This high-school dropout built a $1 billion business selling phones nobody wanted

PCS Wireless is about to hit $US1 billion in sales this year, it says, all because its then-teenage founder had a gift for selling cell phones. Especially the phones that nobody else wanted.

It was the year 2000 when a high school kid named Ben Nash dropped out of boarding school and got a job at a wholesale distributor in Manhattan selling cell phones to retailers.

And he discovered a love for selling that he never had for school.

“I was 17 and I was the company’s top salesperson,” Nash, now 32, told Business Insider.

“I was spending $US100 a week living on my parents’ couch” he said. “And when I turned 18, they tried to cut my pay. I was really arrogant back then,” he laughs. “I was going to go into real estate and I had three job offers.”

But before he accepted one of those offers, he and a couple of friends were talking about the cell phone business and how there were so many perfectly good phones nobody wanted, sitting in backrooms and warehouses.

Everyone had overstock, like new phones that didn’t sell well so the carrier dropped them, practically new phones that got returned with the original stickers, or gently used phones that needed minor repairs.

So at 18, he and his buddies founded PCS Wireless to buy those phones, fix them up, and come up with creative ways to sell them. Maybe it would be companies wanting to buy cheap phones for employees, or retailers who were interested in selling them at a discount.

Nash had already earned a reputation in the “tight-knit” wireless phone business as that go-getter kid, so he talked some people in the that community into investing in his idea.

The business took off

“We were profitable in the first month. We paid back the investment in less than a year,” he remembers. Within a couple of years, he bought out one of his partners and all of his investors, he says.

Flash forward to 2014. The company hit $US740 million in sales in 2014, about double its 2013 revenue, and will cross over the $US1 billion mark in 2015, Nash says.

“If we only do a billion in 2015, I”ll be really disappointed,” he tells us.

He was helped along by the booming smartphone market, and by new-device lust, where people trade in phones annually.

And he was helped by a certain knack for guerilla marketing. For instance, when the second iPhone came out, he sent vans of buyers out to the lines of people waiting to buy them.

“We had guys sitting outside all the Apple stores telling people, ‘We’ll give you exactly $US200 cash to take your old phone,'” he says.

PCS Wireless will buy, process, and resell about 10 million new and used phones and tablets in 2015, across more than 20 countries through a network of 2,500 distributors, it says.

And Nash says he’s only just begun. Instead of selling off a chunk of his company to equity investors, instead he secured a $US100 million loan from White Oak Global Advisors to fund more expansion.

In addition to PCS, he and his business partner, Praveen Arora, have launched or invested in dozens of other companies in the wireless industry. All told they employ about 2,000 people globally and expect to generate $US2.5 billion in revenue in 2015, he says.

Almost crashed it all

Nash doesn’t like to talk about the rough parts of his career. While other people were growing up in college, he was growing up as a boss of a company. For many years growth was “inconsistent,” he says, and he blames himself.

Posh wirelessPCS Wireless/Posh MobilePosh wireless Android phone

Part of the problem: He never gave up the dream of being a real estate mogul. He had a real estate company and grew “distracted” by it, losing money, and, as he describes it “trusting people and getting hurt.”

He says, “I was running around the business world trying to find myself. I got distracted with ego and shiny things. I lost money in real estate but losing money isn’t the problem. That’s a minor issue. I’ve always personally made money. The issue was my energy and focus was going to my other businesses and not to PCS.”

About two years ago, the PCS executive team sat him down and gave him the “are-we-going-to-do-this-or-not?” talk. (It’s “very important to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you,” is how he describes his team.)

He says he “found” himself in that moment. While he was trying to prove himself in real estate, he was already a big cheese in the wireless industry.

He doubled down his efforts and in 2014, PCS launched Posh Mobile, a line of new Android phones, phablets and tablets. In 2015, it expanded the line.

As to how Nash describes his success: “If you believe in God, it’s God, and if not, it’s luck, probably dressed in a little charisma.”

The ultimate irony

While Nash jokingly describes himself as “arrogant,” getting him to talk about himself was like pulling teeth. He came off as humble. (He wouldn’t even send us a photo that didn’t include another member of his team.)

PCS Wireless teamPCS WirelessRonald Hans, Sal Banbaji, Jason Grenard, Aada Feltman, Abraham Pasternak, John Sarto, Ben Nash, Praveen Arora (Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer), Rasheed Ismail, Guddi Arora, Yadira Gonzalez and Elias Spielman

But the ultimate irony was that while we were chatting with him, his phone kept dropping the connection.

For his birthday he had just bought a new iPhone 6 and hated it, preferring his old beater phone.

“I just bought this iPhone. It was a terrible idea. I used to use a really old phone that was much better, more reliable. But my girlfriend likes to chat on Facetime, so I bought this. Now you have an idea how important good quality used cell phones are that are tested and reliable,” he laughs.

We believe him.

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