When Rick Bulan saw a news story about workers replacing the Golden Gate Bridge's pedestrian handrails, all he could think about was how the steel would make a cool headboard.
"It was purely selfish," says Bulan, whose job at the time involved logistics for trade shows. "I went and called the news station, found out where the rails went, and made one for myself. Then I had lots of extra steel to make more headboards."
The result? Golden Gate Design and Furniture, his San Francisco-based business launched in 1994 to fashion items like picture frames, end tables, cufflinks, lamps, and, yes, headboards from the iconic landmark's scrap metal.
A Bay Area native, Bulan barely thought twice about ditching the trade show job and following his entrepreneurial instinct. He may have never worked with metal before, but that didn't stop him from taking an arc welding class and experimenting with saws from Home Depot. Sure, he had no experience running a business, but that's why he took a temp job in a marketing department to learn the basics.
"I’m more of a think-outside-the-box kind of guy, and I don’t care what other people think — I just do things," he explains. "That entrepreneurial spirit is just here in San Francisco."
Looking back, that initial leap of faith was significant. "My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, we were actually saving up for a down payment on a house," he says. "Luckily, she was understanding enough that I was going somewhere with this."
At that point, Bulan only purchased a small quantity of steel to make those first headboards. The down payment allowed him to go back to the contractor and buy whatever was left. Bulan soon enlisted a fabrication shop to help with production as he focused more on building out the business side.
The branding process, on the other hand, has always been simple. Bulan knew that preserving the steel's industrial aesthetic and iconic International Orange paint would be the lynchpin of his sales value proposition: "I’m not selling the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m selling the emotional tie to San Francisco. It's memories and feelings and all of that. That's kind of what it represents."
[Hello Alice Guide: Communicate Your Value Proposition]
Word of mouth has been a powerful sales driver, and Bulan has taken out space in design magazines since the beginning. But at the end of the day, he says "it doesn't take much convincing" once customers see the product. Sales are good these days — better than before COVID, in fact, as people "feather their nest" during quarantine.
This success means that Bulan has finally stopped fretting over the details.
"I used to be really slow to put stuff online," he says. "I wanted professional photos, and I wanted it to be just right. I would end up doing nothing because I was waiting for things to line up. After several years, you realize it’s never going to be perfect. Throw it up, and improve as you go. A lot of the time, people don’t care that it’s raw and unpolished."
[Hello Alice Guide: Perfect Your E-Commerce Presence]
Another lesson involves marketing. While that temp job taught him where and how to buy ads, Bulan has spent big on placements that drove little to no sales. These days his approach is more scientific, validating strategies on a small scale before investing significant resources. The transition to digital ads has allowed him to get more precise with these tactics.
"For Facebook, we narrowed the search market to certain geographic locations so we don’t just advertise to all of the U.S. or California. We’ll do certain cities and people who like Golden Gate Bridge," he says. "Another one of the things that our customers like is tech, so we'll target those common interests to discover people who will like our stuff."
[Hello Alice Guide: Develop Your Marketing Strategy]
It's not lost on Bulan that his business is one with an expiration date. After nearly three decades in business, Golden Gate Design and Furniture is nearing the end of its steel supply. The exact deadline moves back and forth depending on the size of the product Bulan puts out — later if he sells mostly earrings, sooner if folks order steel dining tables — but he's prepared to one day put this business aside and start anew.
What will that next business be? Bulan says he'll let us know when an idea comes to him. In the meantime, he'll spend his days skiing, volunteering in his community, and just living his life with the confidence that the right business opportunity will present itself.
"I don’t think business ideas come from sitting in a quiet room with a computer," he says. "It comes from life and going through your everyday stuff. The trick is to act on it, and a lot of people don’t do that."
Are you ready to act on your next great business idea? Check out the Hello Alice Write a Business Plan Guide to get your new venture off to a solid start.