B283 – The Last Lecture

“Disappointed the crowd may be”

I’m no Yoda, so that’s how I feel about giving a last lecture on entrepreneurship lacking much wisdom. No Jedi Master here filling the auditorium with nibble word play at light-saber speed. Randy Pausch had success to speak of when he shared his last. Steve Jobs had changed the word before asked to impart his knowledge to Stanford University graduates. I have business failures to speak of today. I have experiences to share. As Randy quoted: “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

It sounded good. My girl friend’s father was a dreamer. He was trying to dream his way out of a meager living running a two pump corner gas station. He talked about making money as a worm farmer. He had no property for this space demanding venture. But I had rented a small house on a large lot, so I started reading the literature. He wanted to be partners, but when it was time to commit the money he backed out. I was in a forward trajectory, so I continued with the momentum on my own. The goal was to multiply the worms, package them, and mail-order them out to fishermen, circa 1975 style marketing in Field & Stream. The worms multiplied well, but customers did not order.

Moral of the story: Follow another’s dream, ye should not!

My ventures were always backed up with real jobs. I was fortunate early on to have a job in computer aided design (CAD) and wished to exploit that in a home design service using the best hardware and software available. I researched what I needed by reading PC Magazine and attending conventions. The top of the line IBM A286 with expansion cards for memory and graphics would run the AutoCAD software I wanted. All-in-all about a $10,000 investment that would allow me to work at home on drafting projects. But the publicized hype did not match the computing power.

Lesson learned: Understand purpose of words, ye should!

Yet, the next false step was bigger still. I worked in an industry that hired temporary employees. These ‘job shops’ provided payroll services and HR functions to the contracting company at a premium sufficient to finance a small office and a few overhead managers. What could be simpler; pass the cost over to the client. I understood the industry. I had done the work. I’ll just set up an office, procure the equipment, bid on the contract, and provide the labor. How difficult could that be?

Reality check: Technician, a star-fighter pilot makes not!

Three strikes … I’ll stop revealing my folly that continued to other ventures with success my goal. All good dreams, but directed in ignorance of what it really takes to build a business. I was smart enough to stay employed while accumulating this experience, short of the wanted.

I’ll admit in closing that all I ever sought in these attempts was self-aggrandizement. God did not grace my ventures. All I thought to do was to ask and expected I deserved it. Riches in my hand would have proved His folly. But our God is wise and fortune comes with obligations I had not yet made and a worthiness I had not yet promised. Since becoming Mormon I have had three business successes: copyrighting my testimony, consulting my skills, and serving a cousin in need.

As Yoda would say: Foolish a journey embarked, the Force without ye!

Choose the right, educate your mind, commit to others and seek the Spirit in all you do. Purpose is everything. Order is mandatory. Service is primary. Self is absent from the equation of true success.

Progress without Profit

Live and learn; experience and grow. So I didn’t make the $100 income of the challenge. All the same, I did progress my thinking. The handyman service was my third fallback from my brainstorming of five ideas. I started with a wheelchair escort service, but feared liability and creditability issues in convincing people to release their elderly care-receivers into my custody. I realized that I would need a business license and some insurance; even modifications to my van.

I quickly pivoted to the idea of advice peddler. I’m always offering my advice in daily conversations and online interactions. Why not see if I could get paid for it? The internet is full of blogs that offer free advice and benefit from the ads revenue on their site … small change as compared to the holy-grail of syndication, newspaper columnists and radio advice givers of days gone by. The internet nearly ended that. Now advice bloggers need followers. My door-to-door approach to advice giving based on acquired experiences went away with medieval minstrels. Where do I find a rebec anyway and would it be less than the $20 funding limit? I doubt it.

Step back to plan three. I really wanted to scavenge the recycle bins of my community but the return policy of the collection center limited the participant to fifty nickel-value bottles or cans redemption per visit per day. Gas expense eliminated that business option. So I went with something I knew; handyman odd jobs. I’ve been doing that in the course of life for forty years.

