Minding My Own Business

As the weekend rolls around, I inevitably begin dreaming about something that many, if not most, of us do: starting my own business.

Nearly thirty years ago, as I was embarking for my college career, I recall my late father’s best friend giving me the excellent advice to start my own business and work for myself instead of spending a career toiling for others.

Not having any business sensibility at all at the time and not being the type of dude who wanted to sell anything, I would not say that I ignored his advice, but I certainly never took it.  It was the late eighties and, although the Internet may have existed in its infancy for some, it was not something that anybody I knew had ever heard or dreamed of.

Following my four-and-a-half years of liberal brainwashing, drinking and partying at UW-Madison, I emerged with a largely useless degree in Communications back in December 1992.  Incidentally, the UW was ranked the top party school in the country when I attended, just as it was ranked again last year.

I know that the current generation of recent college grads think that this is the worst economy ever and that they will forever be relegated to temporary gigs and jobs that do not require college degrees, but it was much the same back in the early nineties.  Between my three closest friends at the time and myself, I was a court clerk and then later became a probation officer, my best friend worked at Blockbuster and tried his hand at selling shoes prior to pursuing certification in computers, my tallest friend and basketball buddy worked as a customer service representative prior to obtaining a master’s in education, and my college roommate spent years in the Peace Corps.

I somehow ended up becoming a long-time economic development professional, my best friend has now spent twenty-two years as an IT professional for Blue Cross, my tall friend has been a school principal for quite a few years after becoming a teacher, and my college roommate is an executive with Cisco Systems.  They have all attained upper middle class status, while I toil away an economic rung below them.

I have spent nearly a quarter of a century working in office jobs, answering to many bosses less knowledgeable than I about many things, dressing in various degrees from casual to formal, attending night meeting after night meeting, writing an endless amount of staff reports, sending and receiving hundreds of emails per week and all the other stuff associated with office jobs.

What I have never done is worked for myself besides writing blog posts and self-publishing one title so far with more to come.

Like many other people, what I dream of more and more is starting my own business, in particular something online that I can work on during evenings, weekends, holidays and off days and perhaps even during my lunch break.

This dream was reinforced to me several times this week, the first time being during a long conversation with a fellow economic development professional in a nearby community.  I have become very friendly with this guy and have learned that besides being a very capable and professional economic development professional, he is a partner in a craft brewery in Chicago and also brews out of his home.

Besides getting myself in line for some of his upcoming batches, which he makes available to friends and family, we chatted about the age of fifty-five.  Now, depending on your perspective, you may think that fifty-five is way too old to work for the Man, you may think that it is a very early age to retire or, like me, you may think that it is just about right.

Image result for double nickel 55

For us municipal employees in Illinois, we can retire at the age of fifty-five at the earliest, and if you work for an employer that participates in IMRF, like I do, you will collect a defined-benefit pension based upon your years of service and your highest average salary over a period of forty-eight consecutive months.  If I can survive eight more years of Illinois municipal employment at my current or comparable level of income, I would be in line for about a $6,500 monthly pension at the age of double nickels, an amount that would increase three percent per year for as long as I live.  Should my wife survive me, she would collect exactly half of what I would.  Also, we pay into social security, which is not effected by IMRF.

The point is that, while some public officials have gigantic salaries and more than a few taxing districts in the Land of Lincoln game the system to boost pension payments for politically connected employees, the vast majority of us will collect a pension that will allow us to cover our basic needs but not much more.  Thus, that is the reason that so many colleagues my age and older are planning their exit strategies and their next careers or jobs to get them through ten years, from the age of fifty-five to social security age if that will still exist in the coming decades.

I always loosely planned on going to work heading up a private/public economic development partnership at the age of fifty-five.  I was recruited to head one up a few years back and at a salary higher than what I currently make.  Making a decision that made me feel like a bureaucrat at the time, something that I resolved never to become, I declined submitting myself for consideration, explaining to the organization that I already had twenty-two years in IMRF and was aiming for thirty-three, which I would have at the end of 2025.

