For the past several years, I have taught an MBA-level online class on entrepreneurship and small business management for a local university.
Rather than give students a traditional final exam with multiple choice and true/false questions, I adopt a “Zen exam” approach. Each question is a real-world entrepreneurial challenge that not only tests the students’ understanding of the textbook material but forces them to think creatively (as entrepreneurs must). There are no “correct” or “incorrect” answers. A student’s grade is based on his or her ability to analyze the situation, come up with at least one creative solution and argue effectively that it both solves the problem and is economically feasible.
Here is a question from my most recent final exam:
“As a professional speaker on entrepreneurship, I travel an awful lot, and as a result I have trouble staying in shape. Whenever I stay at a hotel, they’ve got a gym that’s open 24 hours a day, and I actually enjoy working out (really, I do). But there’s a problem. I don’t mind packing clean workout clothes in my suitcase before a trip, but once I use them at the hotel gym I don’t want to pack the sweaty, stinky used workout clothes back in the same suitcase for the return trip. So I end up not using the hotel gym. Describe three possible entrepreneurial businesses that would solve my dilemma. Which would be the most likely to succeed, and why?”
How would you deal with this as an entrepreneur? The students’ answers tend to be all over the place, but most focus on three possible solutions:
No. 1: an article of luggage that would hold the smelly workout clothes on my return flight (or — an interesting variation — some sort of chemical spray or other aerosol product that would neutralize odors)
No. 2: disposable or reusable workout clothes that I would use at the gym and then throw away or recycle once my workout is done
No. 3: an on-site laundry service operating 24/7 at the hotel, or a short-cycle washer/dryer in each hotel room
The key to understanding this question is that most hotels view their on-site gyms as “cost centers.” They have to spend lots of money to furnish the gym with state-of-the-art exercise equipment, maintain that equipment and provide insurance in case a guest slips and falls on the treadmill. Because access to the gym is usually offered to guests without charge, the hotel does not generate revenue from the gym. Accordingly, any proposed solution that requires the hotel to spend more money than they already do on the gym will probably not be attractive. So much for the on-site laundry service and short-cycle washer/dryer — unless, of course, the hotel charges extra for that, which could make it a revenue generator.
The “article of luggage” or “chemical spray” solution solves the problem of getting hotels to buy in to the solution (they don’t even get involved; it’s my decision whether to buy the item) but creates problems of its own. If the smell proof bag fits into my carry-on luggage, it likely will take up significantly more room. (Any traveler knows that clothing expands in volume between the outgoing trip and the return trip.) If the bag is carried separately, it may cause me to go over the “one carry-on and one personal item” rule that most airlines have. I wouldn’t want to have to check my laptop bag so that the smelly clothes bag counts as my carry-on. And I’m sure as heck not going to pay $25 or more to check the smelly clothes bag!
Also, must the smelly clothes bag itself be cleaned after each use?
The “chemical spray” solution solves the luggage problem but might violate airline rules about aerosol containers and create an environmental concern. Also, do I have to worry about the spray contaminating my clean clothing items such that everything has to go to the dry cleaner when I get home?
Finally, the disposable clothing item is an interesting idea, but it will be difficult to come up with all-purpose clothing that will be disposable, strong enough to withstand a vigorous workout and flattering to my plus-size figure. If the item is flimsy (think of the paper johnny coat the doctor gave you to wear during your most recent physical exam), people won’t use it for fear of a wardrobe malfunction. Yet if the item is strong enough to stand up to wear and tear, it probably is strong enough to last a thousand years in a landfill. And if it makes me look like a dork, fuhgeddaboutit!
The costs associated with reusable clothing are astronomical. Ask anyone who ran a diaper service in the 1950s.
So, what IS the solution? Frankly, I haven’t thought of one yet, so I will keep this question on my exam until a student does. Until that day, people are best advised not to sit next to me on long cross-country flights.
Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series “Money Hunt.” This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.