeah. And with the customization, you know, the one stop shop where you also have some event printing, we don’t do apparel. It’s something that people have asked about over the years, but most companies that do a lot of the events, they already have an apparel person. It’s a commodity industry, kind of everyone can do it. I don’t think there’s a lot of margin. So we can kind of do everything for the event, other than the apparel and the staffing.

Anthony Codispoti (23:20.001)
The customization that you talked about, you get maybe a year or two before everybody starts knocking you off, are there any opportunities for patenting those innovations, those customizations, or not the kind of thing that would be covered?

Matt Bulloch (23:32.646)
I’m not sure. And I’ve thought about patents different ways over the years. In some respects, some of our methods, I think, fall under the umbrella of like trade secrets. No, if you put a patent out there, then you kind of have to give give the all the detail on how what you’re doing and how you how you may make it. So in the core business, I don’t think there are a lot of patents. I do have a startup company where we have three pending patents in the pool cover industry.

But in the core business, we have a lot of trademarks that we protect. And then we did patent kind of an integrated wheel kit that I think was a clever improvement that one of our engineers came up on. But it’s not really a game about the core business isn’t really kind of a patent IP play.

Anthony Codispoti (24:19.746)
Gotcha. So tell us about the chance meeting that led to you starting TentCraft because as I understand it, you didn’t really have a background in this to begin with.

Matt Bulloch (24:28.518)
I didn’t have a background in tents. So, finally graduated college. As you noted, I was in the Army National Guard, and I was called up for a year, which is relevant because that flipped me into the highest category of loan repayment and then all the college benefits. And so I graduated with no debt. And so I went to Wall Street and probably wouldn’t have quit a Wall Street job making six figures out of the gate if I had

70 grand or 50 grand or $100 ,000 of college debt, like many of the other people that I knew. And I also, when I came back from Guantanamo Bay, all my college was paid for. And so I extended my undergraduate career as long as I could, because I said, wait a second, college is awesome being in the Army. And I said, why would I ever leave? And so I switched my major into University of Virginia’s Commerce School, which was a separate two -year program. I picked up a minor. And finally, they said, listen, like,

You cannot stay in college forever. This is not a career path, but it was great. I had my tuition paid for, and then you do the one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer, so you get drill pay. Then because I was on active duty, you get the highest tier of the GI bill. I didn’t have another job in college. I took classes that interested me and everything was paid for, and I had a lot of fun. I think I had more fun in college than anyone else I knew.

Anthony Codispoti (25:29.408)
This is not a career path.

Anthony Codispoti (25:52.928)
That’s fantastic. And so then, yeah, so tell us how the tent craft thing came about.

Matt Bulloch (25:58.502)
Yeah, so I applied to be a smoke jumper. So those are the wildland firefighters that parachute into really remote fires. And I had fought fire for three years before that, during my extended college career when I wasn’t doing doing my army things. And I didn’t get hired. And so to be a smoke jumper, most smoke jumpers had eight or nine years experience, I had called four years experience and veterans preference. But so I was kind of scrambling, because I really did think I would be a smoke jumper, at least for a few years. And my

business program, sent a lot of people to Wall Street. And so I applied to the New York investment banks and got hired by Credit Suisse, which no longer exists. It was smushed together with UBS, which was a big competitor by the Swiss government in the past year. But got to New York and I wasn’t passionate about it. The investment banking analyst is just kind of a tough thing where you’re working all the time. It’s a lot of busy work. No one communicates things that

know, have changed. And so you end up staying all night to do an analysis. And then by the time you send it to the team, they say, we actually didn’t need that anymore. That was my experience, at least. And the step, the stepfather of one of my good buddies from the bank owns a nationwide print company in Michigan. And he was an entrepreneurial guy, his company, maybe had 200 employees at the time. And he would come to New York and invite the

young guys out for dinner and drinks and one night over beers he said, how do you like Wall Street? I said, I hate it. I think I said I effing hate it, you know, extra emphasis. And I said, I’m working all the time, my apartment sucks. I’m stressed out all the time. I never see my friends or my girlfriend. And he said, well, what do you want to do? And I said, well, I would love to do something entrepreneurial. And I had thought about doing things like franchising a restaurant or doing

Anthony Codispoti (27:33.695)
extra emphasis there. Yeah.

Matt Bulloch (27:52.358)
consulting and really just anything other than what I was doing. And he called me a few weeks later, he said, listen, there’s great product. It’s a tent system. It’s been a page, my catalog for three years. I’ve hired a few other people that haven’t worked out. I still think it’s a good idea. And if you want to do it, it’ll be your company. I’ll bankroll it and we can help with the printing. And so I took a flyer. And so I moved to Traverse City, Michigan, a small town in Northern Michigan from Manhattan.

as a 26 year old single guy, which in the winter, that was a big change. And then we have just kind of grown from here. And so we’re about 100 employees now and are looking to continue growing by doing some of the same stuff and then also doing some startup things and then looking for acquisitions.

Anthony Codispoti (28:22.431)
That’s a big change.

Anthony Codispoti (28:42.559)
Tell me more about that, the startup -y things, the acquisitions, where is all of that in play?

