Saturday, September 3, 2011

A bastard I can live with

The toughest part of building a business when you have no previous business-building experience is dealing with the things you don't know. It's a lot like a swimming hole we knew about in a little river back home in Washington State. It was lined with massive boulders probably blown there from some volcanic activity millenia previously, had a fun waterfall, and a slow-running area for swimming. The water was deep and cold and perfect on those hot summer days. Places like that inspire country songs.

But there was one little hazard (aside from, you know, the raging waterfall): about six inches under the water in the prime diving location sat a hulking, flat-topped boulder usually submerged from view. It seems like someone was killed or crippled every year diving into that thing. If you weren't with locals who knew about it, you could demolish yourself.

That's a lot like what this is like. Donald Rumsfeld (in)famously talked about "known knowns," "known unknowns," and "unknown unknowns." When you have a liberal arts background, virtually everything falls into the "unknown unknown" category, often with painful consequences.

Take a recent licensing issue I had. I'd paid a lawyer an enormous sum of money (for me and this little business, anyway) to "take care of it." Have you ever tried to get simple, actionable information from a government website? It's ridiculous. And if you actually get a hold of a somewhat knowledgeable human in whatever government office, what they tell you seems to contradict everything on the website. So, for me, paying the lawyer was a great investment. "Here's money: make the problems go away."

Well, for whatever reason, he didn't take care of our City of Alexandria license, which resulted in a somewhat aggressive call from the city. "Come down here and fix it or we're going to charge you [$basically as much as the company grosses every day] every day until it's handled." It would have put us out of business which, the bureaucrat couldn't have known, wasn't exactly a threat. After four years of 14-hour days, my body beat to hell, my mind sludge, and finally, my oldest son asking whether he even had a daddy, I could probably live with packing it all in. But, out of some sense of duty and stupidity, I went down to City Hall for what would turn into a bi-weekly ritual probing.

Long story short, it's handled. We're fully licensed and insured. But the government worker mentioned that the licensing issue came up when one of my office neighbors informed on us. ("Bureaucrat" now seems too loaded a term for someone who, in the end, was very pleasant and helpful as long as I did exactly what she wanted immediately or sooner), It didn't take long to figure out who it was -- MTB World HQ is right next to a bigger, more established moving company. They've been in business for about 40 years -- and for most of it they've been in the same location.

I thought she was mistaken, because when I moved in to this office, I went next door to shake the owner's hand and introduce myself. I had a couple of goals:

  • First, I wanted to let him know that I probably wasn't a direct competitor, so please don't slash my tires. 
  • Second, I wanted to extend to him the same courtesy I do with several "partner-competitors" in my Trusted Mover Network. We receive far more requests than we can handle, and I (perhaps naively) happily refer people to other companies I trust. They do the same. Even with five or so companies working together, we all STILL can't do all the jobs people need us to do. Since I needed another "big company" in my Trusted Mover Network, I thought my neighbor would be an excellent candidate. 
So why would he just hand us over to the city like that? I needed to find out.

Surprisingly enough, I met the big guy (who I will now call "Big Guy") himself. Big Guy is older, and a gentlemen from the old school of business. Unlike us Truck Buddies who prize informality and a laid-back way of doing things, Big Guy wore a suit WITH jacket on in his office which, by the way, was immaculate. That alone astounded me. How could anyone run a brutal business like this for 40-some years and not have a bottle of Jack on his desk, an empty shot glass, and a clean revolver in his hand?

We had a good, but stiff meeting. His desk was high, and his chairs were low, which meant I felt like a four-year-old supplicant asking for a lollipop. He was cordial and polite, if uninterested in what I had to say. I chalked it up to the fact that this industry isn't exactly dominated by affable, friendly people. Based on recent events, I now realize he probably regarded me as a naive idiot.

I proposed my idea about sending him the big jobs and him sending me small jobs. "Do you do commercial moves?" he asked.

"Nope," I said. And it's true -- we don't like them.

"Well then, we're not competitors," he said. "Welcome to the business!"

And that was that.

Nine months later, the guy reported me to the City of Alexandria because of that licensing issue.

I took care of it, but the narc situation didn't sit well with me. I extended a hand of friendship and came back with nub. So, perhaps still idiotically naive, I went over there yesterday to ask him what the problem was.

I caught the Big Guy outside while he was walking his gigantic poodle-type dog. "I got a call from the city," I said, and I think there might be some mistake, but I think it was someone in your company--"

"It was me. I called."

Surprised, I tried to explain that it was an honest mistake, it was fixed, and that I was a little miffed that he'd call the law dogs on a company doing everything it could to A) stay in business, and B) stay in business legally. He didn't even care that this business came out of a need to provide for my family when I was laid off from my last job.

I would have gotten farther with the poodle. "So, what's the problem?" I asked.

As it happens, the problem was exactly what I deal with on a daily basis. He had just shelled out tens of thousands of dollars in taxes to the city. He has a bigger fleet both in size and number of trucks. The economy sucks, business is down, and people are finding alternate moving methods. However, the tax-man still cometh regardless. He didn't like the idea of an up-start company competing against him (even though we don't, which I tried to explain) and not paying their fair share.

That was it: "Everyone has to pay their dues, everyone has to pay their fair share."

I couldn't have agreed more. There are somewhere over 500 legal and semi-legal moving companies in the area. Competition is fierce. It's a ridiculously expensive industry. Overhead is way, WAY over head, which makes it difficult to pay for excellent people. We compete directly against hundreds, if not thousands of what we call "Craigslist Cowboys." You know exactly who I'm talking about -- guys who offer a ridiculously low rate and promise you the moon. But on move day, if they show up at all, they're late, they hit you with all kinds of hidden fees, and forget about getting compensation for damages. Even some the best ones have a fundamental dishonesty at the core of their business -- they present themselves as real companies, but the rates they charge can in no way cover the overhead. But they don't need to charge anything close to industry-standard rates -- they're not paying for workman's comp, cargo insurance, general liability insurance, taxes, etc.

I understood where the Big Guy was coming from. That he saw us as some of those "Craigslist Cowboys" (or move rustlers?) stung quite a bit, especially since I struggled for YEARS to get fully compliant, all the while trying to keep us in a home WITH enough food for two growing boys. And, of course, the dozen or so guys depending on the success of the company.

So, it was a real bastard move to simply inform on us instead of walking the 50 feet from his office to mine to mention his concern, but I understand. He's seen 'em come and he's seen 'em go. At some point, I'd love to buy the guy a beer and thank him for "raising my awareness" about the matter.

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