We always discuss the importance of your environment and how your surroundings can either foster your growth or keep it stagnant. In some cases, it can even lead to death which is what Aaron Singerman encountered while growing up. Aaron always had a passion for fitness and nutrition, but a bad group of friends lead him down the road to drug use. From being around these same individuals, Aaron witnessed the deterioration and death of his close friends and knew he immediately had to make a lifestyle change. One opportunity lead to another and years later, Aaron along with co-founder PJ Braun, is now the co-founder of Black Stone Labs, a nutritional supplement company that does over $20 million annually.
Tell us a little bit about Blackstone Labs and Prime Nutrition
Blackstone Labs and Prime Nutrition are two nutrition companies that I and co-founder/president PJ Braun started. Basically they are two brands: Blackstone Labs is more of the bodybuilding results centric brand while Prime Nutrition focuses more on health, wellness, rejuvenation, and living longer. People looking for results over anything else or bodybuilders and athletes who are looking for the edge will go to Blackstone Labs. Prime Nutrition also focuses on results, but we don’t use artificial sweeteners or proprietary blends in a lot of the products. It’s more of health-oriented results.
We also use two very different business approaches – Blackstone Labs is a direct model where we sell directly to businesses and consumers straight off the website; whereas Prime Nutrition is mainly distribution-based. We’re in Vitamin Shoppe, and over 100 countries. Although we do sell direct off the site, it’s a very, very small part of that business.
These days, it’s hard to know what you put in your body and what’s in a product. The idea is that with our product, they know they are getting quality, they know what they are getting, and they know what they are putting in their body. People can rest assured that they are getting a high quality product at Prime Nutrition.
Can you tell us about your beginnings as an entrepreneur?
I grew up in Metairie, Louisiana, which is a suburb above New Orleans. My parents have been together now for almost 40 years, and I have a little sister who is a nurse. We had a very nice upbringing, and I didn’t really have a lot of challenges. Most of the challenges that I did have were self-imposed challenges, because I was not an easy child growing up. My dad owned his own business that he inherited from my grandfather. In the days when there are a lot of “mom-and-pop” stores, they had a jewelry store, a clothing store, a women’s purse store, and all these things slowly disappeared. Banana Republic replaced my dad’s men clothing store.
By the time I was in high school, they were surviving, but it wasn’t exactly feast or famine. I got to see my family run their own business, and I think a lot of my business acumen was developed by seeing the foundations of what it takes to run a good business, how you treat your employees, how you treat your customers, etc. However, I’m a very unlikely entrepreneur, because I was not a good kid and didn’t do particularly well in school. People always told me “You have a lot of potential, but you’re an underachiever.” I would take that as a compliment.
I started experimenting with drugs very early, and when I was 13 years old I was already interested in bodybuilding. I would get dropped off at the gym after school, started training with weights, and reading all the muscle magazines. My interest and passion in bodybuilding is the one thing that has followed me throughout my entire life. It’s led me to where I am now.
What was the first real job you had?
I started working for my dad when I was 12-years-old at Country Fair, the men’s clothing store he owned. I would go in and fold the clothes on the racks. I was very big at age 12; about 6’ tall, so I looked like I was a 16-year-old when I was really only 12-years-old. I enjoyed working for my dad. He wasn’t really in the store often, so I worked for the manager at that the time, and they put up with me because I was the owner’s kid.
Later on in life when I was about 16 or 17-years-old, I worked all kinds of jobs. I was a waiter, a terrible waiter, and I got fired a lot. I had all kinds of little odd jobs, but I got fired from every job because I was not a good employee. I started doing more drugs and hanging out with the wrong people. When I was 25 or 26, it slowed down and fully stopped when I was 27.
What happened at 27-years-old that really made you shift your thinking?
It’s an interesting story. At the time, I was addicted to heroin and injecting cocaine. I was living with a girl who sold the drugs; she was a very unintimidating, tiny little girl who was actually able to move very large quantities of drugs because guys weren’t intimidated by her. She had an ex-boyfriend who had the ability to get a lot of drugs, and when he went to prison he gave her his connection. I was living with her at the time, and one day a lawyer friend who bought drugs from her came over. He was doing drugs, and we were hanging out. I went to the other room with my girlfriend, but when I came back he had died. He was lying on the couch, and I tried to wake him up but he was dead. I remember thinking to myself “How could this happen?” I see it in the movies, but to see this guy right there that I’m friends with was dead.
