You Are Where You Come From

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 :)