Corrections or additions?
This article by Clay Tyson was prepared for the
January 9, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights
Building — And Rebuilding
Pursuing the entrepreneurial dream proves tough, but
climbing the mountain leads to a job he loves
I had been with Coinstar almost four years when I hit
the geographic ceiling. That’s my term for not being able to continue
up a career ladder unless you are willing to move 2,438 miles away
to a city that sees the sun 48 days a year (that would be Seattle).
Not that I would have disliked Seattle. It rests at the foot of some
of best alpine climbing in all of North America. I would travel there
in the coming years to climb Mt. Baker and to take a classic route
up Mt. Rainier, the mountain on Washington’s license plates. But a
certain six-year-old (that would be my daughter, Katie) and my love
of traffic congestion would prevent me from moving from New Jersey.
So I gathered my fresh-out-of-the-oven stock options and said
to the company I helped start and watched go public just six months
prior. I had been working cruel hours, traveling more than a double
A ball team to help build a business that installs machines that sort
and count pocket change and spit out receipts that supermarket
turn into greenbacks. I was ready for some time off to sort things
through and decide where I wanted to go next.
With the stock options resting comfortably in my brokerage account,
I felt like I could afford to shop around for a while before I
a new job. I fell into a little consulting work, which got me out
of the house paid the mortgage and preserved the chastity of my
account and stock options. This also afforded me the opportunity to
go rock climbing more without having to schedule it around petty
like working for a living.
I also began to ponder the bigger picture of my career track. Years
ago, when a company I worked for went belly up, two of my close
and colleagues went out on their own and started a business. I asked
myself then: Do I have it in me to start my own business? Like most
people, I carried this romantic notion that I, too, could chart my
own course, create jobs in the New Economy, defy the odds, beat the
competition, build a company, nay, an empire in this great capitalist
society. A regular Andy Grove about to start the next Intel. But
someone if they think they could start their own business is kind
of like asking someone if they like Jazz. Everyone wants to say `yes’,
but when asked to name three Jazz artists, their eyes glaze over like
a six year old in his third hour of a Cartoon Network binge.
At the time, I thought long and hard about whether I was an employee
or an employer, and I came to a conclusive answer: I was an employee.
And I was completely comfortable with my station in life. I would
later go on to be employee number 15 at Coinstar, a company that went
public during my employ, and would be witness to the sacrifices made
and risks taken by entrepreneurs. That experience would only serve
to solidify my view that I simply did not have it in me to go it
It was exciting contributing directly to the birth of a public
but trying anything like that on my own was not very high on my
do" list. I was also very intimate with the statistics that told
me that it was much more likely that I would fail than succeed. Let’s
be honest: I was chicken, but comfortable in my chicken-ness.
As the weeks ticked by and the interviews for jobs become more
an idea started to take shape in my lazy little mind. Being in my
early 30s, I began asking myself the time honored question idealists
with a few stock options in the bank often ask: If I could do anything
I wanted, what would it be? For me, this was a preposterously
question, because I have never believed that I was entitled to really
love my work. I love rock climbing. I love my daughter. I love going
to the movies. Calling on grocery chains, developing consumer
campaigns to support the roll out of Coinstar machines was a task
I found less painful and more profitable than selling shoes at
but I’m not sure I’d call it "fun" and I certainly didn’t
A ghost of an idea began rattling around in my head. I had begun
a few years earlier and found that it did for me what no other single
activity could do. It challenged me on a physical, emotional, and
spiritual level. Visiting climbing gyms in the Delaware Valley, I
was amazed at what a simple (and apparently profitable) business it
seemed to be. I had 12 years of sales and consumer marketing
and three years of climbing experience. What more did I need? Well,
a half a million dollars for starters. Yeah, I had stock options,
but not those kinds of options. I had worked for Coinstar, not
So with some time on my hands and no interviews on the horizon, I
started hammering out a business plan. Only one problem: I had no
idea how to write a business plan. I had never even seen a business
plan. I had written many marketing proposals however, and how much
different could they be from a business plan? You had to answer some
pretty basic questions: What, why, how much, where, by whom, and when
can you pay back the money you borrowed to start this business. I
had enough business savvy to know that the last question was the most
important and that the others were there only to answer it.
