Have you ever imagined what life was like on a wagon train back in the 1800’s? I do, frequently, because there’s a spot on my morning walk along the outskirts of my small, rural Kansas town, where history was made by wagon trains. About three blocks from my house, I often pause and gaze at a sea of native grass and let my imagination wander. Easily visible are the 170-year-old swales of the Cherokee Trail that course north towards the Santa Fe Trail. Fueled by dreams of striking it rich in the Gold Rush of 1849, sometimes a hundred wagons a day lumbered through the prairie that nestles my hometown. 

All of this travel at the maximum speed of two miles per hour and ten miles a day. I just traveled from parts in Wyoming (near Fort Bridger) where these trail travelers would stop on their way to California or Oregon and made that trip in 16 hours at 75 miles per hour. It would have taken them two and a half months to reach Ft. Bridger from my hometown. From there, they had another two and a half months, at least, to make it to Oregon or California. 

Not to be confused with the Trail of Tears, this Cherokee Trail was forged by a combination of Native Americans (Cherokees) and white settlers who cut the first trail in 1849 through which thousands of people looking for a better life ambled their way from as far south as Arkansas clear to the west coasts. The arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad twenty years later began to make these trails obsolete, but during their time, they were major thoroughfares. 

Along the recent journey my wife and I took to Yellowstone, various types of wooden wagons served as markers for hotels, restaurants, ranches, museums and even a church. Slowly decaying, these wooden beauties serve as a reminder of the past. However, had you lived in 1850, the idea of letting a wagon just sit there as some kind of a tourist attraction would never had entered your mind. Wagons were as vital to life as our present-day cars and trucks. They had a purpose and all of those purposes had to do with commerce. Whereas people used horse and buggies for transportation, wagons were meant for commerce.  

The purpose of a wagon was not to haul people, it was to haul goods. In fact, people usually walked beside it with only one person driving it. Wagons were essentially for commerce. 

As I continue this series in what a nonprofit do-gooder (me) learned from a businessman, the principles I learned from Floyd Hammer are some he learned from his first business mentor, J.B. Clay, who sold farm related supplies out of the back of a wagon. In fact, newcomers to The Outreach Program are quickly taught the 13 Business Principles of J.B. Clay. Floyd’s added a few really good ones to that, but the first two are definitely from J.B. Clay.  

  1. Nothing happens until someone sells something.
  2. You can’t sell from an empty wagon. 

Having just sailed by various wagons used for attractions, it’s hard to wrap my mind around the original purpose of the wagon. What, exactly, does it mean, “You can’t sell from an empty wagon,”? 

It’s pretty simple; you have to have goods or services for which people are willing to trade you their cash for. In the days of the wagon trains, the wagons who rode along that had items to sell to the rest of the wagon train were known as “sutlers.” They were the moving Amazon of the day, ready to supply travelers with things they needed. Occasionally, a service wagon carrying a “tinker” would show up and that person would fix the metal pots and pans of the travelers. Tinkers would form a dam around the hole of a pot or pan then pour in liquid solder. That was called the tinker’s dam, but, over the course of time and the reputation of tinker’s using course language, the phrase, “tinker’s damn,” was used to express apathy. 

Goods and services. That’s how businesses make money so to have your wagon full, means to have an ample supply of goods and services. 

When most people think of a nonprofit, they assume that it is funded by grants and donors. Visit with most nonprofit folks for a while and they’ll give you an opportunity to make a donation to their cause. Although Outreach, started by Floyd and his wife, Kathy, is a nonprofit, it’s success is built upon the idea of providing goods and services, rather than asking for donations or writing grants. While the most important person in many nonprofits is the Development Director – the person in charge of finding grants and donations – Outreach doesn’t even have one. 

However, the business model of Outreach is built on these two social entrepreneurs who have built a successful, and sustainable, model. Unlike many nonprofits who are at the whim of a donor or a foundation who can arbitrarily cut off support or be the tail that wags the dog, Outreach survives, and thrives, because of the goods and services they offer, at a cost, to people who are willing to pay for them. The best part is, there is a whole lot of good being done in that financial transaction because of the purpose of Outreach to provide safe water, food, medical care and education to those at home and abroad. 

Goods: For Outreach, the goods that are provided are meals for the hungry and water purification systems for developing countries. I’ve known Floyd for several years now and when it comes to what Outreach has to offer in the way of goods, his mind is constantly churning and creating new products to meet the need. For example, in the recent Covid crisis, the fact that Floyd and Kathy had led the way in the meal-packaging industry to come up with meals for domestic use rather than just to be shipped internationally, gave us an opportunity to actually expand while organizations like us were contracting. 

Services: Outreach offers a service called a meal-packaging event that engages volunteers of any age to assemble the meals (goods) in a festive atmosphere that, at the end of the day, provides meals for the hungry in that local community or abroad. Corporations, civic clubs, faith-based organizations, and a host of other entities wishing to engage volunteers call on Outreach to set up these turn-key events so they can engage their own people in having fun and doing good.  

Outreach excels at providing these service events across the nation. Whether it is a group of ten people who use the Do-It-Yourself kit or a group of ten thousand who package a million meals, Outreach has developed the event management service process to a finely tuned machine.

 About ten years ago, Floyd and Kathy were visiting with a food bank director in DC, sharing with her about the international work they were doing to feed the hungry and that director asked, “But what about the hungry in America?”

That simple question stirred their creative minds and they approached Iowa State University’s Department of Food Science to come up with a Mac and Cheese meal that could be assembled by volunteers (one of our “services” that Outreach monetizes) but was also nutritious. Since then, Outreach has developed a total of ten meal varieties and are in the stage of developing more.

 That pivot, done a decade ago in expanding the goods that are offered, gave Outreach the opportunity during the Covid crisis to compensate for the loss of revenue typically gained in providing a meal-packaging service event. 

Although the term, “You can’t sell from an empty wagon,” dates back more than a hundred years, the concept for commerce has remained the same. Businesses that adjust and thrive, even in tough times, must have a wagon-full of goods and services that they can monetize.

 Regardless of whether you’re traveling two miles per hour or 75 miles per hour, the gas that keeps your engine running in business largely depends on what you have in the back end that you can monetize. Keeping those goods and services fresh is the key to survival.

Excuse me, the sun has risen and I’m going for a walk. I’ll pause again on the Cherokee Trail and let my imagination wander. I can hear the rumble of the wagons as I head out the door…

Previous articles in this series:

Part 1: Nothing Happens Until Someone Sells Something

Aligning Yourself With People Who Have Heart

Aligning Yourself With People Who Have Vision