"You Do What?"
I recently read a New York Times article about a professor who'd done a survey and found that 35 percent of American entrepreneurs, by their own admission, are dyslexic. I think if she had been asking about attention deficit disorder, the number would have been closer to 90 percent.
It's no secret that most entrepreneurs--including me--suffer from ADD. Actually, I can't say that I've suffered from it, since I think it's had a lot to do with my success over the years. For that matter, I'm not sure I agree that ADD is a disorder. To me, it's just a condition, a personality attribute, and it has pluses and minuses. In some situations, I'm sure, people who don't have ADD are the ones at a disadvantage. That said, if you happen to be a lucky ADD sufferer and you're in business for yourself, you can do yourself a favor by developing some counterbalancing traits. The most important one is the most obvious: the ability to focus.
Let me tell you about Steven Friedman, who came to see me a few months ago looking for help. As soon as he walked through the door, I recognized him as a kindred spirit. He was a hyper young man in his mid-20s, with so many great ideas for businesses he could hardly contain himself. Every time he turned around, it seemed, he spotted another fabulous opportunity. Not only that, but his friends were constantly coming to him with more ideas. He was drowning in ideas. He didn't know what to do with them all.
"OK, let's just take it easy," I said in my most soothing voice. "Do you have a business now? Tell me what you do."
"Right now, I import dirt from the Holy Land and sell it," he said.
"You do what?" I asked, not sure I had understood him correctly.
"I import dirt--you know, soil--from Israel," he said. "I've been to Israel quite a bit, and I know how people feel about earth from the Holy Land. I figured it would be easy to import some in large lots, sell it in small lots, and make a lot of money." He noted that, at Jewish funerals, the mourners traditionally sprinkle dirt on the coffin. He figured that a lot of people would like the idea of sprinkling Holy Land dirt, and he could sell it through funeral homes.
I was impressed. "That sounds like a pretty good idea," I said.
"Yeah, I liked it, too, until I tried to bring the dirt in," he said.
Steven explained that, after getting the idea, he did some research on the Internet to see whether anyone else was importing earth from Israel. He found that several people had thought about it, but no one had done it. When he dug a little deeper, he discovered why. Because soil contains organic matter, it is subject to the same importing rules that apply to fruit and vegetables--that is, you have to get permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to bring it in, which involves getting it treated, tested, and formally approved. That process alone can add considerable expense, and then there's the cost of acquiring the dirt, shipping it, packaging it, storing it, marketing it, and delivering it to customers--all before you have any idea how much of it, if any, you can sell and at what price.
And yet Steven had somehow managed to overcome those obstacles. He'd imported 40,000 pounds of dirt from Israel with USDA approval. He'd even put out press releases at the time of its arrival, and the story had been picked up by dozens of newspapers around the country, including New York Newsday and the New York Daily News. He'd trademarked the name Holy Land Earth and set up a website where customers could order one-pound bags of the dirt. (The price is $39.95.) Lest anyone doubt where the dirt came from, he'd lined up an eminent rabbi in Jerusalem to vouch for its authenticity. And although he recognized the potential appeal of Holy Land Earth to Christians and Muslims as well as to Jews, he'd targeted his marketing at Jewish funeral homes and succeeded in making some sales.
"That's very interesting," I said. "Where is the dirt now?"
"It's in a warehouse that a guy I know has in New Jersey," he said. "He doesn't charge me too much to keep it there."
"So what are you going to do with it?" I asked.
"I'll keep selling it," he said, "but it doesn't take up too much of my time, and I've got these other things that I can work on." And he started to reel off his ideas, none of which had anything to do with Holy Land Earth.
"Wait a second, slow down," I said. "You're talking about six different businesses here."
He gave me a funny look. "So?" he asked. "It says in the magazine you started six businesses."