At that moment a switch went off where I thought, “What am I doing here? How did I get here?” It was like a “eureka” moment. I ran out of the house, got in my car, drove back to my apartment, which I hadn’t been to in months. I locked the door and stayed there for quite a while until I essentially beat the drugs. After that moment, everything has been good.
About a year later, I was in Dillard’s department store shopping and ran into an old friend who used to be a lawyer. I found out that he was now working in the shoe department at Dillard’s after losing his job at the law firm due to drug use. He also told me that my ex-girlfriend had been beaten to death by another drug dealer. Obviously, I felt terrible for her parents and her, but for me it crystallized the fact that it wouldn’t have ended well for me had I stayed with her.
After you beat the drugs, then you started getting your life back together. When does Blackstone Labs and Prime Nutrition start coming into the picture?
I went back to the one thing that I knew the most, which was working out and bodybuilding, so I got a job as a personal trainer in a wellness center in Houston. One of the other personal trainers there had a brand new Porsche; I remember seeing it every morning. I thought to myself, “What am I doing wrong? How does this guy who does the same job as I do have a Porsche?” So one day I asked him what I was doing wrong and how I could get a Porsche of my own. He responded with, “You’ll never get a Porsche.” I was shocked at first, and then a little offended. He continued, “Not here. You’ll never get one working here.” I said, “You have one working here, why can’t I?” He said, “Do you love personal training?” I said, “No.” He said, “I can tell. I love personal training. I look forward to it. I get here at 6AM, I love training the people, I enjoy it, It’s gratifying to me. Over the weekend, I can’t wait to get back to work.”
I definitely didn’t feel that way about personal training, and he pointed out that it was obvious to him and the people I was training. He asked me what I was passionate about and what I loved, and all I could think about was bodybuilding. I internalized that, went home, and started thinking about it. From that moment on, I made the decision to figure out a way to make money in bodybuilding.
I spent every free moment essentially doing anything and everything related to bodybuilding. I would post on all the bodybuilding boards on the internet all day long; I mean thousands and thousands of posts. I was one of the only ones on the internet using my real name as well. I was posting on all these boards, listening to all these radio shows, reading the books, writing the authors. It was an all day long everyday obsession of how I could make money in bodybuilding. I kept personal training obviously to pay the bills, but any free time I had was spent on bodybuilding.
Bodybuilding is a very small industry, but it is very competitive. I wrote to Carl Lanore with Super Human Radio, and his show is more about health and wellness, rejuvenation, etc. I was actually critical and told him that these eye drops he was endorsing wouldn’t work and he needed to get advertisements for products that really work. He actually wrote me back and asked for my number so he could call me. I remember telling my parents, “This guy is going to call me!” I was very excited, so I prepared in my mind what I was going to say to him and all the things that we were going to talk about.
The call went exactly like I imagined it, and by the end of the call (a few hours later) he told me that he thought I was interesting and that I could interview him on his own show. I prepared for this like it was life or death, and I did the interview. I’ve never been on the radio before and afterwards he said, “That was a great interview. What do you really want to do?” I said, “I want to talk about bodybuilding.” He was like, “Let’s do a bodybuilding show. I’ll foot the bill, and you try to find advertisers.” So we launched Off Topic Radio, and did 300 hours of radio together. I found the advertisers, was able to quit my personal training job, and earned big money just doing the radio show.
So you ultimately became a celebrity in the bodybuilding space?
Absolutely. I worked for Rx Muscle which was the leading bodybuilding media site in the world at the time. I started doing a radio show for them and eventually got promoted to editor-in-chief of the website. I traveled the whole world covering bodybuilding shows, and I was able to essentially live the dream that I had when I was 27-years-old.
Rx Muscle didn’t pay super well, so I was able to get people to sponsor me for extra income. I used my position of being in front of the camera: I wore somebody’s t-shirt, I talked about somebody’s product, etc. I ended up getting a bunch of different contracts myself even though I’m not an athlete. I ended up making pretty decent money, about $20,000 a month.
