No. No, they can’t.
By Tim Curfman
This is the story of me and my husband, Jim, and our attempt to create and run a business together. The business is Scenic Hill, a vacation cabin-rental outfit in the rolling hills of Washington County, near Brenham and Round Top. It is a cautionary tale with a happy ending.
My husband, Jim, hears the call of adventure; I do not. He is a visionary; I am not. In his lifetime, Jim has worked as an insurance agent, a Realtor, a Catholic priest, a social worker, a landscaper/remodeler, a property developer, and an innkeeper. I have watched his transitioning from one career to another with the open mouth of horror.
I started out as computer programmer, then I got another job where I programmed computers, and then I got promoted into managing a bunch of computer programmers, and then later I moved back into computer programming. Today, I work as a computer programmer.
In the summer of 2001, Jim and I bought a six-acre country property located on one of the highest hills in Washington County. It had vista views into the pastoral countryside and a run-down old farmhouse that we immediately began to remodel. We hung a sign beside the front door, “Hugh Wotam.” It stood for “HUmongous Waste Of Time and Money.”
In August of 2004, Jim and I took a vacation where we stayed at a series of B&Bs in Washington State. After our third B&B, Jim announced that we should convert our country home into a B&B that he will run. He explained that I would help him with the B&B, while I kept my day job.
I am horrified.
Then I did the math:
- If the B&B business failed, then whatever time and money we had invested in upgrading the house would leave us with a much nicer country home than when we started.
- I had the computer skills necessary to do the B&B website and set up the Internet advertising, while Jim had all of the skills necessary to handle the maintenance and development aspect of the business.
- It was a lovely property.
- Jim would sulk for a very long time if I said no.
We spent the rest of our vacation quizzing our B&B innkeepers about running a B&B. When we arrived back in Texas, we are loaded-for-bear to start this new business. I would come home from work, only to have Jim shove some baked good in my mouth, yelling, “Tell me that’s not the best muffin you’ve ever tasted!”
Another few months passed, and we had made the necessary upgrades to our rustic farmhouse. We started to get our first bookings and quickly discovered some flaws in our business plans:
- While Jim had miraculously learned how to cook a series of yummy gourmet breakfasts, I had not. We inevitably ended up out on the back porch screaming at each other about the latest dish that I had ruined.
- Jim kept booking out the entire farmhouse, which meant we had no place to stay. Jim built a room in our barn for us to stay in, but I was totally unhappy with this arrangement. I would stare out of the barn window with my nose pressed against the glass, moaning, “What happened to my country home?”
We soon decided to change the business from a B&B to a vacation cabin-rental outfit. This would solve some problems and cause some others.
- Every cabin would have its own kitchen, and will be stocked with breakfast items for people to cook themselves. No more early morning cooking!
- We personally would prefer staying in a private cabin over a B&B, and, without doing any real customer research, we assumed most other people would also.
- The cabins would be FABULOUS!
- Cabins are expensive, difficult, and time-consuming to build.
- Cabins take more effort to clean and maintain than the rooms of a traditional B&B.
So we started to build cabins, and each new cabin was supposed to be our cabin that we would stay in while we rented out the other cabins. But somehow this did not quite work out, and we always needed to build a new cabin for us to stay in because Jim had managed to rent out all of the existing cabins.
The first cabin was a hand-hewn log cabin that was originally a tobacco barn built in North Carolina in the 1890s. We bought this cabin from OldLogCabins.com, and an 18-wheeler showed up in our driveway with a huge stack of logs on it. We rented a forklift and spent two days re-assembling the structure like it was a giant set of Lincoln Logs. Other cabins followed, and every one of them was a major stress to our relationship. If you’re going to do a building or remodeling project, line up the couples counselor first.
I did the architectural designs, and Jim was the general contractor, and this was a setup for constant arguments. A particularly memorable blowup was when we were building the Spa Cabin, and Jim had finished the decking and was putting up the wall frames. I was inspecting the work and discovered that the bathroom wall was in the wrong location by about two feet.
Jim said, “You just come out here and start criticizing every little thing!”
I replied, “Jim! There’s no room for a toilet!”
Jim eventually conceded the point. We moved the wall, and I gingerly proceeded on to the next item of contention. And so it went. We built 11 cabins in a period of 10 years, and every one of them was like giving birth to a child. Every time we said, “Never again!”
Over the years, a few things become clear about the vacation cabin-rental business:
- Jim was working very hard on building buildings and running the business, which mostly consisted of maintenance work, doing laundry, and cleaning cabins. It was not quite the glamour career one might have hoped for, but it was still satisfying to watch our little empire grow.
- Jim and I never quite worked out how to be business partners. I would suggest ideas on how we might increase profitability, and Jim would respond, “How much money do you need, you greedy bastard?”
- If we would just stop building more cabins, the business might start turning a buck.
While there are perks to owning a fleet of cabins out in God’s Country, they come with their trials and tribulations. I tired of working a corporate job, only to drive out to Brenham on a Friday evening and get handed a mop.
