In Business 3x3, a business retailer or executive will share their experience with three things they’ve done right, three things they’ve done wrong, and what else they’ve learned along the way.  This month, McLauchlin talks to the founder of Big Lick Comics and Big Lick Comic Con, who found, "as a business owner, no matter what you do, it all does fall on you, and it is all your fault."

JD Sutphin is 39 years old, and has been on this path for a while, a few twists and turns aside.

JD Sutphin
"I’ve been basically working since I was five years old," he says. "I started working in my grandfather’s antique/collectible store.  He had a 25,000 square foot antiques business, and comics would come through every once in a while."

The young Sutphin would weigh in on comic purchases, and…read a few of the books himself, which is to be expected.

By age 19, Sutphin was full into "I’m not going to do what my parents or grandparents do," so he took a turn into music, where he became the music director and marketing director for six radio stations.  One of the stations did music festivals and events, and Sutphin found a new muse.

"I feel in love with seeing thousands of people come and share something together," he says.  "It was inspiring."

Sutphin had a falling out with management when a cousin died and he was not allowed to take bereavement leave.

"I not-so-eloquently told my boss to kiss my ass," he remembers.  Sutphin decided to launch his own events business, and started Big Lick Entertainment in 2013, producing food festivals, concerts, New Year’s Eve events, and more.  Sutphin founded the company in his hometown of Roanoke, VA.  The town was once named "Big Lick," owing to the salty content of the Roanoke River.

In 2017, Sutphin ran an event he really liked, the Big Lick Comic Con in Roanoke.  The Roanoke event now runs twice a year, and Big Lick has expanded into Washington, DC as well.

In 2021, there was a store expansion, as Sutphin and his brother launched Big Lick Comics in Roanoke.

"My brother and I, all we wanted to do was be comic book artists when we were kids,” Sutphin says.  "I was the kid who, on every report card in elementary school, had the note, ‘He would do better if he stopped drawing in class.’"

Now Sutphin gets to do what he wants, and he’s learned a lot along the way as well.


Big Lick Entertainment is, well… big.  It’s a festival business, three yearly comic cons and growing, and now a store.  It’s a marketing agency for outside clients as well. Sutphin says it’s all by design.

"You have to put yourself outside your business constantly to figure out what your customer and your market needs," he says.  "I’m constantly thinking about vertical integrations, because COVID taught me that you can never be prepared for what the world might throw at you.  You could and should consistently be thinking about what you can do to keep the lights on for your business."

There’s a feeling of wonder at Big Lick Comics, but also a feeling of home.

"I constantly want to see my shop as a community," Sutphin says.  "Our tagline is ‘Not a store, a story.’ And we absolutely mean that."

Sutphin was inspired by seeing the relationships his parents and grandparents had with their customers.

"They didn’t have customers, they had visitors," he says.  "They would say, ‘Oh, we were just visiting with Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So,’ and people would be in the store for two hours, and it wouldn’t matter if people bought something.  They would, most of the time, but the thing that mattered was seeing these people and enjoying their company, and we feel that way about every single person who comes through that door, every time."

Sutphin is spreading the feeling throughout his family even today.

"My wife filled in at the shop a couple weeks ago when my brother had to take some time off, and the thing that stuck with me was when she said, ‘I literally want to be friends with everyone who came through that door. Everyone seemed so interesting, so cool, so well-read,’" he says. “And that’s neat."

Any business has to keep an eye on its bottom line.  But Sutphin thinks the real bottom line should be measured in time, not dollars.

"There’s no limit on the amount if hours you can put into something if you have to make your business work," he says.  "But I felt from very early on in owning my own business that I was working for time and not money.  I love the time that I spend on my business, but I also have to have that quality of life, and that comes from hiring the right kind of people and being willing to let go of things and let others run things for you."


Hiring people is important.  But Sutphin is willing to take the blame when a hire doesn’t work out.

