A Hat for My Kid

By Brad Thomason, CPA


My family and I recently spent about a month out in California.  Now, being from the south, we’re no strangers to heat.  But they call it “sunny California” for a reason.  Where we have haze and clouds and massive afternoon thunderstorms during the summer time, coastal California has the kind of blue sky days that only come to this part of the world in the winter after a big frontal system passes through.

One afternoon my youngest son and I decided to go on a photo safari at the LA zoo.  We dressed in appropriate clothing so as to block most of the sun, but in a rush to get out the door I forgot to grab the hat I was going to clamp down on his noggin once we got there.  Fortunately, there was a hat vendor right at the gate.  As a result, my son did not suffer the pain of a sunburn.  And I didn’t suffer the pain of my wife’s wrath for getting him burned.

I mention all of this because I want to talk about that hat vendor for a minute.  He caught my attention because his little cart was one of the most well executed versions of a basic business principle that I’ve ever seen.

In the classic book The Art of War, Master Sun enumerates several elements that a general must understand and control if he wishes to be victorious.  One of them is terrain.  Use of terrain entails things like attacking from uphill, and avoiding swamps when you are moving a cavalry regiment.  It also talks about the way that a small force can take on a much larger force IF the smaller force can manage to occupy a mountain pass.  Why?  Because the mountains form a natural chokepoint, guaranteeing that if the big army wants through, they are going to have to go to the pass.  Not only does the mountain pass provide protection from outflanking, it insures that the ways through are limited.  Maybe even singular.  Which guarantees that sooner or later the enemy is going to show up at a completely known location.  The structure of the location gives the occupying force an advantage they would not otherwise have; and smart generals know how to find such places and put their troops in position to benefit.

All of California gets bright sunshine, so there are many places where someone might need a hat.  But where’s a terrain feature that concentrates people?  The front gate at the LA zoo.  The kinds of people that tend to go there are also an intangible addition to the terrain advantage.  Why>  Because they are people who have already resolved to part with some discretionary income; and people who are more likely to have kids with them.  What we might be willing to endure ourselves we are often less willing to force our kids to endure, right (I only bought one hat, not two)?

Motivated customers with the wherewithal to pay, likely to be at a known location during a time when their consumption needs are highly predictable.  Sounds to me like a pretty good spot to set up to me.

In the end we bought the camo boonie hat with the strap and the neck cape.  That was the one Alex wanted, and even though it was 3 sizes too big, it certainly did a thorough job of keeping his head in the shade.  He’ll grow into it, and he looked very safari-ish wearing it as he darted from exhibit to exhibit (while his father suffered through imaginary visions of his camera going flying over a barrier or smashing to pieces on the sidewalk…).  As for the hat vendor, he even pointed out a different model that was a couple of bucks cheaper.  That’s a comfortable business owner.  I thanked him, but declined the down grade, all the while thinking to myself, “Now here’s a guy who has a good set up, and knows it.”

Every industry has its terrain features, even if they aren’t quite as physical or obvious as a hat cart at the front gate of a California zoo.  Find the ones in your industry and you might be pleasantly surprised by results that seem to come about “just from being there.”

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