Matt Bulloch (28:48.742)
Yeah. So, Jim Collins wrote good to great. And then he wrote, addendum. He calls it something. I can’t remember what he calls it, but I’m talking about a business like a flywheel. And so, so we’ve embraced what we call a grow, build, expand framework at 10 craft. And so if you think about a flywheel, it takes a lot of effort to get going, but once it’s spinning, it’s kind of self reinforcing. And so we need to grow the core business.

in order to achieve our accomplishments. And the core business is what pays all our salaries. And, but as that flywheel gets spinning faster and faster and faster, we can have things shoot off of that flywheel. And so that can be cash, that can be ideas, that can be resources, that can be capabilities. When we started manufacturing our tent frames, we have a bunch of CNC machines. And so I can justify the cost of these CNC machines by the savings of what we used to pay an outside vendor to manufacture things for us.

But I’ve got all this extra capacity. If my CNC machines are only running on first shift for the tent business, what else can I use these CNC machines for on second or third shift or for product development or for customization? So we have tried to do some startup things. We started a company that was affiliated with a former employee in the motorsports industry, kind of decorating motorsports. This did have a small apparel component.

and just couldn’t really get that to go. It became a distraction. We started a full service event marketing agency, got up to about a million in revenue, but we just weren’t really making any money and then had a leadership transition and again, it was becoming a distraction. And then we have started a company in the automatic pool cover industry. And so if you’ve ever seen these swimming pools where you push a button and the cover closes and you push another button and the cover opens,

There are a lot of advantages to having these automatic safety covers. And we already were working with aluminum and working with the vinyl and cutting and sewing and had an engineering team to figure out the mechanism. Had a relationship through my VP of sales at the time who came from the swimming pool industry. And he had basically said, listen, there’s a great industry. I know all the people. You have all the equipment that you need to manufacture these systems. If you can build a system, we’ll sell a ton of them.

Matt Bulloch (31:12.326)
And so we started a company called Sentry Covers and we’re still, you know, this is the year where we’re starting to get some traction with that Sentry Covers company.

Anthony Codispoti (31:21.853)
So the first two startups that you mentioned that didn’t really go anywhere, they didn’t take off for you ultimately, what are some lessons that you can take from those experiences and now apply to the Century Covers business?

Matt Bulloch (31:36.198)
Yeah, that’s a good question. There are a lot of things that I wish I had done differently. I think the leadership does matter. And I do think for some of these startups to go organizationally, I think they need to be separate from the main business. Otherwise, and the innovators dilemma is that Clay Christiansen, he talked a lot about this. That the…

If everything has to go through the the filter of what would work at tent craft You’re not gonna be excited about a thousand dollars revenue or twenty five hundred dollars of revenue But you have to start somewhere and so I think to carve these organizations off It is really separate companies and give them separate resources and separate people Would have made them more successful they were kind of you know, it was all intermingled and and I

Anthony Codispoti (32:32.861)
You had people sort of straddling two different companies in terms of the responsibilities.

Matt Bulloch (32:36.998)
Exactly. And so the bigger company kind of always won when there was a demand on resources. And then the other thing I would say is I do think industry matters. And I wish I had maybe been more sensitive about really analyzing the industry to see where we could fit into the industry. And, you know, software industry has 90 % gross margins. And then the, you know, cabinet making industry has 10 % gross margins, right? Because it’s competitive. There are a lot of companies that do it.

And so a high gross margin lets you have a lot of fun below the line. And so I think the swimming pool cover industry, for example, I think we thought the margins were higher than they were. What we found, and because they’re already competitors at scale, there are a few publicly traded companies, a private equity owned company, and so there’s these big competitors that are already in the market that I think

compress the margin profile.

Anthony Codispoti (33:37.084)
What do you think your competitive advantage is going to be with the pool cup?

Matt Bulloch (33:40.934)
We have made some improvements to the system, really things that I think the industry and the customers that we worked with to develop our system have asked us for. And so instead of shipping 26 foot long pieces of aluminum extrusion, we have eight foot long sections we can ship on a normal pallet. Or if you’re getting around on a truck, a pickup truck, you don’t have these oversized pieces getting banged up and they’re hard to move around in the yard.

And so we have shorter pieces of extrusion than an alignment kit to line them up and then have them just as stiff as if there was a longer piece of extrusion. And then we did some innovative things with the mechanism that actually, you know, takes out and retracts the pool cover in that ours is reversible. And so instead of, you know, the way that the industry works is you have a right -hand drive or a left -hand drive, but if there’s an obstruction or if something isn’t,

how you think it’s going to be on the job site because another, maybe the concrete guy put the box on the wrong side, they can switch it in the field. But with that business, we had five or six improvements that we thought were patentable. And as we talked to the intellectual property attorneys, they thought we had the strongest chance with three patents. So we’ve applied for three patents with our sent recovery system.

Anthony Codispoti (34:45.723)
Clever.

Anthony Codispoti (35:04.059)
And what’s the go -to -market strategy? Are you guys selling through like pool installation companies? Are you selling directly in consumer?

