Chances are good that anyone attending tonight’s Auburn-Mississippi State football game in Starkville, Miss., will hear Eric Vlietstra before they see him.
“I’ll probably set up a spot near the Junction, put some cowbells on a little table,” the Red Bank resident said Wednesday, which happened to be his 40th birthday. “Maybe I’ll sell enough to pay for the trip.”
Until six weeks ago, Vlietstra was selling enough cowbells on the side to significantly build a college fund for his 11-year-old son, Conner. And Mississippi State’s storied bells weren’t even most of his business.
“We’ve probably sold more to high schools than anybody else,” he said. “They use them for fundraisers. We sold 150 once to a school in Texas, which is still the state we’ve done the most business.”
After selling 821 bells with little marketing a year ago, the former industrial engineer at Suburban decided if he could up that total to 3,000 a year he could quit his day job, which is exactly what he did on July 30.
Vlietstra and partner Gene Redden (also an MSU grad) then launched a website — mycowbell.com — and sold 600 cowbells in August alone.
“I probably ended up making at least twice what I ever made as an engineer,” said Vlietstra, who graduated from MSU in 1995. “But that’s just one month, and August and September have always been good months for us. We’ll have to see how it goes for the whole year.”
His business goes something like this: After years of assembling the cowbells by attaching handles to the bells he bought from a Maryville business, Vlietstra hired a Chinese company this summer to mass-produce them.
“I’ve never even spoken to anyone from there,” he said. “It was all done over the Internet and through e-mails. The toughest part is Customs. There’s so much bureaucracy to deal with. It takes a month just to ship them.”
Still, going through China cut his production costs in half, along with his personal labor time.
“So now Eric can do things like spending all day grilling a thousand or so hot dogs for our Normal Park (School) fundraiser yesterday,” wife Camielle said with a laugh Wednesday morning. “He’s probably busier now than he’s ever been.”
Not that he’s complaining.
“I tell my friends all the time,” he said, “that the only way I could live the American dream was to do business with China.”
It was the way a Mississippi company did business with him a dozen years ago that got Vlietstra interested in selling cowbells.
A fan of the Starkville school since his family moved from Michigan to Jackson, Miss., when he was 6 years old, he had clanged the bells for years, mindful that MSU football has been synonymous with cowbells since a jersey cow wandered onto the field during a Bulldogs win over Ole Miss in the 1930s.
When Vlietstra moved to Chattanooga in the late 1990s, he inadvertently left his cowbells behind, forcing him to order a new pair. But when they arrived, the store hadn’t wrapped them separately. Maroon paint chips were on the white cowbell; white chips were on the maroon one.
“I figured I could do better myself,” he said.
So he did. The 10-inch ones painted white sell for $17.99 with 11-inchers going for $19.99. Ones with colored paint — maroon, blue, orange, whatever — cost $4 more, though discounts are substantial for bulk orders. For instance, 100 10-inch white bells sell for $9.99 each.
And what separates Vlietstra’s from the competition?
“My black handles have special grips,” he said. “You won’t get blisters like a lot of the white handles that most of the vendors sell. As any State fan will tell you, blisters can be a problem with some of the bells.”
The Southeastern Conference had such a problem with the noise from the bells that the league banned the bells in 1974, though they kept ringing fairly regularly in Starkville.
The ban was lifted this summer, however, and Vlietstra now hopes that maroon and white bells will make up more than 30 percent of his annual sales.
Then again, he also knows that if the bells ring out of control this autumn, “The SEC could place the ban back on next year.”
But for now Vlietstra is embracing the mantra originally made famous by a long-ago “Saturday Night Live” skit starring Christopher Walken and Will Ferrell. Said Walken to Ferrell, who was pretending to be a member of the rock band Blue Oyster Cult: “We need more cowbell.”
Because Conner Vlietstra’s eventual college costs aren’t going to shrink any time soon.
E-mail Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...