Thursday, March 25, 2010

Day 72 - Idea of a Lifetime...or Not

          There was nothing worth getting excited about on the job boards today—a recurring theme. I didn’t even try applying. I’m excited about the martini article. I posted a link to in on my FaceBook account and got 17 hits. Seems people are way more interested in drinking than they are in poetry, even silly poetry. Again, it’s a way different world than it used to be. People used to indulge in a little culture of an evening, and baser pursuits were pursued later and behind locked doors. Now it’s slam down a bunch of cocktails, mate, then play video games into the night. Oh well, maybe my martini recipes will add a little refinement back into the mix. Or maybe I should consider an article or a series of articles on how to date strippers. I wouldn’t know anything about it of course, but I’ll bet a hell of a lot of recruiters with ADHD would manage to focus long enough to read them. This is beginning to sound like a breakthrough idea as I write it down. I’m going to have to think on this some more.
          I had a breakthrough idea once when I was still working in public accounting. I thought I was going to be rich. There was a moment of complete clarity when all the parts came together. I realized that I had the resources to  pull it off, that it would work, and that, most importantly, people were going to send me money.
          This happened in the mid eighties. The IRS had just issued a new regulation that required everyone who was taking a deduction for business use of an automobile to keep a contemporaneous log of that use. That meant that taxpayers were supposed to accumulate the business mileage and expenses on their automobiles as they were incurred, that is daily, rather than making some kind of estimate at the end of the year. Like most IRS regulations, this one was in response to perceived abuses.
In addition to the log, taxpayers were also required to attest, in writing, that they had complied with the regulation, and to provide this written and signed attestation to their professional tax preparers. That meant that every CPA and every H&R Block office and every other tax preparer was going to have to get a log book and a signed statement from every one of their clients who wanted to take a deduction for business use of an automobile. The clerical burden of just this one provision of the tax regulations was going to be astronomical. Whole forests were going to be laid waste to create the paper.  
          I knew several things for certain as soon as I read the new rule:
  • Almost no one was going to comply with the letter of the rule—at least not at first
  • Almost all of the written attestations were going to be bald-faced lies
  • In order to get taxpayers to comply at all, the contemporaneous log was going to have to be extremely easy to use and keep track of
  • Somewhere in the midst of this burdensome regulation was an opportunity to make some serious money
My idea then was this. Some smart cookie—me—should print easy to use log books that accumulated mileage and auto expenses by day, week, month and year. The log books should include the attestation statement with a signature line at the end of the book. A plain English explanation of the regulation should appear at the beginning of the book. And the idea that tied all these things together into a marketable flash of brilliance: the log books needed to be sold to individual CPA firms whose names and addresses would be emblazoned on the covers. The CPA firms would distribute the books to their clients as promotional gifts. Regulation met, signed, sealed and delivered, and the cost of compliance turned into a marketing tool for my fellow professionals.
Several interesting things happened on the way to realizing my dream. The execution of the idea actually went pretty smoothly. I designed my own log book. I did the layout in a spreadsheet. I wrote the appropriate verbiage. I bought a list of Florida CPA firms, having decided to start with Florida and expand from there. I found a printer willing and able to take on the job in small lots. I set up a company, rented a mailbox, mailed out a flyer, and waited for the money to come pouring in.
It didn’t pour right away. It trickled at first, but it did come in and it was encouraging as hell to a fledgling entrepreneur. Every day I went to the mail box and there were checks in it. It was exciting. Then two things showed up in the mail box that took some of the joy out of the enterprise. The first was from a lawyer representing someone in Michigan claiming that I had infringed on their copyright. This was not really a big deal because they were only claiming that I had used their name on my log book and that their rights predated mine. I had taken every step I knew to prevent this from happening, but I guess you can’t cover every base. I had paid to register my copyright, and sent a sample book along with the fee. I had done a name search to determine that no one else was using that particular name and nothing had come up. But there it was in the letter. I didn’t have the wherewithal to fight it, so I changed the name. The only real problem was that I had a lot of flyers out with the infringing name, but I decided not to worry about that. I’d just fly right from that point forward and hope for the best.
The other disturbing thing that showed up in my mail box was my flyer with someone else’s name on it. I mean they had taken my flyer, word-for-word, and by extension my idea, put their name and address on it and sent it to all the CPA firms in Florida. The word-for-word part is what upset me the most. I fully expected someone else to try to capitalize on my idea. I knew it was a great idea, and there was really nothing about it to keep people from copying it. What I hoped was that I would get out there first with a product so good that it would be difficult for anyone else to catch up. Well this guy, whoever he was, didn’t bring one new idea to the table. He didn’t even try to change up the advertising. Word-for-word! Talk about a lazy thief. I mean really. The only thing that kept me from going ballistic and hunting this guy down was that he had decided for some reason to charge twice as much as I was for the books. He wasn’t just lazy. He was stupid. So I quit worrying about him as well.
The orders started to pick up, the bank balance started to grow. I was feeling pretty smug about this time, and then the bottom fell out. I don’t know if you can anticipate this kind of thing or not. You’d have to be pretty pessimistic to count on something like this happening. There are all kinds of contingencies and all kinds of things that can go wrong, but for your whole business plan, the very premise of the model you design, tweak, stroke and stoke to evaporate overnight just doesn’t seem fair or plausible. Yet that’s exactly what happened. The IRS got so many complaints about how difficult their new regulation was that they decided to rescind it. That’s right. You heard me. The agency everyone loves to hate, the rat bastards who stay awake at night thinking up ways to make your life more miserable, decided to act nice and cancel a burdensome rule.
Maybe they had figured out as I had that the regulation was not going to raise the level of compliance with the code governing automobile deductions. It was only going to raise the level of detail contained in the documents supporting the deductions. The level of fraud was going to stay the same. The number of trees killed to substantiate that level of fraud was the only thing likely to change.
My budding business died in a matter of days. The orders stopped. The mail box was empty. The bank balance went to pay for some books we had printed on spec. I didn’t lose money thankfully, but I didn’t make any either, and I never got over the feeling that I had been cheated out of a really promising future.

1 comment:

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