Matt Bulloch (35:12.998)
exactly. The original strategy was to target some of these big bars because, the, the pool builder oftentimes doesn’t install this automatic safety cover themselves. So they’re, they’re cover companies that, have people because everything needs to be lined up and everything needs to be perfect. And it’s just kind of a different, it’s a different type of install than, than, than the pool itself. And so originally we were targeting, some of these big bars, the value added resellers that.

that sell, install, service, these automatic safety covers. We’ve since revised our strategy to go to the broader market and really target some of the larger cover installers themselves instead of the VARs, just because there were some legacy industry relationships that have proven a little bit tough to break into with rebate programs and exclusive contracts with some of these big VARs in the different markets.

Anthony Codispoti (35:59.803)
Thank you.

Matt Bulloch (36:10.278)
And so now we’re going to some of the customers of these bars and saying, Hey, you can buy a system that you like from us and for a better price because we’re we’re manufacturer direct and you’re eliminating a level of the market.

Anthony Codispoti (36:21.787)
That seems like a really attractive proposition, especially when you’re describing the dual motor or the dual directional component of it that you were talking about. And if somebody is not familiar with the space, what really sounds cool to me is having eight foot segments rather than 20 foot plus segments. That just makes shipping so much easier. You have so many more options on shipping.

and then the installation of it has to be a lot easier as well. So if you’re able to offer that with a better price, because they’re coming direct to the manufacturer, it seems like you’ve got a pretty compelling offer.

Matt Bulloch (36:55.27)
Exactly. Moving it around.

Matt Bulloch (37:03.974)
So we’re over $100 ,000 in revenue a month, but we want to get to the marker of having 1 ,000 systems in the market. That’s been the milestone that we’ve been pointing towards.

Anthony Codispoti (37:16.954)
And you mentioned that taking a look at some acquisitions, what kind of acquisitions would make sense to you? Are you looking for something that’s in the tent space, the printing space?

Matt Bulloch (37:29.062)
So I really like manufacturing. And so I’m focusing on specialty manufacturing and I’m based in Traverse City, Michigan. Michigan is a great place to manufacture. There are a lot of small companies that actually make stuff. And my two hypotheses, which I think is the plural of hypothesis are that the baby boomers are the largest cohort of business owners ever. And so,

baby boomers are now at retirement age. It’s not that they’re approaching retirement age. They are retiring. And a lot of these small businesses in our nation, but especially our region, are starting to change hands. And sometimes you’ve got the kids that aren’t involved. They’re in Florida, or they’re in LA, or they’re in medical school. Their employees either don’t have the wherewithal or don’t have the financial resources to buy the business from the founders. And the founder or second generation or whoever is running it,

they’re at the point in their lives where they want to spend more time on their boat or golfing or visiting the grandkids and have just thought that there isn’t a real good place for them to exit these businesses. And so in some cases, they’re just kind of on autopilot. They’re profitable, but they’re not investing in the latest and greatest automation, or they’re not using Salesforce CRM or the example I shared earlier. Their website looks like it’s from 2005. That’s not a compliment.

And so I think that, you know, it’s a different playbook. But using some of the things that have worked for me at 10 craft as we grew from two people to 100 people, you know, could we buy a 30 person, you know, steel fabrication shop and juice their marketing and have their shop run more efficiently and do some some fun things related to people and leadership and training and culture? I think we can.

what, what I found is that, that it’s been a little bit of a frothy market. I think when interest rates were really low and then a lot of these, private equity funds and family offices are reaching further down market than I guess I thought they would, you know, normally I thought there was a threshold where a private equity firm didn’t really want to look at a company unless it was, you know, maybe four or 5 million of, of EBITDA and it looked, and, and there are these smaller private equity shops or family offices that

Matt Bulloch (39:53.446)
that are buying companies of that profile and kind of trying to do the same thing, you know, operational improvements, get new leadership in there. So we’ll see. I’m still in the kissing frogs phase.

Anthony Codispoti (40:05.752)
And it sounds like my follow -up question to that was going to be, and you partially answered it, what do you feel like you would have to offer a company that you’re acquiring? And it sounds like, clearly, you’ve learned a lot along the way from going from two employees to 100 employees, building a culture, HR, you understand manufacturing and marketing. Are these sort of the things you feel like you’ve dialed in pretty well that you could bring to a new entity?

Matt Bulloch (40:34.63)
Exactly. And I don’t think it’s rocket science, but I think we have a pretty, we’ve developed what we call an alignment framework, which is basically our 10 year plan. And then we have our operating system that what actually makes 10 craft different. And it’s things like goal setting and alignment structures, where we have kind of our 10 year plan, we have our annual plan, and then we have a quarterly planning cadence with.

the big rocks, and there are a few different systems that people use, that in my experience, a lot of companies of our size, and sometimes larger, sometimes smaller, just aren’t really doing any structured quarterly planning. And for us, it’s indispensable, right? If you don’t know where you’re going, all roads will get you there. And so I think to layer in a little bit of planning.

to layer in maybe a different level of financial resources where we can invest in the new equipment or the automation or the ERP to add integrated technology. When we put in an ERP, it does provide a lot of efficiencies and a lot of visibility on your manufacturing process and particularly your supply chain. So I think there are a lot of things that even if it’s manufacturing a different product, our best practices in the manufacturing world,

just aren’t being done by a lot of smaller companies.

Anthony Codispoti (41:57.463)
Tell me about the company motto, make it better. Why is this so important to you, Matt?

