Empire of the Niche

The Journey from Opportunism to Entrepreneurship

Copyright © 2006 – 2014 by Mitchell Allen

Originally appeared in eight parts on the Entrepreneurdad.com Forums in September, 2006.

I’m not there yet. Robert Kiyosaki tried to tell me, but I wasn’t ready to listen. Over the next few days, I am going to share my story.

Come with me, as I slog through the swamps of opportunity, in search of the Empire of the Niche.

The saga begins in Penn Fruit, a now-defunct supermarket in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I walked into the store and timidly asked customers if I could bag their groceries. Several hours later, I proudly went across the street and ordered a cheeseburger and milkshake. I was ten years old, and that was the first time I had ever earned money.

By the time I was seventeen, I had gone through all of the typical work-for-hire opportunities. I had mowed lawns, shoveled snow, delivered newspapers and tried to sell film-processing from the back of a comic book!

I graduated from high school, went to college and discovered girls. Business plans were dropped for a couple of years.

Then, I discovered Amway. A family friend introduced me to the opportunity – my folks had been loyal customers for a while. I was too embarrassed to make a real go of it, and wound up with a room full of SA8.

A. L. Williams

There is something about grandiose tales and million-dollar producers that makes suckers of us all.
I was an easy mark for the next opportunity. I had dropped out of college and was working for my best friend, who was the manager of a convenience store.

While still in college, he had started working at the Philadelphia Gas Works. Some co-workers recruited him into A. L. Williams (now Primerica) and he recruited me.

After taking a cram course for my insurance license, I stumbled around, looking for prospects. During my short time with A. L. Williams, I learned that term insurance was superior to whole life insurance. I also learned, belatedly, that A. L. Williams grossly overcharged their customers for term life policies. They used the overcharge to pay their sales force.

The company also tried to take that money back from the sales force by pitching their deferred compensation plan and their mutual funds. I used my income from my job to purchase shares of their mutual fund.

Eventually, I learned that the product was inferior and the fees were excessive. It would be nearly eight years later before I understood why.

Rich Dad, Poor Dad

With the crushing failure of A. L. Williams behind me, I focused on being a good supervisor at the Philadelphia Police Department. Shift work had taken its toll on me: I was 15 pounds underweight, eating bad food and not getting any sleep.

Yet, I hadn’t missed a day or night of work in three years. The financial education I had acquired made me more interested in things like disability insurance, no-load mutual funds and paying myself first.

One day, a co-worker brought in a copy of Rich Dad, Poor Dad. I borrowed it, read it, ran out and bought my own.

Two months later, when Robert Kiyosaki came to Philadelphia, I was there with three other co-workers. We were primed!

The free seminar was disappointing, being nothing more than an extended infomercial. However, we bought CashFlow 101, started a little “investment” club and began to pump each other up about being in business for ourselves.

CashFlow 101 taught us a lot about ourselves (I’m a gambler), but the daily conversations really set us apart from the crowd.

While most of the guys talked about sports and most of the ladies talked about each other, our little clique talked about rehabbing, options and financial freedom.

The next two years were the most intensive paradigm shifts of my life. For the first time ever, I didn’t fear my boss. I was beginning to see the difference between overtime income and business income. I wasn’t making any business income, but I knew that’s what I needed to be doing.

Prepaid Legal Services

Around the time I was discovering Robert Kiyosaki, I was introduced to yet another business opportunity: Prepaid Legal Services. Again, I was an easy mark. But this time, there was an ugly twist.

I had signed up for this new business venture without consulting my wife. She was furious! I had been blathering about cutting back on overtime to “work the business.” She didn’t agree with that at all.

So, it is not surprising that I went into this opportunity with a handicap. All of the successful associates swore that it would not have been possible without the support of their spouses. The seed of doubt was planted.

My co-workers were happy to water that seed. But I was more determined to succeed. I simply ignored them. I focused on getting my first promotions and, with the generous aid of the company, I was able to achieve the position of Manager.

But I had no team to manage, because the company gave the promotions out like candy and, all I had to do was sell one more plan, which I did. To my mother. Actually, I bought it for her.

I was in too deep. I just couldn’t see that the methods they were teaching me were not good business-building strategies.

The irony of it all is that the woman who recruited me became one of the worst complainers and detractors, blaming everyone but herself for her lack of success. I had passed her in the rankings, meaning she no longer earned money from me. This didn’t look good to me at all.

But, awash with propaganda, I could not extricate myself. Besides, there was the small matter of proving myself to my wife.

Little League Baseball

The next opportunity seemed like a small shift, but it was a move that changed the course of our lives.

During Little League Baseball tryouts, we parents were left to fend for ourselves. I started chatting with a mother whose son and mine had been teammates for three years. The conversation turned to real estate. I shared with her the fact that I had just completed my licensing course. Lo and behold! She was just getting started with hers! Ten minutes later, a third mom joined the conversation and, wonder of wonders, she had just obtained her real estate license and had joined a brokerage.

All three of us agreed that we wanted to be real estate investors. We tossed around Robert Kiyosaki’s name like he was an old friend. Dreaming of duplexes and foreclosures, we promised to help each other.

