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Plain Talk from Ed Lowe

Shore up your tunnel of opportunity — or it may cave in on you

My Grandpa Huber used to tell a story about an entrepreneurial miner. After a few years of futile picking at his claim, he came up with a "big idea."

My Grandpa Huber used to tell a story about an entrepreneurial miner. After a few years of futile picking at his claim, he came up with a “big idea.”

An area just to the west of where he mined, separated by a near-impenetrable spine of mountains, was rumored to hold deep veins of gold.

The miner, by now a grizzled veteran of dashed hopes, didn’t believe it for a second. But so many others believed the gossip that the miner envisioned his own pot of gold in catering to this hopeful throng that was trying to reach the land to the west.

Tunnel of opportunity

“I can dig a tunnel through the rock wall, and charge a fee for people to use it,” he thought. “People will gladly pay for an easy way to cross the mountains. And eventually the railroad will come to the area, and I can sell my tunneled route for a premium.”

So he hired a couple of other disgruntled miners with the last of his meager savings, and they dug — and dug and dug. Though a hard worker, he never would have started if had he known what he was getting into.

Besides burrowing deeper into the mountain, the workers also had to cut and haul in timbers to shore up the roof of the tunnel. As they tunneled past 100, 200, then 300 yards, dust made breathing increasingly more difficult.

So close you can taste it

After all this long, hard work, the miner knew he had to be close to breaking through to the other side, so he spaced the roof rafters farther apart in his rush to finish the job. He could always come back and strengthen his infrastructure; now he was nearly suffocating in the shaft and was dying to finish.

Another hundred yards of digging and — daylight! The jubilant men opened a hole just large enough to crawl out, and they filled their lungs with fresh air as they gazed gratefully at the sunny, cloudless sky.

It’s the end, all right

But their celebration was short-lived. They heard a faint rumbling: thunder? How could that be? The rumbling swelled to a roar, and it was coming from behind them. They wheeled around and realized with horror that their tunnel was caving in. Their hasty work on the roof rafters had undone all the weeks of hard work in creating the tunnel.

Details count

I never learned whether Grandpa Huber’s story was true. But either way, I think it contains a valuable lesson for any entrepreneur. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of our ideas or in the race to beat the competition to market. And by nature, we’re usually not the most detail-oriented people.

But if you don’t shore up your business every step of the way before moving on with solid foundations for finance, operations, crisis management and a million other challenges of fast-track growth, you may be left picking up the pieces instead of basking in success at the end of the tunnel.

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.