Five Months and Lessons We've Learned
It's been almost five months since our first blog entry and the launch of Flint Hills Rental. The summer has been an adventure for our family (and the business) and we've celebrated various milestones as the company has grown. Our first customer! Our tenth customer! In a few weeks, I expect we'll have our hundredth customer.
As I mentioned in the first blog post, our inspiration from the beginning has been a business started by a former co-worker, Cory, and his wife, Mindy, who own Plan-it Rentals in American Fork, UT. I remember visiting Cory at their location during the summer of 2015. We were living in a suburb of Philadelphia at the time, and I was instantly smitten with the business model and with several other components of Cory's business. At this point, he was approaching his third year of business. They had already moved into their warehouse location, and after spending a half hour visiting/reminiscing, I was struck by several things:
- Cory and his wife, Mindy, worked together in the business, bootstrapping their growth. At the time, I was working LONG hours, traveling heavily for my consulting business, and would sometimes go five days between seeing my wife and my children. I liked the thought of working side-by-side with my wife and helping build something together. Although FHR isn't self-sustaining yet, I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunities I've had this past summer working directly with my wife, discussing business decisions, painting our company name on bounce houses (something I hated doing alone for the first few inflatables, and found much more enjoyable doing together with my wife as she held the stencils and I painted).
- Cory involved his children and neighborhood teenagers in the business. I could instantly envision my children being the ultimate product testers for new products. I could picture them helping us clean and prepare the bounce houses for the next customer. When we first started, my second-oldest daughter did a great job of "turning around" the houses when I was still busy on other projects. As the summer progressed and she took a job at Chick-fil-A (with her older sister), and as our business grew, it became a project that my younger children enjoyed assisting with, especially on Mondays as we dealt with the weekend rush. Between using the shop vac and wiping down the playing surfaces, there were tasks that even my youngest (three-years-old) could "help" with.
- Cory provided amazing customer service. That day, I observed his interactions with a handful of customers. He was friendly, personable, and went out of his way to make sure his customers were happy. As my professional consulting has always centered around "the customer experience", this felt like an ideal fit. I knew it would be possible to carve out a solid strategy and reputation of amazing customer service with our customers here in Kansas.
When I flew back to Philadelphia a few days later, I told my wife, Cheryl, about the business and how I'd love to start something similar... someday. I remember doing some calculations on addressable market/etc for our neighborhood in Pennsylvania, but never pulled the trigger. Later that year I brought on a new consulting client based in St. Marys, Kansas and within six months, my family had relocated to Kansas and my client had become my employer.
I started entertaining the idea again last year, and even went so far as participating in the first Startup MHK event and put together a slide deck and pitched the concept. In some of the practice sessions, one of the judges pushed back hard on the pricing and business model. As a result, I actually added a slide to my final presentation titled "Is it a Viable Business Model?" with a screenshot from Plan-it Rentals website. I knew it was a sustainable model. I did not expect it to grow as large given the smaller population in Manhattan (and surrounding areas), but I knew it was viable.
When my employer unexpectedly laid me off earlier this year, Cheryl and I decided we wanted to do our best to stay in Manhattan, despite there being very few local mid-sized companies that could potentially hire somebody with my experience and background. In addition to re-launching my consulting practice, transitioning to a full-time instructor at K-State (in the College of Business Administration), we agreed it was time to "roll the dice" and launch our own startup.
As part of my "pitch" to Cheryl, my first step was to put together the Flint Hills website. At the time, I was looking to create the prototypical "minimally viable product", and I leaned very heavily on Cory/Mindy's website. I knew I would eventually need to customize many of the sections to make them our "own", but I mimicked the general structure of their site, and, regrettably, copied some portions word-for-word.
After some thought/prayer, we decided to pull the trigger and order three bounce houses to launch the business. I never reached out to Cory or Mindy directly to inform them of our decision to launch the business and didn't solicit any advice or input from them. I did talk to a mutual friend in March/April and mentioned that we were starting it and, at some point, I'd probably want to pick Cory's brain about a few things (if he was willing) but that I was going to do my best to do things "on my own." I definitely never intended to be competing with their business head-to-head as we are in different geographic markets. Although I hope to one-day expand our business in Kansas, I purposely selected the name "Flint Hills Rental" as it would still be a regionally-focused company.
The first few months were VERY slow. Orders occasionally trickled in as I was juggling other consulting projects. I spent some time networking with the local startup community, but honestly didn't spend much time/effort on making any changes to our website.
The breakthrough came in mid-June, after I followed some timely advice from some local mentors, and business began to pick up steam. In July, customer demand increased to the point where we purchased additional inflatables in three consecutive weeks.
As the summer is now winding down, school has started, and Cheryl and I are pondering our fall and winter growth strategy, I reached a point where I wanted to ask Cory some questions. Yesterday afternoon, I texted him and asked if he had some time to "talk shop" and compare some notes. I was somewhat surprised by his response (although in hindsight, I feel his response was entirely fair)... he felt that I behaved inappropriately and unethically. As my mind raced through "why" he would be upset, I realized that there were portions of our website that were clearly plagiarized word for word from his site.
Once I arrived home that evening, I spent several hours going through our entire website and doing my best to re-write every portion that was clearly copied from their website. I hope these changes can be the first step at repairing a relationship with Cory and Mindy. I never intended to cause any damage or harm to them or to their business. I have not directly competed with their business (nor do I intend to).
I transparently confess (as I have from the beginning) that we are duplicating their business model. As a result, our websites, our pricing, our policies will be similar, and in some instances, will be identical. With that being said, I've done my best to take the things I've learned over the last five months and rewrite the content of our webpage using the "voice" of Flint Hills Rental and not Plan-it Rentals.
I wanted to publicly express my apologies to Cory and Mindy for my actions and hope that our relationship can be mended. I admired Cory greatly when I worked with him over a decade ago and that admiration continues to grow as I've watched his entrepreneurial efforts be rewarded over the last six years. If I can be only partially as successful as he has been, I will be very happy.