Adventures of an Entrepreneur: Ch. 1 – Opening Day

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A book, as well as an entrepreneur, needs a beginning. Without a beginning, there is no story or company. Without a beginning, we continue to exist in our cubicle, or if we have run the maze well, our office. When we are at the beginning, we don’t recognize it for what it is. We are busy congratulating ourselves on our daring as well chastising ourselves for being both foolish and selfish.  We only recognize the beginning later, after we have begun to build the myth.

We will talk more about the myth later, but now the beginning commands our attention. The first day of my adventure had been in the works for sometime. Increasingly unhappy at the company I had worked at previously, I had asked my wife’s permission to quit my job and go out on my own some 10 weeks previously. Being a very brave woman, she had given me her blessing.  But in truth, she had been with me for over twenty years and recognized that the moon was full and the wolves were howling. One definition of wisdom is the acceptance of the inevitable with grace. My wife has always been a wise woman.

A few weeks later, I met with my boss and gave him the news. My position at the time was a senior one and I was an instrumental part of the company’s future. Indeed I had been a big part of planning that future. My decision to leave left him, and others, in the lurch. It would be hard for them to not see it as a simple betrayal of my promised commitment to them. Looking back through time, I have a great deal of sympathy for my boss; Richard was his name, and the angst that I caused him then.

As my own organization grew in a future time, there were many meetings where I was on the receiving end of that kind of news. A young man whom I had nurtured and was counting on and building a business around would come in my office and give me the news of his impending departure. I often thought of my old boss at such times, and wished I could atone for the pain that I am sure I caused him.

Life sometimes seems unfair, but it often just takes time for the wheel to turn.But that experience was in the future, and I was eager to begin going down the road opening up before me. Richard had been a good sport about the situation, allowing me to choose the time and circumstances under which I would leave. So for the next two months, I planned my departure and tied up as many loose ends as I could. As I later gained in experience I realized the appreciation that I had for Richard’s gracious character. When faced with similar trials in future years, I remembered him and strove to match his grace.

Richard did show me a great deal of grace through those next few weeks. Allowing me to stay around was not a good business practice on his part, even though I was very grateful. But as I learned in the coming years, good business practices only go so far. As the owners and caretakers of businesses, we are not only people who tally up the revenues and costs of what we do. We are also people, acting in the world, both helping and hurting those we cross path with.  We cannot ignore the opportunities to help those we know, even at risk to ourselves.

But the day did come, a Friday to be exact. It was in February, the 16th day of that month in the year of 1996. I had been thinking about it for well over a year, and now it was here. That first day was a busy one, starting with the delivery of my new desk. It was the typical standard desk from Oak Express, made of rather pedestrian oak, hardly half the size of the one that had been mine the previous day. As it turned out, the wood finish on the desk was even more marginal than the wood itself. But it was a new desk that I had bought and, to me, it symbolized the new adventure that was begun. I took great pleasure in that desk. It was my desk for many years at my new company, and served as a silent, but to me, very visible and powerful reminder, of where I had come from.

I had boxes of reference books and vendor catalogs. I had a computer and printer, as well as a file cabinet and office supplies. I also had a wife and children, whose time spent on moving me into the new office didn’t appear as a cost in the “books”. This was just the start, for them, of volunteer labor. This would be a good time to make a joke about free labor and their forced participation. No question that it was forced participation, but they were always willing and, at least to me, seemed to understand that they were a part of what the family needed to do to keep food on the table. Friday passed quickly and we went out for pizza, a rare treat in those days. It was a great family day, at least for me.

The next day found me over at the new office building shelves. I can still close my eyes and see myself on the front step of the office building with my circular saw cutting the various pieces of plywood into rough shelving. Luckily it was a Saturday and there weren’t too many people going in and out of thebuilding. But there were some, and I was well on my way to having a “reputation”.

Perhaps a word about my new office is in order. The building itself was a suburban two story with a “garden level”. Of 1950’s vintage, it was graded on a forgiving curve and called a “C” class property. Located two blocks from the thriving city center of downtown Littleton, I had found it during a twoVweek search for office space. There had been a big question in my mind about actually spending money on an office. The no cost alternative of setting aside some desk space in the basement was an attractive option. But I was worried about my work habits working out of the house and called it a necessary expense.

