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Never a dull moment for new knife sharpener

After another layoff, man turns to expert advice in honing focus of his business

By Christina Rexrode
crexrode@charlotteobserver.com

Gary Gordon loved his job, but the recession forced him to come up with a Plan B.

Ever since he finished college, Gordon had worked in computer-assisted drafting. Over a 30-year career, he helped design everything from fire extinguishers to mining equipment, plying his trade for architects, engineers and manufacturers.

But in early May he was laid off from the Charlotte architecture firm where he worked. He had been laid off before – first in the early '80s, then again in the late '90s, both times because of the economy. This time, he spent about three weeks searching for other jobs in computer-assisted drafting but was discouraged by the dismal prospects.

Then one evening, while making beef stew, he had his eureka moment.

Gordon is about to launch a business called A Finer Edge. He'll travel the city sharpening knives and salon shears. He had to cash in his 401(k) to cover the startup costs (“I did what people say you're not supposed to do,” he said), but he's confident his company will succeed with hard work and smart planning.

Most of the groundwork has already been done; he's just waiting for his van to be outfitted and hopes to get on the road as soon as this week. He'll charge about $15 for sharpening a pair of professional salon scissors, and $4 to $6 for household scissors, knives and chisels. His Web site, www.afineredge.com, is still under construction.

Gordon, who turned 54 on Friday, talked with the Observer about his career about-face. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Q. So how did you get this idea?

I was getting ready to cut up some beef with my Japanese knife, and I started wondering, “OK, what exactly does it take to sharpen this thing?” I went ahead and made my soup, then I sat down at my laptop. I spotted a Web site on becoming a sharpener, and my mind basically put two and two together.

Q. So what did you do to become a sharpener?

I took classes with a fellow in California, who has been training for 25 years. That lasted about a week, for 10 hours a day.

Q. You flew to California to take classes with a guy you found online? How did you know you weren't getting scammed?

If somebody's going to do training from a place they found online, they're going to have to do their research. This guy had founded the International Shear Sharpeners Guild. I contacted some of the people he had trained, to see if they're successful, are they able to use what he taught them, and did he teach them correctly. I paid 15 percent down, and the balance after the class.

Q. What was the very first thing you did when you got serious about starting A Finer Edge?

The very first thing I did was to talk to SCORE. It's a partner with the Small Business Administration, and it is made up of (other business owners) who are volunteering their time (to give free business counseling). They teach you what a business plan is and help you put one together. Now in my case I had extra help, too, because my youngest brother is an accountant who has worked with small businesses. You should take advantage of all your resources, whether it's friends, family or somebody at SCORE.

Both SCORE and the SBA have tons of online resources, but you really do need to also work one-on-one with somebody from SCORE to make sure that what you're doing is right. Because they'll know. You won't.

Q. What other prep work did you do?

Before I went to California, I went out and talked to over 55 restaurants and beauty salons to find out who does their sharpening and how much do they charge. I found out, first, that I wouldn't be able to sharpen for restaurants because most restaurants in this area don't own their knives. Instead, the company that does the sharpening comes in every other week and trades out the knives. But I found out from the salons that there are only a couple of (sharpeners) serving the salons in Charlotte.

Q. Tell me how you did those interviews.

You just show up. At every single place I went to, with the exception of two restaurants, everyone was more than willing to talk to me. They had gone through the same thing with opening their businesses.

I had printed out a list of four questions to ask, because I wanted them to know I was only going to take a couple minutes of their time. Also, I told them that I would sharpen a pair of their salon scissors for free.

Q. Any more advice for other budding entrepreneurs?

There's a lot of stuff to do, but you cannot let it get you overwhelmed. You've got to say, “OK, this is the list of stuff I need to do,” then concentrate on one thing at a time. That is key to making sure you don't go nuts and worry yourself to death.

To be perfectly honest, if you're setting up a business, a lot of things are going to go wrong. But you can't let it bother you. You've got to be adaptable. You cannot have a line drawn in the sand and say, “This is how it's got to be done.”

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