How Alex Burdge co-founded Shyft

The Founder Series is a column by and about Utah founders and how they got to where they are today. Click here to read past articles in the series.

Part of my motivation to cross over into the supply chain world was that my dad, Mark Burdge, owned several factories. Most of what he attached himself to was successful, and failures were uncommon. I didn’t fully realize until years later how lucky I was to have a dad with such unique talents and outlook on life and success.

I spent a notable chunk of time as a kid watching him run a large print and packaging factory in the East Bay neighborhood of Provo, Utah, which employed 500 employees at its height. His company did work for Apple, Microsoft and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was probably the largest scrapbook kingpin of papers and goods when that was popular. Visiting him at his office was akin to being in my second home, with its own set of machines and smells. I became very familiar with the place when I was young, and I even built my Pinewood derby car there on top of a high-tech CAD machine.

A supply chain destiny

An opportunity to be an intern at a supply chain company presented itself, and I took it. My role was helping companies get manufacturing set up in China and holding their hand throughout the process. It was a rapidly-growing startup that lacked structure, and with no strong training or direct leadership to report to, I was expected to be an entrepreneur in-house. It was hard in the best of ways, and I saw what it meant to build a supply chain.

My wife and I were still in school at Brigham Young University when the company went out of business. I was studying supply chain and had launched several startups, including a towel company with friends and a wallet company with my wife. Those ventures eventually died off for several reasons, but the biggest one usually came down to timing in both my personal life and the market. It’s challenging enough to launch a successful company when you’re able to fully focus on it, and even harder when it’s an after-hours endeavor. 

While employed at the supply chain company, I recall often wanting to leave and be fully focused on starting a venture of my own. When I finally did make my exit, I was faced with a decision—either dive into corporate America or go back into entrepreneurship. I chose the latter. Mark and I teamed up, and Shyft was born. This time, the timing was right, and we were off to the races. 

I was still in school, and Mark was still a CEO elsewhere, so we started slowly and deliberately. I juggled full weeks at the office on top of a full-time load at school. It became my habit to jet across town, hit a Dairy Queen drive-thru and pound a burger while running to class on campus. It was intense but fulfilling—I haven’t felt like I’ve worked a day since we started.

Remaining bootstrapped came with its struggles, but there were bright spots: we invested a small sum of our own capital and were able to recoup it within our first 18 months. That was a big moment. Mark and I still own the company outright, a blessing that took discipline. We had to learn and grow at the pace that we could sustain.

My motivation to remain an entrepreneur has transformed over the years from financial ambitions into a desire for the journey to change me. I love it because what I want more than anything in life are meaningful relationships and to become someone that one day inspires and impacts others for good. We were lucky to have others join us at Shyft, including my sister, a talented graphic designer. My brother was also an important part of that initial team, helping us as a technician and managing the warehouse activities. Our first official hire was Norm Scirkovich, who is now our COO. We feel grateful for the early team that believed in the vision we wanted to realize. 

Hoverboards and early hurdles

Because we saw Shyft as a chance to build on our knowledge and learn, mistakes were as expected as they were common. Our overhead was so small initially that it only took 45 days to turn a profit. One way we supplemented revenue was by selling hoverboards, back when they were the coolest gadget money could buy. In the midst of that craze, we were even one of Amazon’s top sellers.

Some manufacturers cut corners, though, which meant electrical issues. Some hoverboards caught fire. Of the thousands of units we made, luckily, none had those problems. But because Amazon is such a buyer-focused platform, when one or two sellers have issues, the entire category gets shut down. Automatic emails were sent to everyone who had ever bought a hoverboard, then refunded the sales in full, no questions asked. 

What had been a euphoric experience of hearing this ding on our cellphones every time we got a sale turned into a nightmare. Now, our phones chimed every time a customer was refunded. Over the next 24 months, people sent back what was left of their hoverboards. Most were beaten up or stripped of parts. We were often left with pieces of plastic with wheels, no batteries and little else. They were refunded $600, and we had no way to refute it.

My brother helped rebuild our hoverboards. For a time, we set up right next to the Girl Scouts in front of Costco and sold refurbished units at a discount. Two years ago, I finally sold our last hoverboard out of my garage. I was able to take a pouch of $4,000 of cash to Mark and close that chapter for good and say we saw it through. Forcing growth that way was part of our mindset—the company constantly had to prove it was a good investment. We weren’t going to prop it up with artificial cash before the product was nailed. If that meant selling on the sidewalk, it’s what we’d do to get the company going.

