By Lynne Beverly Strang, Late-Blooming Entrepreneurs
Jim Cowen, 64, has loved cars and collected auto-related memorabilia for as long as he can remember. When he reached his 50s, the Chicago-area consultant decided to turn his passion into a business that serves diecast model car collectors like himself. In this interview, Jim describes his entrepreneurial journey and shares some lessons learned about turning a lifelong hobby into a rewarding business.
Why did you want to start your own business?
Working in the corporate world wasn’t for me. During the late 1980s through the mid-90s, I founded or participated in several startups that provided accounting or consulting services. Some failed, some were bought out. But I learned something from each of these experiences.
In 2003, I started Aqubanc LLC, a Chicago-based consultancy that offers donation processing, gift entry and operational/administrative solutions for U.S. and Canadian homeless shelters, food banks and faith-based organizations. Today, Aqubanc continues to thrive, which is gratifying to see.
How did you make the leap to model cars?
Most of Aqubanc’s clients don’t have the time for consulting from October through mid-February. As a result, I didn’t have much to do during those months and became bored.
Being retired doesn’t interest me. I’ve always loved cars and collected model cars off and on for years. At one point, I was trying to buy a 1:12 scale Lotus and noticed a disparity in prices of about $100. That gave me the idea of becoming a scale-model retailer, which would allow me to mix my lifelong hobby with business.
I didn’t want to just set up a website to sell products. I also wanted to give back to nonprofits where even a small donation of $50 or so would make a big impact on their ability to serve others.
In 2007, I founded Diecasm, an online retailer of scale models. Diecasm donates 10% of its sales revenues to homeless shelters and other nonprofits that are mostly Aqubanc’s clients. I chose the name “Diecasm” because it reflects our mission is to close the gap, or chasm, between diecast model car collectors and deserving nonprofits.
So you started as a model car retailer. How did you morph into a manufacturer?
After Diecasm’s launch, one of the first non-Aqubanc organizations I contacted was the Collectors Foundation, (now the RPM Foundation) which teaches youth how to work on classic cars. That’s how I met Raffi Minasian, a Collectors Foundation board member who happened to be the ex-Engineering and Design Director for the Franklin Mint.
Raffi and I arranged to meet in-person because I was looking for a way to create a model of a car I had owned. During our first meeting, we ended up laying out a plan for a business entity that would produce resin-cast, hand-built models in a 1:43 scale.
In 2009, I launched Automodello with Raffi as my primary business partner. I chose Automodello as the name because it’s memorable and plays well in multiple languages. In 2010, we released our inaugural model – a 1964 Griffith Series 200 — at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. The models were signed by Andrew “Jack” Griffith, founder of the Griffith sports car that uses rolling chassis imported from TVR in the UK. Since then, we’ve continued to work closely with auto and racing legends and used the Automodello brand to honor their achievements.
How much have Diecasm and Automodello grown over the years?
At first, Diecasm was a hobby that let me travel to car shows all over the world, from Monterey to Paris. After 18 months, Diecasm had become a full-fledged online retailer. I would have stayed in retailing if I hadn’t met Raffi. Teaming up with him is what gave me the opportunity to expand into manufacturing.
Today, Diecasm, LLC is the corporate entity and Automodello is the brand. Automodello has about 25 dealers worldwide, though we’ve had as many as 50. Over time, dealers have been cut for not adhering to Automodello standards and rules, or simply because they weren’t selling sufficient product to be dealers.
Up until about 2015, you couldn’t buy an Automodello model from Automodello directly. Instead you had to go through Diecasm or another Automodello dealer. This became confusing, especially when models were being reviewed by the media. So around 2015 or 2016, Automodello went from being an information-only site into an e-commerce platform. This made it a lot easier for both the media and customers to find Automodello.
What were the key things that enabled you to convert your passion/hobby into a viable business?
I had a successful consulting business (Aqubanc) that enabled me to self-fund the startup investments for both Diecasm and Automodello. Over time, I’ve been able to establish credit for Diecasm with Kabbage and PayPal Working Capital to fund the engineering and inventory for Automodello with less reliance on Aqubanc.
I have an MBA in Finance. Looking at it pragmatically, I don’t think the MBA helped much. It was more the mellowing of me and recognizing what I can – and can’t – do by myself.
Do you think you could have started a business when you were in your 20s or 30s?
I tried and pretty much failed miserably. In my 20s, I was arrogant and self-centered. It wasn’t till I was immersed in business development that I was able to divest myself of these qualities (laughter). I guess it is a humbling that comes with age.
What do you enjoy the most – and the least – about being a business owner?
I enjoy choosing and developing a new car model and talking with other collectors from all over the world. My least favorite part is the paperwork.
What’s next for you?
With our recent agreement with GM for licensing, we’ll be selling and manufacturing many more models for GM cars over the next five years. I am always open to possible new endeavors, though I’d like them to be related to Automodello or Aqubanc.
Any suggestions for someone who wants to start a business later in life?
Use referrals to find good people. That’s how I recruited a team with the expertise I needed to operate my businesses. With Diecasm, and especially Automodello, I initially lacked about 80-90% of the expertise, though I did know how to build dealer channels and finance product development. The rest required experts.
Be honest with your business partners. In one of my earlier endeavors, my business partner and I kept getting turned down for financing. It wasn’t until he finally told me about a personal bankruptcy that I knew why.
Get a lot of sleep before you start. Entrepreneurship takes a lot of work. Whatever you estimate for time and effort, quadruple it.