When I was in my late 20s, I acted upon a desire to start my own business. The allure of being one’s own boss is very strong, and creating a business is one of the most exciting things a person can do. It was certainly exciting for my wife and me to start a frozen yogurt shop in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The Author in Santa Fe – circa 1989
Rather than relate every detail of the start-up and operation, let me tell you about the challenges we faced and what I learned from them.
We began Margot’s with virtually no capital of our own. This meant that we had to borrow money to get started. At the time my desire to start the business was so strong that I was willing to borrow money to buy equipment and lease space. The idea was to invest a lot of our own sweat equity into the place and to buy the bare minimum of equipment required to get up and running. Then, we would upgrade from the profits of the business as time unfolded.
This was a problem on two fronts.
1. The strategy of buying just enough equipment to get started soon became a problem. The two soft-serve yogurt machines we could afford with our borrowed money were new machines, but they were air-cooled machines. We had selected a great location for the shop, so getting traffic into the place was no problem. In fact, the first day we were opened a line formed and stayed all day. This meant that the front door stayed open most of the day allowing the warm summer air to come into the shop.
As the ambient air warmed up, the air-cooled machines had to run more to keep the yogurt frozen. The more the machines ran, the more heat they threw off. We created a heat spiral. At one point it got so hot behind the counter that all of our chocolate toppings melted together in their respective containers. The machines could not keep up with the rising heat, and the product started coming out too soft. This heat problem remained until the day we sold the business.
What was the cause of the problem? We didn’t have enough money to buy the more expensive closed-loop (glycol) cooled machines or even water-cooled machines. If we had been able to afford those machines, we would have avoided this serious heat problem.
2. Given that we could not afford the proper machines, you might think that the solution to the problem would have been to have borrowed more money at the outset to buy the better machines. That, however, would have just exacerbated problem number two. When you borrow money from a bank or any other creditor, that creditor has to be repaid with interest. This means that every month without fail, we had to write a check to the bank for $800 to repay our business loan. That business loan, by the way, was personally guaranteed by my wife and me. Our home and vehicles were collateral for the loan. If we did not repay the loan as per its terms, really bad things would have happened to us.
So if we had borrowed more money up front, the monthly payment would have just been larger. When your new business is struggling to get off the ground, paying $800 per month to service debt doesn’t help matters.
What Would Have Worked?
My older wiser self would tell the young 20-something to save money toward the opening of the business. That requires patience. Patience is a four-letter word to people like my younger self. I had the idea, I had the location, and my mind was made up. I did not care that I had no money and no experience in the industry at all. It was time to shoot now and ask questions later.
If I would have piled up cash first before starting my business, I would have begun Margot’s Frozen Yogurt without debt, with the proper equipment, and with much better prospects for long-term survival and expansion. Eventually we sold to a couple that was properly capitalized. The first thing they did was to replace the air-cooled machines with glycol-cooled machines. Because they had no debt, the operation of the business was a lot less stressful.
I realize that entrepreneurs as a class are risk-takers. I am one. However, I strongly recommend that anyone planning to start a business begin with their own personal finances first so that they can start setting aside capital to begin the new venture on solid footing. If you can live below your current means, you can stack up cash so that you can use your own money and avoid the business debt trap.
If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, don’t let this article discourage you. I believe in entrepreneurism. In fact, I love business. I just want you to be aware of some of the pitfalls of starting your own business so you don’t have to repeat my mistakes. Despite our challenges, Margot’s Frozen Yogurt was a tremendous blessing to us. It taught me many lessons that I took with me into the classroom as I finished my BBA. It continues to help me in all of my current business ventures. The people I met and worked with at Margot’s were tremendous. We got to employ a lot of excellent people in the Santa Fe community, including a lot of wonderful young people at Santa Fe Preparatory School. These were impressive people that blessed us. We got to know our customers well, and we loved serving locals as well as tourists and celebrities (like Brian Dennehy and Karen Grassle). All in all, we would not trade the experience.
If your Forward Story includes starting a business, I strongly recommend that you educate yourself as much as possible about not only your desired industry, but also about the wisest ways to finance, launch, and run your business. It is a lot easier to learn from those who have made mistakes than it is to repeat those mistakes on your own.