My next-door neighbor — we’ll call him Al (because, well, that’s actually his name) — is 85 years old. A retired iron worker, he now spends every morning sitting on his porch watching the traffic go by and waving at neighbors out walking their dogs.
Then, he gets to work. “Work” for Al is traveling the 15 feet or so from his back door to the little shed in his backyard where he spends his days making things out of wood. I hear his hammer tap, tap, tapping away all day accompanied by Hank Williams or Johnny Cash playing on his portable CD player.
Al’s inventory is fairly limited. He makes holiday decorations — those jigsaw puzzle-like polar bears and reindeer that people assemble on their front lawns every December. Or these crazy, comical birdhouses that look like something out of Dr. Seuss … tall, bendy, stretched-out things painted neon orange, pink and yellow.
But Al’s biggest seller are his “whirly birds.” These little birds made out of wood have propeller-shaped wings that go spinning around every time the wind blows. He keeps his product offering to a minimum. Bluebirds, red cardinals and, my personal favorite, the hot pink flamingo. I’ve got one of those in my garden.
Al sells a lot of birds. I mean, a lot more birds than you might think a guy who doesn’t advertise or even have a business card might sell. I know this because I see the cars screeching to a halt to have a look at the birds displayed on his front lawn. And then I watch as customer after customer goes knocking on his front door looking to shell out the $15 or $20 he charges for each one.
Every time I see Al’s wooden birds, I marvel at how a guy with no experience as an entrepreneur, no employees, no trademark, no brand, certainly no social media presence and no formal business plan has managed to build a successful business with loyal repeat customers.One of Al's pink wooden flamingo whirlybirds Credit: Jeanette Mulvey
Did I mention that people come back, year after year, wanting more Christmas decorations, giant wooden jack-o'-lanterns or smiling Thanksgiving turkeys for their lawns? Who knew you could build a mini-empire with just plywood and a band saw?
Al is the antithesis of the flashy, angel-investor funded startups we hear about every day. No board of directors. No disrupting. No big data. Just Al and his birds. Occasionally, he’ll get innovative and switch to a better grade of plywood or find a longer-lasting brand of paint. Other than that, Al’s business plan is pretty clear. Make some birds, put them on the lawn, make more when they’re gone.
Al is a reminder of why most of us — myself included — have always dreamed of being an entrepreneur. He’s found a way to be creative, put his ideas into action and work for himself. He earns enough money to make it worth his while while managing to avoid the trap of becoming so successful he suddenly finds himself working for his business instead of his business working for him.
He’s a reminder that entrepreneurs need to keep their end goal in mind. What is it that you want? If you’re looking to own a headline-grabbing startup that will make you rich and famous, then your path to success will be a lot different than most entrepreneurs who are looking for little more than away to do what they love for a living. Whether that’s building houses, teaching ballet or making little wooden birds, the ultimate goal is the same.
So, the next time your path toward entrepreneurship leads you in a direction you weren’t expecting or presents you with an opportunity to change direction, remember Al’s whirly birds and ask yourself: Is this breeze going to take me where I want to go? Or just leave me here flapping my wings in the wind, never actually getting any closer where I want to land?
Jeanette Mulvey has been the managing editor of BusinessNewsDaily since its debut in 2010. She has written about small business for more than 20 years and formerly owned her own e-commerce business. Her column, Mind Your Business, appears on Mondays only on BusinessNewsDaily. You can follow her on Twitter at @jeanettebnd or contact her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.