October 22, 2015

Overcoming Business Challenges: A Corn Hole In One

I have never met someone who owns their own business that doesn’t have at least a few stories about their entrepreneurial skills showing themselves in the days of their youth.

Want to get an entrepreneur talking? Just ask them why and when they knew they’d have their own business. You’ll find most have stories that go beyond the paper route or lemonade stand (and yes, I had both).

This is my first entrepreneur story. A story about corn fields, golf balls and amazing little pizzas.

A Corn Hole In One

I guess in a way, I’m a child of the corn.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had an affinity for structure and order. Predictable patterns and organized systems. I must say, there was something comforting to me about the corn row grid.

When I was in elementary school, we lived in North Canton, Ohio – a stone’s throw away from the local public golf course. Across the road from the golf course was acre after acre of Ohio corn fields. We’re talking endless corn fields. And my friends and I spent a lot of time in and out of them.

Growing up near the golf course, it didn’t take long for me to realize that lots of golfers couldn’t hit a ball straight if their life depended on it. So each Summer day, the corn field across the street would end up littered with golf balls. I learned quickly that, unlike me, most golfers didn’t find any comfort in the rows of corn. They’d just take a mulligan, tee up another brand new Titleist and whack it into the maize.

Hunting for and collecting golf balls was tremendous fun and became a bit of an obsession. At first, it was a contest to see who could find the most balls. My friends and I used to take a hacksaw and cut into them to see what was inside. I could explain to anyone, in great detail, the innards of the latest Top-Flite or Ping!

Now, you know a kid growing up in rural Ohio has expenses. The quality of the Summer experience was always enhanced with some extra walking around cash in the pocket. Most of my money went toward Mad Magazines, Wacky Packages and the ultimate treat which were the amazing little pizzas in the golf course clubhouse! Did I mention how AMAZING those little pizzas were?

I guess my switch was flipped and the entrepreneurial light bulb came on when I realized there may be something beyond the thrill of the golf ball hunt — that I could actually make money selling golf balls back to many of the same folks who shanked them.

With magic marker and paper (marketing collateral!), a boldness to open my mouth (sales!), a steady stream of golfers (target market!) and golf balls galore (self replenished inventory!), I quickly cornered the market and selling used golf balls became a residual profit machine. I was living high on the hog with a belly full of  pizza!

I studied my target audience so I knew when most golfers arrived throughout the day. When I wasn’t selling, I was busy restocking my inventory. I came up with a grade for each ball based on its used markings. Prices were set based on the grade. The best “used” balls had markings invisible to the naked eye — clearly brand new and given their inaugural ride by a really poor golfer (my favorite kind)! I found golfers loved buying these “high grade” golf balls at half the price of a new one.

With the added goal of saving enough to buy my very own Stretch Armstrong, I found ways to work harder and smarter. It seemed the only foes to the business were old man Winter and the highly unlikely scenario that one day, a miracle cure would be found for the chronic slice.

The Challenges: Competitors, Location and Price

I believe that the true test of the entrepreneur is how they deal with the ups and downs of the business. Like with any business, I learned quickly that there would be challenges and was forced to create ways to evolve and keep the business moving forward.

What started as perhaps the first used golf ball monopoly, didn’t last very long. There were some other kids who quickly threw together a “me too” operation to compete with me. But the biggest competition actually came from the golf course itself. After they did some top secret competitive intelligence work (ok, not really), they caught on to my brilliant business idea (they stole an idea from a kid) and started selling used balls in the clubhouse right by the register.

I had two prime locations. The parking lot where the golfers parked their cars and the bag drop area which was really prime for quick transactions. This reminds me of the best answer to why people sell door-to-door … because that’s where the PEOPLE are!  Once the clubhouse started selling used balls, my prime locations around the clubhouse were, let’s say, strongly discouraged. Didn’t they know I used most of my profits to buy their amazing little pizzas?

My used golf ball prices were priced to sell, but the clubhouse matched my already low prices.

So, in a nutshell, heres how I dealt with the business challenges.

When it came to the other kids who copied me, dealing with them was simple. I simply had to outwork them (which I did). The much bigger challenge was competing with the clubhouse. I had to get creative, a little sneaky, and be willing to take some risks in solving the challenge of this mega competitor. My little indie operation was hell bent on not letting the big conglomerate win. Not to mention I was addicted to those little pizzas.

I knew I could compete with the clubhouse on quantity and quality of inventory since I had the corn fields. So my big move was to add a few sales reps and take my location out onto the actual golf course! I found all the best places – the bunkers, the massive trees and the ditches. The golfers got used to seeing us everywhere. They knew we probably shouldn’t be there, but I think many bought from us simply because they appreciated our creativity and tenacity to stay in business.

And the pricing issue? I was able to solve that easily by dropping my prices just a little bit. It’s not like I had much overhead!

So, there you have it. My first entrepreneur story. What are the biggest challenges your business is facing?Are there creative solutions and are you willing to take some risks? Please share your comments with me below.

I have another tale to tell which happened about 6 years later. It’s a story about dumpsters, posters and lots and lots and lots of vinyl records. Oh yeah, I already told that story!

Until next time!

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October 22, 2015