Steve Jobs once said, "You can't connect the dots looking forward, only looking back."
Over the last five months, my company Think 66 generated approximately $2.49 billion in total sales volume selling PPE (personal protective equipment) to hospitals, governments, and businesses around the world during the coronavirus pandemic.
Don't believe me? That's fine. If you don't know me and my background, then I wouldn't either. I understand the numbers stated in this article sound too high to be real. This article isn't meant to convince you to believe me or not. This is simply the story of what my company did over the last five months in the middle of the pandemic.
Before we jump into it, I think it would be good to give a little background on my company and what led up to the events of the last five months. Steve Jobs once said, "You can't connect the dots looking forward, only looking back." Numerous dots came together for us to do what we did.
In the spring of 2017, as I was about to graduate from California State University of Fullerton me, Lorenzo Santos, and Ben Chan started Think 66. With Ben being from Shenzhen, China, and Lorenzo and I being from the United States, we recognized an opportunity that not many noticed.
The Chinese government is encouraging large manufacturing companies to stop selling to third parties, and start selling directly to the market, straight from the manufacturer to the consumer. This would ultimately cut costs for consumers and also improve margins for the manufacturer.
This is all part of a movement considered to be the fourth industrial revolution. The goal is to automate every aspect of the manufacturing process, bring all raw materials together into one location, and get products onto your doorstep in 30 minutes or less. They aim to innovate the entire supply chain's efficiency for products that people use everyday.
With all of this, you suddenly had a nation of manufacturers that didn't know how to market to consumers. Additionally, they had no idea how to sell their products in the United States in general. With this, Think 66 was born. We started as a marketing agency, specifically tailoring our services for manufacturers that wanted to sell directly to consumers here in the US. Starting off with this enabled us to build critical relationships with manufacturers across China. This would prove to be pivotal to us selling PPE later on. We just didn't know it at the time.
Fast forward about three years to the early days of 2020. On February 21st, my grandpa on my mom's side sadly passed away. Luckily it was before the lockdowns, so we were able to have a regular funeral service for him. We didn't realize how grateful we would be for this until about a month later when everything went to hell.
At that time my business partners in China were trying to contact me regarding the coronavirus and some business trends they saw happening due to its effects in China. I didn't even think the virus would spread to the US like it did (Wow was I wrong), and I wanted to spend time with my family to mourn my grandpa's loss.
My business partners let me have the time off I needed, and around early March, I got back into the swing of things. Ben had this idea he kept wanting to pitch me, and we finally set up a meeting to go over it.
At the time, China was gradually coming out of the quarantine lockdowns they implemented to combat the spread of coronavirus. It had just begun spreading like wildfire in the US. With this, the price for face masks increased to about fifty times their regular price. He theorized the same thing would happen in the US. Seeing the various spikes in demand due to how the virus was spreading in China gave us a roadmap for how to sell here in the US.
Additionally, we already had a partnership with a manufacturing plant that focused on sanitary and UV technology called Shandeset. It just so happened the Chinese government had already asked them months before to focus on only producing face masks to help stop the spread of the pandemic.
I recognized the opportunity and quickly started to build a sales team here in the US. I felt this was a rare opportunity to help the world and make some good money while doing it. In total, I built a sales team of about 30 people. A large portion of this consisted of members of the entrepreneurship organization I was a part of when attending CSUF, Sigma Upsilon Mu, or SUM for short. I didn't know this at the time, but by combining relationships I built in this organization with my contacts in China, it set me up for the events that were about to happen.
As the team started to reach out, we quickly realized there was tremendous demand for PPE in general. However, there was one piece of equipment that was almost always requested on every call. N95 face masks. I had never seen anything requested so much in my life.
My business partners attempted to secure some supply to sell from China, but we kept running into factories trying to give us counterfeit N95 face masks. In the end, they wanted to focus on regular 3-ply disposable face masks from our factory. I saw the demand for N95's first hand and knew this is what organizations around the country needed most, though. I decided to keep pursuing my attempt to secure supply.
Now you would think I used one of my many extensive contacts in the manufacturing world to connect us directly to a 3M distributor, right? Wrong. As it turned out, you needed a longstanding relationship with a distributor to even have a chance of buying N95 face masks. I tried directly buying from Medline and McKesson, the biggest 3M medical distributors globally. They rejected me.
So I am sure you are wondering… How did I end up finding a source for 3M N95 face masks?
To be honest I just happened to be scrolling through Facebook. I came across a Tai Lopez post where a guy named Leo claimed to have access to 3M N95 face masks and he was trying to convince Tai to buy and donate some to hospitals.