"For the longest time, I did not realize that as a business owner, no matter what you do, it all does fall on you, and it is all your fault," he says.  "If an employee isn’t working out, it’s not the employee that messed up, you did.  Did you pay them enough?  Train them enough?  Or maybe you just didn’t hire the right person."

The lessons are tough, but they now guide Sutphin’s decision-making.

"Realizing that was very hard, and it’s still a problem for me," he says.

Big Lick Comics started as comics. But Sutphin realized his customers were telling him he needed to be more.

"You can’t just sell what you love," he says.  "I think the best part about retail is that your customer will absolutely teach you something every single day if you’re willing to learn from them.  Watch them in the store, see why they gravitate toward certain places, and if they’re asking for something you’re not carrying, maybe you should carry it."

As with so many other comic stores, gaming became the natural extension for Sutphin.

"When we first opened, we didn’t have anything Pokémon-related, because there are plenty of amazing gaming stores around town, and we figured people would go there,” he says.  "But every Saturday, there’s a mom or dad in the shop getting something, and there’s this 10- or 11-year-old kid asking, ‘Where’s the Pokémon?" so we bit the bullet.  Now we can barely keep the stuff in stock."

Yes, Sutphin started pretty much all about the comics, but when things started to expand, the boon of new product lines became the bane of empty shelves.

"We decided—my brother Adam really decided, he’s the general manager at the store and knows gaming way better than me—that we were going to make a dedicated effort to push HeroClix," Sutphin remembers.  "The game is cool, and it’s based on the characters people are reading in the books."

It was a bit of a push, but the store got to a point where HeroClix took off for them.  The problem?

"Every time there’s a new release, everything we have is sold out in 90 minutes,” he says.  "Everything. It’s amazing."

Sutphin decided to call on a pinch hitter.

"We now have a guy who, when we sell out, we invite into the store to sell his HeroClix here," Sutphin says.  And if the other guy is making money, and not Sutphin?

"We don’t care!," he says.  "It gets more people excited about playing games.  It’s totally worth it."

"My grandfather still buys and trades at 93 years old.  So I was around and was raised by entrepreneurs, and I understand that spirit."

"Since I started my company in 2013, the one that does festivals and all that, I give a minimum of 51% to charity.  My whole thought is very community-driven.  I love the thought that you take a step back to take a step forward."

"I could have done Roanoke this or Roanoke that, but from a branding perspective… so many people say, ‘Big Lick?  What the hell is that?  I gotta find out more.’  The curiosity brings them in."

"The number of times I’ve been on the phone with a SquareSpace or a GoDaddy and tell them my website is and I hear a chuckle… too many to count.  It is not an adult business, friend.  But they still crack up at it."

"After my cousin died, I couldn’t fake it, couldn’t fake a smile.  And I went to this conference that was all about tourism and community and it completely inspired me.  I left that conference on a Friday, and went back to the radio station and quit my job."

"I wanted to have a fully realized idea of what my comic con should be before I did one.  The ones I went to didn’t have a ‘feeling’ behind it, and that’s very important to me.  With all the events I do with my company, there’s a reason, a feeling behind why we do it."

"COVID was a blessing in disguise.  Things finally slowed down enough on the events end that we could focus on opening the store.  My brother and I, we needed a HQ, we needed a secret lair.  So we finally launched it in 2021."

"My brother Adam, when we have weekend HeroClix tournaments, isn’t working the store. He’s playing in the tournaments now.  And I think that’s awesome.  We should all still be fans."

"The look and the feel of the store… we want it to feel like when you walk into our store, you walk out of our city and into someplace else.  I know people use the word ‘immersive’ a lot, but that’s what we’re going for.  When I see a 5-year-old come into the shop and just go, ‘Wow…," that’s everything, man.  It’s comic books.  Make ’em feel something.  I’m a very loud person."

Click Gallery below for photos of Big Lick Comics and Big Lick Comic Con!