I feel like in everybody’s life there are opportunities, and a lot of times people miss the chance to grasp them. I think what I’ve been really good at is seeing an opportunity and jumping on it. I’m an incredibly decisive person so when I see an opportunity, I just do it.
What was that opportunity you identified that led to the beginning of Blackstone Labs?
I was the marketing director for a company called Iron Mag Labs, which is another supplement company. I was also essentially the sponsored voice of the company, so when I got this opportunity I wanted to bring my best friend and business partner into that opportunity. I was able to convince the owner Robert Dimaggio to bring PJ Braun on as the face of the company, and we became a team kicking ass for him. He even told me at my wedding that bringing me on Iron Mag Labs more than doubled his business, and when he brought PJ on, we doubled his business again.
There was a product called Super DMZ that Robert was worried was going to become illegal. In our business, sometimes gray market ingredients will become illegal and you have to take them off the market. Basically anything that works too well will probably become illegal one day. He wanted to dispose of 7,000 units to protect himself in case it did become illegal, so I told Robert that I would sell them and take the risk myself. PJ and I started a website called SuperDMZ.com and made a new LLC which was Blackstone Labs. We used our marketing background to promote it heavily and were able to sell those 7,000 units in five weeks. We gave Robert his money back and each made $75,000 on top.
The ingredient had not become illegal yet, so PJ and I came up with the plan to use that money we made, buy more units, and give Robert 30% of the company. We bought more of the Super DMZ, sold it, and created a second product, third product, fourth product, fifth product, etc.
A year and a half down the line, we ended up buying Robert DiMaggio out for a pretty sizable amount of money to move him out of the business. Like I said earlier about opportunities, I saw an opportunity to get these bottles and jumped on them. Without that, I don’t know if we would have ever goten the space because my passion was bodybuilding, not nutritional supplements.
We became the best at selling those types of products, and then I started getting concerned about the future of the prohormone business. The writing was on the wall that they were going to be illegal one day whether it was five years from now or four years ago when Robert gave me the bottles; it was going to happen. For Blackstone Labs, we continued to make edgy products that work but didn’t use gray market ingredients. Essentially when the prohormones became illegal, we lost five skus but we had 19.
How did you decide or why did you decide to go from Blackstone Labs into Prime Nutrition?
The first impulse for Prime Nutrition was the prohormones again. Both PJ and I were concerned about what we would do if something terrible were to happen to Blackstone Labs and the whole company was to get shut down. So we started thinking about creating another company that we could build off of the shoulders of Blackstone Labs. There would be no iffy products. There will be no borderline anything. It’s a totally mainstream company with huge potential upside with very little downside, because we have all these relationships and connections.
Why not do a mainstream company? As a result, we were able to offer products that are specifically focused on results, but are comprised of shake and plant ingredients which means they have been approved by the government
The margins with Blackstone Labs were about 35% essentially, but the distribution model of Prime Nutrition being offered at vitamin shops, you’re looking more like 20%. If you’re doing the distribution method and you’re selling at GNC or vitamin shops, you’re invariably going to sell more if you have a good product. It’s much more difficult to get them to the site to buy it in huge quantities.
You’re very structured, but it’s no longer just two guys trying to make stuff.
Exactly, and the truth of the matter is that we have really learned a tremendous amount along the way. PJ and I have both made a lot of mistakes that just come with starting a business and not knowing anything. Now over the period of four years, it’s funny to think about how different we treat business and where we are in life. It shows you that it can be done.
Do you have a rule you live by at work, something that’s really specific to you like a motto?
I guess mine would be to get it done. I want things to get done; check it off. We want to go to the next thing, because there’s no time like the present. I’m a natural born procrastinator so if I delay something and push it off, it may never get done. I have to do it now. It’s incredible to think that nobody can do it all on their own. Everybody, even the President of the United States, has a team of good advisers around him. You can’t know everything. You can’t be the best of everything. PJ and I have been fortunate to find very good people to be around us to help pick up some of the workload and to make some good decisions.
Can you share the approximate revenues for Blackstone Labs and Prime Nutrition, because earlier you shared margins?
I’ll give you the Blackstone Labs story. Our first year, we did $200,000 in sales. The second year we did $1.5 million, and that was the year before last. Last year we did $6 million, and this year we’ll do over $20 million. Prime Nutrition is only 16 months old, and we’re hoping to catch up with Blackstone next year.
