This week, an expert at the D.C. chapter of the business mentoring nonprofit SCORE offers advice to a military officer changing careers.
— Dan Beyers

The entrepreneur

McMahon Photo_color2 (Photo courtesy of Tom McMahon)

When Tom McMahon made the decision to retire from the U.S. Air Force, he chose to deviate from the typical course of action of retiring military officers: Taking a job with a government contractor. Instead, McMahon wanted to take a completely new career path after spending 22 years in the armed forces, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel as an intelligence officer where his final tour of duty included providing support to U.S. Special Forces in their most secret missions around the world.

“Despite numerous job offerings within government channels, I settled on a different path that was inspired by family members with successful retail backgrounds. I explored the idea of opening an independent, boutique-style gift store in the District.”

His concept was to carefully curate hip and trendy merchandise and present it in a warm, inviting shopping environment that was based on his personal experience traveling the world combined with his family-member experience in retail.

The challenge

After deciding to go ahead with his plan to open the shop Urban Dwell in Washington, McMahon quickly realized that he knew little about how to navigate the process of landing a location.

“I didn’t even know what information I lacked.”

The advice

Richard Rose, the SCORE mentor that McMahon calls his “guardian angel” identified the critical areas that needed immediate attention and the sources that he could rely on for help. The steps that Rose laid out included: “Find your location with the assistance of a leasing agent; create a reasonable Letter of Intent to submit to the landlord; and retain the services of a real estate attorney to assist you in the process of negotiating the lease to ensure the landlord and tenant responsibilities were clearly delineated and fair and equitable.”

The reaction

McMahon

“With the assistance of Rose, we found the right leasing agent who narrowed down the right location for my shop in D.C. The leasing agent was there at each step along the way until I occupied the space. It was a surprise to me that the leasing agent’s service were completely free to the tenant-to-be.

“The leasing agent and my SCORE mentor had inputs to the Letter of Intent. The Letter of Intent truly set the stage for the lease. Considered a “handshake agreement” between landlord and tenant, the Letter of Intent laid out the most important aspects for lease development, especially rent terms, free rent, and personal guarantee. It took several iterations and going back and forth with the landlord before we came up with a Letter of Intent that was acceptable to both parties. If I had been on my own, out of ignorance I would have likely just accepted the terms that the landlord presented in his initial letter. The landlord asked for a full guarantee, meaning that I would have been liable for paying rent on the full term of the 10-year lease if we happened to go out of business. With the help of the leasing agent and my SCORE mentor, a limited guarantee was agreed upon which really protects my company from long-term financial hardship. The landlord also did not offer any free upfront rent. Any new business needs a few months to get going, and my SCORE mentor stated that it was absolutely common and reasonable for me to ask for several months of free rent in order to posture for a successful beginning. We ended up with three months of free rent of which we needed every day of before we were ready to open doors. Due to this excellent advice, Urban Dwell was able to open for business without being tens of thousands of dollars further in debt.”

“Negotiating a commercial lease was completely foreign to me. With Rose’s assistance, I secured the services of an appropriate lawyer to review and revise the lease. The ultimate goal of legal assistance was to protect my company in the event of worst-case scenarios. The lawyer did prove his worth as we ended up making many changes to the original lease offer by the landlord based on legal counsel. In addition to the lawyer reviewing every part of the lease with a fine-toothed comb, my leasing agent and SCORE mentor were there every step of the way, providing inputs and recommendations. Many of these contributions were incorporated into the final lease agreement. Using a lawyer for lease development allowed us to proceed with decreased anxiety, knowing that we were entering into this new venture in the best legal position possible.”

“The final key component in our space lease was to ensure that the landlord was responsible for prepping the retail space adequately. Initially, the landlord tried to provide an allotment to me which would levy all build-out responsibilities onto me, including securing the right permits, arranging inspections with D.C. government, finding contractors for the physical build-out, etc. Without having any experience in this realm combined with dealing with a 100-year old building, the build-out process could have been disastrous. But with the right letter of intent and lease in place due to the assistance of my mentor, the responsibility was placed on the landlord and the space was ultimately delivered to us in a condition that Urban Dwell could immediately start working in.”

SCORE is a nonprofit association dedicated to entrepreneur education. Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? The Greater Washington DC Chapter provides confidential counseling and mentoring from more than 50 executives across the region. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com or request a mentor at www.washingtondc.score.org.