Jokingly, I told them that I would be interested in the job in eleven more years.  Who knows?  A guy nearly ten years younger than I am took the job and perhaps he will be ready to move on to bigger and better things when I am looking to go into the private sector, as many a long-time government official has done.  By then, they probably will not want to hire an out-of-shape guy with thinning gray hair even though I would have had a quarter century of hard-fought economic development experience by then.  I have already suffered blatant age discrimination at least once, and I am sure that will not lessen as one becomes older.

So where does that leave me?

If I do not plan on working for a local government past the age of fifty-five and if a public/private partnership in the area does not see fit to hire me to head up their economic development organization, how can I make the extra money that my wife and I will undoubtedly need to get by when 2026 rolls around?  Our insurance and medication costs will probably run us two thousand a month alone before we pay for anything else.

Also, our daughter will still be of graduate or professional school age and I suppose that she will also want to get married at some point, although I really don’t want to think about that yet.  The point is that the need to continue fueling the spending of a middle aged middle class family in the Midwest will not cease to exist upon New Year’s day of 2026 if I am no longer employed full-time in a municipal job.  We’ll likely require as much, if not more, income than we currently have.

The idea of launching my own business was double reinforced by two articles I read this past week.

I hate these titles of how young go getters make millions, yet they achieve their purpose by getting me to click on them, ultimately running ads that make the websites a few bucks, and then making me feel like an utter failure in comparison.

The first article on CNBC  is titled “How a 33-year-old turned $200 into $1 million in 92 days selling Kevlar pants online” which says it all.  In a nutshell, young Trevor Chapman now travels the world and lives a life of leisure after launching an e-commerce site called LDSMan.com through which he sells products sourced from China at great mark-ups.  It is an inspirational read and caused me to, once again, contemplate launching my own online store.

At first, I grappled throughout the week wondering what kind of crap I should sell online.  I could not think of any tangible objects that I have a particular affinity for besides books, and that industry is very well covered.

So here is my list, and I will continue thinking a lot about it.  Knowing myself as I do, I will undoubtedly overthink it, but I am sincere in wanting to launch an e-commerce site.  It will not necessarily become one of my resolutions for 2018, but I may do it nonetheless.

The things that I like besides books are shirts, music-related items, and cool things for my pet.  When I say shirts, I mean shirts for dudes, not high-end dress shirts for lawyers or fashionable men.  I mean the kind of tee-shirts and plaid shirts that dudes like me and the fictional Mike Heck wear.

What do you think of a site that sells books, shirts for men, music-related items and toys for pets?  Perhaps with a name like “Dudes Who Love Dogs.”  Yeah, that’s what I thought.  Not so great.  Especially considering that women shop and spend more online than us dudes do.

My other idea for a site name would be a play on the buyer/seller relationship, like “Buyer’s Cellar” or “Discount Cellar.”  Just brainstorming here.  Or perhaps brain farting.


The second article that I read in that vein is “This 28-year-old’s company makes millions buying from Walmart and selling on Amazon.”  Well, who couldn’t do that?

I’ll take that one step further.  In my highly suburban lifestyle, living in one northwest suburb and working in another, I drive past Walmart, Target, Menard’s,  Kohl’s, Home Depot, Ross Dress For Less and dozens of other big box and discount retailers every day commuting to and from work.

I would gladly troll the discount and clearance aisles at any or all of the above retailers for closeout items and would purchase them if I could resell them for profit.  Especially considering what the return policies may be, you could always return an item within sixty or ninety days or whatever if they did not sell.

If I could purchase one thousand worth of goods at Walmart this weekend and sell them for $1,200, I would do it.  Wouldn’t you?

It would even behoove me to spend several thousand dollars purchasing these goods before I file the FAFSA, showing less money in our family’s coffer.  I never saw any line for reporting inventory of crap to sell as an asset in the form.

The article about young Ryan Grant got me seriously thinking about doing what he does, too, which I suppose is the point of the article besides selling the ads that scroll by while I read it.

I already suffer with my own clutter problems, and our house already severely lacks space for additional “stuff,” but if I could sell things here and there for profit, I think that my wife would be okay with it.

Ultimately, the goal is to make some additional money, which my family, like yours, could certainly use.

We just notched our sixth month in a row where more money went out than came in, which makes me nervous with the holiday season coming up.  Besides being the most wonderful part of the year, it is our most expensive part of the year, too.

