Not many grown men can say they have willingly recieved a pedicure in which their toenails were painted purple. But Kirk Anton can.
Kirk is a Fargo-Moorhead native and founder of Heat Transfer Warehouse, a local startup that makes digital prints for textile decoration. He’s the kind of guy who would get a pedicure, just to say he did it. He’s also traveled to almost every continent, whether doing trade shows or scuba diving expeditions. He is married with two kids, Kaden (9) and Gavin (2) both adopted, coincidentally born on the same day.
And he’s a successful entrepreneur. In the past five years, his company has grown from him sitting with his dog in an empty warehouse making phone calls to a team of nearly 25 employees, with offices in Fargo, Las Vegas, and Cincinnati, and shipping out hundreds of orders a day.
Kirk is also a frequenter of 1 Million Cups, Startup Drinks, and helped to plan the recent awards event 1 Million Thanks. He started up the E-Commerce breakfasts, which continue to bring locals involved in the e-commerce industry together for food and conversation about the trade.
We picked Kirk to be the Guinea pig for the first of many Startup Spotlight features, a segment we are launching here on the blog as a way to get to know local entrepreneurs on a more personal level. A pedicure personal level.
EP: How did you get into doing heat transfer products?
KA: I left Fargo for a while, and when I moved back in 2009, a vendor said, “you should just come in and focus solely on heat transfer materials – it seems like it was a niche for your previous business.” So I thought well either I gotta do something or I’m going to go crazy.
I went with them and did a couple trade shows, feeling out the industry, and saw it was obviously quite big. So I said yeah I’ll do it. We found a warehouse, and started up a website. At first it was just me, I sat in there with my dog -a black lab named Dakota – and we started making phone calls. It was old school. That was in March 2010, and by August I had my first part-time person – AJ McAleer – who helped ship orders.
Back then it was like, oh ok we got 5 orders. Today we have 167 and it’s like, alright this is kinda slow. It’s crazy how we’ve grown in the past 5 years. [Heat Transfer Warehouse will be 5 years old this March.]
EP: You mentioned you have started other companies – what were they?
KA: I started Far From Normal, a sign supply place out in Fargo. It’s still going. I left because I thought, I’ve always been in Fargo, I gotta go see the world. I’ve traveled but I just got to go – maybe even to see how well I like Fargo.
EP: Where did you go?
KA: We moved to San Antonio, TX, and I went into the AIR National Guard when I was 34. I’d never been in the military but always wanted to serve. My wife calls it my mid-life crisis. So I went through that, went through boot camp, and I did that for 3 years. I got an early-out.
EP: Did you enjoy that time?
KA: Yeah I liked it… the other part of it was the military was hard for me being an entrepreneur. You have a hard time understanding why they do some things. When we actually did our job it was great. It was a great experience and I did it. I gave back.
EP: What are some of your hobbies?
KA: Work seems to be my hobby right now. And my kids are my hobbies. I also like running, because wherever I travel I can run. I help out with the Fargo Marathon every year.
My kids are also getting older now so I can get back into scuba diving. I used to be a scuba instructor. This summer my son is saying, “Dad, I want to go underwater I want to see the fish.” Other than that, I like to jet ski, and to travel.
EP: As someone who’s been all over the planet, where is the coolest place you’ve traveled?
A: Tough question. I’ve been to the Caribbean, and I love it. It’s so laid back. In the US, there’s so many unique areas I can’t say I have a favorite. I love Key West, to me that’s like the American Caribbean. My wife and I love Boston and the New England area. With my son I’ve been to Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco. I was in Germany last year for a show. I love Australia, been there a few times. I’d say I like Australia best.
I’ve been to almost every continent now besides Antarctica and Africa. That’s something I want to give my kids is the education of travel. So they understand there’s a lot of different things in the world. I was in Seattle with my son and he asked me why people were sleeping on benches, and not in a hotel like us. And I told him it’s because we’re fortunate that way. We have to be thankful.
EP: Do you have a favorite book?
Brad Taylor is my fiction guy. Same character throughout, secret Ops, military guy. Action thriller stuff. That’s my book. Non-fiction, I read American Sniper. I can’t wait to see the movie.
EP: Favorite movie?
KA: I love James Bond. Fast and the Furious. I can’t say there’s just one. I just watched Shawshank Redemption, to me that’s like a cool movie, with a lot of thought.
EP: You mentioned you went to college. Where did you go?
KA: I went to MSUM [Minnesota State University Moorhead] for two years and got bored. I was working already so I just got bored and left. I taught scuba diving through the college too. Then they cut my program so after that I left and figured I could do something.
EP: How do you feel about that decision in retrospect?
KA: For me it was a good move. Most entrepreneurs I know are working and that has nothing to do with what they’re degree is. I’d like my son to try to get a degree, but if he doesn’t and comes out with something better he likes to do, then I’m okay with it. If he says he’s happy doing whatever, I can’t argue with it. College isn’t for everyone. But I think everyone should go for at least one year. That’s my advice.
EP: What’s your advice for entrepreneurs today?
KA: Surround your people with good people. People with expertise that are 100% in it. I’ve created an advisory board so I have Jake from Myriad Mobile – he’s tech savvy, he knows way more than I would know. I have a finance guy who comes around. We have meetings where Dr. Sue Beth sits with us and I share, here’s what we’re doing, here’s our problems.
My advice is do not try to go it alone, because it’s very lonely out there. Surround yourself with people that you know and trust. It will help guide you and avoid pitfalls.
Go to 1 Million Cups, Go to Startup Drinks. Go get people to hang out. That will help you succeed. I think I’ve succeeded and feel a lot less stressful because I did it this way.
That’s why I’d say I’m probably happiest at this point in my life with what I’m doing – I’m in a faster paced, higher growth than I’ve ever had before, just because I’ve surrounded myself with other people who have done it this way.
EP: Are you glad you moved back to Fargo to start Heat Transfer Warehouse?
KA: I love it. Fargo has changed so much – when I left in 2006, it was so different. Now it’s way better. I’m having the best time and love what I’m doing more than I have in the past 20 years. I’m having more fun now then I ever was.
EP: And as for that pedicure…?
KA: Every quarter we give each office money to just go do something with the team. Just for fun. We’ve done ball games, shooting range, and Skyzone is next. Tomorrow we have a Christmas party where we all dress up in 1920’s clothes and have a script we’re all a part of.
One time we went and did pedicures ’cause the women of our office wanted to. So I said, why not? All the men went too. I said, “I gotta do it once ’cause at least I can say I did it.” That’s my rule.
EP: What did you think?
KA: I thought it was awesome. The guys were a little hesitant at first; I was the only one who got my toes painted. They were purple. I didn’t think anyone would see it, but the next day I was wearing sandals and happened to run into my new neighbor. I know he saw them but he didn’t say anything. My son saw them and said, “Pretty!”
But overall it was very relaxing. I’d definitely do it again.
Thanks for sharing, Kirk! Look for the next Startup Spotlight, coming in February!
Read more about Heat Transfer Warehouse, here.
Photos courtesy of Marisa Jackels.
Interview has been edited and condensed.