Few are fortunate enough in life to have business mentors. I’ve been blessed with many.
My father taught me four quarters make a buck and I learned how to parlay that into much more from my uncle.
In Thailand, an entrepreneur took me under his wing to fly high with American-style car washes in a land of buckets and sponges, while back home a shopping center owner showed me the ropes to become a better cold call salesman than he ever was.
Then there’s my mentor who’s an inventor.
The good folks at American Changer steered me toward him four years ago walking the Clean Show laundry convention. I was clueless as to his claim to fame.
He manned the booth wearing a distinctive bolo tie, not a plain polo shirt. His pitch — if you can call it that — was soft and measured, peppered with a few y’alls to punctuate Texas roots.
The event was winding down and we talked for what seemed like hours. Launching a token-operated laundromat was on my mind that fateful day and he was reportedly the man who could make that work. As our conversation went on and he described his innovation I didn’t see one laundry, I envisioned thousands. My startup would wait. This was a once in a lifetime chance to be taught by a master.
We connected right away and seemed cut from the same cloth. As kids, we’d both worked for our dads — for me, a childhood around laundry machines, and for him, vending machines.
It was on his vending route stops that he grew frustrated by coins getting jammed in the old cradle system acceptors. Most guys his age would see those stuck coins as a little found money, but not him. He had bigger plans. If there was a better way to get those coins flowing from the inlet into the cash box everyone would be happier.
The family garage became a workshop to toil away into the wee hours until he had perfected something ready for the market. That early success led to more and more innovations. Pretty soon the vending business gave way to a manufacturing enterprise with patented devices and customers clamoring for them across the globe.
Pay phones, juke boxes, vacuums — heck, even coin-op toilet paper dispensers — were working flawlessly day in, day out thanks to his brainchild.
By the time we crossed paths, he’d already gotten his feet wet in laundry, catering to a pent-up demand for an alternative to quarter-only vends.
Relating my experience running the family laundromat on quarter-size tokens back in the 1980s didn’t surprise him one bit. Turns out he had customers nowadays doing just that, but with two tokens and two coins to boot. My jaw dropped as he rattled off the names of laundry titans employing his product.
He seemed as passionate of his design as its impact on those who embraced it. True to the heart of every inventor, life was made a just little easier and, in this instance, dropping coins into machines a lot more reliable.
When I came into his employ and worked from a distance, we relied on long and frequent email chains. His 12-hour workdays grew even longer as he tutored me from afar. You see, when your mentor is an inventor, grabbing hold of the theory is the key takeaway.
I was all ears as he covered all the nuances of how coins and humans interact with one another and the tiny bit of real estate he had to work with to make things flow right.
My sales calls had me knocking on doors he’d walked up to earlier — sometimes with the same result, other times not. But there was a message that came through loud and clear: It was one helluva product as was the man behind it.
The biggest kick one gets being mentored by an inventor is watching them light up sharing their latest prototype. And as much as this guy liked selling and marketing, you always knew his first love was innovating.
With a thousand miles between us, FaceTime calls would have to suffice. But he could never hide his excitement as the phone screen shook describing the next “really awesome” development phase we were about to enter.
A business mentor who’s an inventor. Who would have dreamed up that idea? I guess I’m just lucky.
Happy Birthday Butch Bruner!