The speaker who gave our address at my graduation from Boston University was G. William Miller, then current Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. He told us we would be a generation with seven careers in over our lifetimes. I am at number three.
Career number one: The restaurant business as a waiter and bartender. The restaurant business is a great training ground for important skills — you learn how to sell yourself, become highly organized, present your product in an engaging way, and always need to be positive and accommodating, despite customer personalities. You are exposed to varied situations and learn how to think fast on your feet.
Career number two: My own embroidery business. The many years of restaurant work created a desire to enter a career where you didn't have to work weeknights, weekends and all major holidays, which drove me into opening my first business
This all came my way by accident after seeing it demonstrated at the Boston Home Show. The first Gulf War was all over the news and since everyone was home watching, the Home Show was pretty dead. But one of the hundreds of booths there had a line stretching around its block – far longer than any other booth. It was an embroidery booth and they were sewing sweatshirts with images of Saddam Hussein being hit by a cruise missile. People were slapping down $60 on the spot for one as it came off the machine.
Having no embroidery experience but realizing the potential, I researched like crazy and found a natural talent for it due its similarity to bartending -- you create something with your hands and your customer immediately gets gratification.
I felt great satisfaction in running a successful shop for 22 years. I loved seeing my paycheck — from my own company! But then the business suddenly changed. The market had become a hyper-competitive arena due to large jobs outsourced overseas and my vendors now willing to open up their wholesale market pricing direct to my customers through online sales. I had to get out.
My 'lightbulb moment'
Career number three: As a hobby, I had been a founding member of a club for collecting and restoring vintage automatic washing machines. Our thousands of club members were buying up old vintage boxes of detergent at estate sales and on eBay to use in their vintage machines. New detergents didn't treat the older machines correctly and were causing damage.
Lightbulb moment! I decided to recreate the formula used in the old detergents to meet the needs of collectors, and ultimately for the modern laundry industry as well.
I learned that water flowing in and out of your laundry is one of the most important elements when it comes to cleaning your clothes. Today's detergents are too sudsy and new machines are designed for low water use, so the suds in most detergents never rinse out. Suds bind up the real cleaning agents so they can't even do their job. Suds dampen washers' mechanical action, clog recirculating pumps, and they can destroy expensive electronic parts on your machine. The old powders didn't do that.
I delved into patent literature with my handy degree in physics. I found what I was looking for, but also found two key ingredients were no longer available: one was banned and one no longer in production. I played around with safe green chemicals until I found a formula that worked almost like the original, but now for the first time ever was environmentally safe. I tried it and it worked.
I sent off my new powder formula to friends across the country — some with vintage machines, some with modern ones. Their machines were running better and their clothes were cleaner. There was just one complaint: They ran out and wanted more. That was my "aha" moment. I knew I could build a business.
Four and a half years later Rosalie's Zero Suds (named for my mother) was awarded a proper U.S. Patent. Last year we worked to get into stores. We are now in 10 Massachusetts shops, and selling Zero Suds online coast to coast.
My nephews and nieces tell me they want to create and sell something they love, and ask for my advice. I tell them that when you have your business idea, imagine what complete failure will look like and how you would handle that. Once you have a plan, it will free your mind. Next you have to believe in your idea so much that you are willing to commit no matter what. The rest is about making good decisions and working hard.
About the author: Jon Charles is the CEO and inventor of Rosalie's Zero Suds. For more information, visit www.zerosuds.com.