Bret Vanderhyden

Freelancer seeking to be Entrepreneur

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CO●LAB___DESIGN THROUGH COLLABORATION

I like to design and make things. To date, I have developed several products, most notably a candle holder (you can see a process video here: http://vimeo.com/29069923) and an outdoor firepit, which I call the Limekiln Firepit, named after a favorite location in Big Sur, CA.

With the exception of the candle holder, most projects I do are born out of a collaboration with another person -- be it in the concept, design, or manufacture of a product. I believe that collaboration helps drive the spirit of the product in a way that I alone could never do. It's the collaboration that determines the object, the material, and the target audience. 

For example, the Limekiln Firepit was designed with a friend who has a steel fabrication business. We were both inspired to make a firepit based on our time spent around the fire together on camping trips. 

I am currently developing a product--a women's clutch-- the functionality of which is based on my wife's input and her desire to have a product that she can not find on the market. The material and production process is based on the manufacuring technology of another friend's business who makes molded foam cases for tactical purposes.

As the name suggests, CO.LAB is collaboration. However, it also implies research, experimention, and evolution of a product. CO.LAB is a forum to explore ideas. firepit

 candle holder

Up to this point, my design work has mainly lived in the realm of hobby. I have put very little effort into the marketing of my products, and I now find myself wanting more. It would be nice to sell the things I make. After recently having read Seth's book Linchpin, it confirmed many of my own thoughts about the new economy. This doesn't need to be only a hobby if I have all the tools to bring the product to market myself. 

In addition to helping me develop a model for selling my existing products, I intend for this class to be a catalyst to help drive the development of further ideas and projects. 

BUSINESS MODEL

 Design compelling furniture and luxury products in collaboration with other colleagues.

 

The product should be born out of an immediate need or desire for a product that meets either my needs or someone close to me like a friend or family member.

 

This is important because it is based on the notion of tribes.

 

I am part of a community that not only includes the people I know, but others with whom I share the common bond of similar interests, cultural references, and aesthetic taste, even though we may have never met.

 

This community is my target audience.

 

My assets are: my computer, my CAD/CAM software, my business colleagues and contacts.

 

Over time, I may need to acquire my own workspace, as well as some machinery that allows me to produce my products.

 

I intend to conduct my business as a sole proprietor who collaborates with other business owners to develop my products; over time I may need to hire employees as the business grows, but not at the start.

 

Bringing unique products to market that people want to buy is hard; selling lots of something is hard; developing a compelling product is hard, but that is what makes the product unique.

 

I intend to find my target audience, provide them with a product that they want and will buy (because the design is ultimately driven by their needs) and repeat.

ARE YOU A FREELANCER OR AN ENTREPRENEUR?

CO.LAB_Design Through Collaboration is a freelance vehicle. It does not have to remain so, but at the outset of the business it makes the most sense. It makes sense as a freelance vehicle because it allows me to engage fully in the design process and bring my ideas to life. In its simplest form, it is an exercise in follow-through for the development and completion of my personal creative pursuits. As the business model states, it is not entirely my creative pursuits alone. However, having partial ownership of an idea that is embodied in a finished product is enough to fulfill my need for creative expression.

Yes, but how do you Ensure a steady stream of work?

How I ensure a steady stream of work is determined by how connected I become to my fellow collaborators and clients. This question pin points the freelancers dilemma: how do you ensure just enough work to keep you busy, but not so much that you get covered in the avalanche of demand? How many different collaborators can I work with at one time? Can I meet demand for existing products and still find time to develop new ones? The question of how do I ensure a steady stream of work really begs the question: "how long can you remain a freelancer before you have to start delegating?". What a nice dilemma it is to have too much work. Until I reach that point, it will be necessary for me to lay the necessary ground work to create compelling products that people want to buy. In this case, the old adage of 'don't quit your day job' applies. Not in the traditional sense of 'your idea will never work', but in that I will need to work double-duty at the outset to get the snowball rolling down hill while I still generate income through other channels (my day job). But, if I do the work and make one compelling product that sells, then I can finance the next. Once I have several profitable products, I can begin to look at a full time freelance career. Which brings me to the next question:

How do you create an environment where you don't go crazy and melt?

