Adventures of an Entrepreneur: Prologue

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The world can be a dark and cold place. When we find a place of comfort and warmth, we feel ourselves blessed and put down roots. It has ever been that way with us, with human beings. To one blessed with an imaginative eye, one can see a group of early human beings sitting around a large and bright campfire on a dark and moonless night. It is a picture of welcome and home, with the people sharing food and talking with each other around that fire. Their gaze is on the fire or on each other. But as we continue to watch, we see that there are times when one of the group turns around and looks out into the dark. As his eyes recover from the glare of the fire, he sees shadows out in that dark and his face assumes a wistful look. Somehow we can sense that there is a growing distance between that one gazing into the dark and the others around the fire.

Why do some people dream of leaving a comfortable seat around the fire and venture out into the dark? There is companionship, security and warmth around that fire. We look around at the familiarity of our lives.  We are at peace. We are comfortable. And yet there is an irresistible urge, in some of us, to leave that comfortable place and venture into the dark, into the unknown country. That unknown country is dark and it scares us, but it is also a place of excitement and allure. To some, to me, it is and was irresistible.

To those who feel that pull, there is a logical part of our brain that watches in horror as our eyes gaze into the featureless depths of that great dark. The thinking part of our brain is not a fool. There are all manner of beasts in that dark. An earlier age stamped their maps with the phrase, “Here there be dragons.” There is no shortage of fears with which to populate that dark. Even more foreboding is our knowledge that we do not venture into that dark alone. We have a family and responsibilities that will follow us into that formless dark. By what right do we risk their comfort and security?

And yet, our mind is ever drawn back into that featureless dark. During our days of comfortable routine, we daydream of future triumph and glory. At night and early morning, we suffer through stomach churning panic attacks caused by the recklessness of our own ideas.  Our own body, our gut, urges us to give up this reckless fascination. But we cannot. That dark unknown has captured us and we know that we will, we must, someday rise from our comfortable spot and go out into the dark. We have no choice but to explore the undiscovered country. There is no choice at all.

The story of my trip into the undiscovered country, my adventure in the dark, starts in 1995. I had a good job. To be honest, I was making a very good salary. Not only was there a good salary, but it came with good benefits.  I was working for a good company with a good group of people. I respected my boss and he left me alone. In fact, I had a significant equity position in the company with the prospect of a future majority ownership in a profitable and reputable company. With over 20 years of experience in the energy business, I had seen some very tough times in the past, and I knew that I was in a very good place.

I had absolutely no reason to be disgruntled. But I was. I manufactured opportunities to lock horns with my boss whom I respected and admired. I engaged in endless water cooler griping with selected others. Selected others that I knew would continue to feed my spiral of discontent. There was nothing wrong with my situation, other than that the great dark, a far and unknown country, was calling to me.

I had absolutely no reason to be disgruntled. But I was. I manufactured opportunities to lock horns with my boss whom I respected and admired. I engaged in endless water cooler griping with selected others. Selected others that I knew would continue to feed my spiral of discontent. There was nothing wrong with my situation, other than that the great dark, a far and unknown country, was calling to me.

At home, I had a wife that trusted me implicitly; that is, my wife of over 20 years, a stay-at-home mom. We had four children at home; spaced 2-3 years apart, with the eldest going to college next year. I was making a good salary, but you know without being told that a single income family with four children in train through college is probably not flush with cash. It is probably redundant to say that we had no savings set aside for their college education. Despite our best intentions over the years, college would be financed out of future cash flow, not existing savings.

To return to the metaphor, I had a front row seat at the fire. A place at the fire that was warm and comfortable with more security and better prospects than I had ever had in my life before. Life was good indeed. But I couldn’t accept my good fortune. I just knew that there was a better place out in that darkness.

Looking back on that time from the perspective of 15 years later, 15 years of traveling through the far country, I can say now that it wasn’t a dream about a better place. It was a dream about my place. I am honest when I say that I didn’t ever envision anything bigger or better than what I had. Even as I dreamt of the future to be, I had no delusions of grandeur. It was all about the fire I sat around being my fire, a fire that I built.

I want to tell my story in the hope that it provides insight and counsel to others who feel the pull of the far country. I know that you are out there. I have met many of you. Some of you have followed or preceded me out into that gulf. Others of you have chosen to stay at home, but you know and feel the pull that I am speaking of. I spoke of “we” rather than “I” in the first few paragraphs, because I know that I am not alone.

I do not want to tell my story to vaunt myself, or to speak of success, though God has chosen to bless me with much success in my journey. I know the terrible risks that I took, the costs that I paid and the damage that I have caused. Rather, I want to relate my experiences in an honest and straight-forward tone. I threw caution and good sense to the wind when I gave up what I had and traveled into the undiscovered country. I risked not only my own, but my family’s security, because…

Because. Even 15 years later, I have no better answer. I can fill a book with reasons why, but they are hollow echoes in the grey misty canyon of “Why”. I am convinced that the question of why is a question of spirit rather than of reason or logic. From my own experience, I know that I can find logical reasons, compelling black and white calculations, proving my course of action is right. I am a consulting engineer, after all. Yes, I admit that I am an engineer. I calculate odds and use spreadsheets. But still I threw it all away to pursue a dream.

