Talk radio inspired a new career for Jim Swartout, but it was the furthest thing from his mind at the time. He was trying to finish a basement project.
Swartout was this month’s featured business at 1 Million Cups, a monthly event in Williston that brings new entrepreneurs together with Williston business and community leaders.
“I was between careers,” he recalled, “and I had made up my mind that I was not going to start a new career until I had finished the dang basement.”
While he worked, though, he was listening to the radio, and for two hours straight, no one could tell one of the callers where he could get a flag pole.
In his own mind the problem was simple.
“You just call the flag pole guy,” he kept saying to the air.
Then a light bulb came on for him.
“There’s no flag pole guy here,” he said.
For two months that realization worked at him. No flag pole guy in North Dakota. No flag pole guy in WIlliston.
Swartout’s ancestors, according to the LIbrary of Congress, fought for American independence, and it’s something he’s very proud to know.
“It really touched my heart when I realized my family was so heavily invested in America,” he said. “I just love America. I love individual freedom. I love it when individuals go out and express their freedom and do something they are meant to do. I feel so good if people succeed. I don’t succeed if you don’t succeed. That is what makes me tick.”
And so he decided that he would be the change he wanted to see. He would become Williston and North Dakota’s flag pole guy.
He applied for a business license, and did all the paperwork needed. On the day he happened to receive all of these, he just happened to be at a motorcycle shop buying a battery for his bike.
As he was talking about his new, just barely started business, he learned about a flag pole someone wanted to put up in Williston. He called that person to talk to them about it.
The person had already ordered a flag pole from out-of-state, but had not yet installed it.
Swartout was tapped to do it.
Things have grown organically from that first, single flag pole, Swartout said. He now has a radio show program from 9 to 11 a.m. of his own, and he’s got a goal of installing 100 flag poles in 100 days.
“We have a pretty good start,” he said. “We have about 20 callers who are saying they will call when the frost comes out of the ground. People did that last year, too, and so I kind of believe they will call.”
A friend has helped him design and build a custom device to dig the hole for his flag poles and hoist them up. Everything goes together a little bit like a toy erector set — except, of course, for the fact that it’s huge.
“I mix my own concrete on the site and I have my own generator,” he said.
He also has a large tube painted red, white and blue to hold flag poles. It attracts a lot of attention when he shows up in a neighborhood with that tube and begins the work to set the flag pole and hoist up its flag.
As far as competition, Swartout does have some. There is a company out of Michigan trying to lay claim to being the North Dakota flag pole people, he said.
But he’s not worried about that. “Competition just makes you better,” he said.
Having feet on the ground has helped him tremendously, as well as having his ears wide open to what customers are telling him. Because of the latter, he soon realized he needed to add a flag maintenance program, which he has done. He is willing to help people keep their beautiful flags looking good all year long, and he hopes to set up a circuit across the state, using large flag poles as anchor points which will allow him to take in a number of smaller flags as well.
The biggest issue facing his startup right now is inventory space. He’s working out of his home, but he needs a bigger space to manage his flags. There is repair work, cleaning, and things of that nature to do.
“Cash flow is difficult,” he said. “Paying as you go doesn’t allow for large discounts on products.”
He is now working with the Small Business Development Center for a small business loan, so that he can take more advantage of discounts available for large purchases, and grow his business.