“An opportunity came about to get a shop and cases and all that. We just had to fill them up. That’s how I got started.”
Sometimes, the story is just that simple. But really, this isn’t one of those times. The explanation is punchy and brief, which goes over well in our era of memes and soundbites, but it obscures the richer narrative.
It’s the narrative of Isaac Montoya, once a misunderstood youth, failed by the system, now a lifelong serial entrepreneur. His latest endeavor is I40 Glass, a manufacturing start-up set to take a chunk out of American glass market with high quality and low costs. But the business for which he is most known in this space is the Smoke Haven in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the storefront he has owned and operated for the past seven years.
“I’ve always had a love for the trade anyway,” he adds to the initial quote. “I’ve been going to head shops since I was 16. All my friends in high school were glassblowers. That’s really why I started the shop.”
This is where the real story begins: high school, where Isaac’s experience was anything but conventional. You could say he had a hard time fitting into the system, but it would probably be more accurate to say the system had a hard time fitting him.
“They said that I wasn’t concentrating enough, that I was too much of a roamer,” he explains. “I was held back in 7th grade, and would have been held back a second time, but in New Mexico, you can’t have a student repeat the same grade more than once. So, they just moved me along. But I ended up finishing high school in three years instead of four. They moved me from 10th grade to 12th grade, and basically told me that if I screwed up, I was done with school.” He didn’t screw up. In fact, he stepped up and enrolled in a program that enabled him to get paid to work with the handicapped in his community while getting credit toward his diploma.
As it turns out, that roaming mind may have been an impediment in his adolescence, but it was an asset in the real world. An imagination is a powerful thing for an upstart business.
It all began when he bought an ice cream truck from his friend’s parents for $1,000 at the age of 21. After an additional $500 worth of work, the truck was on the road and he was in business. From there, it was a continual succession of entrepreneurial ventures; snow cone stands, bouncy castles—name it, he’s probably tried it. Eventually, he grew out of the original truck and when he did, he managed to sell it off for $9,500.
Isaac has never taken out a loan. When he opened the Smoke Haven seven years ago, he funded it all out of pocket from the money he had saved and the profits he was accruing from the small café he was running in a nearby office building. Until he closed the café down a couple of years ago, Isaac would typically work around 100 hours a week.
“I had to go and open the cafe at 6:00 AM,” he recalls. “My girlfriend, Christina, would open the smoke shop at 9:00 AM. Then when I finished with the cafe at 2:00. PM, I’d come back to the shop and work with Christina there until 9:00 PM.”
Now, fully immersed in the head shop market, he is setting his sights on nothing less than domination. He and Christina are still doing most of the grunt work, but he prefers it that way. It’s what he’s used to.
“I had to build my smoke shop. I had to get people in the door. I used to stand outside with the street sign myself in the beginning. I went from 20 bucks a day when we started where we are now—and still growing.”
His business model is simple, but effective. Focus on American glass, but also focus on maintaining affordability. It’s not an easy balance to strike, but he’s pulled it off by establishing himself as a sort of hub for his local glass community. He’s not only their buyer; he’s also their advisor.
At the outset, he had to lay it out for them. “I told them, ‘I could support you guys, or I could do like everyone else and import stuff and still sell glass.’ So . . . they’ve come around . . .” His new venture in manufacturing is just an extension of this.
“I kind of opened this to help them with a place to blow,” he goes on, “but I kind of realized that I should have opened a place to teach them about business. Everyone who’s come through my facility, they now know how to price their stuff . . . do everything right, from packaging to shipping on time, to even talking to a customer. I was like, ‘Damn, I should have just opened a school to teach them how to sell their products.’”
Isaac doesn’t have a magic formula for success. As he sees it, he merely took the opportunities that were presented and ran with them. Accordingly, his advice to anyone else starting out is elegantly simple.
“Believe in yourself. Stay strong. If you have the money, make sure to put it into marketing. Get your shop known.”