Over the next three months, I researched, wrote, and revised my plan.
I made contacts within the industry and pulled together an advisory
team to lend me the credibility I so sorely lacked. I mastered Excel
spread sheets. I had people with real world experience review my plan.
To my amazement, everyone who read it had only minor recommendations,
and most said it was one of the best organized, thorough, and well
written plans they had read.
The lesson was simple: Don’t be afraid of finding the perfect answer
or strategy. Just start writing, and worry about organization and
presentation later. I simply sat down and in great detail answered
some basic questions. Make no mistake, it was a lot of hard work,
research, time, and more revision then I care to admit. But I wrote
this plan without any fancy "Business Plan In a Can" software
or New Age marketing books espousing the power of the brand in the
New Economy. A former manager once shared some advice he learned in
the Marines. When in doubt, just do something — anything. The
message is that inactivity is the enemy and that, given our training
and experience, if we just try to do something — anything —
it will likely take us down the right path.
So now what? I had a 36-page business plan with spiffy color photos,
spread sheets linked to more spread sheets, contacts in the industry,
and a clear vision of the type of facility I wanted to create. I
the two things that are the hardest things to find when starting a
rock climbing center — the building and the money.
Finding the building was not easy. I started driving around older
industrial areas looking for buildings with 35-foot ceilings. Phone
calls to commercial real estate brokers evoked laughter. I was looking
for the impossible: 35-foot ceilings in a 7,000 square foot building
(a small space in commercial real estate terms) for less than $6 per
square feet. But I found the perfect building nonetheless, at 200
Whitehead Road in Hamilton Township. It was available, cheap, had
great highway access, and 35 foot ceilings. The broker told me it
had been available for over a year, and there seemed to be no real
danger of it being leased any time soon. Okay, now go get the money.
I immediately started attending venture capital networking meetings.
These luncheon meetings are places where wide-eyed dreamers like me
mingle with deep-pocketed investors and venture capitalists. My
it became abundantly clear, was uniquely positioned not to thrive
in this kind of environment. VCs are looking for home runs, returns
on the order of multiples of 10. What I was looking for was an angel
investor, a high net worth individual investing in early stage
There were some angels in attendance at these meetings, but in many
cases they were looking for the same as thing the VCs. I made
to each of these groups, but all I got were a few pats on the back.
I worked full time at the money hunt for about four months. I had
a few bites, sent out a lot of executive summaries and business plans,
but never struck pay dirt. All the while I was fine-tuning my plan
and keeping an eye on my building. There was little risk of it being
leased out from under me. A run-down, dusty, brick warehouse from
the 1940s is not on the commercial real estate hot list.
What amazed me most of all during this time was the transition that
had take place within me. All during the writing of my plan, I would
wake in the middle of the night with ideas running through my head.
I would try to go back to sleep but inevitably would find myself out
at my computer typing away. This dream grabbed hold of me like nothing
else had, save an ambitious climbing project. I thought about it all
the time and talked about until my friends stopped returning calls.
My parents were impressed with my zeal but seemed to harbor a seed
of skepticism in the way that people tend to view the newly converted.
Sometimes I even stopped to wonder if I had gone off the deep end.
If this project was such a slam-dunk, why had no investors surfaced?
What had happened to me? Remember, I was a sworn "employee."
I had consciously told myself that starting a business was not in
my future. What had changed? The right idea came to me at the right
time. It seems that entrepreneurs are made, not born. This dream was
about more than making money. It was about building a business around
an activity that had changed my life. I saw an opportunity to expose
thousands of people to the sport of climbing, and to make a pile of
money in the process. Or so I hoped.
