Sunday, April 25, 2010

MTB: not just a buisness

The business is getting to the point that people expect it to act like, you know, a business. Every now and then -- and more often than usual -- customers say things like "I called your office," or "Where are you based out of." They also ask if I have an assistant from time to time. Pretty soon, I may indeed have to get an actual office, assistant and the other accouterments of a "real" business. But for now, it's just me and my wife, supported by numerous buddies and their buddies.

What I'm trying to say is that there's a very bright, clear line from what I do for customers and our material well-being. There are virtually no layers or cushions between the service we provide and whether we eat or pay rent. This is a huge reason why I strive to keep getting five-star reviews on Yelp.com. It literally pays our bills.

What's this got to do with anything? Well, today we bought a car, and I can't help but be astonished and extremely grateful for this common event. I won't get into it too deeply, but the short story is that the last few years have been hellish. My wife and I have called it "Crisis Mode" during this time. It started when we realized that we'd bought too much house when we first got married, which coincided with the news of our first child. The numbers didn't lie -- we had been stupid, and unless something changed, we were going to go under.

And then I was laid off from my day job. And that was just one of many setbacks...

MTB was nowhere near ready to support our family, but through generous applications of literal blood, sweat and tears, we eventually dug ourselves out, and "Crisis Mode" gave way to something more normal. Everybody struggles, and at some point during the last few months, we realized that we were, in fact, going to make it.

At least until the next giant roadblock/hurdle/kick in the teeth. Lol.

Buying a car is huge. HUGE. And it's not a luxury expense. With Baby #2 on the way (due June 7th), we absolutely needed a new car. For one thing, the old car was falling apart. I had to refill the power steering fluid reservoir more often than changing the oil. The lights had long since given up any form of reliability. I think we replaced the axel on at least one wheel at least twice. And then there was the space -- two adults and one child filled the little Nissan to capacity. Throw in another child and a bigger stroller and, well, it just wasn't happening.

Until today, I couldn't even think about it, and I was worried that "Grace" was going to be stranded with little Joe somewhere. And now my pickup is showing signs of age...

Being able to buy a new (used, actually) car means that, for a little while, at least, we get a reprieve from one gigantic stress. If all else fails, at least we'll have reliable transportation for another 100,000 miles or so.

This is thanks to the many people who have used MTB over the last year, and who have told others about us. So, thank you. Thank you so much.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

MTB partners with Square 3 Ventures to help get rid of your unwanted stuff!

I get a lot of stuff from our customers. A LOT. More than half my house is furnished by discarded couches, bookcases, beds, etc. It got so bad recently that my wife had to sell off all the excess inventory cluttering the baby's room. (The future baby, that is. I didn't stock little Joseph's room with discarded merchandise.)

For awhile, I would sell this stuff through my web store. But as business grew, my time to manage the web store shrank. Fortunately, I now have a way to help people get rid of their stuff!

A former co-worker of mine and her roommate started a neat little "micro-consignment" company called Square 3 Ventures. They "simplify your life by making you money for items you no longer need nor want, all while keeping useful goods out of landfills."

And they do it at a really good rate, keeping only about 20 percent of the profit. The rest goes to you. You don't deal with Craigslist no-shows, haggling, etc. Just give them your stuff, they market and sell it, and give you cash.

Check out their site here if you need to get rid of some of your clutter. It could be gold!

An apology to all my past employers...

Customers often ask me how I got into this. I usually give them this short version of the story, but sometimes I simply shake my head and say "I don't know. I have no business running any business more complicated than a lemonade stand."

And that's absolutely true. I never took a business class in college, and was never promoted higher than Third Assistant Urinal Scrubber at a pizza joint I used to work for.

So, the majority of the work I do is a learning experience. While the proverbial School of Hard Knocks is a fantastic educator, the mid-terms are brutal and I fear whatever the final is going to be. So, I look for educational resources wherever I can find them. one of these is Dan Kennedy's book called something like "The No B.S. Guide to Ruthless Management of People and Profits."

What an eye-opener. And to say it makes me a little uneasy would be a huge understatement. I've built this business on a few somewhat nebulous principles like having a "service mentality." Or, we Truck Buddies strive to do anything and everything you'd expect a good buddy to do for you on moving day. (Or any other day -- you need a tire fixed on the freeway? We'll be there if we're not on another job.) I've tried to find the right kind of guys who embody these principles. Fortunately, I have a lot of buddies who do. But, in order to handle the growing work load, I've had to go beyond my immediate circle of friends and bring "strangers" into the network.

I wanted this to be the "anti-job," a way for guys between jobs in this crappy economy to be able to live, or at least to be able to make a few extra bucks.This meant joyfully throwing normal professional conventions out the window. Of course I insisted on punctuality, a clean, if not professional appearance, and casual days every day. (Kind of tough to keep a suit clean in this biz anyway). Things I didn't insist on: regular schedules (I have a big network that ensures extra help is almost always available); uniforms; no taking personal calls when on the job, etc. Institutionalizing "slacker tendencies" may seem counter-intuitive, but it's not slackers I'm trying to cultivate. Anyone who's invited into the MTB network knows the deal -- we're here to work hard, wow customers, maybe even make them laugh, and get lots of referrals. It hasn't been easy, but it's worked.

Unfortunately, it's worked at the expense of my sanity and free time. That's why, gradually, bit by bit, I've moved from "Hey man, want to work tomorrow?" to "Yo -- I'm going to need you to meet me at the job by 9:00 or you're fired, even though you don't technically work for me..."

In a million other ways, I've gone from "cool (I hope) guy to work with," to "no-B.S., give-me-an-answer-now" BOSS. I'm not exactly comfortable with the transition, but hey, I just don't have the time to walk lightly anymore.

So, in reading Dan Kennedy's book on management, I find myself cheering at all the advice, and not a few times, nodding in agreement based on experience. For example, here are some of his No BX Ruthless Management Truths:

1. Employees are employees. I flagrantly violate this. My "employees" are my buddies! These are guys I BBQ with, golf with, ask to watch my son so my wife and I can have a date night occasionally. Nonetheless, I'm coming around to a more "stable" business model, and despite all my resistance to the idea, I may have to actually get employees. Sigh.

3. When food is no longer edible, it must be thrown out. When an employee is no longer profitable, he must go. I've had to disassociate with a few guys over the two years I've been doing this. One, because he hit on some of my customers, and while I'm not the morality police, I couldn't stomach working with a guy who would do such a thing because A) it's ridiculously unprofessional, and B) he was engaged. I had to let another guy go because his whole appearance and attitude made customers so uneasy they even said so.

5. Any broken window is one too many. ("Broken windows" refers to anything that makes a business look bad. It can be a literal broken window in a business' store front, or it can be a cluttered show room, disheveled employees, etc.) My "broken windows" are messy trucks, helpers who look like they just got out of prison, bad attitudes, etc. That's why I tolerate very few of these. (See above).

As I read through this book, I realize that I've been "that employee" all my life. I expected everything and offered nearly nothing in return. Oh, sure, I have some talents and skills which eventually translated into a little bit of experience, but now, I realize that I was coasting on my own sense of wonderfulness. What I thought were irrationally uptight supervisors were really frustrated bosses who couldn't understand why their carrots and sticks weren't working.

So, many apologies, former bosses. You should have fired my butt long before I quit. And for those of you who actually did the right thing and gave me the pink slip, good job! I get it now.