I never studied business in school or had dreams of being an entrepreneur. My passion has been journalism ever since my first internship in a television newsroom. But I’ve always been open to other opportunities, including business ideas that I didn’t dismiss even though they seemed so distant from my skills and interests.
I first learned about business from Robert Kiyosaki after listening his book “Rich Dad Poor Dad.” My husband and I loved his messages so much we talked about getting his board game Cashflow, but it was so expensive and only available on his website, so I hesitated. Several years later my husband decided it was worth it to buy the pricey game for our now-older kids to learn the same lessons we did, and he sprung for it as a Christmas present when our kids were 14 and 12 years old. The kids loved it even though it required a lot of math and strategic thinking, and we played it every night of winter break.
After more than a week of Cashflow game sessions in which we all bought fictional commercial properties and businesses, I wanted to show them some real life opportunities. I went on craigslist and surprisingly found an entire section of small businesses for sale. They were all so inconceivably expensive to us that I wasn’t sure how to use them as a real life example. Then I got an idea to send messages to the owners asking if they would provide seller financing as a purchasing mechanism, a strategy I learned as a result of buying rental houses after following Kiyosaki’s lessons in his classic book. I sent this message to about 20 sellers, and one responded that he would consider such an offer. I thought I could make a no-money-down offer and see what happened. Instead of doing this through email, I decided to see if we could arrange a meeting, so I could show my kids how this really works. It turns out his business was run by his entire family. His wife and kids helped. He would be happy to meet me with my husband and our kids at his house.
My kids were over the moon with excitement when I explained that we were going on a real life meeting to talk about buying a business like in the game Cashflow. I told them we weren’t really going to buy the business, but they would learn about negotiating and structuring a deal in real life. (I did bring my checkbook just in case, but I had no intention of using it.)
We met the couple in their family room. They were great people. They explained that the business delivered yard decorations, like flamingos, to help people celebrate special occasions like birthdays. They said they bought this business from another man, and he had offered a payment plan for the purchase of the business. So they didn’t mind offering this to us.
I had done some previous due diligence on the business and industry, though there was not a lot of information available. I was skeptical of the revenue projection the owner described and shared that with him. My kids were wide-eyed watching me pull no punches and asking direct questions. Why would someone get rid of a business that was profitable?
The owner said the business required someone to deliver the signs between midnight and 6 am, so the recipient was surprised in the morning. He originally got the business for his college-age son to earn money, because he said he could make the same amount of money in a couple hours of late-night deliveries that he could make working 20 hours a week at a fast food place. But his son had recently moved to the city and got a full-time job, and now this dad and realtor was stuck driving around at 2 in the morning delivering signs. And he didn’t want to do that anymore. He had enough income from his real estate endeavors that he could let this income go. It all seemed very reasonable.
I was actually starting to consider this as a real business endeavor. I had never purchased a business before, but the value of doing it had been drilled into my head after a couple weeks of playing Cashflow. Our kids were not old enough to drive, but they would be in a couple years. They could help us with social media marketing and sending emails to customers. And we really needed the extra money, but we couldn’t afford a down payment. We had gone into debt to buy rental properties right before the real estate market crashed, and we had spent years trying to pay off the credit cards we had used to rehab the properties, which stopped making money for years during the Great Recession. We were just starting to pull out of that financial hole, and here I was thinking about digging us a new hole.
But I’ve never been afraid of financial risk, because I usually feel like I don’t have much to lose — especially when you don’t have to pay anything up front.
So I told the seller it sounded intriguing, but I was worried about the ups and downs of the business revenue. Then his wife pulled up some reports from a credit card processor called Square that I had never heard of. I examined them. They looked pretty official. They showed much more income per month than the limited expenses the couple described: gas, web hosting and a dedicated phone number.
I told him I was concerned that we were new to the business, and we wouldn’t generate the same income that they were producing, especially since they were not doing that consistently every month. We could not possibly commit to payments that were potentially more than the revenue. We had no extra income; in fact we were self employed and didn’t even make enough to pay all our bills many months. We had not dug ourselves fully out of debt. We would be buying this business to boost our finances, not strap them.
