Business and Bliss – Business, Bliss and $85 Million Worth of Cat Litter

By Barry Maher

I would love to be able to tell you to “follow your bliss.” I’d love to be able to tell you that if you don’t love what you are doing, go do something you love. That’s the easy answer and it’s a good one. Unfortunately like a lot of good answers, it’s not always possible.

We’ve all heard the stories. Larry quits his position as a nuclear physicist to pursue his true love darning wall tapestries. In six months, he turns it into a million dollar operation:

Jeannette hated her dead-end jobs and the fact that she kept getting fired. Until one day some self-appointed authority (much like myself) asks her what she likes to do for fun.

“I just love to design my own clothing,” Jeannette replies. “I could sketch new styles for hours.”

And today—after following whatever advice the authority gave her—Jeanette earns $450,000 a year as a top couturiere.

That’s how the stories go. But the stark reality is that most of the time Jeanette who loves to design her own clothing wouldn’t make it. Much of the time her clothing wouldn’t be fit to soak up oil spills. Much of the time. Not always. But often. That’s why there aren’t more $450,000 a year couturieres milling around.

I like to play golf and make love to beautiful women. Nobody is willing to pay me to do either. (That of course may be a reflection on my abilities, though I’d like to believe otherwise.)

 

When Dreams Don’t Come True

We’d all like our fantasies to come true. We’d all like to be rich, successful and creative. And maybe you should keep trying. It’s not up to me to say you shouldn’t. But there really isn’t room for everyone’s dreams to come true. Too many of us have the same dreams; too many of us want the same elite positions. There’s a lot more room for salespeople in this country than for standup comedians. More room for ad copywriters than for novelists.

Positive thinking that’s rooted in reality acknowledges that, then tries to make the very best and the very most out of the incredible possibilities that are open to each of us. For some of us, that may lead to the pursuit and even the fulfillment of those original dreams. For others, it may lead to new dreams. Dreams, which may turn out to be even better, even more worthy, and more satisfying when accomplished.

Whatever you decide to do, don’t play the victim.It’s great fun to wallow in the mud of victimhood. But nobody is going to want some muddy SOB tracking dirt into their business.

Take control of your choices. If you can’t believe in the job you’ve got, is there always a better alternative, either working for someone else or for yourself? Maybe not invariably, but so close to invariably that I’ve never encountered a case where there wasn’t one. This is America. Nobody is forcing you to do anything.

 

The Gentlemen Who Hand Out the Jobs

“One of the reasons why I have no regular job and why I haven’t had a regular job for years, is quite simply that my ideas differ from those of the gentlemen who hand out jobs.” That’s what Van Gogh said. Maybe you’re the same.

Maybe filling the glass for you means starting your own business, building something of your own. As I implied when I was talking about Jeanette the couturiere, you might not want to count on having the artistic ability to become the next Yves St. Laurent or Calvin Kline. You might not want to count on having the artistic ability of Calvin Coolidge. But that doesn’t mean you have to force your ideas to conform to those of the gentlemen who hand out the jobs. You can still create your own job.

Maybe you can come up with the perfect product for a great niche business. Ed Lowe invented the cat litter industry almost single-handedly, starting out peddling five-pound bags with handwritten labels, driving from pet shop to pet shop. It’s not high fashion or wall tapestry; it’s just an $85 million a year business.

Gail Frankel realized that every other mother had the same problems she did, lugging around baby, purse and packages. She came up with a gizmo for attaching packages to strollers. Her Kel-Gar Inc. now sells $3 million worth of gizmos a year. So many stay-at-home mothers are starting their own businesses nowadays that they’ve already got their own buzzword: Mom-preneurs. The new technology gives them the freedom to do just about anything at home. Those of us who aren’t Moms have the same freedom.

But high technology is hardly a requirement. One day a friend of mine got tired of looking for a job. He picked up a squeegee and a bucket and headed off down the street looking for buildings with dirty windows. Today he runs one of the most successful janitorial businesses in southern Indiana.

Here’s a “stop me if you’ve heard this one” type of story, which also happens to be true. Right after I finished college in the 70s, my partner Paul Sheehan and I started a coupon business on less than a shoestring. One of our first clients was, if possible, even smaller than we were: a young curly-haired kid with a single copier and a shop so tiny that he had to push the machine out on the sidewalk everyday to do business. His nickname gave the business its name: Kinko’s. And that was the first of over 1,000 locations he’d opened by the time he sold the business to FedEx for $2.4 billion.

Cat litter, clean windows and copies might not be anyone’s bliss, but they can still be a dream come true.

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