Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sundae Experiment: Lori

This latest Sundae Experiment is with long time customer and friend, Lori. She and her daughter Bella have been dropping into Mt. Tom's for many years now. It was a fun conversation that started off with a 'what do you do for a living' question, hovered there for a bit, then became a spirited discussion on the Tao of owning your own business, a topic near and dear to my heart, needless to say. Entrepreneur or not, I hope you enjoy.

Hi Lori. Welcome to the Sundae Experiment.

Fire when ready.

What is it that you do?

I own a business that maintains fish tanks. We set them up, buy the fish, maintain them, replace the fish if they die, soup to nuts, er guppies to tetras. I have two employees.

Fish tanks are cool to look at but it’s like having a cat and that darn cat box.

Everyone says I’d love to have a fish tank, but I don’t want to have to clean it. Translation - job security.

The places I work are usually where someone is assigned to clean the fish tank who eventually calls me and says, ‘Even though it’s my job, I don’t want to do it.’ If you’re in a corporate setting, you probably come to work with heels and a skirt on, you don’t want to be cleaning a fish tank. That’s the beauty of my job. I show up in jeans and a t-shirt and nobody questions that.

I like it. I’ve been doing it for 12 years. It was already a business. I bought it from somebody. When I bought it, I had 130 clients, now I have 250.

Wow. Had no idea it was that big.

I have clients from here to Rocky Hill, CT, Palmer, Ware, Westfield, and as far north as South Deerfield.

It’s just me and two part-time people. Each has their own set of customers they visit once a month. They get to develop a relationship with that customer and learn the quirks to each tank.

Yes, and some people, no matter how hard I try, I don’t get along with them. (laughing)

I think that’s a key to managing people - match the personality to the task or the client. One of my employees is meticulous, but likes to talk a lot. Don’t get her talking. Any business who’s got a type A person, ‘get in, get out’, we don’t send her. They just won’t like her, she’d be too social. It’s been a study in human nature.

It’s about figuring out what people are good at, finding their strengths.

And exploiting those strengths. In a good way.

People like my other employee. People really like her. She’s a Libra - the balance, I’m the crazy psychotic one, and the other one talks too much. So it all works out.

Sometimes I get sick of working. I work a lot of hours. Then I think what else do I want to be doing? I could never be in the corporate situation, anything that involves bureaucracy.

The story about making ice cream sandwiches you wrote about in your Ice Cream Diaries once - You thought of it one night, then went in the next day, and just did it. You didn’t have to check with anyone. That’s exactly it. I can’t stand going through all those layers of stupidity until you get to someone who can make a decision. Only to have them say ‘that’s not how we do things here’.

How did you start your business?

I was working at a pet store in Holyoke and also managing a pet store in Longmeadow. It was a little stressful. And my daughter was three. Even with two jobs, I wasn’t making enough money. I was talking with one of my regular customers who I knew had a service. He only bought fish, never bought food or any other stuff because he had the service. One day he came in and bought food and plants and a bunch of other stuff, so I asked him, ‘I thought you had a service’.

Turns out, the people who owned the service sold it, and the new owners weren’t coming, but they never told him anything. He was pretty mad about it. He was in Granby, and they just didn’t want to go there. But they never told him so that’s why he was mad. I knew that service had all the big tanks.

I thought, wow, now would be a great time to get into that business. But I was working 65 hours a week at those 2 places. I called the original owner and said, ‘you should have sold this business to me because the other people are destroying it.’ We talked it over, he showed me his customer list. I talked it over with my dad who gave me good questions to ask him. Then I just went ahead and did it. It was very scary. It wasn’t like anything I ever thought I would do. It’s not a glamorous job. It took a while to adjust from an hourly mentality to a ‘I own a business mentality’. I think I’ve made the jump now.

I’ve always described owning your own business as ‘a lifestyle’.

People always say, why don’t you get other people to clean the tanks and then you can just kick back and not work. Well, first of all you have to pay those people, and after that, will there be anything left from what you received to do the job?

It’s the classic entrepreneur’s dilemma – what’s the value of time versus money to you. Making more free time takes away from your profits. And you need a certain amount of profit for a business to remain viable.

