Starting a business has a lot of ups and downs. The future is unknown, and many things are unpredictable. Sometimes, the most important decision is staring you right in the face. Today, I discovered a new story about entrepreneurship when I sat down for coffee with John. The path of his journey is exactly the way the path should go.
As we sat at Starbucks at a tiny, rickety table talking about a project, John glossed over a “5-year break” he had taken in the 1990’s. After a few minutes, I stopped him to rewind.
“What did you do during those 5 years?” I asked.
He laughed slightly and proceeded to tell me, through his lingering smile, about how he had always wanted to own a diner.When an investor friend told him to write a business plan, he felt he was off to the races. Soon, he found that writing a business plan was a lot of work, but he plowed through and then presented it to his friend.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“Not bad, not bad. But where does it explain the impact of the rising price of tomatoes in March? What will you do when that happens? You’re better off selling something simple like donuts.”
This question, which seemed to indicate that he needed all the answers before starting his diner, stopped him in his tracks. It made him think about his idea, reflect about his passion and engulf himself with doubt. It was the nail in the coffin of his beloved idea.
A short time later, he found himself driving through a new housing development with another friend discussing how to clean gutters. His mind was in the zone of trying to find a business idea.
“Do you think cleaning gutters could be a good business?” he asked his friend.
“Maybe. Probably. Why not?”
As he looked around at the houses sprouting up in this neighborhood, he stopped the car and said with enthusiasm, “These houses don’t have any gutters!”A new idea was born – sell gutters to homeowners. It seemed like a problem looking for a solution, except he knew nothing about gutters. What followed was a dive into research, but not at the library and not on the Internet (which did not exist). The research involved talking to people. He went to the fire department and asked the firemen what they thought about gutters. Were they good or bad? Do people need new ones? What is a good design? How do you make gutters? He walked door-to-door, house-to-house talking to lots of people. These questions led him to a company that sold a machine to cut gutters to length, something that would most likely be critical to the business, but something that cost $5,000.
The problem of getting the machine had a simple solution: If we get enough business, we can pay for the machine. This was important, because he and his partner didn’t really know if anyone would want to buy their gutters, so they needed a deeper level of market validation. So, to validate the market demand, they took the last ad in a local magazine for $60 and then waited. Within 2 weeks, they had received several calls for an estimate, which they provided. To buy some time, they explained they could not start for about 2 weeks. This was fine with the new customers.
Now, with a handful of orders in hand, they purchased the gutter cutter to begin a successful business that grew to over a million dollars in annual sales. Gutters had not been John’s passion, but he discovered that figuring out how to run a successful business and navigate the obstacles was something he loved. Would the diner have been a better business for him? Who knows, but sometimes, all it takes is embracing the magical workings of serendipity in order to create a worthwhile venture. Oh yeah, it takes a lot of hard work, creative thinking and determination, too.
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