LOS ANGELES — Every four years around this time, the same question comes up: are you better off today than you were four years ago?
Well, let me be frank. The last four years have been difficult. I was 51, now I’m 55. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like 51 better. Then, I had black hair; now, I’m losing the black and losing the hair.
And it was exactly four years ago this month that I decided to leave my lucrative career as a personal manager for actors, writers, comedians and directors to join my wife in manufacturing and distributing reusable drycleaning garment bags.
Things went pretty much haywire right from the start: we made our first sale about the exact same time as the banking, housing and financial bubbles burst. The loans we were counting on to grow our business were now unattainable: banks simply stopped lending.
We weren’t alone: that six-month period from October 2008 through April 2009 was filled with stories of new and established businesses going bust… of people losing their jobs, their homes. The level of economic uncertainty in the air was palpable. Good neighborhoods were being ravaged by break-ins; cars, houses and even mailboxes were being targeted. Even those with millions were worried that their real estate and stock holdings would soon be rendered worthless.
We had counted on dry cleaners being open to something new. Instead, most were simply concerned with staying open; this magazine continually talked about the contraction of drycleaning businesses. Instead of a welcome mat, we were greeted by most of our target buyers paralyzed by month-to-month drops of up to 20%.
Thankfully, while the world still is far from perfect, we are a long way from that precipice. And not surprisingly, for many of us, the way to move forward—the solution—was just hard work.
For us, the first thing we had to consider is whether we should move forward. We’d already invested in containers of inventory; we’d already begun our marketing. But should we put good money in after bad? Did we believe that things would get better?
Truth is, I think we’re all a little bit like the fictional character Annie, thinking that the sun will come out tomorrow. If we didn’t think that tomorrow had the chance to be better than today, perhaps we’d all just choose to sleep in. For us, we calculated that with the work and money we’d already put it, it was like we’d swum into the middle of the English Channel—we might as well continue toward France.
So move forward we did. We learned how to use new and social media. Knowing we couldn’t get credit from a bank, we figured out how to attract investors. Knowing people would be loath to try something new, we spent almost two years not talking about price and product comparisons, but education about our business and the benefits of our product. We moved forward with patent applications. We continually worked with our factories to improve quality. And most important, we worked hard to learn about our customers, their needs and interests.
Thankfully, the hard work is beginning to pay off. And it seems we’re not alone here either: many of you are beginning to see your businesses return to better times.
Happy days aren’t here again, not just yet anyway. It will take a lot more hard work. Funny how work begets success, isn’t it? I used to say luck is the residue of design; I now think that luck is the residue of sweat. While we were in San Antonio for the SDA show, we heard all about the 14-hour days Mike Nesbitt put in seven days a week to grow MW Cleaners.
I guess I’m a simple guy. I believe if you work hard, work smart, and no matter how difficult the barriers to success, how hard the economic conditions, chances are you’ll succeed. Just please don’t ask me to define success. That’ll take another whole column.