A dream? I hesitate to call it a dream, because a dream has some form and some shape. Rather it was more akin to what I imagine a dog might feel, sitting on the porch at night listening to the howls of wolves in the forest when the moon is full. As masters of technology, protected from the vagaries of nature and chance, we see ourselves as “economic man”. We change jobs because we will make more money. We move our family because the schools in the new neighborhood will be better. We make spreadsheets of the pluses and minuses of our proposed action. We act because the numbers and the logic tell us to do so.

But in the dark watches of the night, we know that we are human. We want what we want. Logic is the servant of our desires, rather than the guide of our destiny. Even engineers, those believers in math and science, are human at heart. And as humans, we are as vulnerable to the call of the wild as anyone else. In today’s world, we no longer strike out to find a new valley or to challenge a pride of lions. Instead we seek to carve out something new in the market. We become entrepreneurs. Rather than risking our lives, we risk our careers and reputations. Instead of the risk of becoming a saber tooth’s dinner, we risk bankruptcy and losing our homes.

Turning from secure employment to the vagaries of self-employment; or as it turned out, “company building”, required more than coming to grips with how grocery bills and college tuition would be met. Even though the real reason that I became an entrepreneur was the need to run with the wolves, I am in most other respects a pretty responsible person. That is, I need to feel that I am taking care of business. I need to feel that I am being “responsible”.

I am a born-again Christian and I have always tried to live my faith. Raised on a farm in Nebraska and from German heritage, responsibility and duty have always been the bedrock of who I thought I was. None of these things is easy to reconcile with abandoning safety and security to pursue an opportunity to run with the wolves. But at the end of the day, as human being’s, we have a bridge between what we want and what we have.

That bridge is faith. Faith is the belief in that which is unseen. Because of who I am, I am a man with a certain amount of faith, as well as an abiding belief in faith. I am a Christian because I have faith in Jesus Christ. I grew up knowing my grandparents who left an old world to come sight unseen to a new one. I am here in the United States because I had great-grandparents with faith in a better future to be found in the United States. They sent their children, my grandparents, off into the unknown, never to see them again.

What is an entrepreneur, but a person with faith, faith in a better future? An entrepreneur has no guarantees, but an abiding hope and belief in the future.  An entrepreneur without faith is a corporate manager. Maybe that’s a little strong, but is it that separates those who sit by the fire from those who head out into the dark?

At this point in my life I believe that the difference is faith, a willingness to risk what we have in the belief that we will find something better. To leave behind the metaphor of campfires and wolves, it is indeed strange that rational people will leave a steady paycheck and comfortable career path for uncertainty. I have spent far too much time listening to the wistful comments of the people who populate the cube farms of corporate America about the their fantasy of being their own boss to believe that the call of the wild (whoops, the metaphor slipped in again) is heard by only a few. We all hear it, but only a few of us answer.

Entrepreneurs are no smarter, or dumber. We are no more charismatic or aggressive, no more driven by ambition for money or power or fame. All of the entrepreneurs that I know look and act pretty much like the corporate managers and workers that I know. We all get up in the morning and worry whether we can keep our kids out of trouble and save enough money for college.

But there is also a difference between the corporate employee and the entrepreneur. I do not think it to be an objective thing that can be measured by statistics or metrics, but is instead something immeasurable. That difference is an outlook that is conducive to faith in the future. And faith is a variable thing. It can grow or it can shrink. Like the upper body muscles I secretly examine every morning while I brush my teeth, faith gets stronger and more robust by exercise. Entrepreneurs exercise their faith as Arnold Schwarzenegger once exercised his biceps.

But we must be careful with faith. Faith can lead us astray. As we travel away from the campfire into that dark, we have faith that we will find a better place. And we believe that we will find it, else we would not go. But there are wolves, saber tooth cats and great rock filled canyons that we must avoid. Faith that meets with success too easily becomes certainty in the rightness of our journey and the wisdom of our choices.

As we meet with some success in our journey, we are tempted to begin walking with confidence, with pride, through that dark. Where we began with cautious steps and senses alert for anything we might encounter, our success emboldens us. Our faith all too easily becomes hubris. We begin to believe we are much better than we are. We forget that the dark contains many predators. We confuse luck with brains. Delusions of grandeur come easily in the glow of false dawns. If we are to find our way to what we seek, we must have the faith to begin the journey. Our faith must sustain us along that journey. But we must also temper that faith with caution. Faith without caution is a speeding driver with eyes closed. We all know people who are very smart, but have no wisdom. They are dangerous to themselves and others. Intelligence without wisdom is the mark of a fool. So too is faith without humility.

As entrepreneurs, we have chosen to walk alone. Because we walk alone, we experience emotions that swing from great highs to great lows because that aloneness, that loneliness.  In our moments of failure and depression, we must have our faith to keep us going. In our moments of triumph and elation, we must have our humility to prevent our foolish pride from killing that which we seek to create.

This tale is one man’s journey into that dark.

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