"If you have the inkling to start a business, don't wait. The longer you do, the more you justify. It doesn't mean you can't do it later, but if you have a desire to do something on your own, do it."

Conservative, but solid, growth

Our first office was 150 square feet and had no windows. At one point, we had six of us in that room, outfitted with typical IKEA furniture. Spending $2,000 on desks and chairs felt almost irresponsible, but we did it: we tried to be scrappy in that way. Being frugal was important. In the next office, we built all the furniture ourselves. We’ve moved every year since we started due to growth and needing more space, but we’ve always tried hard to remain conservative.

When we hit $30,000 in the bank our first year, it felt generous. I don’t know when I stopped worrying about payroll and started thinking about the future—if we ever had any kind of a tipping point, it was a gradual one. Mostly, we thought of Shyft as a cash business. If we had $30,000 in the bank, we were winning. But then $30,000 became $50,000, and $50,000 turned into $100,000, then more than a quarter million.

Once that happens, you stop worrying about payroll and start worrying about funding inventory. You concern yourself with hiring the right people to take it to the next level. It’s like when you have a kid or get married—you can’t really pin down when those emotions take place, it feels like they’ve always been there. Growing a business is like that: you just evolve. The company’s evolution often feels imperceptible until you take a moment to look back and remember where you started. Those are the moments that fill your cup and keep you moving forward.

What a product means

The people at Shyft are obsessed with manufacturing. What I love is building businesses, solving problems and being disruptive. Spending my time thinking about how to create jobs that benefit lives and make an economic impact is a space I like to exist in. I may romanticize what a product means for the world, but being a part of that is special. When you go to China, Vietnam or Mexico—not just to a factory but to the person on the line that’s hunched over at a sewing machine, working so hard to create that wallet or bag—it changes how you view products. You see the story behind it, and we don’t tell that story enough. Once you back up seven layers into that supply chain, you see an individual with a family who’s working hard to get you a thoughtfully made product.

I love being a small part of connecting a business with those individuals and the ability to see both the business and the customer succeed together. That includes the people who make it and the people who give them the materials to make it. The product you hold in your hand has already impacted hundreds of people economically before it gets to you. I see a future of being heavily involved in the process of helping people live better lives all along the supply chain.

Entrepreneurship is the best-kept secret there is, but it shouldn’t be. Everybody knows the statistic that nine of 10 new businesses fail, but we don’t talk enough about how to be the one that doesn’t. We often place Steve Jobs and Elon Musk on pedestals and believe they are unique, but you hardly have to be like them to be successful. You don’t have to be the next special anything. People would be surprised at how disorganized and inexperienced many founders, co-founders and CEOs are. We’re lucky because of timing, opportunity and those who believed in us. 

If you have the inkling to start a business, don’t wait. The longer you do, the more you justify. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it later, but if you have a desire to do something on your own, do it. The people you go into business with will determine your success more than you will. Be careful who you bring on, especially when it comes to ownership or executive positions.

A final thought: We get too worked up by the finality of failure. We say a business “failed,” but what does that really mean? What if the business lasted for 20 years, employed 2,000 people and only shut down because the economy went south? Is that really a failure? Some days, you have money in the bank, and some you don’t. That’s business, and furthermore, that’s life. Sometimes you’re stressed and think everything’s going to fail, and other days you’re on top of the world. Try avoiding either extreme by staying in the middle. Work hard, keep your head down and repeat. And remember, things usually find a way of working out.

Alex Burdge is a native of Utah Valley. He obtained a degree in supply chain management from Brigham Young University and has spent the majority of his career as an entrepreneur. Alex is the owner of several businesses, including Shyft Global (Shyft), Kano and XR Nutrition. Alex and his teams have helped several hundred companies develop, manufacture and deliver to market over $1 billion in physical products. Alex has been awarded a spot on the Utah Valley BusinessQ 40 Under 40 list as well as the Top 100 Innovators Magazine for 2023. Alex carries a deep conviction about the impact that global trade and manufacturing make on our world and feels driven to build companies and solutions that promote healthy trade and product creation.