Every four years around this time the same question comes up: are you better off today than you were four years ago?

Well, let me be frank. The last four years have been difficult. I was 51, now I’m 55. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like 51 better. Then I had black hair; now I’m losing the black
and losing the hair.

And it was exactly four years ago this month that I made the decision to leave my lucrative career as a personal manager for actors, writers, comedians and directors to join my wife in manufacturing and distributing reusable drycleaning garment bags.

Things went pretty much haywire right from the start: we made our first sale about the exact same time as the banking, housing and financial bubbles burst. The loans we were counting on to grow our business were now unattainable: banks simply stopped lending.

We weren’t alone: that six-month period from October 2008 through April 2009 was filled with stories of new and established businesses going bust… of people losing their jobs, their homes. The level of economic uncertainty in the air, the fear, was palpable. Good neighborhoods were being ravaged by break-ins; cars, houses and even mailboxes were being targeted. Even those with millions were worried that their real estate and stock holdings would soon be rendered worthless.

We had counted on drycleaners being open to something new. Instead most were simply concerned with staying open; this magazine continually talked about the contraction of drycleaning businesses. Instead of a welcome mat, we were greeted by most of our target buyers paralyzed by month-to-month drops of up to twenty percent.

Thankfully, while the world still is far from perfect, we are a long way from that precipice. And not surprisingly, for many of us, the way to move forward – the solution – was just hard work.

For us, the first thing we had to consider is whether we should move forward. We’d already invested in containers of inventory; we’d already begun our marketing. But should we put good money in after bad? Did we believe that things would get better?

Truth is, I think we’re all a little bit like the fictional character Annie, thinking that the sun will come up tomorrow. If we didn’t think that tomorrow had the chance to be better than today, perhaps we’d all just choose to sleep in. For us, we calculated that with the work and money we’d already put it, it was like we’d swum into the middle of the English Channel. We may as well continue towards France, it’s the same work either way, might as well head towards our goal.

So move forward we did. We learned how to use new and social media. Knowing we couldn’t get credit from a bank, we figured out how to attract investors. Knowing people would be loath to try something new, we spent almost two years not talking about price and product comparisons, but education about our business and the benefits of our product. We moved forward with our patent applications. We continually worked with our factories to improve our quality. And most important, we worked hard to learn about our customers, their needs and interests.

Thankfully, the hard work is beginning to pay off. Just this week the Patent Office sent us a notice of allowances, so we will have patent protection. Our revenues for 2012 are up by over 40%. Almost half of our revenues are in reorders, so we know our customers – our drycleaners – are happy with our product. And from American Drycleaner’s updates, it seems we’re not alone here either: many of you are beginning to see your businesses return to better times.

Most of us have a long way to go, Happy Days aren’t here again, just yet anyway. It will take a lot more hard work. Funny how that goes, isn’t it?, how work begets success. I used to say luck is the residue of design; I know think that luck is the residue of sweat. While we were in San Antonio for the SDSA – a great show, by the way – we heard all about the 14-hour days, seven days a week Mike Nesbitt put in to grow MW Cleaners, now one of the industry’s most successful operations.

I guess I’m a simple guy. I believe if work hard, you work smart, and no matter how difficult the barriers to success, how hard the economic conditions, chances are you’ll succeed. Just please don’t ask me to define success, that’ll take another whole column.