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Planes, Trains and Automobiles

The average model train is a surprisingly heavy sucker. Depending on the make and model, you can expect at least 50 pounds. Now most train hobbyists wouldn’t only have a train, of course... for what will it run on? A stationary train, at best, is merely an object to admire. No, the true power of a model train is seeing it in action. You want the locomotion, after all.

Thus, you need a track. Tracks tack on roughly 10 additional pounds, per linear foot. Plastic. Brass. All the stuff.

Now, we are not model train people, per se. But these weights became extremely important to us one rainy afternoon in Denver.

We are a custom furniture manufacturing and creative fabrication workshop in Colorado. Furniture seems pretty cut and dry: the standard tables, benches, etc. The normal variety. But the “custom” in our name gets us into some tricky business. Essentially, custom means- if you can dream it up, we can build it. Fun, right? Exciting, yes? Except when it comes to model trains.

We are often requested by our clients in the hospitality space to build highly unusual, and extremely specific things. Restaurant tables made out of thousands of pheasant feathers. Brewery bars constructed with hundreds of books. Giant stag head sculptures. Sure, we love it.

This particular client- a prominent and innovative restaurant chain- asked us to construct a model train that would hang precariously above their dining area. With movement...because- as pointed out: locomotion is the wow factor.

We already built all of their furniture for this location- and super creative stuff at that, so this request- while unusual- was not too far out of left field.

But, this restaurant happens to be located 797.8 miles south of our workshop. The train- and the tracks- happened to be located 7 miles from our workshop. The deadline to pull this off? 96 hours.

Within that 96 hours, we also had to construct a series of acrylic panels that would reside underneath the tracks. The intent here being that when patrons would look up from their plates of sriracha peanut fries and pork belly tacos, they would stare up into the tracks, up into the bottom of the Caboose, see all the intricate moving parts and wow- locomotion! Terribly exciting stuff.

So, in addition to:

procuring acrylic panels

laying out the entire model train on our workshop floor

cutting acrylic to size

and essentially- rapidly becoming train engineers,

we also had an issue of logistics.

For, getting all the necessary parts from point A to point B would be- say we say?- daunting. Then, of course, we have to construct this whole shebang on site and get it up and running.

This all started on a Friday afternoon. The guys on the workshop floor are getting ready to clock out and head home for the weekend. Stores are closing. Traffic is building. We had errands to run, items to procure, and a goddamn train track to build.

The clock is ticking. The restaurant’s important Press Day is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. We had to complete this mission, and get out of Dodge, prior to Wednesday morning.

As we sat in the humid front office that Friday afternoon, we vigorously debated the viability of this project. Can we even pull this off? Are we setting ourselves up for failure? And let’s be real: are the margins even worth it?

On top of that, we had to engage in remarkably serious conversations about model train engineering. It was borderline absurd. Here we are- a bunch of fairy gritty dudes- discussing model trains as if it were a world war battle plan.

But we had to answer those vital questions before we undertook the herculean task of then tackling the build plan and the logistics.

By all measures of sanity, we should’ve said thanks but no thanks. This project isn’t for us. It isn’t viable. We’ll be lucky to break even. It likely isn’t even possible.

But we are not “no” people. We haven’t built our business on turning down projects. On being skeptics. On being cynics. Instead, we are “yes” people. We pride ourselves on taking the leap, making the commitment, and figuring out the nitty gritty later.

That yes attitude is vital in our world of custom manufacturing. That’s why clients keep coming back to us. We claim to have the ability to build anything, and we deliver. Even when model trains are on the table.

And yet...decisions must be made.

Various sources estimate that an adult makes about 35,000 decisions each day. Ranging from the seemingly mundane like what to eat, what to wear or what to buy, to the significant decisions like which career path to take, who to date or marry, and what to name our children.

Entrepreneurs and leaders face a nearly incomprehensible set of decisions each day. Who to hire. Who to fire. Which vendor to use. Which products to launch. How to collect on AR. Which AP to pay when. Or...should we build a model train track hundreds of miles away in a shockingly tight deadline?

It’s staggering. And daunting. And we go into these decisions with nearly no predictable outcomes. Sometimes we rely upon research or best practices. Oftentimes, we simply go with our gut. Either way- no predictable outcome. Will it succeed? Will it fail? Have we made the wrong choice? Did we make the right one? Sometimes, we’ll never even know.

Yet still- we have to decide.

So, how did we at Black Hound Design Company reach our decision? First, we had to understand the possibility of the logistics involved.

Step 1: Labor resources. Who do we have available to make the trip, and erect this goddamn train? Our main install guy lives in a town about 110 miles south of us. He’s instrumental in our off-site projects, a real workhorse of a guy. While he’s frequently open to last minute trips, there is the Duck Babysitting Factor. For, he is the proud owner of 7 baby ducks. They live on his pond. They make him happy. They must be taken care of. Baby ducks, turns out, needs lots of tender loving care. Thus, our first obstacle- we must locate a duck babysitter.

There’s clearly a metaphor here. Something about the trials and tribulations of running a small business, and how overcoming obstacles takes problem solving and grit- else you risk just quacking up. Oh wait, that’s a pun.

In any babysitter miraculously procured. Install crew identified.

Next: do we have the manpower to at our workshop to cut the acrylic tracks? Fortunately, one of our guys volunteered to work all day Saturday to get this baby built. (Thoughts of overtime hours eating away at profit margins. Can we submit a change order and make the money back? Turns out, yes.) Soooo, check and check.

But Step 2: let’s assume that we can get this sucker built, and packaged up in time to make an install. How the hell are we going to get this monstrosity of a package to Texas?

Our install guys have to fly out on Monday to work all day Tuesday (and into the wee hours of the night) to meet the client’s deadline. We need Monday to finish the build at our workshop. Overnight shipping is a heart attack inducing cost. But we absolutely must have the materials there on Tuesday morning. That leaves the option of….wait? Is this even possible? Have we lost our goddamn minds? Can we actually, truly, legitimately, take over 300 pounds of Caboose, train tracks, acrylic tracks and surely TSA elevated threat-level tools on a plane?

Why yes, Yes, we can.

Six hours total of phone conversations with Southwest Airlines (including hold times).

Numerous asinine google searches.

Precision measurements of materials, tools and boxes.

And finally- building our own from scratch boxes.

All told us that yes, this is possible. You can, in fact, check this dizzying array of confounding materials as oversized luggage on the plane.

Done and done. A missed flight later. Numerous last-minute client approvals later. A scissor lift rental later. A dozen other minor shitshows later. And hallelujah. We’ve pulled it off.

The train tracks are erected, mounted drop from the ceiling. The acrylic base is up. The caboose is running. It looks fucking fabulous, and works flawlessly. The members of the Press Corp are sufficiently dazzled. The restaurant will be a home run.

And, our guys are tired. We’re tired. The client is tired.

But we made the call to give this wacky project a green light. We made the hard decision, and we pulled it off.

Entrepreneurs, designers, leaders and hustlers everywhere face difficult decisions every single day. We balance rationality, with business metrics, with our sheer gut. Sometimes we make the wrong call. Sometimes we lose. But sometimes, we win. And sometimes, we put on our train conductor’s caps and cry All Aboard.

The model train we installed in Dallas. Chooo Chooo

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