For most of my life I maintained a file called, simply, “Ideas”, where I put drawings and writings and anything else related to an idea I had for a business venture. Before long the file became bulky with lots of ideas over the decades. When, at the last minute, I had to pair down everything I owned to fly to Panama instead of drive as I had intended, the file had to go. Naturally today, as I struggle to survive, I think of that file and wish it were still with me. For much of my life I have been criticized for being “ahead of my time”, so many of those ideas in that file might be more workable now.
It is said that “you need money to make money” and that is very true, most of the time. In my life the rare exception would be Canada Lift, a forklift company that my colleague, Gerry Waterhouse and I formed on a whim and a prayer without a dime to our names. We secured the national rights for distribution for a Japanese company, NYK; setup a national network of dealers who gave us order, and got a line of credit from a bank to buy our first trucks, almost a quarter of a million dollars, almost all of which was pre-sold. As the trucks were coming across the ocean the bank changed their minds and pulled the dealer financing program, leaving us with no way to sell our stock. We met with a very high-priced lawyer who told us we could sue the bank and we would win, but he needed a fifty thousand dollar retainer and it would take ten years. I remember to this day asking him where the justice was? He replied that in Canada it was not a case of justice, but rather how much justice you could afford. We folded up our tent that day. So much for not needing money.
Pretty well my first idea was called BASIC, which stood for “Best Available Service In Canada”. It was a take on basic book-keeping, but it was designed for busy lifestyle types and seniors who didn’t have time to pay their bills and keep track of everything. The idea was that, for a monthly fee, we would pay all their bills on time and provide them with a monthly summary. The idea was to get our foot in the door offering this service and then upgrade our clients to doing their taxes, book-keeping, financial statements and so on. I felt the seniors market was very strong because these were people who easily forgot to pay on time even though they had the funds. My longer term goal was to see accountants or bookkeepers hold franchises across the country, all paying me a small fee to be under our marketing umbrella.
Another more forward thinking idea was actually called, at the time, The Future Shoppe. I went so far as to have a logo designed for it, which was a light bulb and stylized lettering. It cost me a pretty penny way back then and I hung on to the proof of the logo for a long time, long enough to see the Future Shop come along and send them a letter claiming my original name, but, of course, I had not registered the name and they blew me off. I remember writing a story about the experience of visiting the Future Shoppe. I wish I had it today because it included several technical ideas that didn’t even exist at the time. The concept of the store was basically to act as a showplace for all new products, kind of an early focus group for manufacturers to test out product ideas and to launch new products.
An idea that I think has even more merit today was called the Big Kids Club. It was designed along the lines of the Welcome Wagon idea, but it extended to organizing special events to bring people together, especially those new to the community. I had developed about thirty different features, just one of which was hooking up with local businesses to offer special discounts to our club members. Sort of an early Groupon idea. It was all based on the idea that religions that had been bringing people together for centuries had fallen out of favor, leaving people to find friends on their own, something a lot of people find very difficult to do.
When I first decided to go to Panama part of my research involved what was planned for where I intended to live, in Boquete, up in the mountains. Thinking like a Canadian and not realizing that things in Panama took a lot longer, I saw things like the expansion of the road between Boquete and David to four lanes; a new road from Boquete to Volcan on the other side of the volcano; the expansion of the airport in David meaning new international flights; a planned flight from Toronto to David; a new refinery port on the Pacific near David, resulting in four thousand new workers being needed, and the multi billion dollar expansion of the Panama canal, all being huge signs of growth in Panama, much of it requiring housing for workers who would be in the country for only a couple of years. There were also changes being suggested to the Pensionado program that would make it easier for people from the US and Canada to stay for longer periods like six months.
When I researched housing it appeared that there were numerous homes, but they were all of Panamanian design and had no hot water, something that North Americans expected. First I designed a system that would easily add hot water to existing houses, adding the required plumbing on the outside of the home (no freezing here) then covered them up with architectural elements. I planned to use the profits from selling the place in Westbank to acquire older homes and then flip them after renovations. That all fell apart when I lost everything on the place in Westbank, thanks to my “friend” who let the roof collapse under the weight of the snow build-up that he was supposed to remove.
Even though my big renovation plans had collapsed when I first got to Panama I had started researching rainwater harvesting because I had heard so many stories about people running out of water. I knew that we were in the mountains, with hundreds of streams and rivers coming out of the mountain tops, plus we had over a hundred and twenty inches of rain per year, so I wondered how we could possibly have shortages? As it turned out, Panama was just about the only country left in the world that had no rainwater harvesting. I started researching systems and put together a business proposal and secured the rights for Panama for the equipment I needed. I hooked up with a local custom home builder who was willing to do the excavations for my underground tanks plus the plumbing required. I also had connected with a large developer who was putting cisterns under the patio slab and he was going to refer all his clients to me for the rainwater collection. I had made a connection with a guy back in London who was willing to be a silent partner and all he wanted to know was how much money I needed to get going. I explained that I needed a truck and some basic equipment but all I needed for the equipment was a line of credit with my suppliers. Once I designed the right systems for people they paid upfront because it was a custom system, so cash flow was not an issue. This guy made plans to come to Panama to meet with my builder friend and finalize the financing. I was off an running and thrilled to be in such a worthwhile business. I was just waiting for his flight information.
Days turned into weeks. My emails were not answered. I didn’t want to appear desperate but my builder had a client coming down from South Carolina and he wanted to setup a meeting with me to design their system. Not only did they want rainwater harvesting, but also solar water heating, greywater treatment and power to keep them off the grid, which in Boquete was notoriously unreliable. I had no choice but to send him a little pushy email saying that we were going to lose everything here if we didn’t respond. He sent me back a short email saying that they had discovered terminal cancer in his wife and he would obviously not be leaving her to come to Panama. The dream was gone. I did manage to consult to a guy who had been ripped off with his Poppa Paradise development. He drove me to his island near Bocas del Torro and I spent a week designing his system. I sourced the entire system and gave him the quotes, but, after I returned to Boquete, I never heard from him again. Although he put me up in a luxury cabin and fed me for a week, he never paid me for my time or contacted me again, even though he went with my recommendations.
The Big Idea, the one that would make me millions, is one I have been working on for several years now, to no avail. Over ten years ago I had put a proposal to Microsoft and at the time they had laughed at me, stating that Microsoft would NEVER allow such a thing. Today we know it as “cloud computing”. The proposal I have been trying to get through to them and people like Apple, Google, Ning, My Life and anyone else who might listen, would revolutionize the way we all use the internet. I continue to try to get through to the movers and shakers in these companies and in the industry, but it’s a closed system. Everyone hides behind the lawyers these days, worried about “intellectual property” concerns. There is no room for original thought anymore.