The first 12 months of Prime, we did essentially the same as we did in Blackstone’s third year. But definitely, it’s not like I could start from scratch with Prime with the same products and even the same people and get there. It was the relationships that you build over time and then basically the channels of distribution. You meet the right people, and you make the right deals. If you do it right, then you can build off of yourself essentially.
You speak a lot about your partner, PJ, and how you guys have stuck together from day one. Tell me what is the one most important thing of having a great partnership.
I think the key is knowing what both people’s strengths are. I know what PJ’s strengths are, he knows where my strengths are, and we allow each other to do what we’re best at. The other big thing honestly, is try to be as understanding with the other person as possible. PJ and I both have big personalities, so there’s a lot of times where I will back off because you can destroy a business by getting into arguments.
We’re a very close knit office with over 20 guys under one roof, so everybody sees everything. If you have your employees seeing the bosses fight all the time, it’s not going to build a good team. It’s like two parents fighting in front of the children.
PJ and I have obviously been friends for many years, and we are best friends basically. We just make each other better. We complement each other, we’re much funnier together, and we joke around together. There is some kind of synergy that was something that I could feel from the time we started hanging out together. It sounds a little strange, but that’s really the truth.
With all of the obstacles you experienced throughout your life, what was your greatest learning through all these years – as an entrepreneur, as someone who has overcome a lot of adversity, and as someone who has had such a drastic change in life?
One would be to dream big, and to think big. If I look back seven or eight years ago when I was making phone calls to people about bodybuilding, posting on the boards, emailing all the radio show hosts, and reading all the books; to think that I would have been where I am now would have been impossible. I would dream. To make $20,000 a month would have been an absolute ridiculous dream. So the thing that I would tell people is to dream big. Have unrealistic goals. I think unrealistic goals are great. You should shoot for the stars. Go crazy. Even if you don’t tell other people because you’re embarrassed, you should have really lofty goals because the goals that I set for myself, I have accomplished all of them. I write down my goals, and for a long time I would keep a piece of paper in my wallet of all the goals that I set until I ticked them all off.
Another thing is to stay positive, because it’s so easy to become negative; I create a sense of positivity around me. I don’t keep negative people around me. People might say that I’m always happy when I shouldn’t be, but the truth is that people are attracted to positive energy. Employees, business partners, wives, and girlfriends are attracted to it. If you’re a negative person, then you’re exuding this negative energy and people pick up on it. Good things don’t happen to negative people, and the more negative you are, the less likely good things will happen.
I can’t show you any scientific proof, but I’m living proof that if you stay positive and you put out good vibes towards people, (even the physical stuff like doing good things for people and helping people out) good things will happen to you. People will say if you donate to a charity or give someone a present, then you’ll feel good. That’s positivity, and those good things will come back.
How do you differentiate people who are realistic versus people who are negative?
I want to surround myself with people who have the same qualities as me, not necessarily the same vision. If all your friends are shooting for the stars and none of them are realistic, it could be a bad thing where you’ll play off each other and everything is going to take over the world.
It’s easy to mistake thinking somebody who is realistic is also negative. I think that you have to look at the person’s intentions. For example when my mom tells me, “Aaron, you know, maybe you should not get a new Ferrari.” She’s not saying that because she doesn’t want to see me succeed, but instead she’s worried that I’m not going to have money.
You have to really inspect the person you’re around. Someone saying negative things without any real reason is completely different than if my mom is telling me not to do certain things, because I know her intentions are pure.
We want more people to take action towards what they want instead of looking at people who made it as people who are on an imaginary pedestal. How do you think people can take steps towards achieving this?
I can tell you that looking at myself objectively, I’m not super smart. I wasn’t given anything to start this business, but I was able to make it happen and I am not any better than probably anybody out there watching. I didn’t have the advantage. I don’t have extra intelligence. I’m not gifted with crazy hard work ethic. All this stuff I had to essentially manufacture, so if I can do it then anybody out there watching right now can do it too.
BONUS VIDEO: A behind the scenes look at Aaron’s Garage and Watch Collection…
We want to thank Aaron for sharing his incredible story. You can connect with him at the following places:
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