And then there were plumbing issues. Jim was capable of doing plumbing repairs, and one can save a lot of money on fixing their own plumbing, but it has never been worth it, not even once. The worst incident was a few years ago when we had a big February freeze and the pipes burst in five cabins. Jim had a bad case of the flu, but that did not stop him from working non-stop to piece it all back together.
We had guests due to arrive in our Homestead Cabin, and the freeze had screwed up the kitchen faucet. Jim commanded me to hold the replacement faucet in place while he was crammed under the sink, trying to hook the faucet into the plumbing. All I could see were his legs and torso.
As Jim struggled with the plumbing, he spewed out a litany of curses, “G** D***-it! Mother F*****! F*** Me! Piece of S***! G** D***-it! Mother F*****! F*** Me! Piece of S***! …” This went on for about an hour, while the faucet continued to jerk around. Then, without warning, Jim poked his fever-soaked head out from under the sink and barked at me to turn on the water line. Everything miraculously held together, and we were able to clean up the mess before our guests arrived.
More time passes. It’s 2015 and we have celebrated our 10-year anniversary of running Scenic Hill. The business was now throwing off enough money to make us “Independently Lower-Middle Class.”
Being a numbers-guy, I mulled over this. I think that everyone who starts a business has an expectation that the business will make them rich-rich-rich, but this is unreasonable. The truth is that the competitive nature of capitalism guarantees that it is hard to make a buck.
After more mulling, I decided that you just can’t think of your family business in pure terms of profitability. It serves too many other functions, such as allowing you to have a life-adventure, to build something together, and to strengthen your relationship. Our relationship is now so strong that it goes to the beach and kicks sand in the faces of other relationships.
I finally decided that creating a business together is much like raising a child. When you raise a child to maturity, you expect to spend money on that child for a couple of decades at least. Hopefully, you will find raising that child to be a gratifying experience, and, who knows, your grateful child might even help support you in your old age.
We basically invested a decade of our lives and all the spare cash we had for 10 years, in order to turn Scenic Hill into many things: a reasonably profitable venture, an incarnation of a shared vision, and a little slice of heaven that we can continue to enjoy for the rest of our lives.
Every once in a while I find myself drawing out a new cabin design. Jim looks over my shoulder and proclaims, “Never again!” Apparently, it’s more fun to design and decorate the cabins than it is to actually construct them. I agree that it’s too hot to build right now, but when that first cool breeze comes wafting by, and Jim starts to fidget, we’ll see.
This is the second article Tim Curfman has contributed to OutSmart magazine. Tim and Jim’s vacation cabin-rental business can be seen at scenichillvacations.com.
Should you start a Business Together?
By Tim Curfman
Should you start a business with your sweetie? Is the business itself a good idea? Run through this list of thought-provoking questions, and if you get into a knock-down, drag-out fight before you’re done, then that should at least tell you something.
Who is the Visionary? Who is the Non-Visionary?
The Visionary: You are an adventurer, an entrepreneur, and so fidgety that people want to slap you.
|Positive Side||Other Side|
|You have boundless energy.||You are easily bored and occasionally must be sat on.|
|You have a compelling vision of the future.||You are a victim of magical thinking|
|You hear the Call to Adventure!||You have impulse-control problems, and have already learned the hard way that you should never go to Vegas.|
|You yearn to be your own boss, to be at the helm, to control your own destiny.||You are incapable of working for others.|
|You are naturally thin.||Your eyes bug out.|
The Non-Visionary: You were born, and you immediately started looking for a place to die. Your vision of the future involves snacks and naps.
|Positive Side||Other Side|
|You’re stable.||You’re sleepy. You’re gaining weight. There are rocks that have more of a nightlife than you do.|
|You’re practical.||You respond to every new idea with the phrase, “You Stupid Jackass…”|
|You are a Team Player.||You never switch teams, even if that team is on a sinking ship. You’re like, “What? What’s the problem? Where are you guys going? Why are you getting in those life rafts?”|
|You have money.||There’s a name for people that make a lot of money, and then refuse to spend it. They’re called “millionaires.”|
Should You Start a Business?
Based on the results of the previous section, here’s a scientific-looking personality matrix to help you to decide:
|You are a Visionary||Your Sweetie is a Visionary||Do NOT start a Business!!||You both are out-of-control, and your relationship teeters on disaster. Call the couples counselor now, take calming medication, and DO NOT party in Vegas.|
|You are a Visionary||Your Sweetie is a Non-Visionary||Maybe start a Business?||Try to sound not-crazy as you pitch your latest idea. Be aware that your enthusiasm is no longer as adorable as it once was.|
|You are a Non-Visionary||Your Sweetie is a Visionary||Maybe start a Business?
|Learn how to control the rage that you feel whenever your sweetie flashes you that con-artist smile. Life is more than just recliners and channel-surfing. You may actually need an adventure.|
|You are a Non-Visionary||Your Sweetie is a Non-Visionary||Not Applicable
|Why are you even reading this article? Put your savings in a Vanguard low-commission Index fund, and try not to eat too many potato chips.|
Can Your Business Succeed? Barriers of Entry vs. Demand vs. Fringe Benefits
When I was young, I watched my uncle go through a series of failed businesses. Then, suddenly, he moved his wife into a country estate outside of Dallas, complete with all the trappings of wealth. My uncle was vague about where his newfound riches were coming from.
