"I came up with Candy Direct just by looking around," he declares. "I was wondering, you know, what has no one else done? Well, books is being done, CDs and music's being done, travel's being done."
Traino grew up near Lake Ontario and attended college in Plattsburg, New York, just south of Montreal. He studied business, but not the way most people study business. He found accounting impossibly dull, and was frustrated when he realized that they don't teach numbers in marketing class. So he got permission from his professors to create his own major and design a unique course of study.
After graduating, Traino stayed in Plattsburg and worked for a company that imported bathtubs from a franchise up in Canada. The bathtub business wasn't so great, though, because Traino wanted to be a franchisee himself. He started interning for a consulting company at the same time, helping Canadian executives earn green cards so they could start businesses in the United States.
Eventually, Traino tried his hand at running a frozen-yogurt company. When that business failed, he moved back in with his parents for six or seven months. He was 23, and like any driven, young entrepreneur, he was looking to start his own enterprise. The only problem was that he didn't have much money. "I decided to move out to California," he states. "You know, 'Go west, young man.'"
He landed in Santa Ana, in Orange County, and worked for Xerox for about a year and a half but he hated it. "Good people, and they really wanted to improve the company, but it was just too rigid, too rigorous, and you know, too much politics and all that crap." The next company he worked for, Realm Internet Systems, also went belly-up, but while there he gained a fluency with the Internet that would serve him well down the road.
"That was a good job, but the boss just really didn't get along with people very well. I understood him, but a lot of people didn't. He did give me latitude, and I liked that, and I was learning from entrepreneurs who were smarter than I am."
Traino is grateful to have had mentors, but he now knows that he can only work for himself. "It's the old cliché: you work for yourself, you make your own hours, and it's true to an extent. I don't have to take orders from anyone. I can't take orders."
Independence aside, why do people start their own businesses?
"So you can make money, and support your family, and pursue the dream of getting rich, which is very rare, very rare in small business."
For all his apparent ambition, Traino is partial to underdogs.
"You know, you read a hundred articles of successful people, and there are probably a thousand more people who weren't successful. Whenever I read an article about a small business owner, I want to know about the first million. How did they make their first million? Who cares about Lee Iacocca, and what's-his-name from General Electric? They always want to interview these guys when they're already successful. But the question is, how do you get that first million? That is the hardest thing."
Traino breaks down the numbers and makes being a millionaire sound like a burden.
"Even if you make a million dollars in your company, or two million dollars in your company, you get taxed. You get taxed like 40 or 50 percent. You know, you have 35 or 40 percent federal, and then 9 percent state. You know, and I'm not going to get into politics or anything like that, I'm just saying you get taxed. So how do you become a millionaire? It's very hard to do. You need a really good idea. So I take an interest in how the successful people made their first million, and how the unsuccessful ones failed, and I try to learn from their risks and their mistakes."
Candy Direct was a really good idea, and it started small in 1996. "Out of my apartment, actually." Traino smiles sheepishly. Trucks would back up to his apartment to make deliveries and pickups before he had saved enough to move into a small office. Later, he opened a store in the Mission Gorge area, where he refined his concept before he finally settled here in National City about a year and a half ago. "And that's where we're at."
Traino is humble when he describes how he negotiated those first deals with the giant candy companies. "We had an arrangement with several suppliers in Southern California who would supply us."
We? Wasn't he the only employee?
"Oh," he says. "You know, we, yeah, that's a good question. You know, why do you say 'we'? I always talk that way. I like talking in 'we's' because, you know, it's our company, it's a business. But I guess you're right, it wasn't 'we,' it was me." He laughs, and then continues.
"I think my first employee was hired in '99, so it was about a year and a half, two years, where it was just me, and I'd take all the pictures, I'd do all the customer service, I'd do all the accounting.
"We started buying from all these distributors," (that odd royal we was back, but I let him be) "and then what you start doing is you start buying direct, because then you've got more clout and money. So we started buying direct, from Nestlé, from Hershey's, from Necco.
"We started with $500, maybe. It was nothing. But there was no one doing it at the time. I mean, there were a few small candy stores, but they weren't doing it seriously. But you have to build slowly. You always hear about the dot-com entrepreneurs, but you never hear about the little guys starting out. You have to stick with it. And it's depressing, for the first couple of years."
This year, the gross sales at Candy Direct have topped $2 million. He calls himself "an employee of the business," but he's also the chief operating officer, so he makes all the decisions, including the matter of his own salary. "But I pretty much reinvest all my money back into the business," he says, "because I want to grow. I want to keep building this thing into a bigger business. I want to have multiple locations; I want to maybe start stores, or start franchise stores. I've got all kinds of ideas."