Feature

The art of selling your business via essay contest

Sure, it's a little crazy. But sometimes, it's very lucrative.

In 1974, Bil and Susie Mosca bought a Georgian-era farmhouse. They had their work cut out for them. Of the 57 windows, 54 were cracked. There was no insulation, no electricity, and no septic system.

By the next year, they had the place in good enough shape to start renting rooms on their 12-acre property. Eventually, the Moscas' Center Lovell Inn became a Maine institution. So in the early '90s, when the Moscas were ready to retire, saying goodbye to their baby proved very hard. Finding the right buyer for the inn was a major financial and emotional challenge. For instance, there was a car salesman who wanted to jazz up the entrance with a flashing light that wouldn't fit the business' character. "We really couldn't see that which we built up with our blood and sweat and tears turned over to somebody who was going to spoil it," Bil Mosca said.

There were certainly some appealing prospective buyers who expressed interest. But they didn't have enough cash to take the property. So the Moscas did something quite novel: They held an essay content for the rights to their beloved inn.

In 1993, the couple slogged through more than 7,000 essays from potential buyers. Each had paid just $100 and 200 words for rights to the inn, with the sum of the fees (more than $700,000) serving as the Moscas' compensation for giving up the property. At the time, this strategy was largely unheard of. No one knew how it would pan out.

"If you're not willing to risk, you're not willing to gain, are you?" Mosca said. "We were really willing to put our necks out there and maybe we were going to be proven fools."

But the idea wasn't foolish. The contest, featured on the Phil Donahue Show, went viral in a pre-viral era. Other homeowners and business owners took note, to the point that the concept feels familiar, or even cliché, in 2015.

Nowadays, a heartfelt essay can get you a goat farm in Alabama, a bakery in Vermont, or a movie theater in Massachusetts. In a particularly special sale, Janice Sage, who along with her then-husband had won the inn from the Moscas in the 1990s, passed on the very same inn in an essay contest earlier this year, reportedly netting $906,875.

If this method sounds overly simplified to small business owners contemplating sales, that's because it is. There are a lot of contests out there. Only the wildly successful ones make national headlines.

And there are potential complications. The Boston Globe reports that dozens of losing applicants from Sage's contest banded together and prompted a police investigation of the inn's sale. The winning entry, selected by two judges — not Sage — came from Prince and Rose Adams, a couple with extensive experience in hospitality. The contest entry information had explicitly promised restaurant and inn owners wouldn't be at an advantage. Eventually, Sage was cleared of wrongdoing. The Moscas were also investigated for rule-breaking way back when. Bil chalks up the complaints to sour grapes. The premise behind any essay contest is that to apply and justify the fee, every entrant must genuinely believe his or her essay is the best. Hurt feelings afterward are to be expected.

Nonetheless, there are many very real legal issues to iron out before attempting a feat like this. The specifics of whether owners can even run such contests vary by state. And if there is a potential sale going through, buyers — sometimes not even allowed to tour the property prior to the sale — would be wise to stay on top of all the details, including any property liens, transfer taxes, and title fees.

Bil, 71, still lives in Maine and finds work as an essay contest consultant. He and Susie even recently published a book with lessons from their experience called Passing Along A Dream.

For Mosca, selling the inn in a zany, legally fraught manner was worth it. The self-described optimist saw it as a way of giving the contestants hope. Here was a new path for big dreamers stuck in a rut — maybe saddled with a dull job, a bad relationship, or grief. Poring over thousands of essays, many several times over, the Moscas were touched by the emotional hardships and desire for change people conveyed. Bil cried when his favorite of the finalists didn't get the nod from his judges. It was a woman who saw running the inn as a way to honor the sacrifices her late parents, both Holocaust survivors, made in getting to the U.S.

"That's who's going to enter our contest," Mosca said. "So many of those people who needed to get away and needed hope. We were their bartenders, their rabbis, their ministers, their priests. We served those functions with respect because people poured their hearts out onto paper to us, and that's a great responsibility not to diminish what they said and did."

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