“Beer? Fine idea, but really, I can’t afford it.” “What? You’re buying and I don’t have to drive? Why, thank you!” So began a conversation that ended a day of fine ideas, grand plans, and limited resources. As ever, fine ideas and grand plans dance with limited resources as each tries to get closer to safer commitments. Those first steps are the hardest, and lately they’re happening when money is least likely to move. Change continues regardless, moves will be made, and the greatest rewards will probably go to those who didn’t stand still.
If you don’t know by now, I enjoy coming up with ideas, inventions (got one patented), strategies, and plans. I enjoy jumping back and forth from the big picture to the details and then back out again, steering towards a goal as if I was alone on a large ship running back and forth between the bridge and the engine room. Set a course up on the bridge, and then run below decks to make sure the engines are fine. The bridge is the big picture, generally picking a direction and looking for hazards. The engine room is the details, making sure everything is oiled and lubed and tight. But from down below, you can’t see where the ship is headed; and from up above, it’s easy to miss a loose wire or an overheating axle.
The life of an artist or an entrepreneur is like that, ready to switch roles at any time between production, maintenance, administration, sales, and advertising. The chicken and egg problem is self-contained and progress can be made as long as few resources are needed. Unfortunately, cautious customers, expensive real estate, and restrictive lending mean most grander plans are put on hold. It is tough to inch a business towards sufficient revenues or square footage one square foot at a time. Ideas and businesses can be stymied and income subsequently capped by such hurdles.
Recently, a courageous friend tried. She has a marvelous business (even if she no longer makes my favorite chocolate macaroons) making and selling chocolate in downtown Langley, and shipping around the world. Sweet Mona’s does good work. She had a plan to expand, to fill one of the anchor business properties, and yet didn’t find the money. Real estate is described in fractions of a million, and chocolate is sold by the dollar. I know she’ll try again.
Another friend owns another business in Langley, poised for growth, drawing traffic from around the world to our little town, and shipping back out as well. She too is caught in long work days with no days off, on this side of the crux that could do marvelous things for our economy and her finances. Chocolate Flower Farm is more than a farm, more than flowers, and not just chocolate. But businesses of a few employees don’t expand smoothly because each new employee is a noticeable spike in expenses that precedes the anticipated increase in sales, or at least sanity. Lose an employee for a weekend and the reverse impact can be enormous.
I’m engaged in my own business expansion. I’m spending more, hoping to make more, hoping to make more than enough to appease the mortgage company and return my finances to comfortably enough. My needs are smaller. That’s one of the advantages of consulting. I need enough room for me, my computer, a few supplies, and my clients. Pull up a chair. Have a cup of tea. Let’s talk. I’ve been doing that from my home, but the possibility of foreclosure generates bizarre traffic around the house. Buzzards are more discrete as they wait for their meal. So, I am renting a small bit of counter in a co-work space with an excellent view in downtown Langley, getting myself and business into a more reasonable environment. So far I’ve had lots of traffic, but no more business – yet. Step by step, this can work, but no step comes with guarantees.
Downtown Langley is like many small towns I’ve seen. Change is generational. Ideas and plans pop up and play, but persistent habits can squelch plans based on old stories. “Oh, no one has ever run a successful business from that spot, so you won’t either.” Generational changes happen in waves that don’t have to coincide with larger economic trends. In Langley’s case, there almost may be synchronicity. The economy does seem to be improving. This tourist season seems busier than the last few years. The coffeeshops are busier. The farmers’ markets seem to be drawing larger crowds. At the same time, the recent economic turmoil, and a desire or need to step away means many businesses are hunting for new owners. Corner businesses are empty, waiting for new tenants, and the potential tenants are waiting for whatever support they can find. Ideally, the spots would have been filled before the traffic returned, but maybe the tight parking will prove to someone that it will be profitable to fill the vacancies now.
One of the advantages of working downtown, both streets of it, is the opportunity to visit my friends in their shops during my breaks from the computer. During one of my breaks, a friend and I kicked around an old idea that continues to appeal. Langley may be know for chocolate in various ways, and has more than enough coffeeshops, restaurants, and bookstores, (and even a fine outdoor gear shop), but it’s identity is more as an art community. Years ago, I was part of another group that proposed turning downtown Langley into an art campus by housing a variety of types of art in the various empty buildings. Each would be a place to sell, watch, learn, and maybe make art. There’d be more to do in addition to drinking coffee or wine and indulging in chocolate. We presented our idea to City Hall. It failed. Ironically, one of the more successful businesses is now a glass blowing facility in the old firehouse. Tourists would have more to do. Artists would have another stream of income by teaching classes, a high profit margin business. And by distributing the venues, tourists would naturally walk by the existing businesses. Ah, but we knew we were talking about big chickens and big eggs, so we both got back to work.
I took the bus home because it’s safer than bicycling on a Friday night during tourist season. The bus stop closest to my house is at Bailey’s Corner store. For years, Bailey’s was a dusty convenience store, barely surviving on the thousand or so people living at the south end of the island. A few years ago, a new generation became the owners. What was a convenience store is now becoming a pub. They sold out of ribs during their grand opening last week. What was a mechanic’s garage is now a sculptor’s studio, which means the patio railings for the beer garden are a lot nicer than chain link. They’ve had ideas, pushed, succeeded, moved to the next idea and repeated. They were out of the way, so there was no one to get in their way. They had enough revenue so they could make progress.
I’ve wanted to drop by, but my finances are so slim that I rarely eat out. I wanted to stop for a beer, but that costs money and there’s always more work to do at home. Then I heard my name called out. Paul, the sculptor and philosopher, offered to buy me a beer. I wasn’t driving so I said yes. For the next hour, as we sat in someone’s dream coming true, we talked about his plans, the value of optimism coupled with persistence, and my situation. Paul had a great idea for me. Evidently my enthusiasm for others and art is evident, and could be a valuable service, leading others in the exploration of how they can express themselves after years of stifling corporate careers. I’ve made the transition from engineer to artist. I could help others discover their outlet. That would be fun. But I have so little to start with. Of course there is that one photography student who said, “I learned more from Tom over the nine or so hours in the classroom and walking the beach than I did during a week-long and much more expensive digital photography course in Pennsylvania last year.” Maybe that’s worth more than I know.
So, maybe, just maybe. Of course, I could also get busier because we finally found funding for the virtual museum, New Road Map‘s financial literacy webinars, an extension to the Two Guys videos, and maybe a revitalization of a sweet town that’s ready for its next era. It is a chicken and egg situation to consider over a beer.