"Yeah, one at a time," I said. "And I don't even think about doing another until the one I'm working on either fails or reaches critical mass where it's able to live off its own cash flow. It's hard enough to concentrate on one thing and make it successful without having others competing for your attention. You'll be so busy chasing after opportunities that you'll miss the big opportunity in front of your nose. Listen, you've already made some classic mistakes with this one, and you need to learn from them. That's how entrepreneurs get to be good at what they do: by analyzing their mistakes so they don't repeat them."
He seemed a little taken aback. "What classic mistakes?" he asked.
"Well, the first was that you got all this fabulous publicity before you were ready to take advantage of it. That was all wasted. The idea is to make sales. You should have waited until you had a product to sell. You'll never have that same shot again."
He nodded his head slowly. "What others?" he asked.
"You targeted almost all of your sales efforts at a very limited market," I said. "Let's say there are four million Jews in the United States, and 40,000 die a year. Of that, say, 20,000 have religious burials. Of the 20,000 burials, let's say 10 percent are done by people who think Holy Land Earth is a good idea--which is optimistic. In that case, your total market would be 2,000 people a year, and you never get 100 percent of your market. You're doing great if you get 20 percent of it. That's 400 sales per year at $39.95 a bag. Even if you had the highest possible gross margins and doubled your price, you couldn't survive on that." Steven listened and kept nodding. "And that's not repetitive business, either. It's a different group of potential customers every year."
"So maybe I should try something else," he said. "I get ideas every day."
"Well, that's for you to decide," I said, "but why would you go on to the next thing before you know whether this one can be successful?" I pointed out that he could expand his marketing efforts to Christian Evangelicals, for example. He could also come up with uses that would be repetitive--like planting a tree or a flower in Holy Land Earth once a year to commemorate a loved one's death or to celebrate a birthday. And maybe he could find related products to sell, such as Holy Land seeds. "You've already spent a fair amount of money and, more important, time," I said. "The expertise you've acquired is worth even more than your financial investment. You've figured out a lot of things that stopped other people from doing it. And you still have all this imported dirt. Don't you want to see it through?"
It's a common situation. I've seen a lot of people who get an idea they think is hot, but when they try it, suddenly it's not as hot anymore. So they shove it aside and start on the next one. You need patience, persistence, and focus to succeed. First efforts often meet with failure. When I started my record-storage business, I thought it would be easy to get sales. I would just offer great service at a good price. I set up a booth at a trade show--and came away without a single sale. I could have said, "OK, if people come to me with boxes, I'll store them, but I'm going to move on to the next thing." I won't repeat the story here; I've already told it elsewhere. (See "What Business Are You Really In?" December 2000.) Suffice it to say that I wouldn't have 3.5 million boxes in my warehouses today if I hadn't kept asking questions.
Steven didn't need to think long about what he wanted to do. His ADD tendencies notwithstanding, he had shown quite a bit of persistence to get this far. I wasn't surprised when he indicated that he wanted to see how far he could go with Holy Land Earth. Understand, it may turn out that the business can't succeed in the long term. Even if he comes up with other products and other markets, he may find that selling dirt from Israel just doesn't have much of a future. Then again, he may be able to use it as a launching pad for a more promising business that he discovers along the way. The trick is to stay focused without putting on blinders. You need to use your peripheral vision to spot things that you didn't expect to see but that may hold the key to your long-term success.
Steven must have heard what I said. The last time I saw him he mentioned that he'd had another great idea for a business while he was sitting in a barber's chair a few days earlier. "But I'm not thinking about it," he added quickly. He also told me that he's coming out with a variety of new products--bracelets and necklaces with Holy Land Earth in them, Holy Land rocks, seeds from Israel, and Dead Sea cosmetics. Evidently, he has figured out how to put his ADD tendencies to good use--by keeping them focused.
Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur who also writes The Morning Norm at Inc.com. His six businesses include a three-time Inc. 500 company. His co-author is editor-at-large Bo Burlingham.
NORM BRODSKY | Columnist
Street Smarts columnist and senior contributing editor Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur who has founded and expanded six businesses.