So what happened next? Short version: I never found the money, started
selling my Coinstar shares piecemeal, and began dipping into my
I had to get a day job again. I would not give up completely, but
in the meantime I had to earn a living. I was fortunate to land a
great job in my previous industry with a marketing agency based in
Florida. As I had done before, I was starting a new program. I was
drawn to this sort of opportunity because it gave me the chance to
do something that had never been done before. That’s what drew me
to Coinstar. Help Wanted ads call this "entrepreneurial
Fast forward two years to the summer of 2000. My love affair with
my new job had turned into a dead end relationship with someone who
needed way too much therapy. My business plan was still on the shelf
in my office, quietly mocking me. I had never really forgotten my
dream; it was just on hold. I still woke up in the middle of the night
thinking about it and never lost my nearly religious conviction that
the business would be a success if I could only find the money. Like
my former manager once said, I needed to do something, anything, to
jump-start the project again.
One idea that friends had tossed out at me was to approach another
climbing gym owner and see if he wanted to form a partnership. I
dismissed this strategy for a simple reason: If a gym owner wanted
to start another facility, he didn’t need me. I had nothing to bring
to the table that they didn’t already have. Finally, I suspended my
skepticism and sat down and wrote a letter to the manager of a
gym about 70 miles away. I knew the guys who ran it and figured we
could at least have a conversation. I sent the letter with a copy
of my executive summary, explaining what I had and didn’t have. I
had solid marketing and sales experience, a great plan, a great
and a surplus of passion. What I didn’t have was money.
Before I even got a chance to follow up my letter, they called me
and suggested we meet to discuss the details. I nearly dropped the
phone. How could this be? I had put off contacting these guys for
months, thinking it a stupid, dead-end idea, and with one letter I
was closer than ever to finding the money, and pursuing my dream.
Memo to self: There are no bad ideas when it comes to looking for
money. I should have held close that important lesson I learned early
in my career in sales: If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
We set up the meeting and I got on the phone immediately to the broker
to make sure the building was still available. If I didn’t have a
building, the meeting would be a short one.
"Hi Joe. Clay Tyson here. I’m meeting with some investors next
week and I just wanted to make sure the building was still
"Clay, good to hear from you, but I have bad news," Joe said.
My heart sunk and my vision blurred.
"The lease for the building is under review at the attorney’s
office," he said.
"Joe, can I ask who is leasing it and what they are going to do
with it?" I asked, stunned.
"Funny you should ask, Clay. The guy is opening a climbing gym.
He felt the same way you did as soon as he saw the building: it’s
perfect for a climbing gym."
In less than 30 minutes, I went from starting down the road toward
living my dream, to slamming into the brick wall of delayed actions
and missed opportunities. Had I not waited to contact the owners of
the other climbing gym, had I not dismissed the idea as a silly one,
I would have beaten this other guy to the building and been working
on my grand opening marketing plan. I can’t overstate the level of
disappointment. I had invested so much of my heart, soul, and money
in this idea and now it seemed to be lost forever. I had decided that,
yes, I could be an entrepreneur, and now it appeared I’d be forever
cast as an employee.
I had the meeting with the potential partners anyway, figuring I
pass on an opportunity to secure some financial backing, even though
the one part of the equation I was bringing to the table had just
burst into flames before my eyes. The meeting went well, but I had
to tell them about the building not being available. It was a short
Okay, so I continue working for The Man for a while. Things could
be worse. I was making a good living. I made my own schedule. I
around the country working with very creative marketing professionals.
I had what many would consider to be a dream job. But I was still
restless about the new climbing gym opening in my backyard, in my
January came and I made it a practice to drive by the building every
now and then to see what was going on. Nothing. Finally, in late
I saw some activity. I pulled into the parking lot, walked through
the front door, and saw the steel being erected for the climbing
As I was leaving I ran into the owner in the parking lot and
myself. Immediately he knew who I was. The broker had told him there
was this guy looking at the same building. Michael Fortunato
introduced himself and gave me a nickel tour.
