One of the most widely accepted "rules" of business is to avoid controversy.
Someone must have forgotten to tell Nick Palmisciano, Tom Amenta, and Tim Kennedy—three of the founders of Ranger Up, a hugely successful web site devoted to military gear and fearless advocacy. Sure, you can buy a patriotic t-shirt, or a mixed martial arts outfit, or a liquid metal rendering of your regimental insignia, but you can also get a shirt that reads: "Free men do not ask permission to bear arms." Or one saying: "Lord if today is truly the day that you call me home, let me die in a pile of empty brass."
Aggravating a Lot Of People
Isn't Ranger Up worried about alienating their customer base with messages like that? Not so you'd notice. "We have put some messages out on our site that really aggravated a lot of people," says Ranger Up's President Nick Palmisciano, an ex-Infantry officer who served in Kosovo. "But to our core community it's just truth. And if you're not a like-minded person you're never going to buy our stuff anyway. So we don't care."
Apparently, Palmisciano is right. Last year Ranger Up's revenues fell just short of $5 million.
A Sock in Your Shorts
Ranger Up is deadly serious about the right to bear arms, and respect for servicemen and servicewomen, but maybe not much else. Example: the virtually indescribable Ranger Up Exercise Video that involvespatented technology like Ranger Panties, sleeveless t-shirts, and a sock stuffed in your shorts. Not to mention the shameless hussy who performs some of the exercises with the Ranger Up Krewe. Even if you're not in the market for military gear (or exercise), you owe it to yourself to check this out!
Or surf on over to Ranger Up's satirical animated series The Damn Few. Just make sure there are no kids around.
So yes, Ranger Up's ideology is anything but simplistic. Sure, they like guns, but they also like gay people—which got them into a notorious Twitter fight with the gay-hating Westboro Baptist Church.
"A solder was killed, and she was a lesbian," recalls Palmisciano, "so Westboro pulled out the stops to disrupt the funeral. These are really bad people. They pray for gay soldiers to be killed in combat, and they show up at soldiers' funerals with their children, holding signs that say 'God Hates Fags.' We're a very tolerant organization, and we think it's obscene that someone is going to lash out at a person, let alone a military person, for his or her sexual orientation. So we brought about 3000 Ranger Up fans who blocked Westboro's access to the funeral.
"Once Westboro realized we were involved they started attacking me on Twitter. There was an eight-hour Twitter fight after the rally. They were citing the Bible, Sodom and Gomorrah, how I was going to burn in hell… One of their guys just kept coming at me, so finally I tweeted him, 'Please stop sending me naked pictures of yourself. While I have nothing against the gay community I am not a homosexual and have no interest in having sex with you.' It broke the guy. It was his biggest fear come to life. He blocked me, but the post got a thousand retweets!"
We Are a Marketing Organization
Ranger Up was actually an accident.
Palmisciano left active duty in 2003, and enrolled in graduate school at Duke. But he wanted to stay connected to the military community so he volunteered at the ROTC— where his students complained about not having cool t-shirts. So, he started making t-shirts and selling them to the kids at cost. After graduating from Duke he took a job at a Fortune 100 company, but in 2006, just for fun and with a push from the ROTC, he launched a little t-shirt web site on the side. "I never intended for it to become a career," he laughs, "just a way to stay connected with the people I enjoyed spending time with, the men and women of the armed forces. Tom came onboard full-time in 2008. By that point we needed a small warehouse. Tim became a partner a year later, after two years of helping out." These days, Ranger Up employs 16 full-time employees and eight part-time contractors.
Of course marketing is one reason the business has grown so fast—and Ranger Up has that covered.
"We are a marketing organization," says Palmisciano. "We were doing social media before social media was in vogue. We launched a web site to tell our friends' stories and now it's a huge site that sends a lot of traffic to our merchandise site. We created a YouTube channel to amuse people, and now it drives a lot of traffic to our merchandise site. We were involved with MMA fighters before that was cool, and that's turned out to be a very beneficial relationship. We're always looking for unique ways to approach our customers."
Army Ranger Qualified
Coming up with the right name for a new business is hugely important too. So we asked Palmisciano what Ranger Up means, exactly.
"It's an expression we invented," he admits. "We're all Ranger qualified, and take that elite Army heritage very seriously. So it's a tip of the hat to that community, a different level of 'toughen up.' At the end of Ranger training you have an ability to endure that most people can't even dream of. That ability is so important in military service, and in civilian life too.
"I tell everybody who wants to start a business, it's going to take twice as long, cost three times as much money, and require four times the effort that you thought it was going to just to hit profitability," he laughs. "Never mind actually making a living. I don't think I would have been able to weather the highs and lows of entrepreneurship had I not been an infantryman and a Ranger."
Yahoo From the Beginning
Ranger Up loves Yahoo. "We've been on Yahoo from the beginning," says Palmisciano, "and Yahoo has worked out really well for us. The platform is amazingly stable, with great service that never goes down. That's a big thing! People don't appreciate that until their web site goes down, or it experiences a security breach. And Yahoo's network of providers is terrific. I can get anything I want from EYStudios, and King Web has been great as well. We're getting a lot of people pushing for our business, but we have no intention of leaving Yahoo. They've solved every problem we've ever had."
Completing the Mission
How does a military skill-set translate into the world of business?
"The most useful thing that any of us have," says Palmisciano, "is the ability to complete a mission. In 2000 I was a 23-year-old platoon leader in the Balkans, dropped miles away from any other Americans with my 40 guys, and people didn't have power, they needed health care, they needed their roofs fixed… I had no skills in any of these areas, my men had no skills, but we figured out how to fix roofs, how to get power… You can't go back to the commander and say, 'Hey, Boss, I don't know how to fix a roof.' There's a roof that's broken, it needs to be fixed, let's figure this out."
Two years ago business was way up, and as Christmas approached Ranger Up had maxed out its regular t-shirt printers. So they took a chance on a new guy. "He was supposed to deliver everything by December 10th," Palmisciano recalls. "But the 10th came and went, then it was the 14th, then it was the 17th—and we had to ship all this stuff on the 20th. So Tom called them up and said, 'I'm coming. I'm gonna help you get this done. And I'm gonna bring the shirts back.'
"At 11 pm on the 18th Tom got in a van and drove 12 hours to the printer. Got there, worked for 20 hours straight, printed shirts, loaded them into the van, drove back 12 hours, got in at 5 in the morning. The entire staff was there waiting for him, applauding, with donuts. We pulled the shirts off the van, folded them, packed them, and sent them off. And everybody got their stuff by Christmas."
Between 60-70 percent of Ranger Up's personnel are ex-military—and Palmisciano thinks that's one reason the company has been so successful. "In the military we learn to come up with answers without guidance," he says. "We know that we want to get here, so how do we do that? The mission has to be accomplished. You fight for every inch, every day, and over time all of a sudden you're a much larger company.
"We never fail because we never quit. Until it's done."