Three years ago, David Lerner, who owned a business focusing on corporate travel, couldn’t sell plane tickets to his best friend. When his friend said, “It was the middle of the night, it was so convenient to book online…,” he knew the game was up.
Now in an entirely new line of work and with business punching to ever-greater heights, Lerner proudly points to the World Trade Center that is being built at Ground Zero as a showpiece for the construction documentation business.
He describes his journey as a total reinvention.
As tough as he found it to build his corporate travel business, David says it was even more traumatic to stick it out with a business that was severely commoditized. Long ago, airlines paid commissions to travel agents — but no longer. Then online booking laid the final knock-out. David knew he had to get out; his 20 years of experience in corporate travel had become as relevant as the typewriter and VCR.
He looked around for other opportunities, but, even with a few years’ lead time, he found the pressure to come up with other options intense.
Mojo40 interviewed David to learn how he built his new career mojo.
Mojo40: Tell me about what you did to make things happen.
A: First, I established a mentor network of friends and family with whom I would regularly consult. A couple of people helped me organize my thought processes, which really helped.
M: Where did you look for people who were most helpful?
A: Look right in your own backyard. Some of your closest friends and business associates can be part of it.
I also tried to diagram what qualities were most important to me in a new career, and more significantly, what I was not looking for. One requirement was that I wanted to get into a field that offered a lot of autonomy. It was also key for me to work with people, perhaps in a sales position. I explored possible situations in terms of how many “hits” they offered against my diagram of strengths and needs.
M: What were your biggest challenges while job hunting?
A: There were two:
- Being patient.
- You have to be careful that you do not succeed and fail at the same time. By this I mean, you succeed at finding a position, but fail at it because it is not something that meets your requirements in the long term.
There were things that I was attracted to doing, for example, as a hobbyist. I am an avid video editor, and I thought about some type of business related to that. But it didn’t meet the second condition because it is really one-on-one work, and you would be very limited in your growth potential unless you had a completely different conceptual approach to it and you were really hands-off.
M: How did you start to identify good work options?
A: First, I changed my disposition to be extremely positive. I actually got into a mode where I would try to do a good deed every day, expecting nothing in return. Anytime I came into contact with anyone, I wanted to genuinely convey that I was absolutely thrilled to see them. When I saw someone at the gym, instead of a casual, “hi, how are ya doin’?” it was, “Hello, Diane, how are you doing?” This communicates that you are important enough to me to remember your name.
Do it for one hour. Carry it over into a day, a month. All of a sudden, you have this positive energy and people want to be around you, they want to talk to you and know what you do professionally. It sounds trite, but the only person who is going to help you ultimately is yourself. You can create your network and you can lean on your friends, but you have to do it.
M: Then what happened?
A: I spoke to my brother, who mentioned that his best friend from high school had left his previous industry and had gone into construction documentation. The friend was working in the U.S. Southeast for a Canadian-based firm called Multivista. I researched the company and got the lowdown on it from the friend. Among other things, I learned, that six months before, the Northeast territory had been sold to a three-person partnership.
In February, 2009, I went up to meet the main principals intending to sell myself, even though I knew that they had just hired a person and the timing might be off. Since it was a franchise operation and the New York area is second to none in potential, I knew there was going to be an imminent opportunity for sales growth and multiple sales people. It seemed to me that I had the right mix of skills for it: I had had photography experience, sales experience, and 20 years of experience being in business for myself.
We got along fantastically, and they said they might be looking to hire around May 2009. I kept in touch, and in mid-July, I sent them a “hello there, heard good things about your progress” email. They still did not have a position, but in August, when I got back from a trip, they had called. I started work in November, 2009.
M: What do you do, exactly?
A: We document construction using a photography-based platform. We link the photos and images directly to the architectural plan, so that every square foot of the floor plan is indexed to photos. We put all the photos and the technology on a DVD, so that five years from now, if you have a roof leak, you can go to the exact location in the data and look behind the walls and ceilings without having to physically open up the roof to diagnose the problem. It is applicable to both commercial and residential construction, but in a poor economy like ours we do primarily institutional work. We are documenting a range of projects, from single residential homes to the new Ground Zero World Trade Center.
M: How is it going?
A: Great. A year ago, in my territory, there was just one other associate and me. Today, a little more than a year later, we have a third sales person and four photographers, and we plan to hire another photographer in Q1. Last year we had half a dozen jobs at this time, compared with more than 60 jobs today. In 2010 we doubled the amount of square feet we documented. We’ve grown so fast that we need to expand our office space by at least 50%.
M: You seem like a goal-oriented person, so what’s your goal for the New Year?
A: To achieve the revenue that would qualify me for what our firm calls its President’s Club.
M: Okay, give me the billboard headline.
A: It’s a wonderful company, it has amazing growth potential, the people are magnificent, and it is truly everything that I wanted.
Photo courtesy Creative Commons, Eduardo Amorin
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