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Student's Online Business Restocks Farmers around the World

Tyler FinchumTyler Finchum’s dad had lost another one.

Whether it was for the tractor or the combine or any of the other implements on the Finchum family farm near Muscatine, the operator’s manual had gone missing and Tyler’s dad turned to him for help.

“He always asked me to find a new one to replace it,” says Finchum, and so he’d hit the Internet looking for someone with a manual to sell.

It was surprisingly hard. Many manufacturers didn’t make old manuals available; others did but buried them on their websites. In many cases, the manufacturer had long been consigned to the ash heap of American corporate history, so that was no help. Most of the time, his best hope was to start Googling and stumble upon someone with a manual to sell. Often, the search proved fruitless.

“It stuck in my head that there had to be an easier way to find manuals,” says Finchum—and a new business was born.

Farm Manuals Fast, which he started as a junior at Muscatine High School, sells manuals via the web for various types of farm equipment made by more than 20 companies. Now based at the University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center’s Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory (BELL), the business just celebrated its second anniversary; in that time, he’s sold more than 5,000 manuals for farm implements to customers around the world. It’s so successful that when you Google “farm manuals,” the top two results are Farm Manuals Fast.

While revenues are private, he says they increased 150 percent from the first year to the second and that his profit is enough to pay his college expenses and still have some left over.

“I had no idea there was such a need for a business like this,” says Finchum, a first-year student in the Tippie College of Business. “I started it mostly just to get some experience in developing a new business, and so that I could have something to put on my résumé for scholarship applications.”

Finchum has manuals on the website for almost 500 farm implements, going all the way back to the manuals for John Deere’s Poppin’ Johnnies in the 1930s and 1940s. The manuals come from his family’s collection, or were borrowed from friends, neighbors, and relatives. He’s found others on eBay or other Internet sites, acquired some from dealers, and purchased more at auctions or other sales.

Once purchased, the PDF is downloaded immediately, avoiding one of Finchum’s great frustrations when he would buy a manual for himself, then have to wait a week until it came in the mail. If a piece of equipment is down, he says, his father didn’t want to wait a week for the manual to arrive before he could fix it. Finchum converts the manuals to PDFs (using a specially designed scanner that he and his father made themselves) and makes them available on Farm Manuals Fast. He has manuals for tractors, combines, harvesters, manure spreaders, balers, tillers, cutters, foragers, grinders, mowers, and windrowers. The makers include some of the icons of American manufacturing (Deere, Massey Ferguson, Caterpillar) and a few from names now long gone—Allis-Chalmers, International Harvester.

“Now, they can find out whatever problem they’re having and start fixing it within five minutes of placing their order,” says Finchum. “I made it a lot easier and simplified the process.”

Most of the manuals sell for $9.99, although some technical manuals that run in the hundreds or thousands of pages go for up to $100.

Finchum has sold manuals to buyers in 22 countries, most of them English speaking because most of his inventory is in English. About 80 percent of his customers are in the United States, 10 percent in Canada, and 5 percent in Australia and New Zealand (the southern hemisphere keeps providing revenue when it’s winter in the U.S., he says).

His top sellers? Depending on the time of year, the John Deere 14T hay baler (summer), the IH 1440 combine (fall), the Ford 1600 tractor (winter) and the Deere 7000 planter (spring).

While most of his customers are farmers, he also does a fair business with restorers and collectors who need to repair an old implement but can’t find manuals anywhere else.

Finchum has also started a charitable arm associated with the company, the Farm Manuals Fast Foundation that provides free manuals to farmers in developing countries who can’t afford to buy one. So far, he said he’s given away 10 manuals, mostly to farmers in South America.

Finchum can only sell manuals published before March 1, 1989, the date that a new federal copyright law took effect that prevents him from selling the manual without the manufacturer’s permission. Manuals published before that date are in the public domain and available for Finchum to sell.

Unfortunately, he says this also means that Farm Manuals Fast will have a fairly short shelf life as a business because the post-1989 manuals will have copyright protection for 95 years and the market for pre-1989 farm manuals will be saturated at some point well before 2085.

Which is fine with Finchum, because he has more start-ups to get off the ground. The self-described serial entrepreneur finds greater enjoyment in coming up with ideas for businesses than in managing a business. Farm Manuals Fast is easy with regard to the latter—since it’s fully web-based and automated, most hands-on management simply involves scanning new manuals.

Otherwise, most of his work is checking to see how many manuals he sold at the end of the day…and planning for his next big business.


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