In short, yes, I am telling you the most pivotal moment for my company generating $2.49 billion in revenue all came down to me direct messaging a guy that commented on a Tai Lopez post. You know that guy on YouTube that's like “Here in my garage… I love this lamborghini… BUT you know what I like more…. These books.” Yes, that guy.
Overall, this was the beginning of one of the hardest, most frustrating, and high-pressure journeys of my life. I had no idea what I was about to get myself into.
I remember right out of the gate we were told that 3M was landing 100 million N95 8210 face masks in the US. I Immediately called a meeting with the people on the team that had large N95 requests to let them know what we had access to now. Everyone was hyped to say the least. At the same time we were skeptical though. There were articles stating 3M could only produce 100 million N95’s a month. Why would they be landing a whole monthly supply at once?
We wanted to give it a shot still though. Everyone on the team went back and told their buyers what we had access to. Our first order out of the gate was for 10 million units at $4.50 per mask for a total transaction size of $45 million dollars. At the time we thought this was an extremely large order. We received the paperwork and sent it in right away.
The next day I got a call letting me know that the lot was gone… I couldn’t believe it. How could that many masks just all get bought out? Did they even exist in the first place? This was our first experience being told that a certain quantity existed and then nothing. And this wouldn’t be the last time this happened. It repeatedly kept happening. While at the same time order sizes kept getting larger. 30 million, 50 million, 100 million, 500 million. It just didn’t seem real.
Then it happened. The most significant order we had ever seen in our life. 1 billion units.
One of the team members has an uncle who works for a medical distribution company out of the middle east called the Shining Rock Medical Company. It took us a while, but we finally earned their trust. They started to send all of their 3M N95 order requests to us. And the demand for the 1 billion units was the largest they had at the time.
Later on, we set up a joint venture partnership between Think 66 and the Shining Rock Medical Company. I officially became their head of US Procurement, and any N95 order they received would come to me. This relationship proved to be pivotal as time went on.
With this newfound partnership, I started to implement a new strategy to test out suppliers. I would send in paperwork from Shining Rock itself first to see if a source was real. As usual, time after time, we kept running into dead ends. Honestly, it seemed like I tried over 1000 different channels.
Then we were introduced to someone named Adriano. He was challenging to work with but seemed legitimate. He talked like he had a bunch of experience and had delivered millions of face masks before. This was my only option at the time, and we had a 200 million unit order from the state of California that needed to be filled (You may have heard about this one on the news. BYD is currently trying to fulfill this order). We decided to go with him.
Everything started well. Paperwork checked out, and the buyer was ready to put funds in escrow right away. We had an initial call on a Tuesday night and set up a call between attorneys for the next morning at 7AM pacific time.
The buyer and I dialed into the meeting conference, and this is where things started to go downhill fast. We were met by Adriano, breathing heavily, saying he needed to go into another meeting. It sounded like he had just finished running a marathon. Then we get another link sent to us saying to join 30 minutes later. We did.
We were met by two attorneys who I won't name for privacy purposes. (And because it would probably wreck their careers). Everything seemed okay as we went over the details. Then towards the end of the phone call, Adriano changed things up on us. We had to put the money into the seller's escrow account instead of using our own. This normally wouldn't be a big deal, but you don't switch things up like that last minute when you're about to make a billion-dollar purchase.
The call ended, and we were asked to iron out the final contract with the seller's escrow attorney and transfer the money. We were all inexperienced, so we proceeded. To our horror, the escrow attorney had no idea what contract we were talking about. He said he only handles escrow. There is usually a contract already in place.
We ended up going back to Adriano, asking where the contract was at. He didn't realize one hadn't been sent out. He said he would have his partner Brian take care of it and then proceeded to tell us we had fifteen minutes to transfer the funds. $920 million in total? Transferred in 15 minutes like it's nothing? This immediately started to look like a scam. Plus, he kept giving us time deadlines, and we hadn't even received the contract from Brian.
Then we finally got it. It was about half a page and didn't look like anything close to a contract. Adriano had never done this before and was bullshitting us the whole time. Then the final nail in the coffin on this deal came when we received the escrow attorney's contact information. He was using a Hotmail email address.
Not one bit of this transaction seemed legitimate. Even if they had the products, everything about it was unprofessional. The state of California immediately pulled the plug on the deal and began threatening to sue everyone involved. The attorneys and the treasury of the state were engaged and ready to transact. This isn't something that goes away suddenly.