The Retired Handyman was born. Unfortunately, with the same challenges of license and credibility as the first idea. But I saw opportunity the first day of handing out flyers. Three would be customers presented me their job needs. One I knew was too strenuous for me, the other too long and involved for the time frame. A third was to replace a kitchen faucet. The elderly lady with the problem was escorted by her daughter who probably nicht the idea of allowing some stranger into her mother’s house. I can hear the words: “Mom, what were you thinking?” I hope I didn’t get the old lady in trouble with the ‘failing judgment’ police.

Good results for the first day of informing people of my business by leaving flyers on cars in two grocery store parking lots (eighty in each). But I didn’t stop there. It was Halloween, so I printed up eighty more flyers, folded and stapled them to the mini-candy bars we offered. Two hundred and forty in one day. I expected the phone to ring off the hook, but nobody called.

I tried again with 160 more in the bowling alley parking lot. This time offering free labor for two weeks starting the Thanksgiving day holiday. The offer was they could pay me what they felt I was worth after performing the task. No calls for a week. Then it happened. A call from a woman who had saved the Halloween notice. She needed a chicken run.

Operationally, I set up a date and time to meet. We discussed options. She described what she wanted and asked for a quote, which I provided with a sketch. In the mailing, I also gave her a cheaper alternative to what she asked for. She never called back. It was over. I thought to hire myself out as a day laborer at Home Depot, but decided not to take a job away from the regulars.

The final out-of-pocket costs (not counting gas and mileage) amounted to a $14.25 loss.

Looking back, I would say I had no real niche, nothing special that stood me out from the rest. Just a whole lot of enthusiasm with a whole lot of negatives; no license, no business name, no liability (bonding) coverage, no truck, and no business address. An enigma of a handyman.

If I were to put myself out there again, I would get everything I just listed to make me appear more legitimate. I would post flyers or business cards on hardware stores bulletin boards. I would start by asking family, friends, and church members if they needed help with anything. The reason I didn’t ask this time was because money was involved. It didn’t seem right. I would not attach flyers to cars. I would stand at the door of the grocery store and talk to people.

The nearest I got to success was in direct communication. The best thing that came out of this experience was my alternate design for a chicken run. It was far superior to the box style the woman wanted. It was an articulated, adjustable, and moveable corral style fabrication that was modularized for quick unit assembly and easy shipment as stacked, flat panels (patent pending). My internet search for chicken run ideas revealed my idea’s unique nature. Maybe some day.

This exercise in entrepreneurship taught me to fail forward. I came away with a great design for a chicken run. In preparing my $100 Challenge presentation, I applied what I learned during my Fast-teks franchisee interview to a Handy-teks franchise business model. I learned to keep thinking of alternatives, to mature and perfect the idea during the process.

Jump Off a Winner

The failing forward literature this week was perfectly timed for my $100 Challenge that failed to produce any income. I haven’t reviewed all the audio presentations of my classmates, but the ones I did read all had some level of financial success. So I had to regroup a bit and decide what to present. I chose to spotlight a franchise idea loosely framed around what I learned from the entrepreneur interview of the Fast-teks franchisee.

Handy-teks was born out of the rubble and ruins and smoldering ashes of an idea gone wrong, like a Phoenix rising … (okay, too dramatic). Handy-teks seemed the right follow-up to my failed handyman service offerings. In talking with people, I understood why it would be difficult for them to hire this guy handing out flyers in a parking lot. I had hired contractors and tradesmen before. They all had quote forms with business names and licenses proudly and professionally displayed. They had trucks with painted logos on the doors, with tools and materials visible in their beds and trailers. I was a stranger with a nice smile.

So I failed forward with the preliminary thinking of a franchise idea. I hope you like it.

In other learning this week, I enjoyed revisiting the Steve Jobs literature and videos. I decided to assign each of my three children, ages 19 to 27, to watch his Stanford commencement speech. I need to talk to them about life’s successes and failures and how to overcome both the pride and disappointment of each, respectively. I hope they come away with a lesson or two they can apply to their lives.

Life is truly a glorious journey that only death has the privilege of ending. Until then, live the life of change, of exploration and learning and application. Stay productive and remain righteous. Ride life for as long as you can and jump off a winner.