Matt Bulloch (42:03.11)
So make it better, I think about on three dimensions. I love tents, I probably love tents more than anyone else, but I’m not passionate about printed tents, right? I’m passionate about company culture and about creating opportunity in our small town and in leadership development and in helping people live their best lives. And so I think about make it better on three dimensions. We are a US manufacturer and we actually make better products. And so we don’t make cheap,

throw away junk, you know, we manufacture high quality products. So that’s dimension number one. We are always working on our processes and we’re a big lean company. And so we try to follow lean manufacturing principles and use lean manufacturing tools. And so we’re always working on our processes to make them more efficient, which is the second pillar. And then the third pillar is around the people. And I think that if we can trust people and empower people,

and give people the tools that they need to be successful and pay people fairly and do profitability based bonuses and have a fun culture that people enjoy coming to work for that, that we’ll be able to attract and retain great people. And a business is just a group of people. So make it better people, processes and product.

Anthony Codispoti (43:22.391)
Tell me about the weirdness that goes on over there. This has got to be part of the culture.

Matt Bulloch (43:27.558)
It is a part of the culture. So I will joke that my favorite management technique is to use R and D. And so, you know, if I was giving a talk, I would say, what does everyone think R and D stands for? And the traditional definition is, as I’m sure you know, research and development. I heard a definition that I, that made me laugh and that I thought was pretty wise, which is, R and D can be rip off and duplicate. So if you’ve already, you know,

figured something out that works really well. And one of your company’s like, why reinvent the wheel? Right? Why don’t I just start with what you’ve done, and then build upon it and make it make it our own and figure out how it could work at 10 craft. And so we have six guiding principles. And the first five are I don’t want to say generic, because it has a negative connotation. But it’s pretty standard. It’s trust, teamwork, excellence, communication, and respect. And then the sixth one, we borrowed

or are indeed or blatantly ripped off from Zappos, which is fun and a little weirdness. And this is the idea that, you know, work doesn’t have to be soul crushing and awful that, you know, we can be individuals and we’re all a little bit weird and it’s okay. You know, we’re in kind of a fun industry. We’re in outdoor marketing and promotion. So it’s okay for people to have fun and joke around and let their colorful personalities shine through.

Anthony Codispoti (44:55.35)
What would be an example of how that shows up in your workplace?

Matt Bulloch (45:00.134)
You know what, there are a lot of examples. So things, you know, we had a guy that used to do like cowboy cowboy boot Friday and like anyone that had cowboy boots would wear them in or we do a lot of team lunches. We do huddle every single day. We do all company huddle and whoever’s leading the huddle gets to choose their music. And so sometimes it’s, you know, gangster rap, sometimes it’s country, sometimes it’s, you know, some obscure indie rock band that I’ve never heard of.

people started doing kind of clips from movies that they like or sports highlights. And so just a way for people to kind of demonstrate their personality and get people, you know, jazzed up and excited as they’re coming in to work. One example that maybe isn’t great, you know, we do a monthly team lunch and I’ll normally talk for a little bit. You know, we’ll get it catered from, you know, good restaurants in town and different people plan it. But one of our guys had the idea to do a hot dog eating contest.

Anthony Codispoti (45:58.774)
You

Matt Bulloch (45:59.782)
It was it was in the summer. And I think that the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest was happening. This was a few years ago when I think people really what’s the guy’s name that could eat, you know, 60. Yeah, just ridiculous. And so I was very skeptical of this. I was like, I don’t know if we really went to a hot dog eating contest. And so literally the first guy that went was an intern and he threw up everywhere. It’s just like, just like, what a freaking what a bummer. And how how gross right? I mean, he’s

Anthony Codispoti (46:09.11)
Kobayashi.

Anthony Codispoti (46:22.198)
Ouch.

Matt Bulloch (46:28.806)
dipping hot dogs in water and trying to shut it down and it didn’t stay down. But I don’t know, you know, you try some things. You let people plan things that, you know, maybe you have some questions about but it’s like, you know, what’s the worst that’s gonna happen? You know, that was pretty bad. But we’re not.

Anthony Codispoti (46:36.373)
You try things, yeah.

Anthony Codispoti (46:48.085)
Yeah, well like you said you try some things, some things work like Cowboy Boop Friday and some things maybe you won’t repeat. I want to do a little sidebar because I’ll kick myself if I don’t. I know people want to hear about this. I’m not sure how much you can say but I’m sure people are curious to hear about the Gitmo experience. That’s pretty wild.

Matt Bulloch (47:10.598)
Yeah, so it was a tough year. I try not to complain about it, just because I didn’t go to Afghanistan. And so when I was called up the 29th Infantry, which was all of Virginia and part of Maryland, most of the folks went to Afghanistan. And then a few companies went to Guantanamo Bay, which was a smaller mission. And I’ve heard the term like mushroom management, which is like, what is it like? Keep people in the dark.

and feed them shit and hope that they produce like crazy. But we worked at the prison. And so when I was there, there were 700 detainees as a result of the global war on terror. And I think they were just trying to figure out what to do with these guys because they were picking them up in Afghanistan or wherever it was. And the military didn’t have enough translators for whatever tribal dialect.