I offered payments that were half of what the seller proposed. He said he would consider that but needed to know how much down payment we were offering. I told him we had none. He said that would not work. As someone who had learned about business through real estate investments, I knew it was dangerous to do any financial dealing with someone who has no skin in the game. He knew this too. So I offered him a small down payment. He still said no way, but I didn’t want to walk away.
I kept thinking that after we paid off the seller-financed business loan, this would be a nice way to generate extra income. I kept thinking how much fun and educational it would be for the kids to help us with this business. I was open to the possibility of something I had never considered before, even though I wasn’t sure how it would fit into our life.
I still remember the scene. My husband and kids were sitting on the couch. The seller’s wife was sitting at a desk in the corner of their family room. The seller and I were standing and talking and negotiating in a friendly but no nonsense style. All eyes were on us. A couple times I turned and looked at my family, and my kids would hesitantly ask a question or two of the seller, but direct it towards me. And he would answer. And I would make comments that this really seemed like a good idea for us.
He and I went back and forth with several proposals and offers and counter offers. I told him I couldn’t pay him more than we had in the bank. I told him if I was going to put money down, I needed a lower purchase price and a lower monthly payment.
I wasn’t really sure what the business was worth. In my mind I felt like it was potentially worth what they were asking, but I never pay retail or the listing price or the first price suggested by a seller. I also knew that there were two main points to a financial negotiation — price and terms. If you get your way with terms — long-term payment plan instead of full upfront cash payment — you don’t usually have much wiggle room on price.
But I didn’t come to the house to buy a business. I came to teach my kids some lessons, so I wasn’t worried about killing the deal. It would all be a learning experience. Still, a part of me thought this would be a great opportunity. So I offered an affordable purchase price as a counter, and the owner said he would take that price if I wrote him post-dated checks for every monthly payment for a year and a down payment that equaled the balance in my bank account. He was only willing to agree to the deal if I paid the down payment right then. I thought about my bank account, which was my cushion for when our rental properties needed repairs or when we had to pay mortgages during vacancies. But I reasoned in my head that we would earn back that down payment through this new business. I got out my checkbook to check the balance in my register. That’s when my ability to negotiate ended, but I knew that. I was ready to commit to this. My kids were excited, and my husband was a little nervous. But he knew I handled the finances, and he always trusted me that I made it all work out. We hadn’t become homeless yet!
I asked the seller to show me a few more things about the business, like how to access the special phone number and the website dashboard. Then his wife got out all their files and records and usernames and passwords and handed them to me. The seller walked my husband and kids out to the garage to see the signs and proudly brag how his wife had just repainted them all. They even had the extra paint and supplies. I was hooked.
We both decided if we were going to do this, it needed to be right then. He drafted a short contract on his computer, as I stood over his shoulder and suggested wording and insisting on including certain clauses. We signed the contract, and I wrote all the checks, each dated on the first of the month for the rest of the year. We took all the signs and paperwork and supplies and materials and loaded them in our van. We shook hands, and I hugged his wife. She told me to call if we had any questions or issues.
We did have to call a few times over the next year, to fix issues with the business phone number or website and even to delay deposit of my check one month when my account was short.
Before we left, his wife gave me a lot of wonderful pointers about the business that were critical during that meeting. Her descriptions were actually far more important than the hour or two of negotiating that got my adrenaline pumping. She said their sales came from people who found their website and called the phone number on it. She said to be successful in this business you have to answer your phone. All. the. time.
She said she took orders all different times in all different places. She took one on a napkin at a restaurant once. I always felt that responsiveness was one of my strengths. I complained then and still complain now that my husband ignores more calls than he answers and almost all calls from numbers he doesn’t know. As a business owner, I feel a responsibility to answer all my calls all the time. Most calls I get are from numbers I don’t know. I knew I would be good at this aspect of the business, taking the calls day and night no matter what I was doing.
They also said to not be afraid to ask for the standard price and to charge more if the house was far away, because of course it would take more time and more gas to deliver and pick up the display on two separate days. They said people who were looking for a deal wanted to negotiate, and we should only adjust the pricing slightly but not so much to eliminate the profit.