I had never been so scared in my life. The threats that were being thrown at me I had never dealt with before. For the first time, I realized that I could go to jail from one of these transactions falling apart as it did. If I continued doing this, I needed to be very careful.
You would think this would be the end of the hardships, right? Not a chance. In addition to being threatened by the state of California, I also received threats from the FBI, Department of Defense, Department of Justice, and the NSA during other transactions. Also, I recently received one from the Pentagon.
I remember each day I would be so worn out not physically but mentally trying to deal with everything. I had close family members of mine start to worry about my health. They encouraged me to consider not doing this anymore. I realized something, though. Some of the most successful people in the world didn't politely skip their way there. They went through unrelenting pressure and stress that rational human beings would never even come close to handling.
Although I am grateful for my family's concern, I decided not to take their advice. I feel that you shouldn't shy away from pressure and stress. I think you should face it. The same way your body adapts to being able to lift more from working out, I think people should look at pressure and stress the same way. Over time if you don't give up, you start to adapt to it. You start to get better. You start to master it. And that's what happened to me. And that’s the only choice I had if I wanted to keep going. I had to keep getting better.
So with this, I still kept pushing. Dead end after dead end, we kept hitting. Threat after threat I kept getting. While at the same time, order requests just kept getting larger. Things didn't seem real on the seller side or the buyer side.
Fast forward three months... It finally happened...
We were introduced directly to a seller that had delivered 3M N95 face masks and could prove it. Additionally, they were represented by a top Beverly Hills law firm and could attest to the existence of the products they had access to from 3M. It was a breath of fresh air, and everything was smooth sailing from here.
Just kidding. Little did I know we had only won about half the battle.
Now that we finally had a legitimate seller, we began to send all of our orders to them. To my horror, none of the buyers we sent them initially could prove they had the money to actually buy the products.
I started to think all the work we put into finding a legitimate seller was a waste. We couldn't find a genuine buyer now—order after order we sent in all failed. Buyers would talk a big game, but could never prove they had the money to buy. Weeks went by, and this kept happening. We poured in orders and tied up our attorney's for days on end. All-time just wasted. The moral on the team started getting really low.
Then we saw a glimmer of hope. We had a request for 100 million units that claimed to have money in escrow already. We received their paperwork, and everything checked out. The last thing we just needed was proof of funds to show they had the money to transact. Their attorney kept saying they were going to send it. But then one week went by. Then two, And then three. Things weren't looking good.
But then it happened. Funds were confirmed. The attorneys on the buyer side and the seller side were able to close out the transaction, and we had our first N95 sale closed.
Four months later, we had finally got our first one down at a transaction size of $260 million, and now five months later, we have closed $2.49 billion in total sales. After the first one, the rest started coming in one by one. None of these are easy. Every single one is frustrating. This article would be fifty pages long if I went through the details of each one.
We aren't done yet, though. We are just getting started.
After I finally found a legitimate seller, I went back to all the people who tried to help supply me previously and convinced them to go with me now. One of the things in the commodity world is that you could be a buyer one day, and the next, you could be a seller. I now have buyer groups all around the world that send me orders every day. As usual, many buyers are still fake, but we are getting better at screening them out. Shockingly, order requests always keep getting unfathomably larger. We'll see how everything unfolds as the coronavirus continues into the future.
One of my mentors once told me that the best part about success is seeing the person you become to achieve what you want. Five months ago, I never thought I would be involved with transaction sizes this large. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity, but most of all, for getting a chance to help so many people in this time of need.
I am proud to say that alongside everything we did, it enabled us to donate to first responders, families, and small local businesses that needed PPE donations as well. Something we noticed after doing such large transactions for N95’s is that smaller organizations have been significantly neglected in this time of need. We wanted to fix this by donating to them and our plan is to continue doing this as long as the pandemic lasts.
Looking back on everything we’ve done in such a short amount of time, it can sometimes be easy to forget how we got to where we are. From attending CSUF, to joining entrepreneurship organization Sigma Upsilon Mu, to starting Think 66 with Ben and Lorenzo, to all the hardships we went through over the last three years, to the relationships we built with so many manufacturers, and then to all the little things it took to finally make an N95 transaction happen. It’s a lot to reflect on.
Steve Jobs once said, "You can't connect the dots looking forward, only looking back." I think many people on this planet mindlessly go through their day, not knowing what potential the smallest interactions can have. I challenge you to wake up, keep dreaming big, and to go after what you want.
What moment is your life building up to and what are you working towards?