There will be a point where I hit the wall. There will be a point where (following the model of the fine art world) I no longer hold the paint brush and apply the paint to the canvas. After all, art is not about the technical execution of an idea, it's about the idea. If I'm lucky, I will need to begin to follow the model of contemporary artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst (like 'em or not) who delegate the work involved in the technical execution of their ideas to others. They do not hold the paint brush. However, the very essence of CO.LAB is that I am not the only one doing the work. It is, in essence, an entrepreneurial model because it is founded on the concept of the division of labor. In the case of the Limekiln Fire Pit, the labor is delegated. I am not the one who orders the raw material, bends it, and welds it together. That is done by my colleague who owns the facility, machinery, in short, the means of production. He and I both had design input, I did the CAD modeling and issued the sheet metal bend drawings. Where does this put me? Am I a freelancer or entrepreneur. In this case, I would still venture to say that I am an freelancer. My friend and I are two freelancers sharing the work. I have no employees that I pay to do the work, he and I share the profits 50/50. But what happens when the deal I'm currently trying to negotiate with a local retailer goes through and we get our first order for multiple quantities. Am I doing the work to produce them? No. My work is done. In a sense, I am paying my friend 50% of the profit to produce the product. He is the hired labor. If he and I can find somebody that we can pay to weld the product together, then we are entrepreneurs. If at any point, I choose to invest in some capital equipment to control the means of production for any one of my products, and I hire somebody to help me, then I become an entrepreneur. I believe that the collaboration element of the business model is the key component that will facilitate a transition from freelance to entrepreneurship when the time is right to do so.

How will you consistently raise your prices, increase the quality of your work and generate a waiting list for your time (at the same time)?

Unlike a freelancer who sells one product, my products will be diversified and will thusly command different prices on the market. If I build brand recognition, I can raise my prices. If demand goes up for a product, one that has been on the market for a long time, then perhaps it will be time to re-evaluate pricing. However, if it looks like it's time to raise prices because business is gangbusters, what it really means is that it's time to start delegating.

The effort to increase the quality of the work should always be made. But instead of me having to continually improve my specific skills that I need for my trade, I can focus on building the business machine. This in turn should improve the quality of the product instead of the quality of my skill, which is what the customer is paying for anyway.

At this point, I should probably start answering the Entrepreneur questions.

How will you relentlessly hire people to delegate work to? (come on Seth, you never end a sentence with a preposition -- wait what was that blog post about Broken English?)

That's tough. Finding good people is not easy. Finding people who are willing to stick with you for the long term is hard, so if you see potential in somebody it can be worth investing in training him or her. Internships for students are good way to find bright, motivated people to whom you can delegate work. They most often are not long term, but sometimes they can be.

I work in the metal working sector of the economy and like construction or the service sector, it has a predominantly Latino workforce. I work with many people from Mexico and Latin America. I interact with them bilingually. I have spent a lot of time in Latin America, I'm fascinated by the culture and history. I'm a spanish language geek. I see the opportunity to work with a Latino workforce as a perk to sharpen my language skills. But beyond that, I value my relationships with my co-workers deeply. I feel that crossing over cultural boundaries is necessary for many reasons. I'm not going to go into my socio-political beliefs here, but the upshot is that it also provides access to a terrific resource, which is an extremely hard working, talented, committed and deep labor pool.

How will give yourself a promotion so you are constantly doing work you're unable to hire anyone else to do?

Well that's just it isn't it? You have to constantly ask yourself the question 'can someone else do this?'. If the answer is yes, then it's time to work on those delegating skills (it is an acquired skill and it is hard). If the answer is no, congratulations you just gave yourself a promotion. Now, where's the money?

How will you build an organization that has the cash flow to permit you to do those two things?

If you are doing something that is unique and that has value to your customers; if your customers need you because you provide something that no one else can, then you will have cash flow. That's your job as an entrepreneur, not to be tied up in the process of executing a task, but to tell the story of how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and why that should matter to your customers.

 

FUNDING

Do you need money for this business?

Yes, I need money for this business. But I would prefer to do it without a huge amount of startup capital or a loan from the bank. Perhaps more importantly than money, I need a strong commitment with my collaborators and I need time.

If a collaborator I am working with wants to develop a product with me, the success of the product is largely dependent on how hard I work and how hard my collaborator works to help me. If I can develop an idea into a compelling project, then hopefully my collaborator will be willing to contribute his or her resources to bring the project to life. This means that I’m not required to put up all of the capital to purchase all of the assets necessary to develop the project.

