On the 19th of May in 1986, I had just graduated high school (although I wouldn’t receive my diploma for some time… but that’s another story), and was striking out to get my first summer job. Being rather techy and more than a bit of a geek, I had come up with this fantastic plan to do basic computer maintenance for the local real estate companies.
Basically, these companies had a slight problem. Whenever someone started up the computer, they usually needed to access the MLS through a custom application. So they’d start the computer, run the application, and get the information they needed. In the process, the application would create several temporary files for speed and ease of access.
Then they’d click the big red switch and turn off the machine, orphaning several large temporary files on the drive.
When the machine was next turned on, nothing in the system had any idea what those files were or who “owned” them, so everything just left them alone. After a couple weeks, the drive would fill up and the system would stop working. Then they’d call someone to fix the problem.
So my brilliant plan was to go in after business hours on Sunday with a disk of the Norton Utilities, boot up the machines, and delete all the temporary files. Then, for further speed improvement, I’d defragment the drives. This was roughly a three hour process.
The first company I went to was the RE/MAX office down South Kings Highway from my suburban neighbourhood south of Alexandria, Virginia. I explained what was happening and why to the mortgage broker who ran the office, then offered to come in and fix it once a week for $20 an hour.
“Sounds good,” he said. Most computer professionals in the Northern Virginia area charged $60 an hour or more. “Trouble is, I can’t just hire the kid down the street to come in and work on my computers.”
Then, with a grin, he added “I could certainly hire a company that was started by the kid down the street, though.”
Now pay attention, because this is where shit gets real.
Most people would walk out of that office and say “he said no,” then go on to the next office. Or not. All of my friends would have just shrugged and gone home to smoke pot, eat Froot Loops, and watch Scooby-Doo. And at sixteen, who could blame them? They looked for a job, didn’t get one, and came home. That’s normal. They’d mostly continue to do that for the next five or six years.
But I’m an entrepreneur. That door was not closed in my face. There’s just a sign that says “you must be this cool to enter.” And if you tell a teenager to be cool, he’ll put his mind to it and figure out how.
So I got on a bus. And I went into Old Town Alexandria to the Fairfax County Clerk’s office.
I waited in line for a few minutes. Not very long. And when I got up to the counter, I asked “Do I have to be eighteen to get a business licence?”
This rather surprised the clerk, who took a quick look and couldn’t see anything about that at all. Other clerks joined in the search. After about half an hour, through some vague references in related statutes, they concluded that apparently you had to be fourteen to get a business licence.
I filled out a form and handed over some money. They printed out my business licence. I walked out and got on another bus.
It was just a couple hours later when I walked into the same RE/MAX office and showed the broker my brand new business licence. He beamed.
I didn’t really get it at the time, but I do now – it’s what they call naches, the sense of pride when someone you mentor succeeds. He had told a sixteen year old kid “go get a business licence,” and instead of saying “fuck you, grandpa, I’m gonna go smoke dope” the kid actually got off his arse and got one.
The same day. In a matter of hours. “Jump through this hoop,” he said, and I said “no problem.”
Therein lies the core of the lesson. Not the whole thing, because there’s more. But the core of it is just that: if you want to be an entrepreneur, if you want to own a business, you have to jump through the hoops. No, it’s not easy; no, it’s not fair. But those other people around you are not entrepreneurs and do not own a business. They trade their lives for money, one hour at a time. They don’t just work for a living, they live for the working.
If you don’t want to do that, you don’t get to be that. You have to play a different game with different rules. And looking back today, I’m guessing he’s thrown that same challenge at plenty of young people – from their teens to their mid-twenties, and some of them probably his own children – who walked out the door and shrugged and said “fuck hoops, I don’t jump for anyone.”
But there I was with my business licence, saying “yep, I jumped the hoop.” And he said “So that’s $20 an hour, right?”
“Actually, it’s $40 an hour,” I replied. “But I think there’s a kid down the street who does it for $20.”
And he laughed, and shook my hand, and gave me a key to the office. Literally, the same day, handed the office key to a sixteen year old kid. And I started coming in Sunday evenings around seven to go through all the computers, dropping off my invoice on his desk as I left. Monday mornings, I’d come in and the receptionist would give me a cheque.
Which brings us to the next part of the lesson. If you don’t ask, you won’t get. That’s the other half of being an entrepreneur and running a business: you have to take risks. You have to be more attuned to opportunity than you are to danger.
And yes, sometimes it all blows up in your face. Sometimes you find yourself in an obsolete field that nobody needs anymore, and you have to start over. Sometimes you wind up homeless. Sometimes you lose all your clients and contracts and have to go into heavy personal debt just to stay out of bankruptcy. And sometimes you lose it all, and everyone you know deserts you, and you end up living in a basement trying to get through each month on under $100.
But you also get the big wins. You get the $1.7 million gross annual revenue, and the over-$200k bank balance, and the near-$10k week. You can’t have those unless you go for them. And you’re sure as hell not going to get them by working for someone else.
Which leads me to the conclusion of this particular story.
Fast forward a few weeks, and I’ve got a bunch of friends working in minimum-wage jobs, struggling to get more than 20 hours a week. All of them bitching that they really wanted full-time work at 40 hours.
Remember earlier, when I said minimum wage was $3 and change?
That’s a little over $120 a week at 40 hours. $60 a week at 20. Less, after tax withholding.
I was making $120 a week for three hours of work. Easy work. Work a monkey could do. Literally. Stick in the disk, turn on the machine, wait about a minute and a half for the program to start. Take out the disk and go to the next machine. Ten minutes later, kick back and read a book – waiting for the beeps to let you know the machines are done. After the last beep? Turn off the machines. Drop off the invoice. Lock up. Go home.
Pick up a cheque in the morning.
I made about twice what my friends did for just over 10% as much work. They dreamed of one day having the privilege of working twice as much. And when they looked at what I did, they scoffed and turned up their noses in disdain. What I did wasn’t real work. It wasn’t a man’s work. It was just corporate bullshit.
One friend told me he’d be happy to do that work for half as much money. “Okay,” I said. “This week, you come with me to the office. I’ll show you what to do, then you can do the work and I’ll give you half the money.”
He didn’t do it.
Bear in mind, I’m offering to give him back twenty hours of his life. He’s working for $3 an hour all week long, and I’m suggesting that he can make the same $60 for three hours of work. But he wouldn’t, because he didn’t think it was fair that he would do all the work and I would get half the money.
And that, too, is the life of an entrepreneur and a business owner. The people around you will tell you that what you do is actually bad. And when they claim to be interested, they’re not interested in doing what you did – just in getting what you’ve got. They want everything handed over prepacked, with no risk, no loss, no consequences.
We don’t get that. What we get is no net. If we fall, we hit hard, and if we went big enough it may be a long time before we recover.
But now, almost three years into a much longer recovery process than I expected, after a much harder fall than I expected?
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s not about what you’ve got. It’s about what you did. All the stuff? The money, the cars, the house, even the people? Those can go away. But what you did… and can do again… is there forever.
I’ve been in business for twenty-six years.
You can’t take that away from me, ever, any more than you can take away the story of how I got started.
You can’t take away a single success. Sure, maybe I don’t have the stuff anymore. But it’s not about the stuff. It’s about the track record. It’s about getting up just one more time than you fall down.
So don’t count me out just yet.