No Gain Without Pain: Learning From Mistakes

Posted On: 9/26/2016

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TAGS: Vending Times, Vending Times editorial, vending industry, coin-op, vending machine, coin machine business, office coffee service, vending machine operator, micro markets, Alicia Lavay, vending business opportunities, blue sky promotions, biz-op scheme, Michele Sparks, Prime Vending, healthy vending biz-op

Alicia Lavay, vending, Vending Times

In the 28 years I have been with Vending Times, I have seen many business opportunities -- some of them "blue sky" promotions -- and have heard many accounts of the diverse pathways along which operators have gotten started in vending. As a veteran industry observer, I believe that this business still offers many opportunities for detail-oriented people who are willing to work and have good interpersonal skills. In fact, there may be more such opportunities today than there have been for the past 50 years.

We have received countless phone calls, handwritten letters and (more recently) emails over the years from would-be operators seeking advice. Some of them are entrepreneurs looking to enter the business; others have been burned by scam artists and are looking for help in cutting their losses by selling their equipment and giving up. That need for an exit strategy often results from the failure of promised locations to materialize, but it mostly is due to lack of support.

Sadly, a few bad apples can spoil the bunch. The universal appeal of vending attracts get-rich-quick schemes and blue-sky companies that come in with grand plans that delude gullible investors and hang them out to dry. And today's environment makes entry into the business easier than it ever has been.

I received an email recently from a vending operator in Utah who had just read our August cover story about Michele Sparks of Prime Vending (Martinsburg, WV), which tells an account of a West Virginia operator who transformed a bad deal into a viable vending route. My recent correspondent had written to me three years ago seeking advice after he had purchased five machines, and received (as he put it) "a ton of undelivered promises."

He said that he had been thrilled to read the story about Prime Vending, because he and his wife were able to identify with Michele's struggle. He told me that of the 10 people who attended his plan's "university" on "healthy" vending, only two operators actually made it: "The others sold out at a loss, or gave their machines away because they couldn't sell them."

This operator and his wife had to figure out how to run their routes on their own and to make the best of what they had. They sought out local help and developed a relationship through purchasing water from Ken Frohlich, an operator who runs Pristine Springs Water Co. in Kingsport, TN. They got the idea for that when Frohlich's success story was featured in Vending Times (February 2016).

In that article, one of the things Frohlich spoke about was that he credits much of his success to the many industry veterans who helped him along the way. It appears that he returned the favor by assisting this Utah husband-and-wife team.

In a similar vein, Prime's Michele Sparks told us how, at a recent NAMA One Show in Chicago, she had the opportunity to provide her first-hand perspective, as a vending entrepreneur who had paid for her education, with other showgoers. "People seemed to really appreciate having the insight directly from an operator, and hearing the little tricks I've learned," said Sparks. "I got so much information and learned so much from other people; it was a great event for feeding off one another. It's like night and day: I used to go to bed so upset. Now it's all about growing and what I'm going to do next."

There are lessons to be learned here. First, if there is a genuine demand for something that can be sold through a vending machine, established operators probably are doing it somewhere, with readily available equipment and products. Most of the "healthy vending opportunities" I've seen involve machines with eye-catching graphics of idealized produce, a list of sources for "healthy" products and a list of the kind of locations that might be expected to want this kind of program. These may be offered in the context of a package that includes some training in sales and service.

As my correspondent in Utah reported, a few people who buy into such a program will learn enough to make a success of their new business. But an experienced operator has the right kind of machines on hand, from reputable manufacturers, and knows where to go for suitable styling kits and products that meet whatever "healthy" criteria are wanted. It's always worth looking at what's on the market, and perhaps attending a major trade show, before committing to one of these package deals.

It's wonderful to hear how industry members have learned from each other, and that Vending Times has helped to bring them together. The ingenuity and imagination of small operators always has been one of our great strengths. The vending, coffee service, and coin-operated music and amusement businesses are fascinating because they offer such a range of opportunities to creative people.

All of us at Vending Times wish you continued success!