Ryan Combe sat at his desk, staring through the window at a gloomy winter in Ogden, Utah. The year had started with such promise. After investing some $60,000 in business acquisition, his consulting company, Better Way Franchise Group, hit a hot streak with a slate of new clients and proposal requests. It was tracking toward its best year ever, a million dollars in revenue. Then the bottom fell out.
COVID-19 dashed hopes of profit for millions of entrepreneurs, and the consulting industry was hit particularly hard. Combe had to divert rent money to make payroll for his staff of three. He filed for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan and applied for government relief through the Paycheck Protection Program. But the money didn’t show up as quickly as promised. With his next payday approaching, he had just $340 in his account.
“It got really dark for a minute,” says Combe. He thought about his wife and kids. He thought about his employees and their families. Then he thought about Ulysses S. Grant.
From the corner of Combe’s desk, the 18th president— or rather, a bobblehead likeness— stared up at him. He’d purchased the souvenir at Grant’s Tomb in New York as a reminder that down and out are two different afflictions. Before his face was on the $50 bill, Grant failed as a farmer and debt collector. When the Civil War began, he was laboring at the family leather shop. He was down, but he damn sure wasn’t out. “The guy went from working for his little brother for an hourly wage to being president of the United States,” says Combe. “It may be the most meteoric rise in the history of the United States.”
Combe draws inspiration from heroic stories like this. He uses them to inspire his staff and clients, and he shares them from stages at franchise conferences. Suddenly, thinking about Grant, he realized that he was sitting on a golden opportunity. “Next thing I know, I’m up at 3 in the morning reading the New England Journal of Medicine,” he says.
What followed was Combe’s own meteoric rise. He bought a paint gun, loaded it with hydrogen peroxide, and began spraying down local businesses. A month after his consulting work dried up, Combe built a website for his new company, Safe From Spread, and initiated a $10 daily ad campaign on Facebook. Within 24 hours, he’d booked $3,800 worth of work.
He’d done more than make payroll. He’d launched a viable business that disinfects restaurants, gyms, accounting firms, and country clubs. By the time his PPP loan came through, Combe had enlisted a cofounder, launched a franchise, and sold a dozen areas. By the end of 2020, he’d signed 18 franchisees to cover 74 territories, including those in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago.
Safe From Spread’s rapid ascent is rare in the typically slow-moving world of franchising, but after years in the industry, Combe knew how to move fast. And from a strategic standpoint, he wanted to gain as much ground as possible while demand was at its peak. But with the COVID-19 vaccine now in distribution, his new company is on the precipice of an entirely new challenge.
Can it pivot fast enough— and in the right direction—to keep growing?
LOOKING BACK, Combe’s career has been defined by moving fast and moving on. When he was 25, he opened a frozen yogurt shop called Spoon Me. The brand sold T-shirts and underwear with sayings like “Shut up and spoon me’’ printed on them, and the napkins read like mad libs: “Hey baby, my name is ______. I really dig your ______. Want to spoon?”
Spoon Me sold 86 franchise territories in less than two years, but it failed to build the underlying infrastructure to support the business. “I couldn’t figure out how you could grow too fast while still making money,” says Combe. He stepped down as CEO in 2009 and eventually sold Spoon Me to a private equity group.
In 2012, he decided to run for Congress as a Democrat in a red state. A cheeky campaign video went viral and drew vitriol from such media outlets as Fox News and Breitbart. #RyanCombeisanidiot trended on social media, and Combe began receiving threats. “I can deal with it,” he says. “But the effect that it has on your family?” He still chokes up talking about it.
Combe lost in the primary and returned to his career in franchising with a thicker skin. After a few corporate gigs with home repair brands, he didn’t feel creatively satisfied by the industry—but that, he realized, was his biggest opportunity.
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