By Michael Crowley Copyright 2019, All rights reserved
My entrepreneurial career started the same way as most kids in my era learned about the many "joys" of entrepreneurship.
My first "Enreprenurial Empire" was built in three industries: communictions (I delivered the morning newspaper - the Rochester Democrat & Chronical - to 66 houses in our neighborhood. I started my delivery route at age 9 and kept it for 8 years); lawn maintenance (cut five lawns with a hand mower twice a week) and snow removal (shoveled five driways for elderly neighbors).
I also performed lawn work and snow removal services on an unpaid basis for my parents - which were simply called "Chores".
My father laughingly called chores as "services provided in lieu of room and board".
Each year I would make enough money (about $1,000) to pay for a full year of tuition at most private colleges. I went to Marquette University and paid $1,500 per year for room, board, books and tuition. My many high school and college summer and winter jobs paid for my entire college career and even part of my law school. Can you even imagine being able to pay for private college today by working at the current minimum wage?
Since the 1964 & 1965 snow seasons in Rochester, NY were below normal, my shoveling income didn't quite meet my $250 per season annual targets. Being the "asute" budding entrepreneur that I was; I decided to rework my prior "per shoveled" driveway fee for service business model (usually $2.00 per shovel) and convert it to the kind of agreements used by the commerical snow plowers.
My commercial competitors always used full season annual contracts with their best customers. This allowed them to have a steady and predictable annual flow of income regardless of the the number of snow plowing days.
I wrote my own contract and presented it to all five of my customers as an alternative to my typical per snowfall fee arragement. My goal was to make a guaranteed $250 for the entire season; which meant that each of my elderly customers would pay a flat $50 in two installments with half down and the rest at mid-season.
My customers all jumped at the opportunity to have a fixed fee arrangement. They were so happy with my new concept that I immediately sensed that I had made some kind of mistake. Did I undercharge them? Or were they just being nice to me? Something wasn't quite right, but I plowed ahead (Now that is really one bad pun! Sorry about that.)
In any event, on January 29, 1966, I quickly realized where my brilliant business plan went very wrong. Rochester, and most of the northeastern part of the US, was hit with The Great Blizzard of 1966. The official snowfall at the airport about 10 miles from my home .which was just off Lake Ontario, was record 32 inches; however, the "Lake Effect" snowfall where I lived measured 6-7 feet of heavy wet snow!
Over the next four days of constant snowfall, we were buried in snow up to the roof tops of our houses. And I had signed contracts to shovel 5 driveways for a flat fee for the entire season. I was doomed!
Since school was cancelled for nearly two weeks, I was able to devote myself nearly full-time to snow shoveling and paper delivery. The snow drifts from the strong winds filled the driveways back up with snow almost as fast as I could shovel it out again.
To make matters much, much worse, one customer, Mr. Barber, who had had sufferred a very serious heart attack the year before while shoveling snow, had one of his cars parked in his garage below his house when the snow started falling. Since the grade was so steep, he couldn't get the car up the driveway and out into the street. His car, a two-toned turquoise and white 1962 Metropolitan, was trapped beneath not only the seven feet of fallen snow; since he was adjacent to a deep gulley that acted like a wind tunnel, the wind drove a total of 23 feet of snow totally encapsulating his garage in a densely packed drift of a previously unimaginable size.
For two weeks, I shoveled snow day and night trying to keep the driveways clear of snow so my customers could commute to Kodak for work. When I finished clearing driveways, I would turn the outside lights on at Mr. Barber's home and shovel in the dark until I couldn't shovel any longer that day.
For two weeks, I kept thinking about what an incredibly dumb contract I had signed. How could my ingenious business plan have turned into such a disaster? I even started to calculate my actual hourly pay over and over again in my head. By my last count, my hourly pay was less than Ten Cents Per Hour! Minimum wage was $1.15 per hour. It was my first lesson in entrepreneurship risk and I definitely didn't understand the concept of contractual risk adjustments for special circumstances etc. I also learned the lesson taught by President Abe Lincoln that "any man who represents himself...has a fool for a client".
As I was worked my way further and further beneath grade, I began to feel like I was the grave digger for the legendary fictional giant lumberjack Paul Bunyon and Babe, his Blue Ox. The snow was so high, in fact, that I couldn't throw the snow up on top of the drifts. I had to hand carry each shovelful of snow out to the street so the town snow plows could plow and bulldoze the snow onto huge pick-up trucks to haul it away to be dumped in the lake and the Genesee River near the end of our street.
Every day and night, I could see Mr. Barber closely, patiently and quietly watching over my progress, or lack thereof, from the comfort of his living room chair. I often wondered what Mr. Barber was thinking as he watched. He never said a thing to me during my entire two week battle against "snowmaggeddon"; but would always waive, give me the "thumbs-up" sign and smile at me as he watched.
With some additional help from my 6'2" powerful Dad, I finally plowed the last bit of snow away from the garage and I could see the little Metropolitan through the garage window...waiting to be released once again.
I triumphantly walked to Mr. Barber's front door to deliver the good news to him that he could finally drive his car again. To my surprise, he reached into his pocket and handed me the keys to his car. I thought he wanted me to drive the car up the grade to the street; but instead he told me that he was giving me his car! Mr. Barber said "Mike, you deserve that car and I want you to have it!" I didn't realize at the time that Mr. Barber already knew from his heart doctors that he wouldn't live to see another winter.
What? Mr. Barber was giving me the car? That must be a little joke he was playing on me. It was no joke. He reached into his vest pocket and handed me the title to the car that he had signed over to my name! I had never even seen a title to a car befor that moment.
Mr. Barber then told me of how he had watched me work so long and hard to get his car out of the garage that after the first week of watching me hour after hour, shovel after shovel, he had told his wife that if I ever got the car out of that 23 foot drift...he was giving me the car.
So, it was mine! With the one caveat that I got my parent's aproval to own the car at just 16 years of age.
My Dad said that he would only let me keep it if I paid Mr. Barber $100 for the car; which was still a small amount compared to the value of the car with only 15,000 miles on the odometer.
I paid Mr. Barber the $100 despite his protestations that he wouldn't accept any money from me. That was the best $100 dollars I ever spent and the best entrepreneurial lesson I have ever learned.
Even if your business plan is as flawed as mine was; absolute, focus, hard work and attention to customer service can make even a really bad plan into a great winning business strategy. Entrepreneurs often focus on creating the perfect business plan when their real focus should be on creating a product or service that provides a perfect answer to the customer's needs and desires. Customers ultimately reward great service and integrity...but sometimes the reward comes from the renewal... rather than the first contract price.
Every one of my neighbors heard the story of how Mike Crowley cleared 23 feet of snow from Sam Barber's driveway during the Great Blizzard of 1966 without a single complaint or even the slightest thought of failing on his contract. At the end of the season, my other four customers gave me unsolicited and unexpected tips averaging $25 dollars each. Yes, the 1966 shoveling season was a very good year indeed...$250 in contract earnings, $100 in tips and the car of my dreams to boot. Come to think of it, that might have been my best business season ever!