Lessons from a Homeless Entrepeneur

I recently completed a busy week in Redmond, Washington where I was training some Microsoft employees on Applying Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 Core Features. I wrapped up the training around 3 PM on Friday afternoon and my flight didn’t leave out until 10:45 PM, so I had 5 or 6 hours to experience Seattle.

I visited the Space Needle and decided that I ought to visit the Pike Street Fish Market. When I worked for Allegacy, the FISH! philosophy was a major part of the organization’s culture. The general concept was that if these guys could enjoy selling fish then we ought to be able to enjoy helping people make smart financial choices.

When I arrived at the Pike Street Market area, I started looking for a parking space and wasn’t having any luck. A homeless looking man was directing me into an empty spot. I thought that was very nice of him. I expected that he would pounce on me–asking for a handout–as soon as I exited my vehicle. I was mistaken.

I got out without encountering the man, and walked over to the machine to pay for my parking. I was reading the instructions when this same man walked over and started explaining how the machine worked and what I needed to do. He also told me that since it was already 4:30 PM I didn’t need to pay for more than an hour-and-a-half since parking was free after 6 PM. I thanked him for his help and he very politely asked me if I could make a donation to help him out. Because he had provided a service to me, I was glad to give him a couple bucks. He had saved me at least $1.50 and it was certainly worth another 50-cents to not have to spend 5-minutes of my time trying to figure out how to use the machine.

I started walking to where I thought I needed to go and realized that I wasn’t quite sure. I walked back to this gentleman and told him I was looking for the place where they throw the fish. He pointed me towards a long flight of stairs and then told me that I would find an elevator at the top. I could then take the elevator up and that I would find the fish market area at the top. This probably saved me many more minutes of wandering around aimlessly, and a lot of anxiety. I handed the man another dollar for his service.

I tyipcally don’t give “street people” money because I realize that money isn’t the solution to their problem–their lack of money is typically a result of other problems that the ones I’ve encountered usually don’t want to be helped with. But this man wasn’t like that. He may have dressed like a street person and smelled like a street person, but he was an entrepeneur. He realized that he had some intellectual property that had value, and he shared that intellectual property for free. He seemed like he earnestly wanted to help me. Although he did ask for a donation, he was very polite, and I can’t help but think that even if I had refused he would have wished me an enjoyable afternoon.

I encounter so many people that are unhappy in their current employment situation, but believe that there is only one way for them to generate income–they either stick in that way, or generate no income at all. There are so many ways to generate income that there is no reason for anyone to be doing something that they don’t enjoy or to not be generating income at all. God has given all of us gifts and talents that can be used to generate income. This man is a shining example of that. Let’s look at what he did:

  • He identified what he had to offer. This man had knowledge about available parking spaces, knowledge about how the parking ticket machines worked, and knowledge about where things were located in the Pike St. Market area. It may not sound like much to some people, but it doesn’t take a lot. Everyone knows something that other people need to know, or knows how to do something that other people want to know how to do.
  • He identified a target consumer. He found people looking for parking spaces. Sure I could have found a parking space on my own, but he saved me some valuable time. Just because you don’t see value in what you know, or what you know how to do, doesn’t mean that others won’t see value in it.
  • He wasn’t afraid to get out there and peddle his wares. He didn’t seem like he was out to make money–he seemed like he was out to help people. This goes a long way in helping us overcome our fear of sales. There is some way that you can use your knowledge and skills to help people. And when you do, they’ll likely compensate you for it.

So, if you feel stuck in a job you don’t like, or are just wanting a way to add a little extra income to what you have already, you can follow the same steps that this man did:

  1. Ask yourself, what do I know, or what can I do that others might want?
  2. Ask yourself, who is one person that might want that knowledge or skill?
  3. Make contact with that person and help them.
  4. Repeat.

I’d love to hear your comments!

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  • Reply
    Matthew Cornell
    5/15/2007 at 11:00 am

    First, congrats on the MS gig – impressive!

    Very interesting story, Ricky. It always breaks my heart seeing people in need. It’s a weird situation, because it puts me in the judge’s seat: Is this person really in need? How much? etc. I think part of the problem is that this administration has made drastic cuts in social programs, and homeless people are (I’m told) suffering from mental and other illnesses. Without programs, they’re on the street. Not very compassionate.

    Ages ago I worked with a woman who, instead of giving money, would take the person to a restaurant and buy the meal – instead of drugs, cigs, or booze.


  • Reply
    5/17/2007 at 8:06 am

    Matt – I agree that you have to be careful because not every one that purports to be in need really is in need. I have done things like giving them food, gas, or ministering to some other direct need, as well–instead of giving them money. I prefer to do that anyway. It’s not as easy or convenient as just giving money, but I feel that it better meets their real needs, when real needs exist. It also oftentimes shames them when real needs don’t exist.

    I know that some people see panhandling as their job. My wife has seen one local couple park their car in a parking lot and then walk a couple blocks away to where they stand holding their “Homeless, please help” signs. She said it didn’t appear likely that they were living in their car.

    When I was working in production I gave out several business cards to people that would “work for food”. I told them where we were located and to put me down as a reference when they applied. Not a single one ever did so.

    There are real people in this country with real needs, but sadly, far too many are just trying to take advantage of the good graces of others. We do have a responsibility as a civilization, and as individuals, to help those people with real needs to become productive for both themselves and our community. I was so proud of the man in my story for helping himself where he was with what he had.

  • Reply
    Greg Farrell
    6/1/2007 at 8:40 am

    I really enjoyed reading about your experience with the “Homeless Entrepreneur”. I have encountered a few myself. I read the book Fish several years ago while I was employed with AT&T Technologies and was amazed at how the principals of it’s content seemed to just feel internally right. I believe we all desire to be in a world where service to others is our main focus. In our present world competition and greed seem to take a front seat over doing what we feel is right. I’ve experienced in my own business situations where I have given a service away for one reason or another only to have double the business come back to me. The more experience I gain in life the more I find that our situations are what we make of them. It’s like looking into a mirror. If you give the mirror anger, disgust, resentment, that is exactly what you will see in the mirror. When you smile into that same mirror you get a person smiling back at you. I have found that smiling to others gives me the same response back almost 99.9% of the time. Something as simple as a smile can be a great service to others and there’s no upfront investment required. Your story is a great example of serving to be served. A win/win for both involved. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    6/6/2007 at 12:36 pm

    Haven’t had a chance to look over your whole website. I have to admit I was drawn to your site for your booklet templates. This will save me hundreds of dollars and will allow me to self publish my book. Thanks so much, you don’t know how long I have been looking for a booklet template. Will visit again.

  • Reply
    Roger Allison
    12/9/2008 at 12:03 pm

    Found your story very illuminating!I myself am homeless and can equate to most of the predjudices though not all!I am currently seeking a minimal amount of start up capital for a business that i desperately want to launch!Any help in pointing me in the right direction would be much appreciated!!

  • Reply
    12/10/2008 at 8:44 am

    Roger – You will probably have a good deal of difficulty finding start-up capital in your current situation. Most of the businesses I’ve started have started with no money at all. It is possible! You just have to look within yourself and see what you have there that is of value to others, create something that builds on that value, and then deliver it to your market. That’s exactly what the man in my story did too. Good luck!

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