Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Getting past conceptual stage... getting fire in the belly

The wheels turn slowly... but they are turning.

This morning I spoke with someone at the NJ Small Business Development Center. You'll recall I reached out to them on Friday to set up an appointment to talk about the tour business. My appointment is October 14.

The coordinator had called me yesterday afternoon as I was driving to Sandy Hook, so I tried (unsuccessfully) to return her call from there. Truth be told, I was kind of relieved she didn't answer the phone; I'd left all of my paperwork at home, with the points I need help with, and I honestly was a little worried about sounding like a scatterbrain who hadn't done her homework. I made a few quick notes (relieved I'd left a pen in the car at some point and hadn't cleaned the paper from the front seat) before I dialed, but as I said, I ended up not needing them, anyway.

Notes in hand, I felt a bit more secure when I called this morning. The coordinator greeted me warmly, pulled up my application and asked me a bit more about the venture, including how far along I am.

"Conceptual stage," I admitted.

"Great! We love working with people from the very start." Phew.

Feeling a little less like the kid who neglected to do her term paper, I told her I'm looking for help in setting up the structure of the business, dealing with the legalities and determining the competitive landscape. They've got start-up specialists who advise on a lot of those issues, with the fiscal structure apparently being a lot more complex than getting the legal entity settled. Cool by me, as long as the liability rests with the business, and not on me personally. They've also got a marketing specialist who can work with me to determine who else is out there doing tours, what they're doing, how they price their services, and so forth.

The best part of the services is that they're all free, courtesy of the Small Business Administration. After paying federal taxes for the past 20-odd years, I better get my money's worth. Between now and October 14, I'll be coming up with a LOT of questions.

Meanwhile, I've been getting some interesting messages from my gut on where I should be headed. On Sunday I checked out the Edison Menlo Park museum at the site of TAE's first R&D lab. It's a tiny, two-room building crammed with all kinds of artifacts, and I got there just in time for a tour led by a volunteer with an encyclopedic knowledge of Edison's life and work. Very, very cool! On one hand, I was really energized that there are people out there that find this stuff interesting. On the other, I started wondering if, uh, oh, maybe there's more competition than I expected... and from a no-cost source. Why would people come to me if they could get this for free, beyond getting a van ride from site to site? That upped the ante a bit. Maybe I just need to be that much more creative. How about that?

On another, less happy note, I was dismayed by what I saw on my trip to Sandy Hook. I hadn't been there all summer, and the decay of the Fort Hancock buildings has accelerated, particularly the houses on Officers' Row. To punctuate the point, there are now "Danger: Falling Material" and "Danger: Hardhat Area" signs posted between the homes. In fact, the yellow brick facings on one side wall of House 16 have come down, from the roof line to the foundation. These are all good, solid structures that were built to last. The really appalling thing is that it's all a result of 35 years of simple neglect. Nobody's vandalizing them. They've just been left to rot in the ocean winds. Allegedly, the Sandy Hook Foundation has a master plan to refurbish them and many of the other buildings at the fort, but there doesn't seem to be a lot going on. Where the flip is Bob Vila or Norm Abrams?

I find myself being really frustrated and upset by that (and ending up in tears watching Ken Burns' National Parks series, but that's another story), but not knowing what to do. The volunteers down there are limited to the nature stuff and giving tours of the gun batteries. Nobody's rehabbing the houses. General Electric put money in the kitty to refurbish the Edison Labs. How about some defense contractor putting out some dough to preserve the history of one of New York Harbor's critical defenders?

Okay, I'll get off my soap box. I have to figure out a new career before I go off to save the world.

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