I received and email from a college student who wants to be an entrepreneur. He was concerned that after graduation it would then take years to get the operational experience he believed would be necessary to start or buy his own business. Here is the pertinent portion of my response to him.
I started a business while I was a freshman at Boston University. I found that the girls I was most interested in wanted to date upperclassmen that had their own apartments and cars. One Saturday, some friends and I took the “T” into downtown Boston. During the trip, we wandered into Filene’s Department Store. Filene’s had a special studio on their top floor called the Regency Room. I arrived there as they were conducting a showing of the latest women’s fashions. I was intrigued and took an empty seat near the back of the room. For the next 30 minutes or so I was entranced by a parade of beautiful women modelling possible purchases before a small sea of potential buyers.
For days I could not expunge the images from my mind. I went to their next showing a month later to try to better understand what a fashion show is all about. How does it work? Is it something I could get involved in? Could I meet and attract some of the models to go out with me? I actually asked myself is this real? Or, is it a fantasy that I can only view from a distance?
About a week later, while walking down Beacon Street near my dorm, I passed a number of small boutiques selling women’s clothing and accessories. I stopped in to several, sought out the manager and asked if they ever ran fashion shows at their boutique as a way to sell to their clientele. Each answered no. I asked why not? Their responses where similar. We can’t afford the cost. Models are two expensive. We don’t know how. Our clientele isn’t big enough to make it pay. Or, simply… we’ve never thought of it.
The entrepreneur in my genes piped up in each instance and asked them questions like: What do you think it would cost? What if I could produce a show for you here at your boutique that was half that price? What if I could bring an audience to the show that included many new buyers who had never visited your boutique before? What if you could pay for the show from the profit on the clothes you actually sell? Every manager seemed to like the idea so my next question was… Would you be open to receiving a proposal that spelled out all the details and costs? They all said yes. I then set an appointment with each manager for approximately 40 days later. Why so far into the future? Because I didn’t have a clue how I was going to deliver a proposal for putting on an event about which I knew absolutely nothing.
I suppose you could say that my last question to myself was… What have I gotten myself into?
I learned something about myself through this early entrepreneurial episode… that by putting my back to the wall, my strong survival instincts roared up and my creativity and drive exploded. My first instinct was to return once again to the place where my interest in fashion shows first took form. I found to my surprise that my interest in the models totally faded. Instead, I found my eyes… and ears… affixed to the moderator who was orchestrating the show. The thought flashed across my consciousness… here is a person that knows everything I do not about putting on this event.
When the show ended I made a beeline toward the moderator, introduced myself and started asking her questions about how she became so skilled at putting on a fashion show. We spoke briefly. Then, since she had more work to do, we agreed to meet an hour later for a cup of coffee.
Over coffee, we evolved an idea of interning college girls who wanted gain experience as fashion models. We could then give them the opportunity to participate in shows we put on at the various boutiques. She would organized and moderate the shows. I would recruit the college girls who had modeling training for a final acceptance audition with my new partner. I would also sign up the boutiques for our fashion show business. My new partner supplied me with all the details that needed to go into our proposal and agreement with the boutiques. By using college interns instead of union models we could cut the cost of a show in half and still turn a hefty profit. What’s more, by having a sign-in sheet for each show, we could build a database of clientele from all of the boutiques giving us an expanded mailing list to build our show audience for future events. We were then able to produce large growing audiences for each succeeding show. The boutiques loved it.
Another point worth making was how my partnering arrangement solved the credibility question. In front of every boutique manager stood an 18 year old college kid spinning a tale about his ability to deliver a professional fashion show that would fill their shop with buying customers. If you were in their shoes, what questions would you ask? How about; have you ever done this before? Who did you do it for? What was the result? Who can I talk to that can tell me about their experience with you?
You can imagine that without a partner, highly credentialed on the operational and delivery side, I’d be dead in the water. But knowing those questions were coming, I had a printed flier at the ready that extolled my partner’s credentials. It ended with an invite to come see her at an upcoming Filene’s fashion show. That led to their next question which was… where do I sign?
My job as an entrepreneur was to find a need and a way to fill it. My function as an entrepreneur was to create a vision and then orchestrate the time, talent and resources of other people to make my vision real. My mission as an entrepreneur was to create a win for everyone whose participation I needed to succeed and create a business structure that enabled everyone to win. I did not need to be an operator. I needed to be an orchestrator. I needed to have a vision, identify the needed elements and motivate those who had those elements to want to be part of my vision.
Four months after our first show, I moved out of the dorm into my own apartment bought a new car and no longer needed to pay tuition with student loans. Oh, and by the way, I dated some of the most fabulous young women you can imagine throughout the rest of my college years.