Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Summer The Lemon Biz Went Sour

["Let Inga Tell You", La Jolla Light, published August 12, 2010] © 2010

Watching all the neighborhood kids with their lemonade stands this week, I was reminded of the summer my eight and eleven year old sons decided to turn our prolific lemon tree into a wholesale lemon business. It was probably the best entrepreneurial experience either of them has ever had.

They, of course, had had plenty of lemonade stands of their own. But it didn’t take too much mathematical genius to realize that their goal of owning their own Nintendo store wasn’t happening with such paltry proceeds.

A survey of the back 40 (feet) had quickly revealed that we had only one cash crop: lemons. The tree, sporadically watered and never fertilized, had thrived on benign neglect and produced a seemingly inexhaustible supply of grapefruit-sized lemons. The kids hatched a plan.

The next afternoon, standing outside a now-defunct La Jolla health food store that market research had been shown to be selling Sunkist, the kids and I reviewed their pitch. Mom lectured on some of the finer points of salesmanship, such as Why We Wear Shoes During a Sales Presentation. This is not immediately obvious to a Southern California child and turned out to be wasted anyway since the manager/surfer dude who ran the place was unshod himself. At the appointed time, we presented ourselves, made introductions all around, and as rehearsed, explained why our product was one the House of Organicity shouldn’t be without. The manager duly tasted The Product (we held our breaths) and pronounced it “good”. Or maybe that was “gnarly”.

My younger son, Henri didn’t miss a beat. “$2.00 a pound,” he announced firmly, “and that’s our final offer!” (This was not part of the script.)

The manager rolled his eyes. “Sorry, kid, but I can’t get more than $.29 a pound for these.”

“So how about a 50-50 split?” I jumped in, also not part of the script. (Henri maintained after that I was a “weenie wimp” who had negotiated us out of any serious profits before he was even warmed up. I should mention he is now an MBA.)

Seventy pounds of lemons were ordered, deliverable immediately.

We rushed home to process the first order. As Rory picked and Henri washed, dried and polished, I gave them the crash course on quality control, about how even one overly green or rotten lemon could (excuse the expression) sour the whole deal. An hour and a half later, the first order from the Pumphouse Lemon Company was on the store’s counter.

“Do you have an invoice?” the manager dude asked. While I explained that the, er, invoices were still, ah, at the printer, the kids were ecstatic to receive $10.50 for a mere hour’s work.

“Wow,” said Rory, “why would anyone get a regular job when you can go into business?”

The next day, we not only had invoices, but a logo (a lemon) and even a slogan (“A lemon from PLC is grown with TLC.”) We were impressed with ourselves.

Until I dropped into the store a few days later to check supply and discovered our lemons being sold for $.49 a pound, not $.29.

“A terrible oversight,” the dude explained. “These are just such great organic lemons that we quickly realized we were underselling them. And I couldn’t find your phone number.”

I fixed him with my steeliest gaze. “It’s one thing to cheat another adult,” I said, feeling like I was getting the quickie Harvard Business School education, “but you will NOT cheat my kids.” Additional funds were immediately forthcoming without my ever having to mention the two resident heroin addicts at Wind n’ Sea Beach who, it was rumored, would break anyone’s kneecaps for $500.

But while the young entrepreneurs thought they had found the perfect merger of supply and demand, the vagaries of both concepts hit them squarely between the eyes several months later. The seemingly endless supply of lemons dried up, and before another crop could be produced, the tree crumped (a casualty of a new sprinkler system) and the health food store went under.

Which is when they learned another valuable concept of fledgling businesses: don’t quit the day job.

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