We had the good fortune of connecting with David Stankunas and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi David, have there been any changes in how you think about work-life balance?
Early on in my career, there was no work-life balance for me, there was only work. Back then, I believed that work and life were one and the same. I was focused entirely on building my businesses. Entrepreneurship was my life, my identity…pretty much my everything. As I’ve grown older, my businesses remain an important part of my life, but are no longer the most important thing, and they certainly aren’t the only thing.
For a bit of background, when I first started my novelty headwear company, Beard Head, in 2008, I was 27 years old, single, and still living in a cramped apartment with a bunch of roommates. I also owned two other businesses, PokerBling – a replica poker jewelry company, and Nom Nom Truck – a popular LA food truck. During those years, I was probably working 80 to 100-hour weeks and was running myself absolutely ragged. The food truck was especially hard work, since it required me to be physically on the truck, prepping, cooking, driving, cleaning, etc… As anyone who has worked in food service knows, it can be incredibly stressful and very unforgiving. The oppressive workload took its toll on me both mentally and physically, at one point losing close to 20 pounds in less than a month due to stress. Nevertheless, despite the heavy workload, I felt very fulfilled.
Looking back, I think I pushed myself so hard in my early years because I felt I had something to prove. In my twenties, I left a steady corporate salary to pursue my passion for entrepreneurship. I wanted to prove to myself that I was a “real entrepreneur,” not just some fake “want-repreneur” with an inflated ego and dreams of “being his own boss.” I recall constantly reading stories about entrepreneurs finally getting their big break after years of struggling–the lesson being if it weren’t for their sheer grit and determination to pull through while facing near insurmountable challenges, they would have never made it. In a sense, I felt like pushing myself to the absolute brink was a rite of passage to becoming a “real entrepreneur,” and anything less would mean I wasn’t really serious.
Today, I have a much more relaxed approach to work, and there’s a clear separation between my personal life and my work life. I think one of the most important steps I took to create that separation was finally leasing a separate office space, outside of my home. Now I almost never even think about work once I leave my office, whereas before, work thoughts were a constant distraction no matter where I was or what I was doing. While I may still occasionally log an 80- hour week here and there, it’s no longer the norm, and I definitely don’t feel the obligation to work long hours if it’s not necessary.
Despite a shift in my approach to work-life balance over time, I think there certainly was some benefit to my breakneck pace and extreme focus on work during my earlier years. After all, I currently own two successful businesses, and now enjoy a relatively comfortable life as a result. However, these days I have new priorities – namely my 2-year old son, Grey, and my lovely wife, Shamrock. In order to free up more time and mental energy to spend with my family, I’ve recently prioritized improving efficiencies and automation in my businesses, and focused more on profitability and consistent cash flow, rather than growth.
There’s a lot more balance to my life these days, which feels right. Years ago, when things were tilted almost completely towards work, that also felt right at the time. At the end of the day, I can’t really be anything but grateful for how things played out, because it got me to where I am now.
What should our readers know about your business?
Beard Head is a line of hats and beanies with detachable knit beard facemasks. They keep your face warm, and protect it from cold wind, rain, and snow. We have more than 200 different Beard Head designs, and are constantly introducing new, fun, and creative products.
Zoo Snoods is a line of knit hats/costumes for pets that are both fun and functional. Zoo Snoods keep your pet warm, and their ears protected from mud and moisture…and look adorable! We have a wide variety of animal designs for our snoods, including a Lion, Grizzly Bear, Baby Alien, Unicorn, and many more!
I’m really excited about how much Zoo Snoods has grown since the brand launched a few years ago. I used to worry that Beard Head’s success was just a lucky fluke, and I would never be able to recreate the same level of achievement again. But with Zoo Snoods’ success, I proved to myself that I may actually know how to run a business after all, and I must be doing something right!
I believe one of the keys to Beard Head and Zoo Snoods’ success has been our ability to adapt to changing markets. Over the years, we’ve gone through several business model changes – from a sole focus on direct sales through our Website when we were first starting, to focusing almost entirely on growing our wholesale business and acquiring large retail accounts, then reducing our wholesale footprint and switching to building our Amazon presence, and now a mix of Amazon and re-emphasis on direct sales through our Website, with some smaller wholesale accounts mixed in. Throughout it all, we gained valuable experience across a variety of sales channels and business models. Should the market dictate another change, we’ll be ready!
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Obviously, things are a little different nowadays, due to the pandemic. Even after we get through all of this, I imagine Los Angeles is going to be a markedly different place than it was pre-pandemic for quite some time. But assuming a full recovery, and LA returns back to its bright, vibrant self, my absolute favorite thing to do with people visiting from out of town is to head down to Santa Monica, rent some beach cruisers, and ride along the beach from Santa Monica to the end of Venice. The ocean, the palm trees, the rollerbladers, the skate park, the basketball courts, the drum circles, Muscle Beach…To me, this area is the quintessential Los Angeles — the classic idealized Los Angeles you may have seen on TV growing up. Unfortunately, nowadays this area has been deeply affected by the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles (made worse by the pandemic), so it may take some time before it fully recovers.
If we’re making an itinerary, I’d tack on a quick visit to Abbott Kinney once we got to Venice, and maybe grab a beer and a bite to eat while we’re there. Then it’s back to Santa Monica to return the bike rentals, and a short visit to Santa Monica Pier for a ride on the Ferris wheel.
Sticking to the Westside, another thing I love to do is take a drive down PCH through Malibu, all the way up to Neptune’s Net (popularized in the original Fast and Furious movie) near Zuma Beach. It’s a beautiful drive, and grabbing lunch at Neptune’s Net has become a tradition for my friends and me whenever there’s a new Fast and Furious movie release.
Some other (pre-pandemic) favorite activities of mine include rooftop bar-hopping in DTLA, followed by late-night tacos and carne asada fries from a Danny’s Tacos Truck (there are a lot of them, but the truck on 8th and Olive is my favorite), sharing dim sum for brunch at NBC Seafood in Monterey Park, tailgating a UCLA football game at the Rose Bowl on top of manicured golf course greens (make sure to bring a BBQ and plenty of beer), going for a hike at Runyon Canyon for potential celeb-spotting, or trekking through Eaton Canyon for a glimpse at one of LA’s better waterfalls.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
No one deserves more credit for my success than my parents, Al and Thu Stankunas (still married and going strong after more than 40 years together!). I grew up in the Bay Area, the second child of two engineers, in what most would consider a solidly upper-middle class household. Both my parents worked incredibly hard to provide a stable and supportive family life for my sister and me. I’ll be the first to admit that as a teenager, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to be raised in such a privileged situation. Embarrassingly, it wasn’t until I was in my 30’s before I came to truly appreciate everything my parents did for me growing up. I never had to worry about having food to eat, clothes to wear, or a safe place to go home to every day. I never had to worry about how I would pay for college, books, or rent while I was in school. Perhaps most importantly, I never had to worry if my parents loved me. It breaks my heart to say this, but for some kids, that may not always be the case.
One more thing I never had to worry about is failure. Growing up in a stable, loving environment gave me the confidence I needed to pursue my dreams of entrepreneurship, and the security of knowing that if I failed, I would still have my parents’ support.
I also want to give a shout out to my accountability group, “JAMDS,” which started out as a group of five fellow entrepreneurs charged with keeping each other on task, but ended up becoming a much more important source of support, inspiration, and friendship than I could have ever imagined. Starting and running a business can be a difficult and lonely undertaking. Connecting with other like-minded entrepreneurs and small business owners has been an invaluable way to stay motivated and avoid burnout.