Before launching their young cigar business, David Van Wie and Steven Suggs say they were just two typical Americans watching in outrage in 2008 as Congress approved a more than $767 billion economic stimulus package.
At that time exact time, Van Wie said revenues at his car-wash business started sinking, so he found the uptick in government spending twice as infuriating. Then his brother-in-law, Suggs, was laid off in 2009 -- and the two commiserated over the stimulus and the $787 billion bailout. What made it even worse, the two Phoenix, AZ, men said, was when they realized how many pork projects were being funded with their tax money.
Take, for example [courtesy of the Web site of Sen. Tom Coburn R-OK]: $500,000 toward renovating a historic freighthouse that shuttered its doors in 2004 in Ypsilanti, MI., which supporters want to turn into a coffee shop or yoga class with stimulus funds; $680,100 for a Yale University study on the effect of diet and exercise on obesity; and $1.15 million to construct a new guardrail around a dry lake in Oklahoma.
So, Van Wie and Suggs said they decided to turn their shared fury and cigar hobby into a small business, chock full of political stimulus-based satire.
“I was just driving home one night listening to the stimulus package [news] and the money that was being spent and where it was going,” Van Wie said. “I had always just enjoyed cigars and it just started to come together about how Congress is burning up our money. I thought, ‘What if the American citizen could have the same experience as Congress?’”
Last summer, the pair launched StimulusCigars.com, where consumers can buy boxes of Cuban-seed, Dominican hand-rolled cigars laced with an anti-government spending theme. Their product was ready to deliver to customers within three months – which they said fell right in the thick of stimulus spending outrage.
Today the products are also sold at a Phoenix-area cigar retailer called Churchills. Each cigar contains descriptions of pork-barrel projects, such as $1.8 million to study swine odor and manure management in Ames, Iowa, and $11 million for a bridge to connect two Microsoft campuses in Seattle.
“It’s very important we figure out why pigs smell,” Van Wie said sardonically with a chuckle.
According to the duo, one challenge they had to confront was finding an appropriate advertising venue for a tobacco product. Billboard companies were unwilling to give them space; and forget mainstream web outlets such as Facebook and Google, they of course weren’t biting either.
But at the end of the day, they found their product began to sell itself. Along with advertising on some conservative radio stations, Van Wie and Suggs also market their products via StimulusCigars.com's own Facebook and Twitter pages. When people get wind of it they either love it or hate it, and if they love it -- they have to have it, Van Wie said.
So far StimulusCigars.com's customers are mostly U.S.-based, though the founders said potential buyers from countries such as Yemen, Iraq, Turkey, France and Germany have checked out the site. The company isn’t profitable yet, but the founders said it's right on target to meet and possibly exceed expectations. About 60% of the inventory, or more than 430 boxes of cigars, have sold so far.
Boxes used to go for $99, but then Van Wie and Suggs threw in two humorous t-shirts for just 95 cents more (for a total of $99.95 for the package), and the opportunity for customers to buy a second box for just $69.95. That’s when sales really picked up, Van Wie said.
So what does talk of a second possible stimulus mean for the future of StimulusCigars.com?
“We’re excited about it, frankly,” Van Wie said. “I can’t wait to see what they’re spending money on after this. There’s always going to be political humor for us to attach to cigars, especially to the StimulusCigar trademark.”