By the summer of 2012, I was having a lot of brain fog and fatigue from what would turn out to be a gluten intolerance. Not knowing that's what it was, I just seemed to be slipping more and more away from being the productive, reliable Web developer I had been when we moved to Emporia in 2008. I was able to get my act together enough to do home energy audits, most of the time, but I had let all of my freelance Web clients go because I couldn't promise to meet their deadlines.
I was talking one day with Amy Becker and I said I might have to give up on my Web work and try to make a living as an energy auditor. She said, "How about an energy auditor who also runs a recycling business?" Amy had founded a company called The Green Door, commonly known as Green Door Recycling, in January of 2008 and had built a good client base and an excellent reputation in town, but she and her then-husband were getting ready to start a bar, and she needed the time. The Emporia Recycling Center already offered all types of recycling for free, but the location was not convenient, and the recyclables had to be hand-sorted into ten different containers by type. The Green Door's business model was simply to offer curbside pickup and sorting of mixed recyclables, primarily to homeowners but also some apartments and businesses. I rode along with her on the routes and inspected the books, and I determined that I could handle the workload when my head was not foggy, so I arranged to buy the business from her.
To be precise, I bought the assets of the business. Amy had not incorporated The Green Door, so as a sole proprietorship, its assets were all tangled up with her own. My business, Interdependent Web LLC (which had already assumed the assets of Central Energy Savers), bought the truck and trailer, the plastic totes and barrels, office supplies, phone number, the name to do business under, and a significant amount of "goodwill." The two employees both had personal history with her that did not entirely transfer over to me. I would up with about 50% turnover each year I owned the business in spite of offering very competitive wages, because I could only offer each employee a few hours a week, and that wasn't enough for anyone to live on.
Amy had paid the employees as contractors and avoided IRS scrutiny as a Schedule C business, but while driving a truck was a service they could have provided to any contractee, the curbside pickup and sorting of recyclables were pretty darn specific to us, so it quickly became clear that we would need to withhold and pay their payroll tax. I found the IRS folks very helpful in making that transition.
The first January I owned the business was its fifth anniversary, so I figured we'd have a big party for the community, but we weren't able to leverage that goodwill into a good location or deals on food, and hardly anybody came. I was also not very successful in converting Green Door customers into Interdependent Web customers for energy audits or permaculture designs.
What I was successful at was the transition from serving mostly residential customers to serving mostly business customers. We knew this was coming because the city had been planning to take over residential recycling for years, and Amy herself had been instrumental in making it happen, partly through demonstrating demand with The Green Door. So that was part of what I knew I was taking on when I bought the business. The city compensated us for the loss of our residential customers because along with it came a switch to machine-sorted, single-stream recycling, which meant a change in how we collected the recyclables and what we collected them in. In the end, the volume of material we picked up from commercial customers was a little more than we had picked up from residential customers, but with fewer stops and less hand labor. It was a win for everyone.
As a result, our books were in good shape by early 2007, and I tried to sell the business because my leukemia was progressing, and I needed to not keep going to the germy tipping floor when employees couldn't do it. I could not find a buyer. I let the customers know that we would end service at the end of the school year. Then, the very next day, a freak accident caused our trailer to get hit by a train! There were precipitating factors that led to the trailer coming unhitched, but the fact that it did so at just the right moment to get lodged in the railroad crossing, snapping the safety chains, was remarkable. Recyclables were scattered over a mile of track before the train could stop, and about $100k in damage was done to the locomotive, but we were ultimately not found to be at fault for the accident. We stopped service immediately and went out of the recycling business.
I learned a lot from the 4 ½ years of owning The Green Door, about how to run a business, manage employees, and so on. I also learned a lot about the recycling industry, such as it is. I'm glad I had the experience, but I probably wouldn't do it again!