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10.3.13 The unexpected entrepreneur: Why success doesn’t require a three-piece suit

There I was, my first time in San Francisco, rambling around confused in the bowels of the public transit system trying to make my way to an early afternoon meeting. My destination, I was told, was a mere five stops away from where I’d pick up the train. That seemed easy enough.

Actually, it was anything but easy. There were no transit workers to be found. The beautifully constructed information booths showed no signs of life. However, there were ticket machines everywhere. They taunted me: “You can do this. You don’t need help. Just put money in, get a ticket and get on the train.”

But there were no maps telling me which direction to go. The magic machines only took $20 bills and refused to give change. “NO CHANGE GIVEN” signs were posted everywhere. I stood there scrambling through my purse, looking around helplessly, convinced this system was set up for my failure.

Just then, an angel emerged and approached me. Dressed in several layers of clothing, which he’d clearly just pressed neat with his own hands, he began to help me. In the most polite and accommodating tone, he asked me where I was trying to go and then began to explain the broken process with which I was trying to engage.

“You see, these machines, they only take $20 bills. They don’t give change and you end up with a ticket that has a lot more fare than you need to get you where you’re going.”

He then walked me to a change machine, hidden behind one of the empty information booths, helped me get change and finally offered me a ticket with just the fare I needed.

“You see,” he said, “my lady friend and I have fallen on hard times. So, I spend my days down here trying to help folks out. Often, instead of cash people give me these tickets. I’ll sell you one to get you where you need to go.” Then, he walked me to yet another machine to scan the ticket and show me the exact amount of fare remaining to be spent. He offered to sell it to me for less. I bought it.

But, our transaction didn’t end there. He then walked me to the turnstile and explained exactly where I was going to go: “Go through here, down the stairs to the right, jump on the train heading north, get off at the fifth exit. If you get to the mountains, you’ve gone too far.”

He gently took the ticket from my hand and passed it through the machine. The gates opened, signaling it was time for me to walk through. Just then, he shook my hand, thanked me for my support and wished me well. He smiled warmly and asked if there was anything else he could do, and then quietly walked away in search of the next person he could help in exchange for a little bit to get him by.

As I took my seat on the train, I realized that I had just met the quintessential entrepreneur. He understood the market failure, delivered an effective and time-saving solution, offered it at a fair price and managed his transactions with a laser focus on customer satisfaction.

I got off the train at the fifth exit as instructed and emerged from below the earth to a warm sunny California morning, warmed by the reminder that if we simply open our eyes and don’t overcomplicate things, there is magic being made all around us, and it doesn’t always dress in a neatly pressed three-piece suit.