Sometimes entrepreneurs face extreme challenges that do not have their origins in the business world, but still manage to impact their business greatly. I’m talking about health problems. I recently had the pleasure of getting to know a 27-yr-old entrepreneur based out of Miami, Florida, named Elchonon Hellinger. The owner of a successful online company known as Thrifty Computer, Elchonon was born with a rare and troublesome condition known as Neurofibromatosis Type II, or MISME Syndrome.
This condition is characterized by the continuing development of non-malignant tumors in the brain and other parts of the body. The brain tumors primarily affect the auditory-vestibular nerve that controls the transmission of sensory information from the inner ear to the brain, and can affect hearing and balance. These and other painful body tumors can necessitate multiple surgical procedures to remove them over the course of the person’s life.
By the time he was 18, Elchonon Hellinger was almost fully deaf. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually – it was not a good time for him. But like anyone who lives with a chronic, debilitating condition, he had the choice of whether he would get on top of the situation or let it take him down completely. Anyone who knows Hellinger knows that he is not the type to let life run over him. The story of his business is intertwined with (and fueled by!) the story of his ongoing relationship with his physical challenges.
How did he get started in business? He had ordered a network card from a guy on ebay. When it didn’t work, he was able to exchange it, and the subject of “drop-shipping” came up. Since he’d had a little experience selling things online, he decided to experiment a little with this drop shipping thing.
Within six months, he started thinking about building a business selling refurbished computer accessories. Inspired by his love of thrift stores, he came up with the name, Thrifty Computer. Entirely bootstrapped, he started slowly, drop shipping items with very low profit margins. Recruiting a 13-year-old cousin and his younger sisters to help him, he was able to run a business out of his parents home over the following summer. He laughingly describes the state of things at that point as “haphazard.”
His sources were mainly retail vendors that were reselling returned items. In addition to computer parts, he eventually started adding open box cell phones to his inventory. His company policy was to be flexible on returns and give excellent warranties on all merchandise he sold. By 2009, he had shaped it into a real business, with a warehouse and a couple of partners.
During this whole time, Elchonon was battling the effects of his illness, enduring surgeries for the removal of tumors as they became too troublesome, including one particularly painful one on his hand, and dealing with his declining hearing.
Unfortunately, despite the positive growth steps for the business, things didn’t go as planned with the partners, due to lack of experience and other issues, and the company essentially crashed and burned. Not to be deterred, despite accruing nearly $150,000 in debt and losing all of his terms with partners such as Paypal, Google checkout and his credit card merchant, Hellinger systematically went about the business of selling out all remaining stock, repaying each and every creditor and slowly building back all of his professional relationships. It took about a year to turn things around.
By 2010, the company had regained industry wide credit terms and developed the beginnings of what is now a healthy wholesale and retail business to customers in the US, South America and the Caribbean. With continued growth, Hellinger is now aiming at $2 million in yearly sales. By focusing on good SEO, low prices and excellent customer service (including long term warranties and a no hassle return policy), Thrifty Computer has developed an excellent reputation and a strong industry foothold without any paid advertising whatsoever.
I asked Elchonon about some of the biggest challenges he faced as an entrepreneur. In addition to his health issues, he was a high-school dropout at the age of 15, having only attended yeshiva before that, with no formal secular education whatsoever. Living on his own since the age of 17, he has continued his own avid exploration of politics and humanities, enjoying writers ranging from Locke to Steinbeck and Hemingway as well as bestsellers Clavell and Follet, alongside his ongoing study of Torah. Aside from a little independent study, his business acumen was learned solely through good old fashioned trial and error.
His success has been due, in no small part, to the support of his business partner, brother Yosef. As Elchonon explains, “I do the buying, online sales, business development, he does wholesale, finances, operations, customer service, etc.” Theirs is a true partnership, a fine illustration of how no one person can run a business entirely on his or her own.
Although he tries to underplay it, it’s also clear that the effects of endlessly battling the limitations of his own body have given Hellinger a resilience that has served him well in business. Despite the fact that he does not think of himself as someone special and takes pains not to distinguish himself from his co-workers, anyone who is familiar with the personal impact of inherent bodily dysfunction knows that it throws a lot of things into perspective. After enduring loss of balance, surviving numerous painful surgeries (including one that has in fact restored most of his hearing) and facing countless additional procedures in the future, what’s a little business collapse in comparison?
Hellinger’s commitment to creating a profitable and honorable business is as much a testament to his own fighting spirit as it is a tribute to his profound faith in God. As he says, “I wanted to do something useful, productive… prove my self worth,” so he channeled all of the negativity inherent in his situation into something positive. The lessons of his story are compelling for anyone fighting the uphill battle of the entrepreneurial journey, and are a great reminder of just how much is possible if you are willing to put in the time, the energy, and the commitment to achieve your goals, business or otherwise…