Memories with Richard Bleil
Would it surprise you to learn that I’ve owned a business? Would you be shocked to learn that I am really terrible at business?
Bleil Labs was a small analytical chemistry laboratory, focusing on environmental chemistry. That means no drug, urine, blood or genetics testing. Instead, we looked for things like lead in drinking water, for example. Unfortunately, I lack the cut-throat fear-based tactics that is so frequently needed for a successful business.
For example, a nearby manufacturer of toner cartridges had a problem with recycling the plastic containers. They were always too weak at the seams. Coincidentally I stopped by to let them know of my services at the time they were trying to figure that out. In a very un-businesslike move, I offered to take a look at them and see if I could figure it out without a contract. And, yes, I figured it out. When I went back to them, they wanted to know what I had discovered. I know enough about business to tell them that I couldn’t tell them my findings without a contract, which they refused to even discuss. They wanted free results, in a company that, frankly, probably wouldn’t use my services frequently in the first place. I left, keeping the results to myself. They didn’t get what they wanted, but my work went unpaid despite finding the answer.
Ultimately, I was paying employees that weren’t performing, and couldn’t afford rent on the building because I couldn’t find enough paying clients. That was my first truly major professional failure, and it really hurt. I over-extended in the adventure. I had purchased a lot of equipment for the lab, and office furniture for the front offices in an effort to look like a well-established and successful business. The money all came out of my own pocket, and continued support from my salary from the university. But without a steady stream of clients, it was doomed to fail. Business 101, right?
This failure came to mind when I saw an ad on my social media page for a photography store that claimed in the advertisement to be going out of business. I decided just to look at what they have, and considered buying a camera body, but there were red flags. First of all, it seemed like all of the cameras, regardless of model or maker, cost the same. Okay, maybe that’s just a way to get people to buy, but the one I was looking at (as a second camera) had only 49 left in stock. Oh wait, no, 48. Now 47. It was like a countdown, 46..45..44.., and if I didn’t buy it soon they would, based on the rate of sales, be out soon. And I almost fell for it, but then I noticed the sales were slowing, 43..42…41…40….39….38…..37……… My experimental mind got the better of me and saved me from this probably scam, as I was curious how long it would take, considering the derivative of the sales rate, to be sold out. A day later, the counter had stopped at 9, and hasn’t moved since.
But when I first read about the impending business closing (and believing it to be true), I actually felt bad, and put a comment on the post to that effect. I know what it’s like to close a business, and it’s really not fun. The feeling was fair practice for when I went through my divorce, in fact. I suppose there are a variety of reasons that a business might close, and they’re not all bad. Closing for retirement can be considered the “victory lap” of a long and happy business, for example. Or the electronics superstore in New York City where the owner had a “make your best offer” sale and accepted anything as long as it was cash only to collect all of the cash and flee the country the night it ended.
Me? I had front offices filled with some of the coolest pieces of furniture I’d ever come across. I had a gorgeous “secretary’s desk” that was part fold-out and part cabinet with inlaid metal panels that I simply loved. It was very antique looking and was perfect with the lamp I had bought. I had a table in the reception area with a huge built-in clock. There were more furniture pieces than I can even mention at this point, and I needed to get rid of them. The cost associated with the business hit me hard, and I didn’t have anyplace to keep all of it. The owners where I was leasing gave me, literally, two days to clear everything out, over a weekend. I had to ditch as much as I could as quickly as possible.
My friends helped out by taking much of the furniture. But the thing is, they were good friends, they really were trying to help, but watching them leave with my favorite pieces was emotionally draining. I had to remind myself that they were doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, otherwise the pain I was feeling at my intense failure would have turned to anger against them, against my friends who were trying to help, and frankly did. There’s no way I could have cleared it all out in time otherwise.
I still feel this failure, as deeply as I do the failure of my marriage. Sadly, in my life, it’s another scar that cut too deeply, and that I’ve continued to carry for far too long.