Starting Your Entrepreneurial Business: Climb a Different Career Ladder

Dr. Robert J. Lahm

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Are You Good at Climbing?

I climbed out of my crib very early, and proceeded to live a very hyperactive childhood, so I have been told by parents, aunts, elder cousins, and others who have known me my entire life. I have noticed that whenever these individuals relate this story, their pupils dilate. According to some researchers and body language experts, this means that they either find me attractive as a person, or that I am a source of anxiety. I certainly hope for the former interpretation, as it would be emotionally unhealthy for these individuals to hold a grudge, now that I have reached adulthood.

Within a few months after I escaped the confines of my crib, I was climbing the stair-stepped configuration made possible by opening drawers in certain pieces of furniture. I attempted to scale the side of our refrigerator, and almost made it. Unfortunately, the shiny coffee percolator I grabbed to pull myself up wasn’t bolted securely to the top of the refrigerator (a parental oversight, given that almost everything else was tied down, cordoned off, or roped shut). I tumbled down and landed with the spout of the percolator impaling my chin. That’s the source of one of my earliest “good scars. ” As just about everyone knows, an ample collection of these scars serves as a great way to break the conversational ice at social gatherings.

It was not too long until I was climbing the sides of hills, houses with gutters or other hand-holds, trees, and anything else with a summit worth conquering. “Cats in my neighborhood were never stuck in trees—they were afraid to go near them, ” because of me (so they say). I believe that sounds a bit like an exaggeration, which in my opinion should be dismissed as family folklore.

Within a few years, I was climbing trees for money. I had begun a lifelong journey as an individual whose entrepreneurial roots could, ironically, be traced to trees. I had discovered an income source around the holiday season each year—mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on oak and other hardwood trees; if it is ingested by humans it will make them very sick, and can cause death. There are numerous myths and customs associated with mistletoe. However, the most important of these, relative to my enterprise, had to do with the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe (which derives from ancient beliefs about sexuality and fertility that are associated with the plant—which was of little interest to me as compared to comic books, at the time).

I harvested mistletoe by climbing trees in woods nearby my home, portioned off small bundles, and sold them door-to-door. I later expanded my product line with another agricultural product, kindling wood for starting fires. This product came from aged heart pine (stumps and limbs), which I often came across in my forays in the woods searching for mistletoe. It contains a sticky concentrated resin that can easily be ignited with a single match. If I was somehow rejected in my first effort aimed at selling mistletoe in a prospective customer’s doorway, I could switch their attention to my “delightfully convenient and easy to use kindling wood—sure to warm your hearth, and your charming home. ”

As I matured, I became less interested in the business of mistletoe and kindling wood sales, and more interested in using charm and mistletoe for reasons associated with its traditional purposes around the holiday season. However, by then, I had already learned my first valuable lessons as an entrepreneur. I knew that entrepreneurship could be likened to climbing. The prize isn’t just the tangible rewards, it’s the feeling of achievement that one has from meeting challenges along the way, and reaching the top only leads to recognition that there are other summits to surmount in a lifelong journey.

Lessons Learned From a Former “Mistletoepreneur”

Nascent entrepreneurs are individuals who are trying to start a business, but are still new and fledgling in their efforts. My earlier business had one tremendous advantage: a product with no inherent cost other than the cost of harvesting and packaging the product, which was miniscule. The great California gold rush was similar in this regard: minors staked their claims and began to harvest a precious metal kindly provided by Mother Nature. If you are looking for a product, consider one that is free, or one that has a very low cost. Although there are now eBay and Internet sellers who offer products such as kindling and mistletoe, and the gold rush is long since over, there are other products that fit this no or low cost criteria, waiting to be claimed.

I like the idea of recycled products, as an example of a low cost product. Humankind continues to create tremendous pressure on the environment, and some individuals have found ways to harvest the things that others throw away. Whether we are speaking in an industrial context such as scrap materials that can be transformed or otherwise reconstituted, or a consumer context such as vintage clothing, entrepreneurs continue to prove that the adage, “One person’s junk is another person’s treasure, ” is true. For that matter, cleaning up messes and hauling things away can be a business unto itself. Now that eBay has created the world’s largest garage sale, people have found that they can sell just about anything. However, some individuals do not have the time, interest, or technological proficiency to use eBay, and these persons offer a potentially rich and virtually endless source of products which you could acquire and sell (or sell on their behalf, for a fee).

You needn’t give up your entrepreneurial ambitions based on the notion that you must have a low cost product. But do keep in mind that low product costs, and low startup costs are a definite advantage. At the very least, you must have an adequate profit margin, such that overall, you are self-sustaining. People must accept a product as something that they want and are willing to pay for.

Another alternative is to broker or represent a product, which I mentioned above. Among my various present day entrepreneurial endeavors, I am involved as an independent consultant for a network marketing firm. Customers purchase products through a Web site, and these products are shipped directly to them under what is known as a drop-shipping arrangement. This is really a very efficient system for all concerned, and I was convinced to become involved because I did not have to carry inventory or make deliveries (which can eat up an entrepreneur’s time like crazy, besides increasing inefficiencies, which ultimately impact consumers).

