Thirty-five candy machines, three “Noes” from local barbers and a hodgepodge of garage sale items to list on eBay. These are what led Northwest Missouri State University junior Kyle Richards and two of his friends to take their fall semester off of school.
“I always had the mindset that I wanted to be my own boss and just kind of pave my own destiny,” Richards said.
Growing up, the young entrepreneur sold items on eBay as a source of additional income while working in retail. In February, Richards and his friends Derick Thornton and Dade Sprague put their minds and their savings together to form RTS Trio, a startup that manages vending machines, a rental property and an expansive eBay store.
“We all jumped in together and bought like 35 candy machines,” he said.
Hopeful, Richards went to a barbershop in attempt to find a home for his vending machines.
“I got told ‘No, no, no,’ right after each other,” he said.
Once “Noes” turned to “Yeses” and the vending machines were operating throughout Maryville, the three friends bought a rental property. Meanwhile, they continued to build their inventory of garage sale items for eBay.
Hear more: Listen to the story of RTS Trio on the Speaking Startup podcast
RTS Trio is on a trajectory not unlike some of Maryville’s big employers, said Josh McKim, CEO of the Nodaway County Economic Development Corp.
“Every small town has some story about a business that started out small and grew into something a little bit larger,” he said. “Some of our larger businesses that are here today are only here today because somebody took an entrepreneurial risk, went out and ventured and did something, and it grew over time.”
RTS Trio took that risk and is showing potential to be something larger. The eBay store, which generates 90% of the business’ total revenue, is growing. The best-selling product? Video games.
“We know a lot about video games; we play video games,” Richards said. “The popularity for video games is only on the rise. So, it’s a good market that’s not gonna die out anytime soon.”
Between its various business ventures, RTS Trio has generated nearly $80,000 in revenue since its founding in February and has found ways to expand amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Jill Brown, who works in career services at Northwest Missouri State University, said the pandemic’s persistence is differentiating Maryville’s small businesses.
“It’s really starting to sort out people who figured out how to maximize the pandemic, and those that have just, you know, put a pin in it, like, ‘I’m just gonna hold and get back to this when it’s over,'” Brown said.
With so many moving parts, RTS Trio has experienced both sides. Richards said the company has been fortunate and unfortunate at the same time during the pandemic.
When COVID-19 hit Maryville, the flow of income provided by the vending machines dried up. But with the world stuck inside, Richards said online sales nearly doubled.
“Video game prices went up,” he said. “Sales went up.”
In mid-July, as COVID-19 cases increased, so did business. Looking to expand, Richards and his co-founders found opportunity in the neighboring city of St. Joseph, where the owner of the video game store Game X Change was nearing retirement.
“He said we reminded him of himself when he was younger, and so we were actually able to purchase out the entire inventory of the store,” Richards said.
A down payment of $10,000 on an inventory valued at $80,000 helped RTS Trio increase its supply twentyfold.
“Having that opportunity just really pushed what our capabilities were,” Richards said.
Understanding customer preferences has helped the business make sales, Richards said.
“For our older items, our demographic we thought was going to be people our age. However, it’s more people who are in their mid-30s, 40s that are buying the games for nostalgic values to show their kids, or they’re collecting because they had them when they were younger,” Richards said. “But, for newer games, like Xbox One, Switch, PS4, our main demographic is mainly teenagers.”
That sense of nostalgia fosters a unique experience for customers, an entrepreneurial tactic McKim said is becoming more prominent.
“Retail has kind of moved toward an experiential atmosphere,” he said. “And if you can grab ahold of that somehow, whether that be understanding your customer or providing just a unique atmosphere that’s different, you’re gonna hit a home run.”
Brown stresses the importance of building relationships to entrepreneurial success.
“So many of the jobs we’re going to get or careers we’re going to have are going to be because of people who know us and people who know what we’re good at,” she said.
The relationships Richards has built have helped him gain loyal customers from California all the way to Virginia. He’s also built partnerships with fellow Northwest Missouri students who help the startup with marketing.
But understanding customer needs, providing a unique experience and building strong relationships require time — something Brown said is in short supply for college students. According to Richards, he and his co-founders spend 40 to 60 hours a week managing RTS Trio.
“So we kind of decided to take the semester off,” he said, “because we realize we’re really passionate about what we’re doing, and that our career paths are kind of changing.”
In hopes of turning that passion into a career, Richards and his partners plan to open a brick and mortar store with a gaming lounge once the pandemic slows. Richards is willing to take risks, but they must be calculated. Until the time is right, the trio will continue to sell on eBay and bring in revenue with the vending machines and rental property.
Inspired by TED Talks growing up, Richards hopes to use his experience to inspire future generations.
“I’d like to get to a point where I could give these speeches to, like, high school students and maybe troubled youth, that there’s other options out there for them,” he said. “And if they’re really passionate about something, they shouldn’t listen to what all they’ve been told about what’s possible. Because, in actuality, anything’s possible if you’re able to put hard work and your mind behind it.”