“The FBI is on the line,” said the receptionist one morning, as I stepped into the company. “They need to talk to you.” Now, even though I am not a morning person, that greeting will get anybody’s mind kicked into high gear. My heart rate doubled, and my mind raced faster than the Indy 500. Yes, it was the FBI, and they were simply conducting an investigation concerning some minor fraud that one of our customers had been subjected to.
It was an unusual start to a day for sure. But every day is truly unique, and every day is challenging in its own way. And if it isn’t challenging, I’ll find a way to make it challenging. I just love the endless variety and rapid change in my work. Wearing many hats and being the jack-of-all-trades suits me. Yet, as the company has grown, I have enjoyed hiring really competent people to take over various functions to free up my time to focus on what I—right or wrong—believe is more important stuff.
Life is a journey, and running a company is a kind of journey as well. Everyone in business talks about exit strategies and whether to cash out and all that jazz. I’m more concerned about enjoying the ride. I’m always peering ahead, trying to determine the next destination, steering to stay on course, and keeping all of my fellow travelers together. Some days I feel in control, driving the bus with a strong navigation system and lots of support. Other days feel more like I’m sitting in a random car on a remotely controlled roller coaster and pretending to have some kind of control. (Who is screaming in the background?)
My business adventures started at the ripe old age of 4, when my brother and I formed a joint venture. We went to a nearby forest and dug up wild primroses. We loaded them onto our small toy cart, and then we started our door-to-door services, targeting garden owners based on the looks of their gardens. Our revenues were low, as was our pricing strategy, which was to charge around 10¢ per primrose. On the other hand, our cost of goods sold (COGS as I would later learn to call it) was zero, so we had a 100% profit margin. As always, when something is too good to be true, there’s a hitch. Our dad did not want his children “begging in the neighborhood,” and thus I got my first experience with business being hampered by authorities and regulations. After that I learned to ask permission before I started anything new—at least until I turned 18.
It comes in pretty handy sometimes, and you especially notice that fact if you didn’t have any before. I put myself through university with a combination of temp work and income from political activities. For example, I wrote paid op-ed articles and gave speeches that sometimes were paid. Some of my current friends might justifiably be surprised to learn that I was hired for a long-term assignment on a weekly radio show about manners, where I represented the voice of manners among young people.
However, it was through clerical temp work that I made the most money. This allowed me to see business from the bottom up, and I do mean the very bottom. I observed close-up the pecking order of some companies, where new temps were kept at arm’s length on the outside. Other companies were warm and welcoming. Some had well-trained staff. Some had lots of politics. I remember distinctly that I felt different about contributing in each of these different environments. While you can certainly learn about culture in business school, as I did, feeling it yourself makes an unforgettable impact. It’s a lesson that has guided my business to this very day.
Some temp jobs were tedious, and I learned to grit my teeth and just do the work. I learned to keep myself listed with several temp agencies so I was assured a choice of income opportunities. At one point in my studies, I was so low on cash that I lived on $1.50 for two weeks. After enduring that experience, during which I tired of eating whatever was in the cans from my meager pantry and visiting friends and family at meal times, I had decided that would never happen again. These days I sometimes think I’d benefit from a couple of weeks of such a diet, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to relive those scary times—and, in any event, I tend to live a little healthier these days than in my happy-go-lucky youth.
About Risk and Living
My dad was declared dead 11 years before I was born. He officially died in a “Konzentration Camp” (KZ Camp). He would later tell the story about smuggling weapons into the camp, getting caught, and being sentenced to die. Waiting for his execution in a small, obscure hole in the ground, he was overlooked when troops liberated the camp, and only found later. The troops thought that he had already been executed, and he was listed as the last person to die in the camp. In reality, he was the last rescued survivor. After his rescue he learned that his family had been killed, except for some distant relatives.
I can’t imagine what my dad felt about going from a near miss of his own death to the news of the death of his family. I haven’t had to face anything near the risks he faced in those dark times. I have found that everybody looks at risk differently. For me, the story of death and close misses is also the story about living life to its fullest … to fulfill dreams … to celebrate … and to put risk in perspective. My dad’s story helps me do so.
“What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” This is one of those standard business questions that coaches ask, and that are good to think about. Yet it’s difficult, because you know that you may actually fail. In my opinion, you cannot succeed if you are not willing to risk failing, because the only way to avoid risking failure is to avoid being in the game. Maybe the biggest failure of all is not to try. Maybe I will choose that as my epitaph. One thing’s for sure, mine will never be along the lines of “Should have, could have, wish I would have, if only ….” Better to give it everything I’ve got. Better to give it my very best.
Don’t go shedding any tears for me, but sometimes it is lonely at the top, and anxiety can kick in. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” said Shakespeare in Henry IV. I counter that unease with friends, associations, and my membership in Vistage International, which provides me with a business coach and a peer group of business owners I can rely on for advice and support. My Vistage friends are of tremendous importance to me.
I also take action to stay on track. I have 1-on-1 meetings with my coach, and I also, perhaps surprisingly, have 1-on-1 meetings with myself—looking at my goals, reviewing whether I am on track and whether I am spending my time wisely. (Maybe I should call these 0.5-on-0.5 meetings, or 1-on-0 meetings!) And every morning, I ask myself what my most important goal is for that day. This simple practice helps me stay focused on what really matters to me.by