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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Lake George Road Trip with Lucas (and major flattery from Steve Dubrovsky's Chapin Estate)

Lucas and I hit the road on Thursday for a guy's weekend in the adirondacks. We are staying at the Sagamore, one of those old time old school perfect hotels I like - The Wentworth in Portsmouth New Hampshire is another. These turn of the century bastions of marking history through generations of weddings and parties and anniversaries and wars and recessions and presidents. Time moves, but these hotels remain vigilant in their glamor. Lucas likes it first class so we got a balcony looking out over the pool and Lake George (which, having never been here before, is pretty incredible).

On the way up we stopped in Woodstock/Saugerties to meet with our land clearer/excavator to plan out our first home over there. That will be followed shortly by our second home, which is presold. We submitted our building permit applications, our highway driveway permits, our board of health septic plans, our workers comp and liability coverage, our survey, and our money of course.

(picture below taken from the small motor boat lucas and I rented)

- from the room. It's Saturday, it's raining today but yesterday was pretty glorious.

I was overhearing all these smart, I mean really smart, conversations and then saw this in the lobby - made sense then. I mean I was just trying to enjoy a stiff drink and some lady was going on and on 'about the fallibility and inconsistency of MRI technology in latent pre-cancer screening prevention" or something. I was like, 'wow, turn me on". (not)

Lucas loves the high life - lake side, pool side, whatever - if it's pretty and comfortable, he's in, no questions asked.

So, to get on with the purpose of this post (beside more of the same over the top horn-blowing) -
of course it's been said many times that 'imitation is the purest form of flattery' - It's been happening for years for us - imitators, copy cats, plagiarists, piggy-backers - No matter what we did, when it turned to gold like it invariably did (lol), the copycat flies swarmed to us in droves, like May flies in May to a sticky kid filled picnic.

You had Irace Architecture more or less just giving our plans away to competitors for a few cheap bucks (those homes went into foreclosure) , you had Charles Ramat of Bethel Farms who toured our homes, explored our processes and then just went ahead and built a knock-off (that home is still for sale 3 yrs later) in hopes of driving some land sales, you had Shaw Builders and their new farmhouse project outside of Jeffersonville - 3 homes built over 5 years, each home taking shockingly long to sell with one I think still for sale - they were experienced builders from Jersey (homes designed by Irace Architecture), and a host of other less direct but no less influenced by our focuses, and efforts.

None of them worked out, and most failed pretty spectacularly, leaving everyone involved fighting for solvency or bill collections. Most of the players came to the game with a ton more cash and expertise than we did for sure, thus surely having the advantage over Catskill Farms, which was a sorely underfunded, under-manned, under-experienced company for sure. We had a simple competitive advantage - we were, simply, more attuned to the market place, listened closer to what our clients and prospective clients were saying.

And the info we gained was not perverted into 'how does this fit into pre-programmed gameplan', - but rather, how can change and redirect our business and product to work with what we were learning about potential clients. That's the thing about Catskill Farms - Every little piece of information that comes from our clients or potential clients come directly to me - there is no dilution of that info through internal (infernal, in my mind), intra-company reporting or bureacracy. Any website info request, any phone call, most emails come across my desk and I reply personally. It's a big job - we can get 10 requests a week, and I reply to each, listening and learning from every conversation.

We have redirected and repurposed our business model several times based on real -time, undiluted market information. We learned that 'this old house' idea could use an alternative for people buying in the area.

(huge motorcycle gathering)
We learned that our original idea of bigger farmhouses for $400k +/- was only one market niche, so we started our cottage series at the height of the housing boom in order to keep a product at $300k.

(pony rides, anyone?)
We became small home experts and learned valuable lessons like homes can be small, but the rooms inside need not to be undersized.

We keep concentrating on hitting new market niches with new products at lower price points - mini-cottage at 1000 sq ft, the micro cottage at 780 sq ft, the shacks at 500 sq ft.

Shrink the house, lower the price point, keep the same perfect aesthetic and affordability and design.

(our boat, while lucas and I were sunbathing on the front of the ship)
These market and product re-engineering were made totally possible because I - the guy with the most invested - was hearing market info from the horse's mouth - not in a weekly report, not 2nd hand, not in a forwarded email - I receive the information in it's rawest form, straight from the person or family who took the time and energy to write or call. Any other way is a competitive disadvantage to us, since you may get the data in the report - the numbers - but you don't get the nuance, you don't hear the voice, the fears, the aspirations, the concerns, the quirks and the outright idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. For us, I hear them and can address them, fulfill them, honor them, counter them, etc...