The office was a 150 sqft box on the 2nd floor, or the mezzanine level as the owner called it. The owner was of the opinion that the lack of modernity could be balanced by a certain period style that showed itself in the naming of the building’s floors. My new office had a nice window with a view of the street framed by a mature tree.  Part of the space was a small closet. In fact, the office reminded me of a bedroom, but $208/month rent was a strong enough selling point for me.

But that is probably enough about the logistics of moving into a new office. The new Monday came and I was at my new office at 7 AM. I wanted to start off on the right foot with the new boss. Unlocking the door to the office and walking in, I did get a cheap thrill from that. Carrying water from the kitchenette down the hall into the office and getting the coffee going was the first order of business. Doing the rest of the filing and putting away that remained from the weekend came second. It was time to enjoy a cup of coffee and sit at my new desk.

Sitting back in my chair and enjoying the coffee along with morning paper, it hit me. I did’t have anything to do. I did’t have any prospect of anything to do. I did’t even know what I was planning to try to do. I was sitting in a small room looking out of the window at a depressing winter streetscape. There was absolutely nothing going on while I had the continuing need to pay bills and feed a family. My new best friend, Fear, introduced himself to me.

We got to be very close over the next 13 years. While I won’t say that he was a constant companion, he was certainly a frequent visitor. And now that I am retired, he stops by only rarely. And while I would be a foolish man to say that I want him around, I do find myself missing him.

It goes to show you how contradictory we are.  I look back on that time. I look back to when I wouldn’t answer the telephone because of all the creditors calling that I didn’t have the money to pay. I look back on the time to when I didn’t get a single nights uninterrupted sleep for months at a time. I look back on the time when I told my wife she needed to sign the loan documents that pledged our house to the bank. And now I look out through the window of my home office over a pleasant green valley and say that I miss the stomach churning presence of Fear.

It isn’t that he was a pleasant fellow or fun to be around. But when he was around, I knew that I was alive. Starting, growing and running a company took enormous amounts of energy. But even more, it demanded that I do things I didn’t like to do, a neverVending stream of them every day. It felt like I was playing high stakes poker everyday. It was a life that drained me. Thinking about it today and reflecting on my life back then, I couldn’t have done it without him.

It was my friend, Fear. He energized me. He made me run, run fast, when I wanted to stop. He made me step up and do things that I was afraid to do. And now that he is gone, I look back through the rose colored glasses of memory and reminisce. The sheer awfulness of his presence fades into a misty memory that haunts me in his absence.

It isn’t that I hadn’t known fear before, but my friend, Fear, was different than that which had come before. He was a fear born of my own making. He was no fear of some unknown illness or accident that might befall me and mine. I had purposefully walked out into the wild, into the dark, and poked a sharp stick in the eye of a sleeping dragon named Fear. He was awake, and now I was committed.

The events of that day, as well as the weeks and months that followed, are difficult to remember now. For six months that followed, I drifted but I was busy as I drifted. I focused on the things that I knew how to do. I focused on the things that I thought needed to be done to operate a business. I was busy much of the time, but I was play-acting.

I came to work early and left late. I focused on learning how to operate my accounting software and set up a powerful filing system, even though there was little to file. I established a relationship with a bank and was diligent in my correspondence, what little of it there was. I sent out letters to potential clients and spent the days and weeks working from my desk. Fear would sometimes make an appearance, but I discovered that a burst of activity could make him go away.

I knew that I was marking time. Being busy was a drug that allowed me to dull the ever more constant presence of Fear. My desk was clean in a neat and orderly office, things that had seldom been true before. I needed business. I needed revenue. Being a farm boy from Nebraska, I knew all about being frugal and squeezing pennies until they squealed. Being tight with money was encoded in my DNA. But controlling costs just postpones the inevitable without revenue. To get revenue, I needed clients. And in my heart, I knew that letters and phone calls to the receptionist were not going to get me clients.

