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Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Bird That Stands Out Gets Shot

It's funny how many good sayings don't really have any punch until you find yourself in a situation where the apt saying applies. This ancient Chinese ('the bird that stands out...) saying is making more and more sense to us as a company, and me personally, as we really are beginning to stand out from the crowd - historical housing crisis on one hand while Catskill Farms has a 14 month waiting list and has stopped actively marketing for new homeowners.

I do have to give a little mea culpa to this Sullivan County. I used to be flabbergastedly annoyed and irritated by the lack of skilled and motivated and reliable labor in the area - I still am, but now have an idea the problem is not isolated to this area, but is a problem for anyone trying to grow a business or finish a home improvement problem. For us as a company that is building a lot of homes, our labor supply is always our most tenuous and uncertain variable- has enabled us to excel when we are firing on all cylinders, and letting a lot of people down when we lose part of our team. Recently, an extraordinary situation is occuring where some local yokal carpenters who parted ways with my company are actively soliciting work from the families I introduced them to - this is probably the most disrespectful, screw you action an ex-employee can take (the fact that some homeowners are hiring them is a different topic altogether). But mostly, it's short-sighted, since any carpenter starting his own business would be better off synergizing their new venture with Catskill Farms, instead of competing with it. If there is one thing I know how to do, it's compete - in price, in product, in quality, in service. Probably the inclination of local vendors to 'spite their nose right off of their faces' (thank you John Prine) is the hardest thing to get used to up here.

The other admission is a bit of resentment due to what Jim Hughson said 'was a true local disdain for any sort of success. The better you do, the more people are looking to do you harm." Well, same thing, I have found this is not a reflex special to this county, or even to the struggling socio-economic group one would think mostly likely to resent a little success.

So it does seem the bird that stands out gets shot at, not necessarily hit, but targeted. Architects selling our intellectual property, associates funding our competition, real estate companies copying our strategies, builders stealing our business plans and designs. At one point, it was all the rage to convince out of town money to buy 20-30 acres, subdivide it, build a few of these new old farmhouses, and count the money all the way to the bank. Trouble is, it didn't work out so cleanly - 3 imitation 'brand new farmhouses' outside Jeffersonville have been for sale for 2 + years, threatening the financial health of the Jersey builder. 3 other 'brand new farmhouses' outside Callicoon NY have bankrupted the builder, and now threatens to seriously harm the viability of a local hard money lender who contributed the financing. In this particular case, many of the subcontractors were never paid because of some fancy legal footwork, so not only are the houses not sold, but dozens of local vendors got stiffed.

I guess the point is not the increased launching of slings and arrows occurs, but rather the understanding and acceptance that this is what happens to the bird that stands out. Local angry realtors posting blogs posts under our names, marketing and development companies taking pages right out of our playbook, ex-employees taking the easy road by going door to door to our customers- the trouble with these efforts is simply that our homeowners get the idea that Catskill Farms is an original design/build company providing neat homes - all the rest are just imitators, some good, some bad, but imitators nevertheless - and the original is always more valuable.

Now with the economy slowing as we are expanding our business means we have access to better labor than before because some of the more publicized developments in the area are giving up their 3+ year efforts at selling some land, most with an alarming lack of success. I guess smart money doesn't guarantee good ROI. Anyway, in an area with a lack of professional expertise we are able to pick up a project manager here, a new framing crew there, etc... I think I have even found a good assistant so after 34 homes I don't need to personally make every damn call and answer every phone call that comes in. Catskill Farms has sold around 30 homes, and build/restored another 10 for homeowners - probably for a total investment value of $15m+ in this local community - and we didn't have shit for office staff - only a bookkeeper and me. This cheapness and lack of overhead probably is the biggest reason we are still in businesss but the crushing workload probably prevented us from delivering the superior post-sale relationship we would have liked to. It's a difficult proposition to wear such varied hats - addressing a faucet leak one minute, financing a $1m project the next minute, arguing with a subcontractor over $45 dollars one minute, spending 1 hour on hold with Verizon in order to upgrade my cell phone the next minute, selling a home the next.

Upon reflection, it's interesting on how we achieved our small measure of success - it wasn't by executing a large 10 yr vision of 45 homes, it wasn't by building an overhead infrastructure to handle 'all the business' in our future, and it most surely wasn't by expecting to be a market leader - it appears that by single-mindedly focusing on each and every home, when we lifted up our heads to catch our breath after a couple of years, there we were, on top of the heap. Remarkably, we weren't even close to being perfect in our execution, I guess we were just better than others. A most unexpected pleasant surprise. And now we hope to enter the marketplace in New Paltz, Woodstock, Rhineback and Red Hook (no calls yet, please).

Well, there's my ramble for this Sunday Morning, for whatever it is worth. Lisa just screamed out 'there's an ant on my toothbrush!', her final words before heading out to her weekly trek to the Callicoon Farmers' Market to pick up our fresh organic local meat and veggies we need for the week.