In the 16th century Francis Bacon defined a wise man as one who “makes more opportunities than he finds.”
He could have been describing Dan Zawacki… aka the lobster man.
The Chicago-based sales rep for Honeywell was tired of the same old holiday gift ideas for customers.
So he came up with the idea of giving each one a live lobster along with a stick of butter.
But Dan had a lot of customers and lobster is pricey. So he arranged a barter with a lobster fisherman in Maine.
When the lobsters arrived, he added a stick of butter and personally delivered boxes to his customer.
Dan was so bowled over by the response that he decided to open a small side business shipping live lobsters complete with pot, crackers, butter and bibs to crustacean-lovers coast-to-coast.
In the beginning, Dan worked out of his bedroom, storing his lobsters in a used tank in his father’s garage.
The first year he netted only $4,000.
Then one day his boss heard Dan pitching Lobster Gram, Inc. on a local radio station and promptly fired him.
I first wrote about Dan back in 1997. At that point he was a decade into his business and doing well.
Fast forward another decade and a half and Dan is doing very well!
In 2006 Lobster Gram opened an 18,000 square foot distribution center in Biddeford, Maine.
Five years later they opened a store in Chicagoland to serve the local lobster, steak and seafood lover market.
His company counts Macy Gray, Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman among their famous clientele. Fans who likely heard about Lobster Gram the same way I did – in the media.
The company has been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC as well as in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Oprah’s “O” magazine, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Readers Digest, TIME, Men’s Health, USA Today, and many more.
But it was a chance encounter with QVC buyers in New York that put Lobster Gram into the national spotlight in a big way. Today they’re one of QVC’s hottest products airing some 60-70 times a year.
The last sales numbers I could find were from 2007. At that point Lobster Gram’s revenue was a cool $12 million.
Maybe you’re not looking to make millions.
But if you want to create a livelihood that allows you to live and work on your own terms, then Dan’s example has much to teach you.
7 Immediately Usable Lessons from the Lobster Man
1. Pay attention
Most people just aren’t paying enough attention to even notice them.
Dan saw his Honeywell customers’ reaction to their unique gift as the opportunity it was.
What About You?
Are you consistently paying attention to income generating opportunities.
If not, make a list right now of the kinds of things people around you — friends, family, co-workers — complain about, worry about, or get excited about?
Once you find a good example, ask yourself how could someone (it doesn’t have to be you) turn that into a small profit center or a full-scale small business?
2. Keep your current job — or get a new oneSeeing an opportunity is one thing – acting on it is quite another. The question of course, is how. Click To Tweet
Realistically, most people can’t afford to just quit their job to start a business. Which is why Dan kept his day job until he was forced out.
If you also need that paycheck take my friend Suzanne Evan’s suggestion and think of your job as your business loan.
Note: If you log 50+ hours a week, waste hours on a long commute, or work in a toxic environment, before you launch any business, you may need to first turn your attention to finding a new “business loan.”
What About You?
Is your goal of a better future worth toughing it out for a while at your j-o-b aka your “business loan”?
If your current situation allows no time to work on your business are you willing to look for a new job even if it means a reduction in pay?
Just because he had a good sales job doesn’t mean Dan spent a bunch of money on his business right out of the gate.
Instead, he worked with what he had using his bedroom as his office and his dad’s garage as his warehouse.
He bought his initial lobster tank used.
And remember, he bartered for those initial gift lobsters!
What About You?
Are there things like office equipment, inventory, how-to books you can buy used?
Is there garden, studio, office or other space you can barter for? What about services like web design, proof-reading, or copy writing?
4. Treat your profit center like a business
From the beginning Dan regarded Lobster Gram as a business.
After all, look at all the media coverage he got.
People who see their passion or their idea as a business do things like create a PR plan. For Dan that didn’t mean hiring a pricey PR agency.
Instead, I’m guessing Dan did the same thing I did initially to get my own business into these and many more publications in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Brazil…
He sent press releases and followed up with phone calls.
If you currently have a small or even a side business, start small by pitching to local daily, monthly, or even monthly publications. Check out local radio too.
The great thing about PR is once you get that initial press, reporters, freelancers, and producers start coming to you.
In the last two weeks alone I was interviewed by Redbook and interviewed as part of a 30 minute BBC documentary.
But none of these things would have happened for Dan or me if we hadn’t treated our profit center like our business and not our hobby.
What About You?
If you already have a small business — or even a solid idea for one — have you thought about, never mind, done a business, PR, and marketing plan?
What would you do differently if you treated your work as a serious business rather than a hobby?
5. Be realistic about the money
Dan didn’t expect his business to replace his salary right away.
To the contrary, the fact that he made any money served as proof of concept. Proof that had to soften the blow when Dan was fired.
After all, if he could make $4,000 working his business part-time then he could make a lot more by going at it full-time.
It took me a decade to replace my corporate salary. Looking back there are things I could have done to earn get there quicker. (Like this next lesson.)
But still, like Dan, I didn’t start my business expecting to replace my corporate salary after just a year or two… and neither should you.
What About You?
Would you keep going if your business only brought in a few thousand the first year seeing it as a sign that you’re on the right track?
What about the second – or the fifth year? If yes, have you determined the threshold you need to hit before you quit your j-o-b to grow the business full time?
6. Hustle then hire
Dan started Lobster Gram while still employed at his job-job.
It’s not easy running a business nights and weekends. (Trust me I know!)
But Dan wanted to make a go of selling lobster tails, so he was willing to work his own tail off to make it happen.
Like most small business owners, Dan started out as a one-man show.
It was only once Lobster Gram got too big to handle that he brought on employees.
You’re not going to afford to hire help right away. It took me ten years before I felt comfortable enough to bring Lisa on – and even that was scary.
Looking back, I wish I’d done it a lot sooner.
What About You?
Even if you don’t want to manage people, can you outsource things like bookkeeping, website upkeep, and/or administrative tasks?
(To be clear, if you imagine outsourcing to mean hiring other people so you just pop your head in now and then to check on things – review all of the above.)
7. Do the thing that scares you
In an interview Dan said he really nervous on his first live QVC show.
Being on live TV in front of millions of viewers would make anyone nervous.
Dan went on TV anyway.
Maybe it was the fact that he made 600 sales in six minutes… but after that Dan said he “got the TV bug.”
If you’re scared to put your work out to potential clients or customers or are afraid of rejection or public speaking, all I can say is…
Join the club.
Everyone has fears and insecurities – no matter how experienced.
I’ve been speaking on the topic of confidence for 30 years.
But in a few weeks I’ll be giving a talk to 300 people at a Silicon Valley networking event being held at Apple headquarters. (If you’re in the area, this is one of rare talks that’s open to the public!)
Am I nervous? It’s freakin’ Apple – so you bet I am!
But I also know that the solution is not to wait until you’re no longer afraid.
Instead you need to act despite your fear, prepare like heck, and know that even if you fall flat on your face you’ll at least have information you need to regroup, adjust, improve or tweak… and then try again.
(If lack of confidence is among your top 3 challenges, you may like to know I’m working on a new program called 5 Weeks to Confidence. Stay tuned for details.)
What About You?
In what ways does self-doubt hold you back?
Instead of asking ‘What would I do if money were no object?’ ask, ‘What would I do if confidence were not a factor?’
The Bottom Line
All business owners experience setbacks and made missteps along the way.
There are moments of uncertainty or self-doubt… times when sales slow and money is tight. It happens.
At the same time, going from having a boss to being your own boss is a lot less complicated then people make it out to be.
Fundamentally, changing course comes down to the 7 simple things Dan did.
If Dan can do it, so can you.