And I think now they’re down to like 30 or 40 people. And so I do think there were a lot of well -intentioned people that were trying to kind of get these people, you know, through the system and process or get them, get them to trial. But it, it just, it was like, it was a complex environment. And this was post September 11th. when I enlisted and, I know the reason I enlisted, I felt like I was kind of a middle -class kid that had every opportunity in this country had to offer, you know, like my, my.

parents had gone to college and I went to public school, but a good public school and I was able to take time off and fight fire and work at a ski resort. And I liked the idea of the public service and Thomas Jefferson who founded UVA said that, gosh, I don’t want to butcher the quote. He said, for a state that is free and hopes to remain free, a well regulated militia is its best defense.

And so I like this idea of the citizen soldier where you’re trained and you’re organized. And if, if you’re called to action, you go, but otherwise you have a civilian career. And, John Locke talked a lot about political utility, how you have to do the most good for the most people. And that’s ultimately how, how I think about Guantanamo Bay is that like, was the process perfect? Like probably not, but you have to do the most good for the most people. And right after September 11th, which was like,

Anthony Codispoti (49:13.204)
Hmm.

Matt Bulloch (49:32.006)
catastrophic event for our country and thousands of people died. There were a lot of people just trying to figure out how to keep us safe from these external threats. And so, yeah, I worked in the prison for a year and then came back and was very happy to be in college.

Anthony Codispoti (49:49.812)
What is one lesson that you learned there, your time at Gitmo, that you’re able to apply to your business life now?

Matt Bulloch (49:58.95)
No, a business is just a group of people. You know, it really is. And people, you know, have good days and people have bad days. And most people, I think, want to do the right thing and want to work together and want to work hard. And then sometimes there are some bad apples. And I think you find that in any group or any organization. But I think, you know, I do fundamentally think that most people are good people.

And that, you know, when given clear tasks, you know, we’ll work together and we’ll try to do what they can to have the mission be successful. And so, you know, the lesson I probably fall back on is just being able to relate to people from all walks of life, you know, because that’s who I interacted with in the military, you know, people with completely different upbringings, but, you know, you have kind of a common thread through your military service and you’re all just trying to figure it out and do the best that you can do.

Anthony Codispoti (50:58.963)
talk more about people and hiring. You know, it’s a still continues to be a really competitive job market. So, you know, recruiting, retaining good employees can be really challenging. Is there anything in particular that you’ve tried and found success with?

Matt Bulloch (51:16.742)
You know,

we’ve tried a lot of different things. You know, I don’t know that there is really any magic bullet, but I do think our company culture is a competitive advantage. And when people come in to interview and, you know, we have, you know, bright colors and nice facilities and we have kind of a two level office and we’ve got a curly slide down into the, we call it the club where we do our morning huddles. And then the club is lined with,

paddleboards and kayaks that are free employee rentals and that, you know, which I wish you could come to our facility because I think people, the reaction that we get is that, you know, this is inviting or this is cool, or this looks like it should be in Silicon Valley and not, you know, in Northern Michigan. I would say that like our office and our facilities are a lot different than the average manufacturing facility. And I think facilities matter. I spend more time at

work that I do, you know, with my family or with my friends or doing whatever hobby. And so, you know, to go into a place that, you know, is colorful and is clean and that has some kind of cool areas to hang out or I think it makes a difference for folks. It looks like your office is very cool. I’m seeing people go by in the background.

Anthony Codispoti (52:41.363)
Yeah, I agree with you completely. I have the type of career where I could work from home, but I choose to pay extra. I choose to pay some rent so I can come here. I can be in a nice, fun environment. There’s other entrepreneurs, other business owners around that I can interact with. And so I agree with you 100%. Like the work environment matters a great deal. So what you’re describing, you know, Silicon Valley right there in northern Michigan, this fun environment with curlicue slides and kayak rentals, sounds like the kind of place that…

you know, you roll out of bed in the morning, you’re probably a little bit more excited to get to.

Matt Bulloch (53:15.846)
Yeah, and we have kind of a big outdoor courtyard with the basketball hoop and during team lunches, we’ll have either some sort of competition like that knockout game with the basketball, we’ve done tug of war, you know, just things that that I think can can be kind of fun. In the summer, we do yoga, which we’ve done it for a few years, everyone always says they love the yoga. And the first time we do it, it’s a lunchtime yoga once a week, you know, you have 20 people. And then the second time you have 10. And then the third time you have four.

And then by the end, it’s like one or two people that really love yoga. But then on the company surveys, people always say they love the yoga. So, you know, we’re rolling out the yoga for our, you know, seventh summer. And I hope that I hope that people actually come because we’re paying the instructor either way.

Anthony Codispoti (54:01.362)
Right? Okay. Let’s go yoga. How about some, you know what, it’s not that far from me. I’m down in Columbus, Ohio, so I might take you up on that. How about some creative growth strategies that you’ve used? You know, you guys have experienced some nice growth along the way. What are some things that you’ve tried that have been successful for you?

Matt Bulloch (54:04.998)
Exactly. Come visit us and come to yoga.