(iphone reverse camera- easier said than done of a rough lake with a squirmy kid)
At Catskill Farms, our ears are closer to the tracks, our finger closer to the pulse - I've personally sold 80 homes, to 200 savvy metro owners, and probably have given tours to 3 or 4 times that many and so I am just bombarded with consumer information. I don't think anyone has more market information in their heads than me -

Just as importantly - to circle back - is the acceptance of that information. A lot of the information doesn't really fit into the pre-programmed business plan so the info requires action. I've seen it more often than not that even when the Bethel Farms or Chapin Estates or Kenoza Lakes of Sullivan County stumble onto some insight of the market, they kind of try and make it fit into their pre-conceived idea of what the marketplace should want, not want it wants, but what it should want. Mostly because a true acknowledgement of the desires of the marketplace would require a reformatting of the business plan, a tough thing for the ego and pocketbook.

(at the hotel, going down to the pool)
A good entrepreneur is constantly changing tack as the wind directs. Because he wants to succeed, - not because he wants to prove his original hypothesis is correct. Defying the market is more common than you would think - you defy the market because it doesn't jive with your efforts and ideas to date -

you deny the market because it's almost easier to deny a mistake (which will take years to reveal itself) than to find the energy to redirect the ship.

you deny the market because of ego, which clouds the judgment. Ego refuses to accept that something can be improved, or needs to be changed.

(happy hour with lucas)
The best thing about starting out with no money and really having zero reason for attempting to build a house in the middle of no where when I knew no one was that my desperation to stay in business overwhelmed, at every turn, any interference my ego might have offered up. The humiliation of business failure - actually life failure - just totally outweighed any bruising my pride and ego took as I repurposed, repackaged and redirected our business strategies on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis. I have never stopped changing, experimenting, adapting, learning.

If you don't have it all on the line, if the information you are learning is at odds with you think you know, it's just easier to ignore if there is financial room for ego/pride/arrogant interference. It's just a fact of life, and then add layers of people between the business owner and the client information, and it's a real and common defect in many businesses.

(after the boat ride, and the pony ride, after the hours at the pool, then piano-side, for some early evening drinks)

For me, any suffering of acknowledging the original plan needed changed was far outweighed by the specter of 'being ruined' - that old-fashioned description of economic failure couldn't be more alive with meaning when you are skirting and circling it's tubular powers like a bathtub drain sucking it all down with the water.

For us, given the financial pressures and the real desire to succeed, it was easy to change tack, and without pause or hesitation evaluate, analyze, experiment and listen to some of the intuitive/counter-intuitive ideas coming our way from our most valuable resource - our customers.

So, anyways, to my point - Chapin Estates, that local gated high end lake community, that institution of gaudy Adirondack log style, with prices between $2m - $6m, with house sizes typically exceeded 5000 sqft, Sullivan County's most prominent business and high end development (although a prominent Republican friend told me the generally accepted wisdom of the street that little ol' bity Catskill Farms has positively impacted the county more than this millionare's club because our homes are so numerous, and more than that, they are spread out around the county, thus spreading their economic impact more broadly - Chapin Estate is a gated secluded self-contained idea). The owners of Chapin are millionaires, maybe even Billionaires, so it's a lofty thought they we are more impactful than they are. Sorry Steve, I know it hurts.

(peacock at the Bronx zoo last weekend)

$1m might get you a home at Chapin, but it's definitely not getting you on the social pages, and now I get an eblast advertising 'Small, Affordable, Cabins starting at $279k " - but what I loved best was the sub-heading - "An idea whose time as come"

Yea, right, like in 2008. How fucking late to the party can you be? Even Toll brothers and Pulte homes brought out small homes years ago. And you know, Catskill Farms loves being small homes builders - we dig it, think it's groovy and funky - these guys are doing it with their noses in the air, trying not to be soiled but the modest proposition.

(lucas on the boat)

It reminds me of their late-to-the-game figuring out that print advertising sucked and google PPC and and SEO was the way to go - they figured that out in like 2008, like 6 years late. And that's what I mean about being too far removed from the marketplace - these guys are rich and successful, which is about as dangerous combination for any company that wishes to stay attuned to the marketplace. Success is dangerous, since it makes you over-confident in your instincts and gut-stincts. It makes you think you are smarter than you are, and dismisses the impact of good timing and luck. I never stop thinking we are only a big mistake away from going out of business.

And the thing is, once again, our competitors underestimate the intelligence of the buyer and consumer - sure, $279k, then add the land, then add the driveway, the electric, the design and the 100 things like security systems, spray foam insulation, air conditioning are added in and you have a $600k proposition.

Some people just never learn. Anyways Chapin Estate - you large over the top home snobs, welcome to the small house party -it's a real challenge - best of luck and thanks for the flattery by imitating our efforts, ideas and energies. this world never ceases to amaze.

(Bronx zoo polar bear)
(planning our first saugerties cottage with my wingman Lucas)

So there you have - a rainy day in Lake George, Marvin Gaye playing on the iphone, Lucas taking a morning nap, and me blowing more hot air all around the internet.

Rock and Roll. Dig it, this modest business proposition that modesty and affordability and great design have a place in this world. That funky groovy rad idea that we've been perfecting for pushing a decade.

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