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Plain Talk from Ed Lowe

If you don’t love it, you’ll probably leave it

Once after I spoke at a college commencement ceremony, a young graduate approached me with a question. “Mr. Lowe,” she asked, “since you’ve become a successful entrepreneur, I’d like to ask your advice about a venture I have in mind.” Of course, I lent her an ear.”I’d like to set up a dry-cleaning business,” she explained. “In Paris.”

I paused. “Do you think Paris needs another dry cleaner?”

“Oh, it won’t be just any dry cleaner. I would specialize in very expensive items such as designer dresses and furs.”

“How much dry-cleaning experience do you have right now?” I asked.

“Well … none.”

It didn’t take long to figure out that what the woman really wanted to do was live in Paris and hobnob with the fashion elite. She knew absolutely nothing about dry cleaning and cared even less.

Granted, her half-baked business plan can be written off to youthful verve not yet tempered by experience. As a youngster fresh out of the Navy, I had plenty of goofy ideas that went no further than the door I was shown when I tried to sell them. What amazes me more is the number of mature entrepreneurs who should know better, but choose a business or strategic direction with no more regard for reality than that would-be Parisian dry-cleaning mogul.

The disillusioned entrepreneur

I’ve known a couple filled with wanderlust who entered the travel business only to discover, to their dismay, that they spent most of their time behind a desk making sure that their customers were happy.

Then there was the gourmet who opened the restaurant of his dreams only to crash and burn within a year; when he brainstormed the venture in his stainless-steel home kitchen, he didn’t factor in all the elements of a commercial operation — from staffing headaches to dealing with the health department. These people acknowledged only what they considered to be fun and overlooked the drudgery that accompanies any business.

It was fun to create new formulations and marketing campaigns for my Kitty Litter and Tidy Cat products, but I was actually in the clay-mining industry. It’s a dusty, rock-grinding affair, which I learned from spending my formative years selling clay along with sand, gravel and sawdust in my Dad’s business. I knew that, at least in the early days before I could hire help, my time would be consumed as much by filling bags of pellets as by hanging out with creative teams and retailers.

Reality bites

I’ve known people who launched businesses because they were attracted to a romantic image of what they would be doing. Or people who chased what they thought would be the “next big thing” hoping for quick success and money. I’ve also encountered people who know an industry inside and out, blemishes as much as benefits, and pursue their venture with eyes wide open, understanding everything about the business and still loving it. Guess which ones are the 20% who, on average, end up surviving?

This column is one in a series that explores 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 that these writings, revised and updated after his death, offer value for both your business and personal life.

Edward Lowe (1920-1995), Founder of the Edward Lowe Foundation

Born in 1920 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Ed Lowe grew up in Cass County, Michigan. After his Navy duty, Ed returned to Cassopolis, Michigan, and joined his father’s company, which sold industrial absorbents, including sawdust and an absorbent clay called fuller’s earth. In 1947 Ed was approached by a neighbor who was tired of using ashes in her cat’s litter box and the resulting sooty paw prints. She asked for some sand, but Ed suggested clay instead. Soon the neighbor would use nothing else, noting that the clay was much more absorbent than sand and didn’t track all over the house.