Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Sunday, June 21, 2015

I Blame Scott; or, A Good Business Plan Has All the Deets

So, right about now is when this blog usually announces the current year's Summer Self- Improvement Scheme™, through which we would try to fill the 100 days between the last day of Spring quarter and the first day of fall quarter with uplifting, enlightening, or enriching activities that take place within some sort of clever structure.

This year was supposed to be a bit different: this was meant to be the announcement for not just a run-of-the-mill regimen, but for the launch of a new business: Trike Snacks - The Snacks You Buy from a Guy on a Trike!

You can probably tell by all the conditionals and qualifiers in the foregoing that that announcement is not forthcoming - at least not in this writing. And as Jaques said to the Duke, thereby hangs a tale.

For a long time, I have had a scheme involving taking a summer off from all teaching and campus responsibilities and doing something completely different. I didn't really want to work somewhere, but a part-time project sounded appealing. The idea that had gelled was getting a trike and riding up and down the Burke-Gilman Trail all summer selling power bars and energy drinks to the cyclists, runners, and walkers. The goal was not necessarily to make a lot of money - that I could much more easily make by teaching summer classes - but rather to try some entrepreneurship and use some different skills while getting exercise and enjoying the outdoors. Whenever I discussed the idea, people thought it was awesome. This year, I decided to actualize it.

First up was finding a suitable ride. I originally wanted a tadpole recumbent trike with a trailer, but for reasons both financial and logistical, I decided on a recumbent delta. I got a good rig at a great price from a nice military couple down in Tacoma, got it home (it barely fit in Sylvie the Scion!), and tricked it out with a cargo basket and some other goodies, including an umbrella.  Cool beans all the way.

Then, while discussing the project at lunch with the titular Scott, he asked whether I had obtained any necessary permits. I told him I had to investigate what was necessary and that I would do it.

And the gap between word and deed has never been greater.

So, first, a City of Seattle Business License. Easy-peasy.

Then, research into the Seattle Department of Transportation Street Use Vending Permit. A little more difficult: there are permits for Sidewalk or Plaza Vending, Curb Space Vending, (including Designated Food-Vehicle Zone and Temporary Curb Space Activity), Stadium and Event Center Vending, and Mobile-Food Vending, and navigating the differences was difficult even for a seasoned bureaucrat like me - especially since they all seemed to be geared toward food trucks and not bicycle vendors. A trip to the municipal building helped clear things up: a guy told me that the permit I needed for the Burke-Gilman trail was Mobile-Food Vending (remember that, it will be important later), and gave me a checklist of steps and all the forms to fill out.

I found out that vending in city park required my completing a Seattle Parks and Recreation Concession Proposal. After whacking my way through the thorny undergrowth of this particular organization, I found that (a) I would need to file a proposal and pay for an Experimental Concession Agreement for each park I planned to sell in; (b) they only allowed one concession at a time for many of the parks and most of them were taken already; (c) they did not issue permits for the Burke-Gilman Trail at all; and (d) unbelievably, they asserted that every ice cream vendor I had ever seen in a city park had complied with these rules. Yeah, right.

Given that the Burke-Gilman trail website said that it was jointly administered by SDOT and Parks & Rec, I figured that if SDOT was willing to issue a permit, I was good to go regardless of what Parks & Rec said. I'd give up on the whole idea of selling in the parks adjacent to the trail (or go rogue a little bit).

To move forward with the SDOT permit, I needed to get a Costco Card. Getting the business card was easy - Costco just needed my business license - but they informed me I also needed a Washington State Department of Revenue Resellers Permit to buy goods for resale without paying sales tax. Good to know, and I got on it.

Before I could get the resellers permit, I needed to get a State of Washington Business License and the concomitant Unified Business Identifier number. That was easy, too; it just took a while, even doing it all online.

The reason for getting the Costco card so soon was to identify the specific products I was going to sell for the SDOT permit process. As it turned out, granola bars and coconut water seemed the best compromise between profitability and ethical practice. I needed to send the specific information to the King County Department of Health for an exemption from the health-permitting process. The Health Department folks were very helpful and forthcoming with this, providing an email I could attach with the application.

So, ducks were lined up in rows - all that was left to complete my checklist for SDOT was a Certificate of Liability Insurance. When I was in the commercial insurance business, additional-named-insured stuff like this cost about fifty bucks; more recently, Coco's business liability insurance was included in her massage therapist association annual dues of about two hundred bucks. Well, whatever the specific requirements of the city of Seattle are, after checking out various sources I found that the cost for this insurance came to about $900.

All of a sudden, I was thrust into a decision: do I want to start a serious business, or is this a part-time summer project? Nearly a grand just for insurance is a little too much capital investment for the short-season sideline business that I had envisioned Trike Snacks to be, and I am not sure I want to make this the kind of operation where I need to work too hard to make sure it pays for itself. And it wouldn't be easy to get in the black: back-of-the envelope calculations indicate that after all the required permitting fees and such, I'd have to make about 75 sales a day to break even. Not too big a hill for a committed business, but more dedication than I had planned on.

I contacted the city to look for options and found someone at SDOT who was actually eager to figure this out. She seemed to understand that my planned micro-business didn't quite entail what the Mobile-Food Vending Permit was developed to cover and said she would talk to the City Risk Manager to see if an exemption could be made for Trike Snacks and I could at least get some less costly insurance coverage.

Of course, every silver cloud has a burlap lining, and in the course of our communication my contact revealed that in fact SDOT does not issue permits for the Burke-Gilman Trail, ceding that authority to Parks & Rec (see, I told you that was important). She did, however, promise to bring it up with Parks & Rec at their next regular interdepartmental meeting and try to get another exemption for Trike Snacks.

So, here's the potential outcomes:

I have my fingers crossed waiting to hear from my city hall angel, but school's officially out, summer's officially here, and we're still not rolling yet.

Whither Trike Snacks? We'll have to wait and see.

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