$11,400 out last month and $10,800 in

To our defense, upon reviewing our bank statement today, about half of the money that flowed out is due to the $2,500 monthly payment to our son’s college, and my wife’s $3,000+ credit card bill included $2,450 for a new central air conditioning unit, something that you can hardly live without in this day and age in the Midwest.

My own Visa bill was $600 for the month and I Paid Ourselves First to the tune of another $1,100 and contributed $400 to our daughter’s 529 plan, as we do automatically on the first of every month.  Our mortgage payment is adjustable and increased to 4%, so I need to refinance that, as well, to save a few bucks.

Still, you do not need to be a CPA or hold an MBA in finance to know that you cannot continually spend and invest more than you take in month after month.  There are three ways to address this: (1) spend less; (2) earn more: or (3) spend less and earn more.

What I would like to do, but is unlikely, is spend less and earn more.  Unfortunately, spending less does not seem like a likely scenario.  My best alternative is one shared by millions of other Americans and people beyond our country, and that is to pursue more of the Almighty Dollar.

So how to start?

Although I have worked with hundreds of businesses throughout my seventeen years of working in economic development, I have primarily worked with businesses with storefront, industrial or office locations.

I have little to no experience working with online businesses, although many of the businesses in my community sell more items online than in their brick and mortar locations.

But when it comes to sourcing items from overseas or seeking out items to profit by arbitrage, I am at a loss.  Just like you, marveling at how others have done it, experiencing more than a little bit of the green eyed monster and wondering if I might also grab a little bigger slice of the American Dream, myself.

Speaking of being a long-time economic developer and sourcing items from Asia, indulge me in one last quick story.

Originally intended to be a post on its own, I unwittingly forged a connection to producers of various goods in Hong Kong and Taiwan about ten years ago.

I was working for the same community that I currently work for, and our successful and expanding business park was still in its earlier stages.  In 2006,  I was contacted by a well-known Chicago area industrial broker looking for a large tract of industrial land in the Chicago area, but not within Crook County, on behalf of a Taiwanese-based manufacturer of furniture.  They would continue fabricating the components in the Republic of China, which I later learned is the same as Taiwan, ship them by cargo ship and rail to our community, and then assemble the items and ship them from their new location.

Two acres of chairs that I snuck a photo of before this company left our town.

Speaking of Walmart, they were the primary purveyor of furniture-related goods to the biggest retailer in the world.

Due to the Taiwanese holding economic development officials in high esteem, they invited me and my wife, along with the Mayor and his wife, to a State-sponsored dinner celebrating Taiwan’s 100th anniversary in Chicago six years ago, in 2011.

Take it from me, nobody anywhere has ever enjoyed a better dinner of Chinese, albeit technically Taiwanese, food.  I could describe the plates, but you will have to trust me on this one.

We were placed at a table with Taiwanese government officials including trade representatives, economic development representatives and even a few ambassadors.  The distinguished Taiwanese man who sat on the other side of my wife was quite taken by her, and I was wondering what the etiquette was for sitting idly by while a Taiwanese dignitary complements your wife’s hair, physique and manner.  I demurred, acknowledging that my wife was a fine American lady, which she was and still is.

We all exchanged business cards, including with several from the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.

Next thing I knew, I began receiving print and electronic materials from the Hong Kong trade office on a regular basis.  As a recipient of over seventy emails per day in my personal Yahoo! account and even more at work every day, I marked the constant Hong Kong emails as spam, yet they still worm their way into my inbox on a regular basis.

I also receive their full-blown catalog of all of the State-sponsored companies that produce and sell the kind of stuff that we Americans purchase in stores and order from online businesses.

For the first few years, I would send the catalog straight to the recycle bin, but the past two years I have looked through it with a high level of interest.  You may or may not know it, but when you purchase some product, say a lamp, at the Home Depot or Target, you may pay $19.99, $29.99, $49.99 or even more depending on how nice it is.  You probably never thought or cared that the product cost the Home Depot or Target about one-fifth of the price, with even more having been spent to get it from where it was produced overseas and onto the shelf in front of you, and another one-fifth or more to pay for the real estate where it sits waiting for you to purchase it, and another fifth or so to pay for the friendly retail employees there to assist you.  Target may book ten percent or so of the sales price as their profit, thus satisfying shareholders and helping make the retail world continue going around.