I had to go talk to people. I had to talk to people that were hard nosed project managers. I had to talk to people that had raised sales resistance to an art form. The people I needed looked on those selling services and products as a lower form of life, suitable only for venting their own frustration in new and novel forms of humiliation. I knew what they were and how they thought. I knew because I had been one not that long before. Approaching those people was not what I wanted to do. My pride was going to take a serious beating. I avoided it for a long time.

Of course I did talk to some people, people that I knew and that were nonVthreatening. They were safe, but of course, they were people that would never be in any position to buy what I was selling. That is what made them safe. I went to lunch every week with someone, even people I didn’t know. We had pleasant conversations and it gave me entertainment deductions on the income tax return that I hoped to be able to file in the coming year. Of course my tax deduction files were well maintained.

Lucky for me, I had my friend Fear around. As he spent more time with me, I found the ability to travel to client offices. Rather than spend more time with him, I would sit in the reception area of the client office until someone would actually talk to me. When I met with them, I talked about doing business, rather than the pleasant technical discussions that were so much more comfortable. My friend scared me. He scared me enough to swallow my pride, at least sometimes.

It turned out that sometimes was often enough. After a few months of pushing for business, I still didn’t have any. But then it happened. I got a telephone call from one of the bigger clients that I had been talking to. My excitement level shot up like a 4th of July rocket. Then the details came. They had a need for some work that seemed pretty mundane and I would have to work out of their offices. I was being offered a contract position that offered nothing but the chance to make a little bit of money, at the cost of further damage to what was left of my pride. I had been a senior manager at a respected consulting firm and now I was being offered what amounted to contract clerical work. In the rush of the moment I forgot the nearness of my friend and quickly declined, before my financial need overwhelmed me and I accepted a position beneath my exalted opinion of myself.

I didn’t know which bothered me more, that I was being thought of as a contract employee or that the work wasn’t up to my exalted standards. I had left an honored front row seat at the campfire left behind and was now being offered the opportunity to scrub the pots and pans at a different campfire. How the mighty had fallen. I knew that I was being small. Even after nine months adrift on my own, I had no other real prospects. It was pride, pure and simple.

The adrenaline of decision had pushed Fear away, but now he returned and he was riled up. Over the next few weeks, I rehashed my hasty decline of the work that had been offered. There were many instances during that time that I nearly picked up the telephone and called the potential client back. But it so happens that pride is a pretty powerful defense against Fear.

But just as I was about to admit defeat, salvation appeared. I got another telephone call about a potential job. This time the opportunity was for a contract project manager managing a large pipeline project for a large local client. The offer was from a consulting firm, similar to the one I had left. I would work directly for the client, but the contract would be through the consulting firm. My pride had been hammered pretty hard and didn’t stop me from saying yes to this opportunity. In fact, I was pretty chipper thinking about making some money.

Funny thing about how the world works and the way things turn out. The job from the consulting firm was the same job that the client had offered me directly. Part of being a consultant is the art of knowing how to present things in a positive light. I had been given a title that made me feel better about what I was doing. In my more ironic moments, I smiled about the title and the power of baubles in our life. I wound up working for the same client manager that had called me a few weeks previously, doing the same work that he had offered me in the first place. It was my luck that they had not been able to find anyone else with the experience they needed. They had continued to search for someone, but had only come up with me again through a different path. After engaging myself and learning about the new project, I soon appreciated the fact that I did not have the experience either. But that is part of another story.

After the first few days, I got used to my new station in life and even sometimes enjoyed it. For one thing, my old friend, Fear, seemed to have taken a vacation. He was gone, for now, and it felt good. I was to spend most of the next year at this new job. I was no longer exploring out in the dark, as I had simply moved to a new campfire. But it was a year that served as an epiphany. At the time it seemed to be more like purgatory, but true education is not often an easy experience. However my experience there served to open new paths and new ways of thinking that were crucial to future endeavors.

Whatever success I came to have in later years was only possible because of this year, because of this stay in purgatory.

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