Don’t get too big for your britches

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That’s one of the warnings my Grandpa Huber always gave me, and I’ll wager you heard something similar as you grew up. As a teen-ager, I was pretty smug, and Grandpa’s caution was well deserved. But we can be just as vulnerable to egomania as adults. It’s easy for entrepreneurs to let success go to our heads, especially if you build an idea into a prosperous business. The “bad old days” fade like a cheap curtain.

When I started out, I empathized with the Old West desperado who looked down from his gallows platform on the 4,000 people gathered to watch him hang and noted: “I see many enemies around and mighty few friends.” The first ones to actually buy your product or take a chance working in your unproven company become the most important people in your life.

Remain grounded

And though people might deny that success changes them, it leaves few of us untouched. As we become more “important,” we too often establish a pecking order for our attention and respect. We forget where we came from — until a hard lesson reminds us.

I learned mine about 10 years after Kitty Litter started becoming a fixture in pet shops. Store owners initially scoffed at the notion of selling “dirt in a bag,” but customer acceptance turned them into believers. I couldn’t have been happier, until I eyed a bigger prize. What if I could get the product into supermarkets, with several times the market potential?

I quickly learned that the grocery business is a completely different animal. It is driven by volume, compared to the almost boutique-like environment of a pet shop. Though a pet business might get 79 cents for a bag of Kitty Litter, a grocery store might have to price it at 49 cents to entice consumers. Still, that didn’t matter to me, because supermarket sales could dwarf that of pet stores. My smaller, original customers were business people; surely they would understand.

Boy, was I wrong! They were livid and threatened to quit carrying Kitty Litter if grocery stores sold it cheaper. When added together, those little accounts suddenly looked very big. I dodged the bullet by developing the Tidy Cat brand to be sold at greater volume and lower cost in supermarkets, while pet shops retained their exclusivity and higher margins with Kitty Litter.

What goes around, comes around

A friend of mine who owns a public relations business knows this well. Once he received a phone message from a college graduate seeking a position. My friend got inquiries like this all the time, and though his firm had no openings, he remembered his days of trying to get a foot in the door. My friend returned the young man’s call and sent the PR wannabe some background on his firm.

About 10 years later, he got a call from the same man, now an assistant brand manager at a very large consumer-products company. “You were one of the only people who gave me the time of day back then,” the man recalled, “and now I’d like to try to do something for you.” With the young brand executive’s strong lobbying, my friend won what became his biggest client — all because he took the time for a seemingly insignificant person. He wasn’t too big for his britches. Grandpa Huber would have been proud.

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 not only for your business but also for your entrepreneurial soul.

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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.