It occurred to me, as I was scrubbing ants off my kitchen walls after a failed attempt at kegging craft soda sent a geyser of sticky, non-carbonated, honey sweetened ginger ale up to the ceiling, that there are easier ways to create a business.
Franchises and “turn-key” operations admittedly were sounding pretty appealing right at that moment. I could buy an entire business without suffering over every little paper cup and twisty tie. The branding, equipment, training, packaging — even the floor plans — could all be handed to me for a price.
When my kitchen fills with smoke and the dog refuses to eat my latest popcorn recipe I think to myself that there are snack food corporations that will sell me 35 different pre-mixed popcorn flavor powders. I could even buy my popcorn pre-popped!
The six foot tall stainless steel cooker/mixer that I bought used would have come with the red carpet treatment and full tutorial from the salesman had I bought it new. Same for the rotary air poppers and copper kettles. Instead, I’m planning on a quiet evening alone with all my stainless steel appliances where we get to know each other over 50 pound bags of popcorn and 25 pound bags of brown sugar.
Now that the ginger ale is washed off the walls, I can focus on the keg cooler, which needs to be refitted with a tower that will accommodate two taps for craft brewed sodas. First, I have to call the manufacturer for instructions on where to drill so I don’t hit something important. I already need to call the repair man to fix the parts that jostled loose during the drive back to Kent from Chicago, where I bought it off a guy on eBay. Of course, I could have avoided all this hassle if I bought the fountain machine and syrup from one of the major soft drink manufacturers. They have a repair man that will come to your shop, swap out parts, repair everything and get you up and running selling their soft drinks the same day. I’m still searching online for the manual for my brand of keg cooler.
I could sell mega colas and tutti frutti popcorn and turn a reliable and predictable profit based on the sales of similarly outfitted shops. If I sell their products exclusively, Coke and Pepsi will give me the $800 beverage cooler I can’t afford. They’ll even buy me a cheesy looking sign and branded paper cups, their brand, of course. My profit margins would expand with the bulk buying power of major distributors, and I wouldn’t be at the mercy of price fluctuations in butter and brown sugar. All my ingredients would be delivered each week by a giant truck and wheeled into the shop and loaded onto the appropriate NFS dunnage shelves.
Presumably, my risk of failure and public humiliation would be mitigated in exchange for a mediocre business and predictable time-tested margins.
But no, instead my risk of failure and humiliation are very real — completely unsheltered, thanks to my insistence upon doing it all myself. My business is being built one labored decision at a time, including logos, labels, eco-cups, popcorn tins, signs, recipes, marketing plans, equipment, etc.
Despite the obvious advantages, I couldn’t order up my business off the menu of franchises and prearranged options. It’s just not me. I would be miserable boxed in with contractual stipulations and limitations. I’m less afraid of failure than I am of signing away creative control over the business that I’ve worked so hard to get in the first place. Failure just isn’t so scary that I’ll let it push me around like that.
So as a result I’m sweating over every single detail. Nothing is too small to escape scrutiny, debate, discussion and reconsideration. Nothing, in fact, can escape scrutiny because that could, and will, spell trouble for me down the road.
I already forgot to file a zero return for one of my vendor’s licenses (I have two) and received a tax assessment for $1,500. An afternoon of phone calls fixed it, but I’ve become even more obsessive over details, particularly details relating to the Ohio Department of Taxation. (The paperwork required to actually hire someone is another blog post entirely!)
It sounds like a total hassle, I know, but I’m not complaining. I’m thrilled to pour myself into these details, to create something out of nothing and watch what I’ve sketched on scraps of paper turn into brick and mortar, and paper cones and floor outlets, and ginger ale and spicy caramel peanut popcorn all my own.
Here’s the first business lesson I ever learned: Andre Thonrton and I have nothing in common.
Seems pretty obvious since I’m not a legendary Indians baseball player, but it was a realization I made while attending Kent State University’s Fifth Annual Entrepreneurship Extravaganza last fall. Thornton was the keynote speaker and I thought that it might be a great way for me to learn about starting a business. Maybe he would discuss the merits of an LLC versus a C Corporation, I thought. Maybe he would shed some light on securing a trade mark or tax ID number.
This is how he got started in business. First, he’s Andre Thornton, and everyone wants to be his business partner. Secondly, he’s got cash, way more cash than I have. Thirdly, bankers love meeting legendary celebrity baseball players and loaning them even more cash.
Thornton became an entrepreneur after he bought, like eight Applebees. He was encouraging, but he was seriously out of my league. Admittedly, I was disappointed that Andre hadn’t dispensed with a tidy plan for small business success. Then after lunch, I almost bailed entirely when Kent State grossly underestimated how many cookies would-be entrepreneurs could eat, and I didn’t get even one. I stuck it out and met some interesting people in the same boat as me. Like me, they had ideas but weren’t exactly sure what to do next. One had plans for a coffee shop, another worked for a non-profit, and another had four different business cards with four different titles. None of them had any obvious plan for starting a business, but there we were sharing a table listening to Andre’s remarkable successes.
After lunch, I found the opportunity to discuss my plans for Popped! with Andre. He encouraged me to scale-up to a popcorn manufacturing operation equipped with the global logistics to support large scale distribution. Oh, boy.
The entire day was filled with speakers with as many different paths to success. The second speaker of the day advocated the necessity of collaborative partnerships and exploring venture capital opportunities. The next speaker swore off partners of any kind, and recommended only borrowing from family. Still another speaker favored scaling up from a tiny kitchen in my garage and never borrowing anything from anyone, ever.
The advantage of so many differing opinions was that it really drove home the ultimate lesson in small business — eat dessert first. Also, you have to do what’s right for you. Once you decide to embark on starting a business you must be prepared to make your own decisions based on your circumstances, and more than likely, no one will agree with you.
Over the next few weeks all my decisions will be tested as I get set to open Popped! in Acorn Alley II. Some are probably going to end up on the disabled list and others, with any luck, will succeed. From my feeble attempt at writing a business plan to my eventual launch of a global positioning satellite to track popcorn shipments overseas — I’ll share it with you here.