I suppose that everyone has their one story that they can look back on and say “This is where the light bulb came on”. For me, in the world of business and entrepreneurship, I had a moment like that way back in the early 1980’s. It was a three part event that took place over a few months in a late Autumn. I was in my early 20’s with a small family started. We lived in a 700 something square foot house that was over 100 years old and had more problems than I ever want to remember. I was making part time income doing odd jobs wherever I could find them. At the time, I believe I was working for a radiator repair shop and barely keeping food on the table and the bills paid. This story had to do with “Free” buildings, dog houses and a wood shop.
I have never been afraid of working hard and was not too afraid of risk or tackling something that seemed “Too Big” to handle. But I had never figured out the key to finding opportunity. At least I didn’t think I had. This story began on a day that a friend and I stopped into a glass shop. This shop had just completed a brand new building and appeared to be poised to tear down their old one. I never gave it a thought, but my friend took notice. He asked what their plans were for it. After finding out they planned to hire someone to tear it down, he quickly offered to do the job in exchange for the building itself. Negotiations ensued for about 10 minutes and my friend (and I, as it turned out) were able to buy the building for one dollar. (Not technically free, but close enough) Normally it may not have been a bargain, but this was an all steel, bolt together building about 80 x 100 feet in size. It had a large wood framed office attached that was more troublesome, but is was an all or nothing deal. That day I learned my first real lesson in finding opportunity. Pay attention to what’s around you. Some of it will be opportunity.
The second part of my learning curve had to do with the “Use What You Got” principle. We had split the materials of the building between us with enough to build each of us a work shop. Me, being the woodworker, I ended up with a share of the metal building but also most of the wood addition which consist of 2×4’s and odd shaped, smaller pieces of plywood siding. As mid Fall to early Winter began to close, we were continuing to struggle with keeping the bills paid. I would go out every night and sit by a small back yard bon fire where I cleaned lumber of nails and looked at the mountain of boards and siding trying to figure out how to convert it to cash. (By the way, we were so poor, I even saved the bent nails and straightened them for use later) This went on, night after night for weeks. I must have thought of a thousand things to build. The problem was that all of the materials were so cut up and small that they were nearly unusable. As the weather became colder and colder, one idea came in a flash when I saw the neighbors dog huddling in it’s dog house on one particular cold evening. DOG HOUSES! I decided that the size of he material was perfect for dog houses. I designed 3 sizes that would sell for $25, $35 and $45 each. Using the most efficient method I could, I transformed a mountain of odds and ends lumber into dozens and dozens of dog houses.
The local weekly paper had a classified ad section that would take ads by the week or you could buy three weeks and get the fourth week free. If I remember right, it was $9 per week or four weeks for $27. I vividly remember not being able to afford three weeks worth of ads to get the fourth week free. Nevertheless, I swallowed hard and committed to the four weeks. With dozens of dog houses and the grocery money spent on ads, I waited. The first week, the ad came out and the weather was beautiful, I got no calls. The second week, the ad came out and the weather was beautiful and I got no calls. The third week the ad came out, the weather was beautiful and I got no calls. The fourth week, the day the ad came out we got our first miserable, nasty, cold, sleet, windy hit of the late fall, early winter. My phone rang off the hook and within a few days I had sold ALL of my dog houses. We made enough money to supplement our winter survival. A friend later commented that everyone was out there saying to themselves “I’m going to build my dog a dog house” up until the storm rolled in. Then they began saying “I’m going to buy my dog a dog house!” I learned the second part of the opportunity combination by understanding the “Use What You Got” principle.
Finally, as the dog house venture concluded, I set to assembling the metal part of my “Free” ($1) building into a wood shop that I could work in regardless of the weather. Slowly, I was able to assemble supplies, materials and tools to help supplement my income and eventually it became my “Fail Safe” insurance policy that no matter what my jobs did or didn’t do, I always had the ability to earn with my woodshop.
I suppose if you were to break this story down into “Rules” it would be something like”
- Watch for opportunities EVERYWERE
- Know what resources you have available and USE THEM
- Create a “Fall Back Plan” as an insurance policy for hard times
As I look back on our business development over the years, these simple principles have guided us to owning nine businesses that include between 40 and 50 rental units and four resort properties.
DO NOT be afraid to think outside the box. Many times, that’s EXACTLY where the opportunities are!