You can try to replace that lost profit with more customers, but more customers often means more problems. And sometimes the problems are the ones you have to address yourself.

Timothy Ferris, in The Four hour Work Week, talks about Pareto’s Rule. He suggests studying where your profits are coming from. Pareto’s Rule predicts 80% of profits are coming from 20% of what you do. This may be why the new owner dropped your pet store customer from Granby.

I do try to streamline to minimize travel time. Some jobs require two people to clean – you need eyes on both sides of the tank. It makes the job must faster.

When I make ice cream, I’ve learned you can save a lot of time if you strategically order the flavors you make in a day. This minimizes the number of times you have to wash-out the machine. Trying to work smarter not harder, right?

One of my clients is a car dealership. They called because they wanted me to take a dead fish out of their tank. I had to charge them twenty bucks, since it took me time to get there. They were horrified by that. Last time I got windshield wipers there, they charged me $24 and $60 to put them on. I told them it didn’t take an hour for you to do that, but you charged me an hour anyway. I don’t want to hear any complaining.

Do you offer a warranty?

Yes. That's why I try to control the fish tank. Including buying the fish. If they buy a fish and add it to their tank, all bets are off.

I'd guess overfeeding is a big fish killer.

And underfeeding. I’ve noticed that skinny people underfeed their fish and heavy people way overfeed their fish. And their dogs and their cats. People play with the automatic feeders.

Do you ever take time off?

Not much. If you own the business, you can do whatever you want, but you always have to ask how is it going to affect your business.

Therein lies the dilemma.

Last summer I went away for 4 or 5 days, I said to myself, 'I'm just doing it, I’m going away.'

I scheduled it so most of my clients were done ahead or could be done when I got back. That’s the other drawback, with my kind of business, we have x number of people that have to be done in a month, and if you miss one, you can’t go twice in the next month, because that’s not fair. You either miss out on the money or jam them all in. You end up working really hard before you leave and after. That leaves you wondering, are these few days off worth it, because I’m exhausted.

Then there's the part about what if something happens while you're away. I've been working hard this past year on that work/life balance and that's the toughest part, leaving your 'baby' home alone with the sitter.

You can train someone in every possible scenario. And then something else will happen that they’re not able to handle and don’t know what decision to make, and then they make it and you wonder ‘why did they do that!’

And there's the part about people liking to see the owner there.

What’s the worst that could happen right?

Having a cell phone and exploiting my crew's passion for texting is extremely helpful. Back when my parents had their ice cream shops, I remember Dad having to find a payphone every time he wanted to check in. That was the only way he'd get word something might be wrong.

When I worked at the pet store, I worked there for eight years, and I took one vacation day. I never took a vacation, it wasn’t even my own business and I never wanted to leave it. Even when I did finally take a vacation I called every day to make sure everyone showed up, and to keep tabs on what was happening. Part of that is my own fault because it’s my own personality.

It’s hard to find people that care as much as you (the owner) does.

If it’s still fun, keep doing it but when you commit so much time to your business, time goes by fast, do you ever wonder if you'll have regrets for the sacrifices?

I have sacrificed time with my daughter and as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to put limits on that. People are very demanding, they call me day, night, weekends. I’ve had people call me at three in the morning. I’ve learned if you put a boundary out there, people will respect it. The guy who called at three a.m., he had just figured out he needed to move his tank to put down a new floor. ‘First of all, I’m not going to do anything at three in the morning,’ I told him. 'Secondly, you knew you were putting in a new floor months ago, why are you calling me now? Earliest I can do it is day after tomorrow.' Most people understand. Obviously, I do my best, and a lot of times I answer off the cuff, ‘no way until next week’, then I go home and look at my schedule and figure out I can to it in two days, and I'm a hero.

One customer wanted to get a fish tank for his little kid for Christmas and could I come on Christmas eve to set it up. I said no, because I have my own kid, and it’s a pretty big deal to me too.

I like 90% of the people I work with. If something goes wrong at the beginning of the day, it’s hard for me to let go of it. You want everyone to be happy. It’s impossible.