Matt Bulloch (54:24.006)
Yeah, you know, a lot of our growth came from, I would say, embracing pay -per -click relatively early. And then a printed tent, when I started, was primarily sold through distribution. You mentioned promotional products resellers earlier. And so the same guy that had the coffee mugs and the pens and whatever else, maybe also had a relationship with a tent vendor that sold to promotional products resellers.

we thought there was an opportunity to sell direct, utilizing online marketing. And so the Holy grail is always to be found organically, but we do pay for ads, which Google or Bing will serve you ads at the top or on the right -hand side. And so I think we have really embraced kind of our online presence now that has expanded into being found via social, Instagram, Facebook. We really don’t do much with TikTok. We don’t do anything with TikTok.

Do you have TikTok, Anthony?

Anthony Codispoti (55:23.729)
No, very familiar with it, but no, I haven’t gone down that rabbit.

Matt Bulloch (55:28.326)
I haven’t either. I did early on.

Anthony Codispoti (55:30.577)
I don’t know if that’s a generational thing or if that’s a worried about China looking at me kind of a thing or just I don’t need another time waster.

Matt Bulloch (55:36.55)
Right.

Yeah, that’s how I feel. But I think pretty early on I did grab a TikTok handle and it horrifies my marketing team. And I don’t know what kind of weird mood I was in, but I grabbed it Tent Daddy. So anyway, I mean, it really horrifies them. I think it horrifies my daughter as well. And there’s zero content on there. I don’t think I’ve made any posts, but at some point maybe I will come out of the kick.

cocoon is like 10 daddy and have weird tent content that.

Anthony Codispoti (56:14.289)
I’m gonna see what your avatar looks like when you decide to go live. Let’s.

Matt Bulloch (56:16.294)
Yeah. Yeah. And then, then, then beyond that, you know, our outside sales efforts, you know, really visiting these advertising agencies and dropping off material, highlighting our speed, highlighting our customization. There are a few industry shows, but I don’t think, you know, other than our COVID pivot that, that I know you kind of wanted to dig into, you know, we, we’ve innovated around the.

products that we offer, but I don’t think on the sales and marketing side, I don’t think we’ve necessarily reinvented the wheel. We’ve just executed some demand generation strategies that I think others in our industry weren’t embracing.

Anthony Codispoti (56:57.68)
Let’s talk about the COVID pivot. I imagine that, you know, March 17th, 2020, everything shuts down. You know, all these outdoor festivals, you know, those, those went away for a bit. It had to have a pretty big impact on your business.

Matt Bulloch (57:14.726)
Yeah, so I had just gotten my former partner paid off. So we had a buy sell agreement that I executed in 2015. And we had a non compete that kept us out of some kind of traditional indoor applications. And I think probably restricted our growth a little bit. And we were on track for a good spring and the whole world shut down. And so we had a big order for Facebook through a marketing agency.

that the marketing agency called us and said, stop production. Their events are canceled, and they’re not going to pay us for it. And so we’re not going to pay you for it. And I said, well, we’ve already started producing. They said, stop production. The South by Southwest Music Festival, we had a few clients. Going to South by Southwest was canceled. The NCAA basketball tournament was canceled with all the fan villages and sponsors that are trying to do activations. And we’re

It was looking pretty bleak. And what I told my team is that, no, we can handle missing our goals, but we can’t handle a zero. And at that point, it looked like we were facing the prospect of zero revenue for the foreseeable future. And I’ve always paid attention to the news and was worried about COVID probably a little bit earlier than other folks, primarily for the impact it would have on the live event industry. And I remember watching, you know,

Anthony Codispoti (58:24.463)
Wow.

Matt Bulloch (58:41.638)
CNN or one of the news articles and seeing what they were doing in South Korea. And so they had these tents and parking lots outside the hospitals. And so they were doing the COVID testing outside and treating people outside where prior to that, your doctor’s office never wanted to see you outside, right? And never wanted to either screen you or treat you or isolate people. And so I wrote an email. The team was actually nice enough to frame it for me. I don’t know the date on it.

Anthony Codispoti (58:59.407)
Hmm.

Matt Bulloch (59:11.526)
but, but I said, listen, you know, we, we did quarterly planning, but we’re going to completely retool the company in the next week to focus on medical. And so if what you’re doing doesn’t pertain to spinning up this, this medical tent business, you need to stop doing it. And they’re going to be late nights and we’re going to figure this out and we’re going to save lives. And, I guess the innovation was that because we were a domestic manufacturer,

know, the ships from China basically stopped. And then a short while thereafter, there were additional dislocations. Do you remember when that ship got lodged sideways in the Suez Canal? So further kind of snarling international shipping. And so we were domestic manufacturers, we were able to make the larger sizes that were really in demand. So a lot of the industry was on kind of 10 by 10 style tents that are of kind of a tailgating size. And we were doing

Anthony Codispoti (59:49.615)
Yeah.

Matt Bulloch (01:00:07.75)
eight by four meter, which is the largest size pop -up tent that we could do for drive -through screening. Because I’m a veteran, the VA was an early customer. The VA runs the largest healthcare network in the US. And so the VA orders, where they had emergency funds early, and they were ordering multiple tents for all the different healthcare centers throughout the nation. And with drive -through screening or start over here, just to kind of organize.

