Many people feel trapped at their jobs. They want to get out, but they’re stuck because they have bills to pay and must provide for their family.
Denny Daniel, a New York City native, felt trapped several times throughout his career. He organized what he referrers to as his own Shawshank Redemption moment – escaping the prison of a nine to five. Even when he enjoyed a job, a “yucky” manager would ruin things. It’s odd, Denny observed, “the ones that pay you the least treat you the worst.”
Denny broke free by turning his personal passion for odd antiques into a business – The Museum of Interesting Things. He’s been building his collection for seven years and has prized pieces including 16mm films from the 40s, a part from the Enigma, and a talking doll from the late 19th century.
Denny strategically uses debt to invest in his business. He buys new antiques and slowly builds his collection while building the company’s reputation.
“I should be helping people.”
“The aha moment happened when I was at Shea Stadium,” Denny said. “I was standing on the field as a videographer for a nonprofit. They got the entire stadium to sing a song for a sick child. Thousands of people doing something for one sick child.” From the field of Shea Stadium, Denny called his mom and told her, “I should be doing something interesting, I should be helping people.”
Denny’s took one of his first steps into entrepreneurship while employed at a Kinko’s print and copy center. He’d sign up for the night shift, finish his work hours ahead of time, and use the rest of the night and early morning to teach himself how to edit videos and photos.
His first self-started business wasn’t the museum, and he didn’t take a giant leap at first. After Kinko’s, he worked for a marketing company while doing freelance video and photography work on the side.
To do this, Denny took out about $35,000 in debt to buy professional cameras and gear. Between his job and his freelance work, he paid off the debt within a year. This was the first of many debt rollercoasters he’s ridden to finance his ambitions.
Shortly after 9/11, Denny was let go. The marketing company, which was based in downtown Manhattan, didn’t have enough business to keep everyone working. However, Denny still had his freelance career to support him.
Trading a boss for clients.
Denny’s freelance video and photography work seemed like freedom, at first, but he soon realized he was still missing something. He’d traded a boss for bossy clients rather than real freedom.
The freelance work was wearing on Denny, and his outlet was buying the antiques. “I went from 20 to 30 thousand in the bank to 20 to 30 thousand in debt over the course of six months,” Denny said.
Denny had a personal passion for interesting antiques and when he saw something particularly fascinating he’d buy it. His apartment soon became a treasure trove, and he’d host parties and events. Friends would ask to have their parties at his place, and he started making good connections. “My friends had important friends,” Denny said. They encouraged him to host an event for the public and to begin with a local elementary school. With some prodding, he did just that, and the reception was great. Local newspapers ran a front page article with a full-color page inside. Denny thinks it’s because, “They saw my tenacity and belief – and that’s contagious.”
Denny saw that he wasn’t the only one interested in odd antiques and started to travel with his collection and host monthly speakeasies. Soon the museum became his primary source of income.
Using debt and frugality to build a business.
Denny swings from prosperity to debt every few years, but, for the most part, he’s been strategic with his debt. He’s maintained a good credit score, always pays more than the minimum amount on his loans, and frequently transfers the debt to credit cards with zero interest offers.
Denny looks at the investment as a two-fold one. First, the growing collection makes his museum more interesting. Second, the antiques themselves may increase in value.
He also looks for high-profile gigs that double as free press opportunities. If the pay for an event only covers travel and expenses but results in more publicity, that’s a win.
Denny is also remarkably frugal – he’s quite serious when he says every dollar goes back to his business. When he had a radio interview in Long Island and a museum show in upstate New York, he packed several peanut butter sandwiches rather than buying food on the road. He always has a few Chips Ahoys with him as a treat – it’s a signature food, and sometimes clients will give him a box to show their appreciation.
“You get hundreds to thousands of dollars in savings by being really resilient,” Denny said. “I don’t do dinner out. Those are creature comforts that’ll come later.” He points out the oxymoron of people who say they can’t afford to invest in their business but then take a cab across town.
One doesn’t deal with the ups and downs of starting several businesses, getting in and out of debt, and finally finding something that pays the bills and is personally satisfying without learning a few lessons. Denny shares a few of his tips:
- About ten percent of people might be jealous or mean, but, for the most part, people want to work with you if you’re tenacious. Get rid of the people that are difficult to work with, they can drag you down. If you’re in malaise, you’ll never be able to pay off your debt.
- You have to do what you love. If you don’t believe in your product or what you’re doing no one else will.
- Always strive to grow and share your passion with the world. One day I want to bring the Museum of Interesting things to Madison Square Garden.
- Don’t just grin and bear it, figure out your own way to break free from the rat race.