Chicken-run turned Rooster-walk

The $100 Challenge ended without reaching its’ financial goals. My last attempt at income was to offer my labor services at a local Home Depot like so many other day-laborers. It was two days after Thanksgiving and I wondered who might be needing services over a holiday weekend. I counted eight man at the first entrance I passed and twice that many at the main entrance. After returning the materials I had purchased to build an example panel of the chicken-run (corral) that I bid on last week without success, I exited the store and headed for the parking lot entrance with the least amount of offerees. I didn’t get half way there before stopping to think: Did I want to supplant one of these more needy people than I for the sake of a class project that would benefit the needy? I couldn’t justify the exchange. I turned around and went home. My benefit in learning while going through this challenge remains in my memory bank as an asset to future capital growth.

In other learning we investigated buying an existing business and discussed the succession planning of family business transitions. I enjoyed both immensely in that the former brought back many fond remembers of my hardware store exposure to business dealings, while the latter opened new doors of understanding on family dealings with succession. I felt my solutions for the Rogers family and the Gonzalez family were well thought out and rested on sound principles of inheritance, family unity, and individual opportunity.

Business Compatibility

No reply. I mailed the chicken run quote on the 19th of November and received no reply through Thanksgiving and today. Tomorrow will be the last Saturday before my final journal entry regarding the $100 Challenge. The Home Depot labor line appears to be my best bet at possibly earning some money to replace the $62.68 I already expensed during this business venture. I went over the $20 funding limit in theory only with mileage allocations and material purchases that would have allowed me to build one vertical screen. I wanted to be able to show an example (one of seven pieces) to the chicken run customer. Now, I think I’ll just return the material tomorrow for a refund and credit my ledger. The mileage charges are academic, I need not consider them a loss. At any rate I feel good about the lessons learned from this effort. Tomorrow holds new hope.

In other activity this week I learned a lot about franchising. After writing a mostly negative narrative outlining the disadvantages of franchising, my interview with a franchisee of Fast-Teks (a computer services company) countered many of my fears in that I realized that some franchisors can be flexible and helpful. I learned that it is important to know what you want in business and to find the right company match. My interviewee, Dan Termini, likened it to a marriage in which compatibility is critical to the success of the relationship.

First Customer

I went to Home Depot this week, but not as a laborer for hire. I visited two Home Depots in fact because I needed to price out materials for my first and only potential sell in this five week long venture we call the $100 Challenge.

It happened last Saturday. A phone call from someone who had received a flyer in their child’s Halloween bucket advertising my skills as The Retired Handyman. The appointment was set up and when I arrived she described her need for a chicken run on wheels that would butt up against her existing chicken coop and provide her three chickens a little more room to roam.

I drew up a sketch, priced the materials, and prepared a quote which I mailed today. The cost totaled $537 with labor. I did a bit of additional marketing in providing her with a cheaper estimate of $385 for seven moveable panels that would add variety and versatility to corralling her chickens into different locations in the yard. These interconnecting panels forming an octagon with the coop door would nearly double the square footage of her requested 4 foot by 10 foot enclosure to approximately 77 square feet.

Hopefully by early next week we’ll see if she accepts either plan. There is every reason, except good chicken management, to not spend the money. By my calculation a coop expansion of $385 would require almost 1,000 eggs to be laid in order to pay for it. She said she gets two eggs a day, so that would be 500 days or 1 year, 4 months. Anyway, it was fun planning the project.

In other activities this week we were introduced to franchise businesses. We learned of the advantages and disadvantages, as well as, some legal obligations franchisors are required to provide franchisees. Namely, the Uniform Franchise Offering Circular disclosing start-up costs, the franchise agreement, operations manual, assignment rights, and licensing fees. They should also make clear the assistance they provide with marketing guarantees, site selection, insurance options, and trademark privileges. Next week we interview a franchise business owner to find out more.