Organized their their treatment areas or their screening areas instead of just having random stuff in a parking lot and have people be really confused and so in 2019 we sold something like 14 of the largest size tent and in 2020 we sold 1200 of them and so there was just massive growth in In these medical screening tents We did some things that very much didn’t work We created some indoor partitions which which?

early on in COVID, if you remember, they thought every airport and every convention center and every high school gym was going to be a COVID treatment facility. And so we created some medical partitions. We made a cot, you know, out of kind of tent pieces thinking that, hey, well, you know, if they’re setting up these, you know, treatment facilities, they’re going to need, you know, partitions to separate people and then also need cots. We didn’t sell any of the cots. We sold a few of the partitions, but the product that really took off were those drive -through screening tents.

Anthony Codispoti (01:01:32.461)
So this is an interesting example because there’s a few layers to this. You have this sort of once in a generation, once in a lifetime sort of catastrophe that hits that affected so many businesses in such a negative way. And very quickly you realize that you needed to pivot. And you’re like, okay, what do we have here? What do we have the raw materials for? What do we have the equipment for? And what are the new needs out there? And.

how do those two sort of Venn diagram circles intersect? And so you’re like, okay, I think maybe cots, I think maybe these interior dividers, and you tried those and it didn’t work. There wasn’t the demand for it that didn’t evolve in the same way that you thought it would. But one of the ideas that you had did work, these outdoor tents. You saw this on TV, South Korea was already doing it, and you thought, huh, okay. And how fortunate that you’ve got military background, you’re a veteran, you were able to go to the VA,

and say, hey, I’ve got a solution for you that I think would be really helpful. And I think it’s sort of this, I’m curious to hear your take on it. It’s kind of a combination of being really fortunate. I don’t know if I would use the word lucky, but really fortunate that the stars sort of aligned in that way for that particular product. But it never would have happened had you not taken bold and decisive action really quickly right up front.

Matt Bulloch (01:02:39.75)
Thank you.

Matt Bulloch (01:02:57.254)
Yeah, I appreciate that. I am proud of how the team reacted. And I do think it was trial by movement, right? We weren’t just in a conference room, you know, drawing pretty pictures on the wall. We were trying things. We were creating products. We were innovating in real time. There is some luck, absolutely. And the example, I’m really proud of the team, but if we own a chain of bar and restaurants, you know, in whatever state, you know,

what would we have done? I mean, so in many cases, the ball bounced in our direction in that there was a massive need to be outside that didn’t exist prior and with sectors of the economy that didn’t previously have a huge need to be outside. And particularly for us, healthcare and education. So healthcare had a massive need to be outside and there were federal dollars to pay for it. And then education from…

K through 12, and then as well as the universities had a lot of outdoor areas and classrooms and still screening and things like that. So the fact that we were able to switch gears towards different products, I think validated the decisions we made in 2015, 2016 to vertically integrate because we didn’t have a warehouse full of the wrong stuff. And then the big bet that I probably did take that I am proud of is that,

Before we had really market demand, I ordered as much aluminum as we could because our suppliers basically said that they were going to shut down the aluminum extrusion companies because when automotive went offline, if you remember that the automakers stopped producing for a few months and they represent the biggest demand for these aluminum companies. And so I maxed out our lines of credit.

maxed out our inventory orders. And I really was thinking, it’s like, well, if we go bankrupt, you know, because if we ship zero, we’re going to go bankrupt, right? We have rent, we have people, we have a lot of expenses. You know, if we’re going to go bankrupt, we’ll either go bankrupt with a lot of aluminum. But if this is going to work, and we really need it to work, we need to have as much aluminum as we can to actually make make make these tents. And so it, you know, we ran out of little things here and there. But

Anthony Codispoti (01:04:52.589)
Wow.

Matt Bulloch (01:05:21.99)
the most part, we were able to kind of keep producing and we were really busier than than heck from 2020, 2021, and 2022. 2022 vaccines were on the on the case. Vaccine tents weren’t as big of a use case as maybe we thought they would be because at that point people weren’t afraid to be in indoors anymore and people had figured out kind of you know some treatment and masks and whatnot. But and then 2023 I think was a strong year.

not a lot of medical, but I think there was pent up demand for kind of these outdoor events or Metro PCS had changed their logo and needed to refresh a lot of things. And so I think 2024 will help us kind of establish where our new normal is as far as kind of a normal year of demand.

Anthony Codispoti (01:06:12.173)
I gotta say, Matt, that was a pretty bold move to just buy up as much aluminum as you could at that point. I mean, it takes a lot of gumption to do something like that in a time of uncertainty, but boy, did that work out.

Matt Bulloch (01:06:27.526)
it did work out for us. And so, you know, I’m really glad it did because we would have really been screwed if it didn’t. But put all the chips in. That was a warm up.

Anthony Codispoti (01:06:36.203)
I mean, you just put all your chips in. We’re either going to make this work, or we’re going under with a whole lot of aluminum inventory.

Matt Bulloch (01:06:46.022)
Yep. And then and also the thought was that, you know, unlike the corner store where, you know, it doesn’t expire, you never really want to hold on to inventory for too long. But if we could get through it, and our inventory was was high, you know, interest rates were low, we’re able to borrow on our inventory. And I thought, you know, eventually, we would chew through all this stuff, you know, so so it, but but, you know, if we’re going to have a chance,

To help people and to make a difference, I knew that we needed to be able to make a lot of tents and we made a lot of tents.

