Remember what business you’re in

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When people ask you about the nature of your business, do you answer correctly? This may seem hard to believe, but I maintain that many entrepreneurs don’t truly understand what business they’re in. I should know, because sometimes I’m one of the worst offenders.

Pets vs. cat-box filler

After I hit pay dirt with my Kitty Litter cat-box filler, I figured that I was in the pet business. If I did so well with one cat product, I surmised, just think how I could clean up if I offered a full line. I pumped time and money into new-product development, and soon Lowe’s offered more than a dozen different items from chenille catnip-filled mice to privacy screens for litter boxes. Some products did OK, but I discovered that neither cats nor owners cared about litter-box privacy.

My real mistake was pursuing this line of accessories. At best I captured about 10% of a market that then totaled only $750,000. And most of the new items required expensive packaging and counter displays, compared to Kitty Litter and Tidy Cat, which we basically dumped in bags and stacked on retail shelves. The cat accessories drained money that I should have spent expanding and promoting my successful core business.

Im-purrrfect expansion

Still, I was determined to become the Doctor Doolittle of the pet industry. My next great idea was the Mr. Friendly Pet Shop, a franchised chain that would offer a wide selection of animals and grooming services in an odor-free facility. We set up a pilot store in Indiana, which we learned would cost about $100,000 for a franchisee to replicate. Since a McDonald’s franchise didn’t cost much more at the time, I should have seen the red flags, cut my losses and folded my tent.

Instead, I stubbornly proceeded with a splashy grand opening that featured a performing baboon named Chico. Chico performed, all right: After savagely biting one of my employees, he scrambled up to the roof until the police coaxed him down. Great publicity.

But wait, it gets worse. I got a “fantastic” deal on 300 parakeets, which I purchased as breeding stock for all the Mr. Friendly Pet Shops that I still hoped would materialize. Instead of reproducing, my flock perished. It turns out that I was sold geriatric goods; every bird died of natural causes within six months.

As I gazed at my last parakeet, it finally dawned on me that I was not in the pet business. I was in the mineral business. I didn’t know anything about packaging pet toys or parakeet longevity. I knew about mining and processing clay pellets — plus one thing that every cat does every day.

Back to business

From that point on, I devoted all of my energy and resources toward improving Kitty Litter and Tidy Cat, and I never allowed myself to be distracted by other ventures. Well, almost never. It’s darn near impossible to keep an entrepreneur from dabbling; that’s just our nature. But when I later fooled around with other projects, it was with the firm conviction that my main efforts would always be toward the clay that fills litter boxes with gold for me.

This column is one in a series that will explore the thoughts, ideas and unadorned advice of an entrepreneur who made it, Edward Lowe. When he “brought the cat indoors” with a revolutionary cat-box filler, Kitty Litter, he created an industry that changed the lives of millions of cat lovers, not to mention cats. During his life, Ed Lowe used “plain talk” to speak about the bottom line from the bottom of his heart. We believe these writings, revised and updated after his death, offer value  for both your business and personal life.

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Edward Lowe

During his life, Ed used “plain talk” to speak about the bottom line from the bottom of his heart. We believe these articles, which have been updated after his death, offer value for both your business and personal life.