Hurricane Season

The brainstorm started calmly enough. Pick a charity to donate the $100 Challenge profits too. The rain started to increase as I came up with ten ideas for the project. The winds picked up as I narrowed the selection and discussed my options in the open forum, exposed to the critiques of other storm goers. It came down to only one idea that would press onward to reach the business plan phase of the storm. Driving rain met this ad-venturer as I drew up the flyer that would further expose me to the public. Only after reworking the plan more than once and deciding on financing did the storm begin to calm enough that the marketing plan could safely make it’s final approach to the landing field and onto windshields of parked cars.

Such was the brainstorm for the Challenge. In the following three weeks there were many outings into the clear weather of business promotion, customer seeking, adjusting and reassessing ideas and opportunities. The temperate climate produced no commitments, no customers, only pleasantries exchanged, no money transactions during what I came to recognize as the eye of the storm.

The backside of the brainstorm started softly this week with the analysis of what went wrong. The ads with only a first name and phone number; no business mailing address or license number.

The rains grew stronger again as the brutal truths emerged from the dark clouds overhead: Who is this desperate stranger?

The thunder rumbled: Why allow him into my house?

Truth’s downpour penetrated my very soul with doubt as my imagination heard their words: Am I that desperate of a customer?

Talent, experience, declared skills, an appeal to empathy in old age was not enough. Free labor, available, eager to service did not move them from their sheltered views, even as the brainstorm resolved. A glad and smiling face, pleasant disposition, and quickened wit all fell short. I was drenched in the truth of my failings. Not a single inquiry. Now my brainstorm is done. Time to clean up the ruined hopes and shattered dreams and think calmly, while I sweep up the mess.

My spirit intact, my sails mended, I emerged from the brainstorm safely, more educated, and more prepared to take one of two paths:

1) Do I reconstitute an ad program just explaining the truth? This is a school project to teach us how to think like a business person. I need a few jobs to generate a few dollars. I’m really a nice and safe person, even a latter-saint (if that means anything to you). Please talk to my bishop as a reference. So, how can I service thee today?

2) Go down to Home Depot and stand in line with the day-laborers and hope to attract the attention of a home-owner with a project. So, how desperate a man am I?

All week we learned about hiring the right people. Putting the who before the what. People make the dream a reality. So hire the most passionate before hiring the most intelligent or experienced, which may turn into rigid (not innovative) solutions. This week we learned how to judge resumes, character, strengths and weaknesses, and motivations of an interviewee. With all that was taught, I should be able to extract the data and invert the perspective from that of the employer to that of the employed. How would that work?

There are no resumes at Home Depot, no written job descriptions, or thoughtful interview questions. The only goal is to leave with someone. I’ve been the driver of that bus before, the buyer of labor, but never the passenger in that situation.

It starts with a quick conversation, a clear understanding of the job and skills needed (as far as language is not an obstacle), and a sure price negotiated. Never has the price been misunderstood. Usually, some additional agreement of fringe benefits emerges, like paying for breakfast or lunch. The deed is done. The new hire is in the vehicle with his day pack, gloves, and baseball cap.

My problem as the laborer is that I’ll be competing with younger, stronger men. My only true advantage would be my ability to communicate through this type of spot interview with easy and clarity. I could also under bid everyone else because I don’t need the money, I need the opportunity. Maybe I should offer to work first and allow the bus driver to determine my worth.

I’ll keep you informed of my choices and progress of course.

No Calls; No Takers

The $100 Challenge came up empty in its first week of business. After passing out 240 notices of my availability to perform handyman services for a fee, there were no takers. Hard to say why. Maybe because there was no business or contractor’s license given on the notice, just a first name and phone number. Maybe the $35.00 per hour labor rate was too high, although one women said it was about the going rate on TaskRabbit.com. So, for whatever the reason I saw no need to distribute more of the same notices. I had to rethink, retool, and come up with a new offer.

I decided to follow Action Hero Phil Romano’s example of offering a service and letting the customer determine what it’s worth. I redesigned the flyer to include four notices of free handyman services. This time I put a time limit of two weeks on the offer and made it clear that it was free and at the customer’s discretion to pay.

