You Are Where You Come From

You Are Where You Come From post image

A few years ago people (mostly non-entrepreneurs) started asking me the question “Where did you come up with that idea?”, in reference to my business.

When I respond, most people seem mildly disappointed with my answer.

I say, “we started a company that sells valet parking equipment because I used to be a valet parking attendant in college. Once I got out of college, I started working for a manufacturer that was producing metal products in China. I was growing tired of working for someone else, and so began trying to figure out: if I manufactured my own products in China what would they be? I remembered the old valet boxes, that we used to store car keys in when I was an attendant, seemed to break a lot and also cost quite a bit”.

That’s it.

No rich uncle. No epiphany where the clouds part and the sun shines through on my face. Just past experiences and grinding out work.

At the time we entered the valet parking equipment market, none of the other manufacturers were producing their products in China. Although cost was certainly a factor, we brought other innovations to the industry. Our design was far superior: it utilized replaceable parts for ease of maintenance. Our lead-times were shorter: we stocked the equipment. We understood SEO and paid traffic. And we had processes in place to work with larger corporate valet companies in a way that our competitors couldn’t.

In other words, we brought innovations to a stale, but growing, industry. Buyers recognized we were doing something different and working hard to meet their needs. We were quickly able to become the predominant manufacturer, and thus a big fish in a small pond.

‘Hmm?’ is usually their answer to my response. And then the follow up, ‘But don’t you also manufacture bars, how about those?’.

Again, no magic bullet. The answer to that is: one day a customer who owns an event company (which offered valet parking and bar services) called us and asked if we also made bars. We had trained our sales staff to be very curious (and also suspicious) of questions like these. We hung up the phone and did research to figure out if we could develop a competitive product. Then we designed what we thought was an entry-level first product, ordered a sample, put up a website and started making cold-calls to event companies. Fast forward three years (and a few trade shows) and we had, once again, became #1 in a small market.

I don’t think the disappointment in people’s reaction to my responses has as much to do with me as it does them. People are expecting me to say that I achieved success with our company through something they don’t have. In reality, it’s a culmination of entry-level jobs, not having debt and the confidence to strike out a few times. Although the two niches I’ve described were successful, we had others that failed.

This all got me thinking about trajectory. If all my businesses are predicated on past experiences and jobs, shouldn’t I expect my next business to also be based on something that I have already dabbled with? What am I tinkering with today that might become a business tomorrow?

A few weeks ago I stumbled on another manufacturing niche. This time it’s much larger. I estimate the company could be doing 10-30 million in sales within the first few years of business. From the outside, it seems like my skill set and experience will dovetail perfectly with what’s required to make it a success.

And so the story starts to become a predictable pattern. I used to own a manufacturing company that made valet equipment and portable bars. One day I was shopping for some home products and discovered this new company. Their lead times are long, products expensive and they only have domestic manufacturing capabilities.

This is where my own disappointment and internal conflict sinks in. I am where I have come from. And there is a part of me doesn’t want to run the same companies that I have in the past. But on the other hand, I am good at it.

If my experiences ten years ago have led me to today, I can expect that my experiences today will lead me to the future ten years. I’m also confronted with the reality that I’m taking far fewer risks than I did ten years ago. Maybe because I’m trying to protect something, or maybe because part of me has forgotten what it takes to get started and strike out a few times.

So, as I look towards new opportunities, I’m demystifying them with the same perspective. If I want to be doing X in the future, I had better be practicing, or doing something tangential to X, today. It was a little bit easier in the past because X was simply quitting my job and having a full tank of gas. Now X has become more of an opportunity to define and fulfill dreams, and less about making money.

Pressure is on :)

Published on 12.06.16
  • This post PUMPED me up!

    Ditch the disappointment. Cancel the Conflict.

    This sounds right up your alley and focus on how much bigger a play it is and how much you can learn with a larger scale biz even though you have so much experience.

  • Ian

    tks DT

  • Great post dude! I had a conversation along these lines just two days ago…someone asked how I got into the different things I was involved with and more specifically about our hosting biz, the best answer I could come up with was that we kept solving peoples problems. Both us and clients were having continual problems with shitty hosting so after digging through the market in Australia we built our own solution.

    I think a lot of the lifestyle design/digital nomad scene is built on continual dopamine hits of the latest and greatest techniques, tactics and tools but a lot of biz is boring, plodding along one foot after another until you get to the end of the marathon…nothing fancy or glamorous about it though

  • Deano

    Next you’ll be telling me you have a cat based business in mind…

  • Evan Humes

    Thanks, this gets me thinking about my own work experience (kind of similar in a manufacturing sense)

  • Ian O’Brien

    I’v read and listened to everything TMBA & I love this humble and candid post it felt like a little direct breath of fresh air amongst the bigger narrative focused pods of late. Thanks : )

  • Ian


  • Ian


  • Ian

    what a great idea… oh wait, done that :)

  • Ian

    thanks Brendan.

  • Great post Ian.
    My first question is: is it the actual experiences that lead to where you are today, or your (developed) ability to spot –and later act on– the opportunities in those experiences?

    To ask in another way, when looking to create positive options, should we ‘do more’ or learn to analyze the things we already do more closely/differently?

  • Barry O’Kane

    Interesting post Ian, thanks for being thought provoking!

    “…but a lot of biz is boring, plodding along one foot after another until you get to the end of the marathon…nothing fancy or glamorous about it though..”

    I could not agree more!

  • :D Currently plodding! :D

  • A quote I recently read was something like “I didn’t know anything about X but I knew that the best way to learn something was to teach it, so I arranged to teach a course about X.”

    You need not be a classic serial entrepreneur, there are many ways to learn and grow and enjoy the process.

  • Ian

    Good question, I’ll take a stab. I think to ‘do more’ makes sense in discovery mode, like when you are trying to figure out what is going to catch. Then eventually, fine tuning that skill set. The idea of acting on opportunities as you suggest and having that be a developed skill I think is true. Seems easier to execute and spot these areas with more experience. That said, it also seems to be a hindrance because one knows how much time, investment, etc. is actually needed for it to be successful. Overarching point I was trying to make is, for example you are selling insurance the last 10 years and really want to be selling websites, the longer you wait and more experience you have selling insurance harder it will be to make the leap. Sure there is some crossover but we get intrenched in what we know because it’s easy and so is the money after a while.

  • Ian

    agree :)

  • sharp answer, you’re right about the hindrance part too – that blissfully ignorant “well I can do that” attitude is powerful but only single-use a lot of the time

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