When commercial pilot Paul Harris finally folded up his wings after decades working for the airline industry, he overcame his fears of starting a small business by acquiring a franchise, and taking advantage of the support and guidance he needed in order to be successful. Pitfalls abound, however, in the search for the right franchise business, and Paul's nine years running a Minuteman Press printing business have taught him what those pitfalls are, and how to avoid them.
There's likely a part of Paul Harris that will always yearn to be in the air. He started taking flying lessons at 15, served in the military, earned a degree in Aviation Transportation Technology, and became a commercial pilot in 1976. Through much of the next 30 years, he was buffeted by the ups and downs of the post-deregulation airline industry, holding on to his flying career despite bankruptcies and company moves. All the while, he was a single parent with two kids at home, and yearning for some stability. Finally, in early 2005, he decided it was time to look for something else. But what? While he felt that he had eminently portable skills, he knew his chances of cracking the corporate world were slim."Trying to convince someone of that, in an employer-employee relationship was going to be a huge challenge," he said to me in our recent interview. Despite that realization, Paul did apply for a number of jobs but couldn't even get an interview.
He started thinking about owning his own business and attended a number of franchise shows, where he realized that owning most franchises ends up being a great deal for the franchisor, but not so much for the franchisee. One company, however, did stand out as a possibility, and that was Minuteman Press. The company has been around since 1973, and Paul was already familiar with the company's outlets .
Without realizing it, he had actually already seeded his future career. When a relative died and left him a trove of family memorabilia in 1989, he became fascinated by his family's genealogy, and began organizing the memorabilia for a possible book. In the process, he learned all about typography, graphic design, printing and publishing, taking full advantage of the desktop publishing revolution. In fact, while he was still working as a pilot, he had toyed with the idea of doing something with desktop publishing as a business, but was not yet ready to make the leap. "So I had this background, this knowledge of the vernacular of graphic design. I had delivered products to printers, and had communicated with printers, and so I knew just enough about that business to be dangerous," he says with a smile. But having experience is not necessary to acquiring the right franchise.
Lesson #1: Experience is not required, but affinity is crucial. While Paul already knew something about printing, for his franchisor, that experience was seen as almost a liability: "It's really easy if you have working experience in this field to get wrapped up working "in" the business rather than working "on" the business," he says. The important thing that your franchisor should want from you is the willingness to run the business itself, not to become a subject matter expert in the details of the business. That's for your staff to worry about. However, you want to choose a business that interests you, and one where you can feel good about providing great service and products to your customers, otherwise you're going to get bored easily and the business will suffer.
Lesson #2: Make sure your franchisor is there to support you in the long term, and not just interested in getting your money and commitment up front. When Paul started his store in Raleigh, NC, his regional supervisor, Dave Walton, actually helped him acquire his printing equipment from a store in the area that was going out of business -- saving him thousands of dollars in startup costs. Paul has observed that some franchises will try to double-dip by not only getting you to sign up with them, but insisting that you acquire your start up equipment or managing your location build-out with their resources. Minuteman Press demonstrated that they were there to support Paul and the success of his business, and expended their own connections and resources to do it.
Lesson #3: Talk to other franchisees without the company rep in attendance. Always get the straight story from others who have gone before you with the franchisor. This might seem like common sense, but a less than scrupulous franchise rep might try to persuade you to close the deal based on written testimonials, or other "canned" recommendations. Do your own homework and actually visit franchisees in their locations. Use your gut instincts to figure out if they're making money, getting the support they need, and generally happy with their decision.
Lesson #4: Make sure the support is up to par. Too often, Paul has heard about other franchisees who start off with lots of communication from their rep when the business is starting up, but who feel abandoned in due course when the business has been running for some time. He has actually talked to people who haven't seen a company rep in over a year. In his case, Paul has built an ongoing dialog and working relationship with Dave Walton, who is active in the region, visits him approximately once/month, and is Paul's number one cheerleader to help him market the business.
Lesson #5: Is your franchisor at the vanguard of their business? For Paul, the printing business bears some unexpected parallels to his career as a pilot: "Both involve the use of technology in a precise manner, in a constantly varying environment, with a little creativity thrown in. I'm not talking about artistic creativity. People come to me with problems to solve. Whether I'm flying an airplane, or running a print shop, I'm a problem solver." In today's rapidly changing business and technology environment, it is crucial that the franchisor be willing to lead its business partners in the right direction. As printing has gotten more digital, Minuteman Press has advised its franchisees wisely, says Paul, and has helped its partners in making smart decisions about how to adapt their businesses to meet evolving customer needs.
Lesson #6: Is there a vibrant franchisee community? In the greater Raleigh area, Paul is one of a half-dozen Minuteman Press business owners who have an active owners' group that meets regularly at each other's stores to trade information, share experiences and help solve problems. Community is key, particularly in a disruptive business environment, so new franchisees should make sure they are joining a community that can support them, and that they can contribute to.
For someone who had significant trepidations about starting a small business, Paul's nine years with his print shop have been successful. At 68, he has no immediate plans to retire, although his wife would like him to quit the business so that they can go traveling. He expects that he will work at least until 70, and for as long as the business challenges and stimulates him: "I guess when the day comes that I can't solve problems, I'm going to hang it up."
Paul has got a great boomer attitude -- a can-do spirit that we would all do well to adopt. He is willing to take risks, has been smart about taking them, has figured out a formula for success, and is vigilant and realistic about making each day work.
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