One night we’re watching the Dallas local news. The top story is about a bunch of Baptist pastors who are up-in-arms about this stripper club that businessmen are stopping at on their drive home to the burbs. The newscast flashes over to the club owner, and there’s my uncle, proclaiming, “Hey, I’m just as Christian as the next guy, but business is business!”
How much competition your new business will face will be influenced by the barriers of entry to get into that business. The higher the barriers of entry are, the more profitable your business has a chance of being. Let’s compare my uncle’s club to something a little more mainstream, like a flower shop, and see how they “stack up.”
|Barrier of Entry||Flower Shop||Stripper Club|
|Pricey to start.||No||YES! (Those dancing poles have to be extra-reinforced.)|
|Terrible working hours.||No||YES!|
|Baptist ministers publicly protest your business.||No||YES!|
|Must jump through ridiculous bureaucratic hoops in order to push wanton debauchery onto the general public, and you also need a liquor license.||No
Because a flower shop is a pleasant, respectable, fun business with low barriers to entry, capitalism guarantees that your town will have too many flower shops for anyone to make any money. Stripper clubs, however…
What about Demand?
A business needs high demand in combination with high barriers of entry to be unusually profitable:
|Demand||Flower Shop||Stripper Club|
|Some men are so addicted to your product/service that it’s all they ever think about.||No||YES!|
What about Fringe Benefits?
There can be many other reasons to start a business besides the profit motive. I’m sure that if you owned a flower shop, it could provide many hours of pleasure and fulfillment as you create beautiful bouquets for yourself and others (but mostly for yourself because of all of the other flower shops in town). For my uncle’s stripper club, I’m sure that for every downside, there was either an upside or a backside.
Kill-Joy Questions (KJQ’s) you and your Sweetie should discuss before starting a Business
If you’ve gotten this far and haven’t started bickering yet, then these should tip you over…
KJQ #1: Who’s going to keep the Day-Job while the other starts the business? How many years are they willing to pump cash into the business to get it going? Can your relationship weather an expensive business failure?
KJQ #2: Are there any character flaws you have that should be resolved on your current employer’s dime before you launch out on your own?
- Procrastination – The income tax forms for your new business aren’t going to fill out themselves.
- Irritability – If you don’t like working for other people, what’s it going to be like when every single one of your customers is now your boss?
- Manic Depression – Many businesses get started during the manic phase. Guess what happens next?
- Unemployability – I’ll let you figure this one out for yourselves.
KJQ #3: How are you going to evolve your business into something that the public actually wants? No matter how well thought-out your business plan is, there is a very good chance you’re going to have to make major changes as you go along to adapt to your customer’s needs.
KJQ #4: Is there ANY OTHER WAY you can have your life adventure besides starting a business? A restaurant-manager friend of mine gives this advice to people who want to start their own restaurant: “Take $500,000, fly to Vegas, and put it all on Black. You’ll have a better chance of making a return, and you won’t have to wait five years to find out whether you succeeded.”
KJQ #5: Is there a cheap/easy way to crash-test your new vocation before you make a huge financial commitment? For instance, if you want to start a restaurant, how about trying your hand as a personal chef first? If you want to start a B&B, how about renting out that extra room on AirBnB first?
One last thought: If you don’t succeed, then at least have a Successful Failure
A couple of years ago, I got excited about the Maker Movement and the new 3-D printers and CNC router machines that were becoming available to the general public. I became haunted with the vision of using these technologies to start my own woodworking company, where I would produce a never-ending stream of beautiful decorative pediments with low cost and great ease.
I ran out and joined the Houston Maker Group, TXRX Labs, and was soon churning little decorative wood pieces for Scenic Hill. Then I ran out and bought a $5,500 CNC Router machine and started to create my own designs. Jim watched all of this with the open mouth of horror.
It turns out that after you have spent hours programming in your design into your CAD/CAM program, and hours crash-testing your design on real pieces of wood, then you have to sit there and babysit your CNC Router as it very slowly carves out your winning design. Oh, and it’s loud, too, and you end up with piles of wasted wood and sawdust.
That little detour along the road to riches was what I would call a successful failure:
I didn’t quit my day-job.
I didn’t go into debt.
I figured out quickly that this was not the career for me.
Sure, it would have been great if I had become the Bill Gates of decorative pediments. On the other hand, I enjoyed the experience, I learned a lot, and I still get a twinkle in my eye when I look back on my stint as a CNC Router entrepreneur.
Tim Curfman contributed the article “I Now Pronounce You Husband and…um…Other Husband” to the October edition of OutSmart magazine. He and his husband, Jim Rolewicz, own and run Scenic Hill Vacation Cabins in Brenham, Texas (scenichillvacations.com). Read all of his OutSmart articles here.