Anthony Codispoti (01:07:19.339)
Matt, what’s something fun that you enjoy doing outside of?

Matt Bulloch (01:07:22.854)
You know what, I’ve got the family, I’ve got some young kids. I was a wrestler in high school, that’s where I had the most success, and so I coached my two boys in wrestling. I thought about doing this adult wrestling tournament in a few weeks, but my kids weren’t really into it, and basically there was this outdoor wrestling tournament down by the Ohio State line. I’m forgetting which town it was, but they rolled wrestling mats out on the baseball field or football field.

and then they had the kids division and then they had an adult division. And so some of the dads were getting together to all enter this. I think that would have been pretty fun. But yeah, I do a little bit of fishing, I do a little bit of golfing, but it’s kind of the point in my life where there just feels like a lot of kid activities.

Anthony Codispoti (01:08:07.787)
Yeah. How old are your kids?

Matt Bulloch (01:08:10.15)
So 11 year old daughter, nine year old son and a six year old son.

Anthony Codispoti (01:08:13.387)
and both of your boys are into wrestling.

Matt Bulloch (01:08:16.454)
They both are right now. So try not to push it too hard. You know, I think they’re probably having more fun with like the soccer and baseball, but I think there are a lot of kind of life lessons that you can learn from, you know, a one -on -one sport like wrestling.

Anthony Codispoti (01:08:31.274)
Matt, I have just one more question for you, but before I ask it, I want to point people to your website, tentcraft .com. Any other ways that you would like for people to get in touch with you if they’re interested in what Matt’s doing? Maybe they’ve got a business that they’re looking to exit and they think you’d be a good fit for it. What’s the best way for folks to get in touch with you?

Matt Bulloch (01:08:52.102)
Hey, I’m pretty easy to find on LinkedIn. You can find me on Facebook, on Instagram. You can also go to the Sentry Covers website as we’re figuring out this business. If you are a automatic pool cover installer, we have a great system. But yeah, sentrycovers .com. And so the Sentry pays homage to my service, my veteran status, and then this idea of protecting.

Anthony Codispoti (01:09:07.338)
And is that just sentrycovers .com? Okay.

Matt Bulloch (01:09:20.006)
the pool and protecting your family from.

Anthony Codispoti (01:09:23.178)
And there’s sort of a recurring theme here in our conversation. I get the sense you’re very high on made in America. For obvious reasons, yeah.

Matt Bulloch (01:09:33.094)
Yeah, I think, you know, kind of this paradigm over the past 20 or 25 years that we can just outsource all manufacturing to low wage countries and, you know, everyone will engage in thought work. I just, it never really made sense to me. And I think that, you know, in a smaller town, like where I live, manufacturing is a base industry where we’re taking people and raw material and using our,

smarts and work to transform it into something that we sell out of the area. And then we bring dollars back to the area that people use to buy houses and to send their kids to dance class and to go out to dinner. And I do think for a nation to be strong, that we have to actually make things. We can’t just outsource our industrial production. It is my opinion. Some smart people disagree with me, but it’s…

Yeah, I think countries have to be able to make things.

Anthony Codispoti (01:10:33.385)
And I think there’s a lot more people who agree with you after going through the COVID experience, right? Where there were so many shortages and really important components, raw materials, finished goods, that really hamstrung a lot of industries and a lot of consumers who weren’t able to get the products that they need. So one last thing before I ask the last question, just want to invite people if you enjoyed today’s content. And I believe that you did because you made it through the entire interview.

Please hit the like, share, or subscribe button on your favorite podcast app. So Matt, that’s the question for you. I’m kind of curious, as you look into your crystal ball, how do you see your industry evolving in the next five years? What do you think the big changes are that are coming?

Matt Bulloch (01:11:15.91)
So in the outdoor advertising industry, I think there will be a shift towards LED. You know, it’s happened a lot indoors where you used to walk through the airport and there would be, you know, some sort of print, either a vinyl print or a fabric print stretched in a frame. And a lot of that has gone to LED now. And I think as the LEDs get cheaper,

and thinner and more flexible, I think there will be more incorporation of LED and outdoor events. And so we’re with my leadership team trying to think about how to get ahead of the curve there. And then with kind of small manufacturing businesses, I do think that there will continue to be these transitions. And so, you know, my hope is eventually to build a constellation of manufacturing companies, maybe where we could share systems or people.

or ideas or labor share. If my company is really busy in the summer and company number two is busier in the winter and you can move people around. And so I think that, you know, that wealth transfer and that business transfer is happening, you know, right now. And I want to be a part of it.

Anthony Codispoti (01:12:28.104)
Terrific. Hey, Matt, I want to be the first one to thank you for sharing your story today. I really appreciate it.

Matt Bulloch (01:12:33.414)
Hey, thank you for inviting me on the podcast. This was fun. Sorry that I monologued a lot. I hope my answers weren’t 20 times longer than what you were expecting.

Anthony Codispoti (01:12:42.536)
You were spot on, spot on. Well, folks, that’s a wrap of another episode of the Inspired Stories Podcast. Thanks for learning with us today.