After those days, you just go home and decompress and let it go over a bottle of Bass? Sorry, bad fish reference, couldn't stop myself.

Tomorrow's another day. That's probably the biggest drawback I do say. Sometimes I think I'm going to sell this business and just get a job at Starbucks as a barista where you just clock in and make a few coffees and then go home, and you don't have to think about it.

So what would you do next if it stopped being fun?

That is the thing. I could never imagine myself working in an office again. Even when I ran the pet store, I thought I wanted to run a pet store, but I'm not sure I would even want to do that anymore. At least this way, if I go to someone's place to look at their tank and I get a gut feeling I'm just not going to get along with this person, I just say sorry I can't fit you into my schedule. So I have a little bit of control. Even if I sign up a customer who I don't quite see eye to eye with eventually I find someone in their company I can work well with, someone who's on my side, because you always need someone on your side to keep an eye out for the fish. Because you're only there once a month.

Sometimes people say I'm a little hard to work with, but I don't see it that way. I'm not mean, really. I just say it like it is.

People need to know how important it is to listen to my instructions. Their fish's lives are at stake. Sounds a bit dramatic, but it's true.

When I was 'between careers' and contemplating a life of ice cream, I asked my Dad for his advice. The first thing he said was, 'you don't want to do that. It's a ton of work and time, and you won't have time for a family and a normal life.' In hindsight, he was pretty spot on there, although, as I've mentioned in blog entries over the past year, it's a problem I'm trying to solve, with a few tools from my past career, ironically enough. If your daughter were to someday ask you the same question about starting a business, would you recommend it?

I think I would as an alternative to working for someone else your whole life. At least, when you work for yourself and you're not making enough money, you can do something about it. You can work harder. When I worked at the pet store, I was the hardest working person there, I never took a vacation, and I took a deep interest in every animal in there. I worked really hard to know about all the animals. I have a degree in biology but that wasn't very helpful - I knew all the internal organs of a rabbit but I couldn't tell you how to keep it alive for ten years. I did a lot of reading, made up information sheets people for people to take, I wanted people to have a good experience and take care of their pet. That made me good at that job, but it didn't make me any more money.

Do you think that'll be your legacy?

I don't know. People just call me the fish lady. I found it a little offensive at first, but I'm over it now. I do know that most places that have fish, people really enjoy them, especially the nursing homes. My company make tanks look good, and people like that.

Therein lies the satisfaction. I always tell people don't do it for the money.

Do what you like to do, and make it something you're going to do for a reason. If it's something you like to do and that people will like, the money will follow. I think that's what I've found. The money did follow. I loved the pet store, and the people who worked there were my family. I worked 80 hours a week, one day off a month. I haven't worked there for 11 years (It was Animal City in Holyoke at the K-Mart plaza). People still come up to me and say, 'Didn't you used to work at Animal City?' All that time and energy for eleven dollars an hour. When I started the fish thing, and decided to leave, I even offered to help find and train a replacement.

I didn't want to leave. The owner told me sure, but I'm not going to pay you what I pay you now. I worked for him for 11 years, and he said he'd pay me what he was paying shift supervisors, $8 per hour. I said no, left in a huff that same day. Once I quit that job and dug into my fish business, it took off. I started getting new clients. So what started out as a very bad ending was actually a good thing for me and my new fish business.

You gotta be all in.

You do, it has to be your only thing. I was talking to a friend the other day about her getting married. And she said she wanted to live with him first to see how it goes. I said why bother? Either you love him or you don't. If you move in with him, and you realize he hides uneaten bowls of cereal under the couch, is that any reason to divorce him? It's the same way with the business, you just have to decide. I'm either going to do this to the best of my ability or get out. And then do what? I can't even envision myself filling out a job application now.

I supposed that's a risk of running your own business they don't cover in Entrepreneur 101 class. Once you've worked for yourself for a while, it's hard to go back to the world of TPR reports and office politics. Here's hoping we never have to.

I, and the thousands of fish across western Massachusetts, thank you.

You're very welcome, and thanks for the sundae.

If Lori's fish care service is something you or someone you know might be interested in, she can be reached at (413)-536-8578.

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