I paid for another 40 copies, cut the pages into four notices, and distributed all 160 at a very crowded bowling alley in town; the distribution overflowed into adjacent shopping parking as well. The people I interacted with, about ten, did not seem that interested in the offer. None of them asked any questions of my offer. I’ll see what happens in the upcoming week, but if nobody calls I’ll have to come up with another plan. I’m already thinking that instead of leaving the notices on car windshields, I should talk directly to people and only give out the information to those who confirm they have an interest and can name the task they want me to do. This way they can size me up and determine if they should risk it.

In other assignments this week, I must mention the talk/article by Hugh Nibley entitled “Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift”. What great insight and gospel knowledge this man bestowed upon me. His identification of a point in time when Catholic authorities realized theirs was no longer an inspired church lead by Christ’s apostles, but rather an organization to be managed in accordance to ceremony, was the rack I could now hang my testimony on.

When the Spirit shared with me the truth that the church I was raised in was only an illusion of Christ, He did not name the fatal shift from holy leadership through revelation to mere management of ritual ceremony. Here now after all these years, I learn of the conscious move of the Catholic church away from the charismatic gifts of the Spirit, to the understandings of men. So they remain today the managers of men and of doctrine and leaders of nothing.

Who would have thought I’d learned all this from a business class?

Open for Business

$100 Challenge Report – I’m in business. The flyers went out; placed on windshields in two major local parking lots, eighty in each. I’m ‘The Retired Handyman’. I had to change the business plan for a second time. I couldn’t convince myself that people would pay me for my advice. So I resorted to what I know best … fixing, installing, planting, and pruning things around the home and garden. The new income strategy is $20 per service call (applicable to any project), free estimates, and $36/hour labor costs.

I met some nice people handing out my notices. Three people showed real interest. One man asked if I did drywall, to which I laughed and said, “No way. I did that once and almost died … and that was thirty years ago.” He laughed and thanked me for being honest. Another potential customer asked about an addition to her backyard deck, which would involve resurfacing the existing to match the new. We talked about her plans for around fifteen minutes, which gave me time to realize this would probably be a week long project working full time. I asked myself, how was I going to do my school work? I had to tell her I couldn’t do it. The third person, an elderly lady asked if I could replace a faucet in her kitchen sink. Now that’s more like it. I implored her to call.

Halloween? Potential customers coming right to my door. I printed up another 20 sheets and after cutting them up into four pieces, handed out another 80 flyers. Not sure that was such a bright idea because I just got my first prank call from someone (with a very high voice) who was obviously on a sugar high.

Other things to remember and apply – Brand and culture are not always something a company can control. The brand is shaped by the customer’s impressions of the product or services rendered. A weak product or faulty service will inevitably define the brand. Likewise, culture is not always what the company directs. Employees impact the company culture with their mode and murmurings related to their level of satisfaction. What really stood out as exceptional was Zappos’ policy and practices demonstrating a proactive approach to company control of the brand and culture through hiring, training, and maintaining the right type of employee.

Purple is the New Green

$100 Challenge Progress Report and Lessons Learned:

This week I made elevator pitch videos for both my Big Idea and $100 Challenge businesses. Only the latter was improved through peer-reviews and submitted as final. I found the questionnaire worksheet especially helpful because of the fill in the blanks outline that formulated the speech. It was difficult to deliver the pitch under the two minute time limitation, however, because the online instructions really asked for too much information to be provided.

Another consideration I needed to advance on this week was the preparation of a flyer. The instructor’s comments on last week’s report got me thinking about how to best advertise a service offering advice. He made a good point in that for the most part the male species will not admit to needing advice and will certainly not want to pay for it.

I think not calling it advice might help, but I doubt I will be able to change this natural trait by the wording of my ad. It would probably be best to instead tailor the ad for women and younger people who are not so set in their ways.

Other Stuff:

The week was dedicated to marketing, audience definition, and tools like the elevator pitch to build your business. I enjoyed the article on needing to be the “Purple Cow” in the marketplace, which promoted the need for a product or service to “stand out from the herd”. In this regard innovation was shown to be the purple paint of profits.

iCavey Site