Getting Personal with the Man on the Bouncing Ball
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of spending time with Matt, our CEO, at a trade show or In-House Training, you’ve experienced something unique. He has an infectious personality, exudes creativity and idealism, and spreads motivation and encouragement. He rarely slows down and seems to always have a constant current of energy.
If you’ve read how he and Laureen started The Rhinestone World, your heart-strings were probably tugged a bit and you felt inspired to go for your dreams. Like, if he can build a business from his bedroom and make it what it is today, leaving his teaching job behind, then you can start your own business, too. Theirs a real-life story of dreams coming true. The thing is, none of it is BS; it’s all genuine.
What isn’t as known are the struggles and sacrifices that occurred, and sometimes still do, along the way. The ambition of starting a company and being your own boss is romantic. Matt just wanted a second income. What he got was a lot of responsibility, some stressful times, and a ton to be grateful for. To say the least, he’s gotten extremely good at balancing it all. However, he’s humble enough to deny it.
“We sold one of our cars, we shared a car and had a kid…when one of us did need to go somewhere, the other was home with our infant. If something were to happen during that time, we wouldn’t have had a car to get anywhere.” Matt confessed. “Things that people don’t know is we were getting ready to sign papers to foreclose on our house. We ate peanut butter and jelly and grilled cheese sandwiches for literally over a year. All of those things are things I don’t mention because I don’t want it to be a sob story.”
Yet, it worked out. How? Not luck. Mostly, it had to do with his determination and a strong support system that stemmed from true partnership between Matt and Laureen, and helping hands from family. But that, in itself, can cause or lead to a mountain of challenges.
The Family Dynamic
In the early days, Matt spent any time he wasn’t teaching working on the producing and selling products while Laureen managed the inventory and administrative side of their infant business, while together raising a real infant. For large orders, Matt’s mom, Barb would stop by the garage and help weed vinyl and turn stones. To this day, she still stops by the storefront and chips in.
Matt’s brother-in-law, Dan Ferber, is the Vice President of Operations. Since Dan grew up in a family-run business and had experience managing franchises, Matt said it was a no-brainer to bring him on board. In fact, a large number of the employees who work or have worked at The Rhinestone World had an early connection to Matt or Laureen, either being a former student or friend.
As a business owner or manager, that can either seem like a dream come true or a complete nightmare. Matt will even joke if you ask him for advice on working with family and say, “Don’t do it.” But honestly, he confessed, he couldn’t imagine not having this as a family business.
“Family is easier (than employees). With my mom or Dan, I know they’re going to do what I ask them to do. With employees, you never know what you’re going to get,” Matt said.
He’s still learning to be a good boss, he continued.
“The hardest part is, what I always try to do is – and it often backfires – is give people as much freedom as I can and not micromanage everything. The problem is, you want to know your employees, to have a relationship with them, but when you get to this point where you have 30 employees, and you’re also trying to run a business, but you’re also trying to run your family, but you’re also trying to do all these things, then feel like (explicit) because you have an employee that’s been here a week and you still don’t know their name.”
Why does Matt sit on a stability ball during videos? He’s practicing his balance.
Laureen and Matt decided when the business was rendering a yearly income of $25,000 (Matt’s teaching salary at the time was $32,000), then he’d leave teaching to focus solely on the expansion of the business.
When that time came, it was another trial of sacrifice and survival. The monthly paychecks weren’t coming in and there wasn’t a sure income. Some months, they’d make $600 and others would peak to $6,000.
“If things didn’t work out the way I thought, I was going to have a $25,000 salary with a kid,” he recalled.
Like many new business owners, Matt wanted a plan B…C, D, E, F, and so on…incase vinyl and rhinestones failed. He said he got so good at doing decals and then really good at t-shirts, so they thought they’d try other aspects of the industry, too. Matt incorporated sublimation and then embroidery, along with a few other things, until the things he was once great at were just “Ok” and everything else in the business became mediocre.
It was another valuable, but stressful lesson. And if you’ve attended one of Matt’s seminars at a show you know he isn’t shy about sharing his personal pitfalls.
“Basically, be the best at a specific thing. I chose vinyl cutters because you can do many markets. Focus on your niche and expand slowly; and focus on businesses and large orders. You won’t make a profit doing single item orders every time,” Matt said.
Moral of the story: Master balance. It requires balance to run a business; to run a family; to run a life. And even more balance to run them all together.
At this point, Matt has the flexibility to leave the office at 3pm, pick up the kids from school, and spend some time with the family, leaving the business at the warehouse for the 30 employees to handle until the next business day. But Matt doesn’t know how to do that. Once the kids are in bed, he goes back to work in his home office until two-in-the-morning.
Whether on a family cruise, skiing in the mountains, or Valentine’s Day dinner with Laureen, the business is a part of the family and goes where they go. It’s something the Vassallo’s have all learned to balance.
The Rhinestone World is more than a business to Matt. It’s more than customers and sales, profits and losses, employees and responsibilities. This business is personal, and that has helped make it as successful as it is.
“I don’t draw the line. One of the main things I always tried to do was be as honest as possible with all of our customers, and to basically treat our customers and staff like family,” Matt explained. “If I’m treating them like family, they need to know my family.”
Finding and maintaining balance is not a minor task when you’re a CEO, a teacher, a family member, a parent, a spouse, and an individual. It requires sacrifices, making hard decisions, staying positive, stretching yourself thin at times, and knowing your limits. Trading in an office chair for a stability ball seems to help, too.