Book 2. Ringing cedars of Russia (1997)
Money from scratch
Back before perestroika I was in charge of a small unit in a pho-tographic collective. It included lab technicians and a number of roving photographers. Everyone had both a salary and ad-ditional perks, which allowed us to make a fairly decent living for the time. Each member of our unit received a percentage of the total profits. Naturally we wanted more. But for that we had to find more clients. I managed to hit upon a solution. Anyone who wishes is free to copy it, even today.
One day while I was travelling on a highway in my hump-backed Zaporozhets 1 got a tyre puncture. While getting the tyre repaired I watched the cars passing by one after another and thought to myself: “If only we could give all these drivers a chance to have their photo taken, there would be huge profits to be made!”
It took but a few minutes to formulate a plan of action in my head — a plan whose realisation in practice would soon quadruple our unit’s profits. It worked this way: one of our photographers would stand at the side of the highway with a camera. He had two assistants with green armbands bearing the SB2 insignia and brandishing batons like those used
by the traffic police. Motorists would stop, thinking it was the “Green” or some other patrol.3 Upon learning that it was simply a photo service being offered and that nobody was about to pounce on them or fine them or inspect their vehi-cle, drivers were happy to stand in front of their car (next to the licence plate) and have their picture taken. They gave the addresses where they would like the photos to be sent C.O.D. The licence-plate had to be showing just in case there was a mix-up in the addresses.
We ended up offering this service on all the major highways leading to Novosibirsk over a six-month period. Then more and more we started encountering motorists who had already used the service. But during these six months our unit managed to realise a fairly decent income.
Later I thought of starting a photo campaign to take pic-tures of residential houses, adding postcard phrases like “I live here”, “Home sweet home”, etc.
People from our unit took pictures of thousands of houses. The demand turned out to be enormous. It got so that the photographers didn’t bother asking which residents wanted it ----- they would simply walk along and take pictures of every house on the street. A few days later the postal service would deliver the photos to each dwelling and collect payment. People would send these snapshots to their children. Many said the pictures inspired the kids to come home for a visit.
Before long the collective started having problems paying the members of our unit their salaries which, in the opinion of the management of the day, had exceeded all reasonable bounds. But there was little they could do about it, since everyone in the collective was entitled to an equal share of their unit’s profits.
During the early days ofperestroika, our unit detached itself from the collective and formed an independent co-operative. I was chosen its first chairman.
This way we enjoyed greater freedom of movement. We had the opportunity to gather some seed money together and expand the scope of our operations. I began to think about new ventures to increase company profits.
One day I happened to have a conversation with an ac-quaintance of mine who worked at the Institute of Theoreti-cal and Applied Mechanics. He was complaining that wages were being delayed or not paid at all, and that the lab unit was being threatened with dissolution. Where could they go, what could they do? They weren’t needed by anyone, it seemed.
“What did your lab do before?” I asked him.
“We made thermal gauge tape. Nobody needs it any-more.”
“What was it used for?”
‘All sorts of things,” he replied. He took a piece of a black tape out of his pocket and handed it to me.”
“See for yourself,” he said.
I took the piece in my hand, and all at once it turned green as I fingered it. I even threw it on the ground.
“What kind of junk is that? It turns green! Now I’ve got to wash my hands,” I told him. To which he replied:
“Don’t worry, it simply changed colour from the warmth of your hand. It’s supposed to react to changes in temperature. If the temperature of your hands had been above normal, it would have turned red. The green colour indicates a normal temperature.”
The concept took off quickly. Our company began pro-ducing flat thermometers and stress-indicators.
A piece of the tape was stuck onto a sheet of cardboard with bright coloured squares, each with a number beside it
indicating degrees of temperature, and,presto! — a new product was born. We had it distributed through the state warehousing agency to many regions of the old Soviet Union (this was before the collapse of the USSR in 1991).
Our production staff increased and everyone made a fairly decent living. Our seed capital was growing. The lab also came out of the red, since a share of the profits accrued to the Institute.
Our co-operative acquired new equipment along with two vehicles. And then something happened which gave us an incredible boost.
One afternoon I arrived at the company office and noticed both our telephones in use. My secretary was on one of them, listening and taking down notes. The other telephone was being manned by the cleaning lady No sooner had one of the phones been hung up than it started ringing again. At one point my secretary managed to tell me:
“They’ve been ringing off the hook for over two hours already! One call after another non-stop! Everybody’s asking for our thermometers and stress-indicators. One fellow cursed us, calling us pre-perestroika dimwits. If we were willing to raise our prices, he said, he would buy them from us wholesale — at the higher price. They’re all placing bulk or-ders. They’re even ready to give us advance deposits.”
During the early days of perestroika in our country, if you remember, there was quite a proliferation of manufactured kitsch on the market — plastic clip-on earrings, posters and calendars featuring semi-nude girls. Everyone snapped these things up like crazy
Against that background what we produced looked like a super novelty But after six months of production, sales suddenly took off with a bang. Something had happened, but what?
It turned out that on a TV broadcast the previous night, foreign-affairs correspondent Vladimir Tsvetov was
commenting on how innovative the Japanese were, and showed a Japanese stress-indicator as an example. It looked just like ours. It was then that I realised for the first time the power of advertising and the nature of this beast called luck!
Our staff began working three shifts a day round the clock. We hired workers to do the packing, trimming and finishing in their own homes. Profits steadily increased. We acquired a small passenger ship. I also decided to manufacture seeding equipment for independent farmers. I even chartered a large cruise ship to organise business tours and trade expeditions to the regions of the Russian Far North.