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Lessons from the Pony Express Museum

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Yesterday I went on a field trip with our kids to the Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph.  This museum is first-rate, and definitely worth visiting.  It’s about an hour and 15 minutes from Overland Park, and St. Jo is a classic midwest river town, similar in a lot of ways to Sioux City (where Kari and I met).

As you know, the Pony Express was a method of delivering mail (very small quantities) between St. Joseph, Missouri, and California.  It lasted about 18 months, from April 1860 to October 1861.  It shortened the time from 30 days to 10 days.   It was a business venture between three men, called the “Risk Takers” in the brochure:  William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell, established with the goal of obtaining a $1 million United States mail contract.  In a way, the Pony Express was a very expensive  “proof of concept” experiment; almost a gimmick.  Cut to the chase:  the Pony Express ended in bankruptcy.

As an owner of a delivery business, I looked at the Pony Express from a business perspective.  Here are some of the lessons that I learned.

– You can’t serve your customers long-term if you are not profitable.  The Pony Express lost somewhere around $1000 a day.

– Understand the competition.  The owners did not ultimately win the mail contract.  Its competitor did, the company that owned the contract all along.

– Take risks you can afford to lose.

– Know that the times, they are a-changin’.  Once the telegraph lines connected the country, the need for “high speed” horse transit was eliminated.

– Don’t listen to the echo chamber, live in reality.  I’m sure the owners kept convincing each other that the mounting risks were continually worth taking.

– Owning a business is a constant lesson in humility.  Each of the owners of the Pony Express died penniless.

– It’s better to end well than to start well.  10,000 people lined the streets of St. Joseph to see Johnny Fry, the first Pony Express rider, leave the Pony Express Stables for the first time.  Quite a crowd, especially considering the population of St. Jo was 9,000.  Sadly the end of the Pony Express had far less fanfare.  Everyone loves a good show.  But a successful business isn’t built on a “show” for the masses.   It’s built on providing a service or product to customers who are gladly willing to pay for it, allowing the business to continue to serve its customers for years to come.

In summary, the Pony Express Museum captured the contrast between legendary moments of our nation’s expansion and a monumental business failure.  I am grateful every day to own a business that pays for itself, that I enjoy, and that provides a valuable service to my customers and their families.

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