One of the best things she said was how much she loved the business and would miss it, because everyone who called was happy because they were celebrating something — a birthday, new baby, anniversary. It was easy to be excited with them about the upcoming occasion that a friend or family member was celebrating. I never forgot all of those insights about this business.
We were all pretty excited when we got home. The kids jumped right into the social media pages for the business, adding information to Facebook and creating new profiles for Twitter and Instagram. And just like the owners had said, I sometimes got calls when I least expected them — and I stopped what I was doing and answered questions and took orders. I would write them down on all sorts of scraps of paper in my purse. I asked my kids for years to create a form with prompts for all the information I need to gather during the order taking process, and we finally did make an order form a couple years ago. I keep a stack of those forms in my purse, in my nightstand, and in my desk of my home office.
The first year, we had (barely) enough revenue from sign deliveries every month to make the business loan payment to the seller. After the second year, we had paid off the business loan to the seller and just had to cover monthly expenses like gas. Over the years, we’ve had to replace some supplies and buy some additional ones. But just as they promised, the business doesn’t have too many expenses if you do the work yourselves.
My husband often complained about having to go out at midnight to deliver signs. We are both self-employed, so thankfully it doesn’t interfere with him going to a job. But he’s not a night person like me, and it can throw off his schedule. Eventually my son and then my daughter got their driver’s licenses and did some of the deliveries. Now that they are home from school because of the coronavirus pandemic, they are doing even more deliveries and pick-ups.
Over the years we’ve talked about improving the business but haven’t really made many changes. My kids have suggested getting more varieties of signs, which I’ve resisted because the 300 signs we have already take up too much of my garage, which we don’t park in because of so many supplies for multiple businesses stored there. My husband has talked about putting in more marketing efforts to boost sales, and I’ve told him it’s not necessary because my 75% sales conversion helps bring in enough consistent revenue from the business to say yes to our kids when they ask for music lessons, sports team uniforms, etc.
In addition to the two basic options listed on the website, occasionally someone wanted to combine those two sign displays, and I would offer to do that for far less than the combined cost of both options. Last year I suggested to a caller that we had a third deluxe option that was a price value because it added the 6-foot sign to the critter display for only a small additional fee. She liked that and went with it. I found myself suggesting the third deluxe option more often, and I was pleasantly surprised more and more people were interested. It was a more work for us, but it was more revenue too. I discussed this with a friend who said simply using the word deluxe was more enticing to customers who want to think that they are going to provide their loved one with the best — and enjoy a bargain doing it, since the cost was far less than the combined cost of the individual items in the deluxe package.
Adding that one word increased my revenue about 50% that year. It was an amazing business lesson, and one I learned before I even added pictures of the deluxe option to our website. After several years of owning the business, it has exceeded our expectations. We’ve come to rely on the income, and we accept the interruptions to take orders and the late-night inconveniences to deliver signs.
Then a couple months ago my phone started blowing up with people asking about our signs. Many of them were moms wanting to do something special for a child who couldn’t have a birthday party because of the COVID-19 quarantine. I was so happy to help them out and find something that would brighten their child’s day amid a very challenging time. Like I’ve been doing for years, I get excited talking to people about a special occasion. I love celebrating holidays and birthdays, and I’m sure that enthusiasm comes across in my conversations. I know my personality fits very well with this business. I’m very detail-oriented, and I’ve heard from many of my customers that I take the time and focus to get everything just right during that initial and only contact. I do a lot of little things on the phone and then afterwards behind the scenes to make sure everything stays organized and goes right.
This all seems to help me build a quick relationship with each potential customer who calls. During the pandemic, the increase in calls was very exciting to me and my family, knowing we could help so many people and boost our sign revenue at a time when we had to face the prospect of not being able to pay mortgages on our rental properties because tenants were suddenly unemployed and unable to pay rent. Though we had the supplies to set up multiple displays in one night, we boosted our supplies and efforts to meet the growing demand without changing our business approach or model. Now that the state is allowing people to gather in restaurants and bigger groups, there are not as many people calling for signs. But our little side business has not gone away. It’s still a part of the puzzle that helps us pay our bills, in addition to having a special place in our family’s history as a major project we worked on together. And it all came about because we were open to the power of possibility.