What you may not know is that you can purchase that lamp that retails for $49.99 yourself for $5 or $10 directly from the manufacturer, but they are not necessarily interested in selling one lamp to you when they can sell 50,000 at a time to a retail store.

But if you could establish a link to one of these producers that makes more than lamps, like additional household goods, and will ship them directly on your behalf – well, now you’re in business.

I don’t know if you will ever see a CNBC article titled “How a 48-year-old middle class guy made a few extra bucks shipping some crap from Taiwan and reselling some crap from Walmart,” but it sure would be important to me and my family.

According to America’s Kauffman Foundation, the average and median age of US-born tech founders is 39, with twice as many over 50 than under 25.

The Kauffman Foundation further reports that in every year from 1996 to 2013, Americans in the 55-to-64 age group started new businesses at a higher rate than those in their twenties and thirties. And the trend is building. Those ages 55 to 64 started 14 percent of all new businesses in 1996 but nearly 24 percent of them in 2013.  I do not know what the percentage is now, but I suspect that it is the same or higher.

Whatever my own business is to be, I sincerely plan on launching it prior to turning fifty-five.  It may only sell a pair of socks to my mother, but it will most definitely sell something to somebody.

So while it is clear that age is by no means a barrier to startup success, the question then turns to the advantages and disadvantages  –if any– of starting your business at a particular age in life.

In the January 2016 issue of Entrepreneur magazine, Neil Petch wrote that while the young may appear to have less to lose, the slightly older entrepreneur has a more stable foundation from which to launch. Having already spent quality years within the workplace, older entrepreneurs tend to be more financially stable and have a clearer vision of exactly what they want to achieve and how they plan to achieve it. They also have the added benefit of having been able to learn valuable business lessons while employed– in a sense, they have been able to learn from their mistakes while on the payroll.

In my case, I have learned more from the mistakes of others while assisting businesses in the community where I work.  As previously written, they are in brick and mortar locations, which often proves to be the primary source of stress and failure on their part: failing to be able to cover their overhead costs including rent or mortgage payments, property tax, utilities, payroll and all of their vendors.  Most of those businesses do little to no marketing, citing that they have to pay their rent before they can spend anything on advertising or marketing, and they are too busy trying to survive to take a step back and assess the bigger picture.

The successful business people make it look easy and seem to do things naturally.  Furthermore, when you commend them or note that they do things better than other business owners that I know, they act dumbfounded and cannot understand why others would not do things the right way.  In the case of restaurants, I am no Robert Irvine or Gordon Ramsay, but the combination of good food, good service, good location and fair prices always seems to do the trick.

But I have no interest in cooking food for others or opening a service business.  Given the chance to do it all over again, I might consider becoming an accountant, attorney or dentist, but late forties is about two decades too late for that in my book.

No, I want to launch an e-selling business with some combination of outsourcing from overseas and reselling marked down goods for profit.  It could even help me obtain a new car, since I would need a larger car to transport the crap that I buy from the big box stores and sell for profit.

The source of a future post, many of the great business-minded gurus including Rich Dad and many others offer the advice to incorporate yourself as much as possible.  After all, if I use a portion of my house to store this stuff, and I use my car to drive to and from Walmart, Target and other retailers, than is not a portion of my home and vehicle tax deductible?  The computer and software that I use to track inventory?  Fees for domain registration, website design and ads?  Yes, yes and yes.

The further beauty of it is that if it earns. let’s say, $10,000 in a year, instead of jacking up my personal income tax by another $1,500 to $2,000, it should be almost nothing because corporate taxes on a business that earns $10,000 but spends $5,000 is zilch.

I am not yet ready to make “Start an e-commerce business” a resolution for 2018, but I am going to do more research, consider a proper name for it, consider where to incorporate it (anywhere but my home state), consider how much to invest in it, research how to connect with producers in Hong Kong or elsewhere, and start taking a hard look at the clearance aisles in local retailers instead of walking past them as fast as possible.

After all, the crap that is sitting on some shelves a few miles away from where I type this may be just the things that you are willing to buy from the Discount Cellar.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *