Chasing Trucks

I bet you didn't know that I used to wear a tie to work every day.

Yeah, my first job out of school, when I was working as an Environmental Engineer for a Big Consulting Firm. This was way back in the early 90s when Computer Programming was still this low status thing that people did down in some dark basement, updating the modeling software or whatever while the Engineers up on the 14th floor ran the show. It was a good few years before they showed up with that giant sack of cash to give to anybody who could produce Hello World with Angle Brackets.

Anyway, the guy I worked for was one of those ever-smiling business guys who can talk you under the table any day of the week and leave you with a signed contract in your hand for whatever he happened to be selling at the moment. He had an Engineering degree, an MBA, and was working his way through Law school at night. He would have made a good Larry, so we'll call him Larry from here on out.

Larry was a bit of a serial entrepreneur, and always seemed to be setting one of his cousins up with a hot dog cart or something that he hoped to one day spin into an Empire to get out of all these two hour workdays, lunches and golf that comprised his day job at the Firm.

One day he shows up at my apartment with a used pickup truck and a bunch of pumps, tanks and hoses. He's going into the Industrial Truck Washing business and it's going to make him rich. You see, the City's stormwater regulations specify that all wastewater from industrial washing has to be collected and taken to a designated processing facility (we were Environmental Engineers, remember, so these were things a fella needed to know). That meant you couldn't just go out and wash somebody's truck in the parking lot. You needed a big, expensive, facility to deal with all that wastewater collection and disposal. And you needed those trucks to detour all the way to your place every time they needed washing.

That meant that Truck Washing was Expensive.

But Larry had invented The Device.

The Device was nothing more than a manhole-cover-sized aluminum plate with a hose coming out of it. But you could pull up a storm drain cover, drop this thing in its place, and easily pump all the water that collected on it into a tank in that pickup truck. Mobile Truck Washing was born. Larry was gonna be a millionaire.

Larry had a simple plan to find new business. He'd park his rig down in the Industrial District and wait for a dirty Semi or Delivery Van to roll past, then he'd follow it around until it eventually went back to its yard. Then, he'd turn his Schmooze Guy superpowers on to whoever owned that dirty truck and sell him on the virtues of having it (and all its dirty friends here in the yard) cleaned on a bi-monthly basis. This drummed up enough business that he was able to fine-tune the washing procedure and hire a couple guys (of the "guy hanging around in front of Home Depot" variety) to perform the actual day-to-day washing work.

But here's the thing. It didn't make him a millionaire. Not even close. Mostly it just took up his weekends.

The problem was those dirty trucks he was chasing. They were dirty for a reason.

Dirty trucks are dirty because their owners either don't care how they look or don't have enough money to do anything about it. Most of the people who agreed to have them cleaned at all decided that, two weeks later, they were actually still pretty clean, so maybe we'll just skip this time and you can come back later. Today, we'd call this an example of "Customer Churn".

But, but but. There do in fact exist trucks that people will pay good money to have washed. Those trucks are easier than you think to find. Because they're the clean ones.

Once Larry figured out that he should be chasing the clean trucks, things got better in a hurry. He started landing customers that needed washing every week. He started landing fleets. He landed the freakin' Post Office as a customer. By the time I took over his old job of wearing ties and playing golf with clients for The Firm, he already had three more trucks and ten staff.

There are lessons in there about picking markets, the advantages of selling B2B vs. B2C, and half a dozen other things. But all you really need to remember is Larry's quote.

Always chase the Clean Trucks.


Jason Kester
@jasonkester

I run a little company called Expat Software. Right now, the most interesting things we're doing are related to Cloud Storage Analytics, Online Classrooms, and Customer Lifecycle Metrics for SaaS Businesses. I'll leave it to you to figure out how those things tie together.


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