And help each other, we did! The newly licensed mom gave me a copy of the study guide, on CD. I passed my test the first time.

In turn, I tutored the student mom. During one of the tutoring sessions, student mom whipped out a printed copy of a real estate investment ebook.

She casually stated that maybe we should “team up.” My wife was ecstatic so, of course, I was happy to go along. There wasn’t going to be any underhandedness on my part! Privately, I told my wife that I wasn’t too sure about this guru, but I was sure that the business partnership was going to be great!

I couldn’t wait to get to work that Monday! I had been reading through the articles at CREOnline.com and was ready to take action. During the daily investment club pow-wow, I happily chattered away about my new partner, our new venture and the coming riches.

Fool Time Agent

“There is many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.”

“Don’t quit your day job.”

There are many forces in our lives that shape our ultimate story. I faced many decisions since March, 2004, when I completed my three-month real estate course. The overriding force at that time was a truly violent desire to quit my job. It built up until, four months later, I did.

Buoyed by my decision and supported by my wife, we simply cashed out of Philadelphia and moved to Virginia. The plan was for me to obtain my real estate license there, research the market and dive in.

Well, that did happen, eventually, but not until I had wasted precious time exploring additional opportunities online.

During the course of studying the Northern and Central Virginia housing market, I kept allowing myself to be led astray by software projects, affiliate marketing, eBay and the real estate market back in Philadelphia.

It took almost a year to obtain my Virginia real estate license. And then, I made my first serious mistake.

When we first moved to Virginia, the only agent who followed up with us during our transition was a nice guy named John. John worked in a RE/MAX brokerage and recruited me for his office.

I figured it would be fine, since I would be working with someone I trusted. However, it soon became apparent that RE/MAX was not good at mentoring raw recruits.

Traditionally, RE/MAX recruited the best of the best, dangling that 100% commission. It made sense: why should agents bust their humps for a broker, when they could earn more with RE/MAX? When the company decided to open the doors to new agents, they basically had nothing in place for training, except their television network.

John gallantly worked with me through all of this, teaching me everything he knew. But I still felt out of my element. I wanted to be buying and selling houses as an investor! I didn’t have time to be a tour guide for unqualified curiosity seekers.

My interest flagged and I began to spend more time surfing the web.

Opportunity Knocks

I never knew how much time I could waste in a day. As an employee, my boss would limit the amount of time I could spend not doing any work. As a self-employed person, I had to be my own disciplinarian.

I didn’t develop a sense of urgency for months. Before getting my Virginia real estate license, I would sleep until ten o’clock every morning. After a leisurely breakfast, during which time I scanned the real estate ads, I would jump on the computer and “do” stuff. I was so unfocused, it was practically criminal.

Between handling loose ends in Philadelphia, chatting with friends about how I was going to “take over” Virginia, reading e-mail and writing software, I was spending ten hours a day on the computer.

It was inevitable that I would stumble across wave after wave of opportunities. I signed up for dozens of newsletters, bookmarked scads of forums, blogs and tutorial websites. I made a game of getting as much free information as possible. Days turned into weeks, weeks morphed into months and, suddenly I was the proud owner of multiple streams of dry dust.

I blinked.

Something wasn’t right. I felt slightly foolish. How did this happen? Where was the money? Gritting my teeth, I decided it was time to take stock.

Broom Swept Clean

In real estate contracts, the seller must deliver the house in substantially the same condition that it was in when the buyer agreed to purchase it. In the clause that outlines this requirement in excruciating detail, there is a phrase that I love: the house must be broom-swept clean.

After acknowledging the mess I had made of my new self-employed status, I knew I had to stop wasting time and focus on producing income.

It didn’t happen overnight and, at one point, my progress was actually wiped out. But, eventually, every single opportunity was discarded, leaving me with one thing to do: build a website design and marketing business.

I’m not in a position to turn away a dollar, so I still do a few odd jobs. I do the tech support for the site where my first blog lives.

I do about ten Blogitive posts a month.

And – reluctantly – I am looking for a job to pay the bills while I build my business.

But, with the path swept clean before me, I see the opportunity of my lifetime.

Thanks for coming along for the ride. I’ll leave you with this comment that I posted on someone’s blog:

The Box, the Barrel and the Circle

I spent too many years in a box known as “the family approves.” Within this huge box, I lived in a barrel with a bunch of crabby co-workers. And like the proverbial crabs in the barrel, these miserable folks would claw me back down whenever I sought the top of the barrel.

Fortunately, somebody threw a copy of Rich Dad, Poor Dad into the barrel.

While the other crabs were crawling around, pulling each other down, I clawed my way through this phenomenal book. Then I read all of his other books.

One of the most important things he wrote was: if you want to change your situation, you have to change your circle of friends.

It took a while, but I navigated through all of these psychological polygons. I have plotted a path to purpose and prosperity.

Update: July, 2014

I acknowledge that I played fast and loose with the term entrepreneurship. I’m setting my sights a tad bit lower, aiming instead for the sort of financial freedom that comes from having my own software, books and other products to market.

Pursing this goal means focusing more on maintaining cash flow during the time it takes to get these products launched. I’ve settled on a method that works well for me. You can read about it in The Freelancer Mindset.