Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Dog Who Breathed a New Business

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First, it helps if you had an inventive streak as a child. Mrs. Roetheli, the daughter of a butcher-turned-insurance agent, for example, put on plays in her neighborhood, and besides charging an entrance fee, sold popcorn to her audience. Mr. Roetheli, who grew up poor on a farm on the edge of the Ozarks, raised his own hogs and learned a hard lesson when all 18 of his sows became infected with a disease that killed their offspring.

The lesson wasn't to avoid risk, but to embrace it. ''You don't fail; you learn,'' he said.

To my mind, the ultimate test of whether you're an entrepreneur is whether you can spot market opportunities that nobody else has noticed. (Please note: The product or service should be something people will actually buy.) For the Roethelis, the eureka moment came unbidden. After they married, she pursued a teaching career and he worked as an economist for the Department of Agriculture. Enter Ivan, their Samoyed, in 1996, when Mr. Roetheli was 48 and Mrs. Roetheli was 47 (and Ivan was 7).

''He had really bad breath,'' Mr. Roetheli said. ''Judy kept after me to do something about it. But there was nothing on the market that worked.'' Over the course of just a few days, he developed a mixture of wheat, chlorophyll, vegetable oil and other edible foods that he served dry (and later molded into a bone with a toothbrush at one end). Ivan was more or less a willing guinea pig, and within days, his teeth were clean and the odor gone.

Mr. Roetheli quit his job and he and his wife threw themselves full-time into marketing their canine halitosis cure. Here is where another entrepreneurial compulsion kicked in: pit-bull tenacity. He worked the phones from morning to night, and the couple made fruitless treks to every single bank within 70 miles of their home -- well over 100, pleading for a $250,000 loan.

''We thought they probably laughed their heads off after we left,'' Mrs. Roetheli said. ''But O.K. We were going to keep going. We refused to give up.''

For three years, they earned nothing. To keep their fledgling enterprise afloat, they begged money from ''family, friends and fools,'' as Mr. Roetheli put it, and racked up $200,000 in credit card debt.

Even as they were fighting against disillusionment, they displayed another attribute critical to entrepreneurial survival, what the experts call ''tolerance for ambiguity'' and the rest of us call winging it. ''We had no business experience, no sales experience, no marketing experience, no manufacturing experience, no quality-control experience,'' Mr. Roetheli told me. ''After we got started, we had no budget, no organizational charts, no technical planning, no media advertising.''

Was that a boastful tone I detected? If so, he earned it. Things began falling into place. A raw-materials supplier saw promise in their product and let their debt to him pile up. The Roethelis reeled in a talented staff with the lure of future rewards, not fat salaries. Sales picked up, then soared. Fast-forward: when they sold S&M NuTec to Mars Inc. a year ago for an undisclosed price, it was the eighth-largest pet-food company in the world.

Why did they sell it? Because they were, or had become, entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs like to create businesses (a k a have fun). They tend to shun the details of managing their ventures (think ''boring''). The bottom line is they want to run their own show. Once they make their escape from the office, they can't conceive of reporting to a boss again, not even to a chief executive they themselves hired.

Flush with cash, the Roethelis today are fulfilling yet another entrepreneurial imperative, wading into a hodgepodge of ventures, about 10 in all, from creating a village for homeless people in a developing country, to building a spa in Kansas City with a ''floatation room'' that they say is the ultimate in relaxation therapy, to acquiring a maker of equipment for smoking and grilling meats, to forming a partnership with a home remodeler to commercialize products he has developed.

''Whenever we describe any of those products to people,'' Mr. Roetheli said, ''they smack themselves on the forehead and say, 'Why didn't I think of that?' ''

So far, I have discussed half a dozen entrepreneurial patterns. Then again, I've written a book that asserts there are eight core attributes. Other people have come up with inventories of anywhere from 2 to 50. Joe Roetheli rattled off seven, starting with, ''Have a dream.'' A serial entrepreneur in New York City practically shouted in the phone at me, ''There's only one that counts: passion!'' Carl Schramm, chief executive of the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City and author of ''The Entrepreneurial Imperative,'' puts risk-taking high up on his scale.

Americans are entrepreneurial in their bones, Mr. Schramm says, and there is a reason that 7 out of 10 of us will start a business at some point in our lives. We aren't afraid of failure, and in fact seem to thrive on it. ''Failure in Holland, Germany, France is a disaster,'' he said. ''But in this country, if your business becomes a shipwreck, nobody holds it against you. Some people value you even more.''

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