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Not All Startup Lessons Come From The Internet

I’ve spent virtually my entire career surrounded by startups – including helping huge brands like Rand McNally and The Discovery Channel figure out the Internet in the early 90s. I’ve also created tech startups from the ground up with Vulcan Ventures money and have bootstrapped 2-3 into decent little opportunities. I’ve seen them soar and I’ve seen them crash. I’ve landed strategic customers hands-on, and had my company vaporize while on a Florida fishing vacation. No matter what happens, you’re in for one hell of ride in startup world. I thought I’d share the story of my first crack at a non-services startup – at least since my Huffy bike parts business circa 1978. It was a great learning experience that might have a lesson or two for other entrepreneurs.

 

It was 1997, and I was just coming off a five-year agency run working with Pam Alexander and about 100 of the smartest, highest-energy people on the face of the Earth at Alexander Communications. We were technically defined as a PR agency, but we were neck-deep inside every corner of our client’s marketing programs – designing lead gen, tradeshow marketing, defining messaging for advertising, speaker-training executives, new product development, corporate positioning, etc.

 

I’d spun off a lucrative little consulting business, and it was the dotcom heyday. If I buckled down hard (ish), I could have most of my work done by noon (and make a hell of a living) so it left me lots of boring afternoons. I had a friend with an equally odd schedule, so one day we decided to go buy Harleys. I scoured the country for about a week, and finally found a very slightly used first-year 1997 Heritage Springer in Greenville, SC (611 miles to be exact). I ended up putting 35,000 miles on that bike over the next 7-8 years, so it clearly saved me from my boring afternoon syndrome – and added lots of other extracurricular activities and adventures. In 1998, a friend and I challenged ourselves to see how many Bike Week events we could hit. The answer was 18 in a calendar year, which gave me an interesting business concept.

 

We rode our bikes everywhere, but there clearly was a set of weekend warriors who would truck into any event late Friday night – sometimes from many states away. Daytona was the best example with tags from virtually anywhere east of the Mississippi. So Bike Week Express was born. Domains were registered, brochureware was created, an online booking engine was coded – and we were off and running. It was a full-on transport business that picked-up your bike locally, hauled it to Bike Week, let you fly in and ride all week, and then dropped it back at your garage. A mechanic friend and I even had plans for a light maintenance offering during the trip back where we’d come back to Atlanta and replace tires or change oil before returning the bikes. I did lots of research into interstate transportation regulations and the exact types of insurance needed to secure a truckload of bikes that could easily be worth a quarter million bucks.

 

After all my research was complete, I proceeded to start buying equipment – the first round was two trucks and a trailer: a Chevy 15’ C3500 box truck; a 26’ Ford medium duty box truck, and a 48’ drop-deck trailer featuring full e-track, which is used to strap the bikes down. I had the equipment and a contract with a major independent trucking company to pull my trailer wherever it needed to go. Now it was all about getting everything licensed appropriately and securing customers. Of course, the first group I hit up was my friends – and their friends. I’ve often heard the old adage: if you don’t have the courage to blast mail your personal address book to ask for their business, you probably should be doing something else.

 

I soon discovered a fatal flaw in my business – and a lesson that remains with me to this day: one person can’t do it all. I was a one-man show, and managing the logistics and business aspects of the business was almost instantly overwhelming with the first 10 orders. (Yeah, Harley guys treat their bikes rather well, and paranoia can be rampant.) I had enough physical capacity to haul more than 30 bikes simultaneously, but the wheels came off after about 5 commits per trip. I did a couple runs, and it was clear I had a decision to make. What to do with all this sunk time and equipment? What I really needed to do was hire a #2 and give them a direct path to revenue sharing and ownership given I couldn’t really pay a salary.

 

But hiring someone that early felt like an even deeper financial commitment, which was right on the back of all the capital investment in equipment. I faced a critical decision: expand it or kill it. I ended up deciding to kill it based on three core factors: 1) I couldn’t find anyone willing to join on my terms who also had the necessary credibility in the Harley world; 2) I was sensing a slow-down in my consulting business (in retrospect, it was the first signs of the bubble) and that felt like the perfect time to add a corporate stint to my resume (enter UPS Interactive Communications in late 1999); and 3) My exposure was limited to time invested given I’d cut very aggressive deals on the first batch of equipment. I could sell everything off, make my investment back, take a spin at working for the Man, and live to fight another day.

 

So I killed it and slid into a pretty cool gig at UPS setting up the entire interactive function. In retrospect, I’d play it exactly the same way the second time around. I didn’t have $100K to gamble, and it didn’t seem doable for less than a full year of loaded costs including insurance, salaries and equipment maintenance. It’s always fun making those critical decisions during the heat of the battle. The good news for me was my decision affected no one but myself, so it was quick and painless. The next time I started a business, I made damn sure I had a couple of highly skilled partners!

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