You need to sell a hot product. If you have ever used kindling wood, you may have noticed that it crackles and burns very quickly, which is why it makes an excellent fire starter. You may initially think that I am about to tie in the aforementioned fire with “hot products, ” by using some sort of lame analogy. Lame analogies are always way too obvious, however. By “hot, ” I mean a product that is sold to a customer who is excited about the potential benefits of using the product, and who is overcome by a desire to have the product for his or her own use.

Have you ever noticed how some sellers go about creating a sense of urgency about a particular offering? While it can be observed that retailers have gone way overboard with “one day” sales by having one practically every day of the week, they at least have the sense of urgency concept down correctly. Every year for the past several years, millions of shoppers have been coaxed out of bed prior to the crack of dawn to shop at sales events offered on the basis of a similar appeal based on urgency, on the day after Thanksgiving.

The fact that someone is willing to compete to be the four-hundred-and-sixty-seventh person in line suggests a sense of urgency has indeed been created. I think that these retailers are rather dimwitted for acting with such a herd mentality and not offering a twelve o’clock noon until five o’clock p. m. door-buster sale for people like me, but that’s another matter. Urgency comes when an offering is available for a limited time, when a product is in short supply, or an opportunity presents itself in such a way that buyers become convinced that they should otherwise seize the moment.

You need to sell, period. You will recall above that I acknowledged times when I had experienced rejection? Well, I hate to point this out, but we have all experienced rejection, especially those of us who take risks and are basically asking for it. Entrepreneurs suffer lots, and lots, of rejection. A majority of entrepreneurs must use bootstrapping methods to launch their business startups, typically because they have suffered rejection after submitting loan applications. Some people, will say “bah, humbug!” to just about anything. Some are penny-pinching, like Charles Dickens’ character, Ebenezer Scrooge, and some people are simply not very nice.

However, it’s been my experience that most people reject propositions that apparently offer no value to them. As an entrepreneur, you must offer genuine value. It is often the case that genuine value must be created, or at least pointed out. I inserted the word “apparently” above, because it is important. People need to be skeptical, as an act of survival, as nature does suggest instances where one can be tricked, and human nature is no different. The Venus Flytrap is a widely known example, as a carnivorous plant that lures prey with a sweet smelling attractant, and then captures them. No one wants to be tricked. On the other hand, ethical selling is not about attempting to trick anyone, either. People should legitimately need or want what you have to offer. If they do not, don’t take it as a rejection. Instead, consider yourself as an individual who is on a journey seeking persons with wants and needs that you might possibly address, if your product is a good match.

You must sell the warmth, not the wood. Remember the mistletoe plant’s description? It is a parasitic, poisonous plant that attaches itself to trees. What if I had represented it as such? What do you think would have happened if I had gone door-to-door exclaiming, “Hi. I would like to offer you a limited time opportunity to purchase one of the poisonous parasites that I’ve found in the woods”? Even though I did not really embrace all of the fuss about mistletoe and kissing as a young boy, I knew that older persons than myself and grown-ups were interested in this tradition, and bought mistletoe in the spirit of the season. The spirit of the season I refer to here is also one that is associated with warmth.

By the same token, the idea of buying a “bundle of sticky resin coated flammable wood” is not tremendously appealing, and I knew that would not sell, either. The benefits of the kindling wood had everything to do with the success of the proposition: people could envision having a warm and charming home.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that you can be an entrepreneur, too. It does not necessarily take a great deal of startup capital, equipment, or highly specialized knowledge to begin your journey. Everybody suffers rejection, and everybody makes mistakes. In your own, analogous way, you will “reach for a percolator, ” fall, and have to get back up. Nothing is certain or “bolted down” when you are an entrepreneur.

On the other hand, if you feel satisfied and secure in your present job, you are either very lucky, or perhaps you’ve been living under a rock for a while. Widespread job dissatisfaction (constituting a majority of employees), burn-out and stress, outsourcing, appointed leaders with poor visioning skills, questionable ethics, and a general lack of loyalty are earmarks of many modern organizations. Even CEO jobs are short-lived. According to a report by Drake Beam Morin (CEO Turnover and Job Security, 2000), “In just the past five years, close to two-thirds of all major companies replaced their CEO. ”

If you are employed by a public company, read the first few paragraphs in your annual report. You will probably find two cliché passages: “Our employees are our most important asset, ” and “We value diversity. ” If you are a female or a minority, turn to the photographs of the officers and the board of directors. If you see what appears to be a “club, ” with a membership profile that doesn’t seem to fit the written claims, you might ask yourself if everything jibes. If it doesn’t, and you do not think it’s fair (I don’t think it’s fair either—that’s why I teach, speak, and write spreading the message about entrepreneurial alternatives), you may want to start climbing a different ladder.

I (evidently) did not want to spend the rest of my life behind the bars of my crib. You don’t have to stay trapped in your situation, whatever it may be. Go ahead—take baby steps if you need to, but know that you can change your life by beginning your own entrepreneurial journey. Start reading, learning, saving, talking with other people, and exploring ideas with profit potential and customer appeal, today. I’ll look forward to seeing you at the top.

Dr. Robert Lahm is the founder of several businesses and Web sites, an entrepreneurship professor, a public speaker, and a writer. His typical topics include creativity and innovation, careers, start-ups, and small business marketing. Webmasters and other article publishers are hereby granted article reproduction permission as long as this article in its entirety, author's information, and any links remain intact. Copyright 2005 by Dr. Robert J. Lahm, .


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