Mike and I seemed to hit it off right away. But why shouldn’t we?
We shared the same dream. What quickly became clear was that our
of this rock climbing center were nearly identical. When I summoned
the courage to ask who would manage it for him, he simply replied
that he would be interviewing. What he didn’t tell me at the time
was that he had no intention of hiring someone with my level of
(or salary expectation).
If there is one thing I have learned in 15 years of selling it is
this: When you see an opportunity, jump on it, and jump hard. I went
home, printed out my five-page executive summary, pulled a few select
pages from my business plan, and wrote one of the best sales letters
I have ever written. The package was at FedEx by 3 p.m. that day.
Before I could call Mike on Tuesday, he called me with a novel
You show me yours, I’ll show you mine. Business plan, that is. We
agreed to exchange complete business plans and meet again the
It was clear by reading each other’s plan that we were of like minds.
Even down to the numbers. There was only an 11 percent difference
in our start-up costs. Over lunch we came to a few conclusions. My
background in consumer marketing and sales would be an asset to the
operation. Mike’s logistics expertise and experience as a business
owner was something I sorely lacked. Perhaps most importantly, we
shared a passion for establishing a world class climbing facility.
We knew the importance of customer service and helping the public
enter this exciting and challenging sport.
Many climbing gyms do a great job serving the needs of the climbing
community. But we knew that a climbing center can not survive on
climbers alone. We had to reach a broader audience, and embrace our
mission with near religious fanaticism.
Two more lunch meetings were required to work out the final details
and give me the courage to ditch my day job and jump on board. During
our discussion, Mike had a few important reservations that spoke
to the issues I had struggled with over the years. He knew how hard
I had worked to open my own facility, and how heartbroken I was when
he got the money and the building before me. His concern was that
I would become resentful of not being able to do this on my own, and
in not being an equity holder in the business.
I had already thought a lot about this very issue. The strange thing
is, I was completely comfortable with the path ahead of me and excited
about the opportunity it represented. I would be an integral part
of this project and would be given the opportunity to use my
in sales and consumer marketing to build a successful business around
a sport that I loved. What more could I have asked for? Soon I would,
again, be waking up in the middle of the night with ideas flying
my head, and this time they were ideas I could act on the next day.
Although I would not be a equity partner, I would be a partner
In the coming months, Mike would come to trust me with important
and operational decisions, and make me feel like I was a vital part
of the operation.
One question I have asked is why did Mike change his plan and hire
someone at my level? This much I know: The experience of building
my own plan, doing the research, and living day and night with the
dream of opening my own facility gave Mike the courage and confidence
to bring me on as a team member. Memo to self: Those people who say
that all of our experiences and hard work and disappointments and
failures in life only prepare us for what we are meant to do. . .
I have come to an unexpected realization in the past six months of
helping Mike get Rockville up and running: I’m grateful I never found
the money. Mike’s experience as a business owner has been critical
to the success we have achieved so far. I doubt I would have been
able to navigate some of the challenges and obstacles he faced in
getting the facility built and open. What continues to amaze me is
how when I don’t have the answer to a problem, he does. He is the
owner of a restaurant — Remi’s Cafe in Haddonfield — and
of his experience in starting and building that businesses over the
past 10 years, he knew how to get Rockville up and running.
So it seems I have come full circle. After years of launching new
consumer marketing programs and helping to build new businesses for
other people, I evolved into what I can only call a frustrated
I built my own business plan, and became emotionally invested in it.
Then, after struggling to make that plan a reality, I nearly tossed
in the towel. Now, here I am, an employee again. But there is a
difference in my present position: I am a partner. And I get to use
my skills and experience to help build a business around something
an advertising sales representative at U.S. 1 in 1989 and 1990.
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