I, of course, will have to provide money for the business in many instances. I can think of a number of different things that would require money: material, travel expenses, software, promotional expenses, etc. And that’s why I am not quitting my day job. And that’s why I need time. If I can finance this project piece by piece instead of in one big chunk, then I can use my own resources when necessary.

That’s why time is key. Being patient and diligently building the business slowly overtime allows for cash to be acquired and spent in incremental chunks. This makes it much more plausible for me to be able to devote a portion of my income to the business. Moreover, having ample time better enables my collaborators to devote their resources to the project. In the case where a collaborator is running a full time business, he or she will only be able to devote a fraction of their operational resources to an extracurricular project. Having a longer time frame to develop a project makes it more probable that the incremental bursts of work that go into a project will result in a completed product.



Does more money increase the chances you will reach positive cash flow? Profitability?

I’m not entirely certain that more money means a greater guarantee for success. And it’s entirely possible that you could have a large sum of money to begin with and blow it all. Having money does not mean that you have a good business plan, a great product, or a target audience that knows and loves your product.

That said, money can be the solution to many problems. Assets, advertising, employees -- these are all things that can make your business successful and they all cost money. I think it is best to aim for positive cash flow and even profitability on a small scale at first. Creating the business in a small format and build a solid foundation for growth seems to be the best approach.



What are the assets the money will go to pay for?

Let’s say that I can successfully enlist the help of others to help bring my ideas to life. I will then be charged with the responsibility to sell my product. While this may considered more of an expense than an asset, I see this as the biggest challenge to the success of the business and probably the most expensive part of the business, at least at first. These days, the internet provides the small business owner with an amazingly powerful platform to promote his or her product, reinforce relationship with existing customers, and make connections with a seemingly limitless amount of new customers. However, I still think that travelling to meet with potential buyers or retailers, attending trade shows to access phenomenal networking opportunities, and simply showing your face at the right place and right time is extremely important. Therefore, travel, promotion (pr), and marketing will probably be the biggest expenses that I incur at the outset.

If I’m successful at marketing a particular product, I will then need to deliver. At the outset, that will also require out of pocket expense before the money generated from the first sale can be reinvested into the business and fund the next project.

How long before the money invested starts turning into money returned?

I think it will take several projects before I can start to see any sort of positive cash flow, but I think that it is possible to see a return on investment fairly rapidly. Even if one product sells, that is in a way a return on investment. If many small returns can begin to create a small but solid cash base, I then will have the resources to fund current and future operations. This should enable greater returns which will  hopefully one day result in positive cash flow.

Do you hope to sell this company?

I don’t have plans to sell this company. I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to selling it at some point in the future, but it is not my goal to develop this business simply to make it profitable and sell it.

When?

If I were to sell the company, it would be at a point where the brand is established and I would not need to be involved with the company for it to work. If Co-Lab were to be about me collaborating with others, then I would need to build myself up as the brand. But if it is about bringing separate parties together so that they can share assets and expertise, then a unique product can be created without my direct participation. If I could develop the company to that point, then that would be the time to sell, if I wanted to sell.

For how much?

As much as possible

What is the gross margin of what you'll be selling?

I'm trying to determine what an average gross margin would be for a product that is constantly changing and being produced with different materials and manufacturing methods. But because it is manufacturing, and based off the information I gleaned from this article:  http://smallbusiness.chron.com/average-manufacturers-gross-profit-percent-15827.html ,  I would venture to guess that 25% -35% could be expected. This is all very new to me, so further study and research is necessary before I can accurately say.

How long will it take you to reach scale?

Since Co-Lab at its inception is a part-time venture, I estimate that it will take at least 5 years before it is measurably growing. At that point I hope to have enough momentum that Co-Lab can become a full time venture. This will be the first milestone for reaching scale.



Given all this, and what you learned in the video, what sort of funding are you seeking? Why would this investor choose your offering over all the others available?



I am seeking funding through building relationships, to be in a joint venture with my potential collaborator/investor. And that is why the investor will choose me. They will invest in me because they are electing to participate as a collaborator and more than just somebody who writes a check. I am somebody who they will not only elect to do invest in. By having a stake in a product they help create, they will also invest their time, energy and ideas in Co-Lab.

 

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