Snow Cones and Spreadsheets.

In by overtone

I was honored recently to speak to the students of the Cole’s College of Business at Kennesaw State University. I’ve been doing what I do in business for a long time, I’m a dinosaur in my field. I told them stories about the Texas oilfield circa 1981, stories about being homeless with a young family, about being fired from several jobs, stories about small companies that I started – that failed. And of course, the stories of ultimately starting and building world class supply chain companies that dominate the space, attract the finest talent, and have employed thousands of people.

And yet, I was the one intimidated by THEIR presence.

Towards the end of my talk, I passed around a working, very colorful, ceramic ball bearing about 3” in diameter. It was 3D printed. My buddy had given it to me days before as a sample of what his company can do for manufacturing innovation. I hadn’t slept much since I had first touched it and began thinking about the radical, global innovation it represents. I thought I would blow these kids away with it. I did not. As they passed the bearing around the lecture hall, the reaction I received sounded like (in my head)… “We have 3D printers in our dorms now that can do that, big deal. What else ya got big boy?”

At that moment, they reminded me very much of the faces that look back at me today in the corporate meetings of America’s mighty brands. The baton has been passed in my race.

Luckily, that was towards the end of the talk, otherwise, they might have put a hitch in my giddyup. Up ‘til then, they were taken down the crooked road of my ideas, mistakes, wins, frustration, failures, recovery, innovation, and life. But after the talk, as they lined up to chat with me and ask questions, there was one resounding worry; “Why did you bail out on the snow cone idea?” One of my many stories had made a consistent impression. They were concerned that I had created a winner way back in the beginning of my entrepreneurial career, and left it on the table, never to see the light of day. That surprised me, for them to all be similarly focused. They didn’t want to hear about my mighty wins and brilliant visionary insight. No, apparently their impression of business is that winning business models are in such scarcity that one must latch on with vigor and vice once discovered, without fail. They are afraid of failure. We must change what we teach them…

In 1985, Corpus Christi, snow cones were all the rage. Well, maybe not, but that’s how I remember it. Scattered about the landscape on gravel pulloffs and various roadside accesses were these snow cone stands. Imagine this – shantyish trailers and huts of an eclectic commonality that all had hand drawn menus and awnings awry. The one thing that was constant; a line of people waiting to trade money for frozen, flavored water. It kept me up at night. So I became an expert. I soon knew every supply, vendor, price list, and revenue model.

In 1985, the IBM PC had just begun to appear in mainstream offices. Most companies only had one, if any. The oilfield company for which I worked had one. We used it to program Frack jobs, another blog story. So the only time I could reserve scarce IBM PC time was way into the middle of the night. I did.

In 1985, Lotus Symphony was an integrated suite of spreadsheet, word processor, and database software operating on a DOS system. Think green screen. It was pre-Windows and a precursor to MS Office. I taught myself how to program spreadsheets. With the data I developed, I created many, many models of how a chain of snow cone stands could perform as a viable business. I took the spreadsheets, and a rendering of an upgraded stand alone snow cone store complete with a drive thru, to a local real estate king. I convinced him to allow me to place these units in his retail strip center parking lots, rent free, so as to drive more retail traffic. He loved the idea. I now had a business plan to take to the bank for a loan. After six silly, stuffy bankers said no, the lucky seventh stood in an empty parking lot – with an imaginary gingerbread hut before him, shook my hand, and committed to a loan to kick things off. Goodbye oilfield… CJ’s Olde Time Snow cones would soon have up to eight locations in greater Corpus Christi.

And then Grandma Mollie visited. My short, Italian, Matriarch Hero from Tiffin, Ohio, with enough Catholic guilt to match that description, came all the way out to Texas…and guilted us into moving closer to family. So I headed to Atlanta, for a job that vanished en route (yet another blog post for another time), and from there the story takes a winding road through brief homelessness, a lost job or two, more babies, more ideas and mistakes and MANY more spreadsheets. It all ultimately leads to launching and growing successful companies – really successful companies that deliver packaging centric supply chain solutions to the largest consumer goods companies on the planet with passion and precision.

So after absorbing this entire narrative, the KSU students only worried about the winner that I left on the table. Never mind that we eventually did “OK” and then some. Never mind that many of my employees went on to start many more companies, and others rose to the highest levels in other supply chain companies. Never mind that I recently risked oh so much to do it all again in a much bigger way. They couldn’t get past the wasted effort associated with abandoning what they saw as a sure thing nearly 30 years ago. Before they were born. Are they risk averse? Are they of the notion that you will only have one good business ideas in life? Are they under the impression that winners are so rare that you only get one shot? Do they not understand that ideas are just that, until executed, but most people don’t… just? Are they showing us that they are excited about their own ideas but afraid to jump? Are they afraid of failure?

I won’t claim to know. I’ll just look forward to driving through a new snow cone house near the KSU campus soon.