Sunday, December 6, 2009
The Entrepreneurial Spirit.
Above is my grandfather and my older brother, Ralph Cushman Sr. and III, both attorneys, and dabblers in entrepreneurism, taking care of business at Wilson Supply Co. in Houston, Texas, around 1955.
I don’t know why I have taken so long to write this particular blog. I have so many friends that are entrepreneurs, right here in Navasota, to whom I have felt the need to impart these things. So all of you, and you know who you are, take heed. Perhaps it will help some of you who are thinking about starting up a business, or give the rest of you contentment wherever you are.
My life has been an inadvertent study of the entrepreneurial spirit. And entrepreneurs can come from vastly different schools. There were examples of most of the following stereotypes in my youth that made an impression on my childhood. Entrepreneurs come in about six categories, and sometimes combinations of each.
1) Dreamers: Those who have an irresistible fantasy so close to possibility that they go ahead and jump in, ignoring all the odds.
2) Pirates: These are takers, as opposed to givers. They are unimpeded by conscience, rules or social pressure. They did real well in the sandbox as a child, and never slowed down since.
3) Sons of Privilege: Men driven to keep their father’s money moving around, either out of restlessness or delusion. They probably could never have made the money they are compelled to spend.
4) Social Outlaws: Misfits, malcontents, unmanageable types, rebels without a cause, you know, people who cannot work for others.
6) There is a very scarce sixth category, the qualified, capable, well prepared visionary. But this particular creature seems to have almost gone extinct, even though he was the only one who ever had a decent chance. I know only a couple of men that came from this mold, and will not waste any time discussing them, because there are so few around to be patted on the head, and if there were, they would have better things to do than read this.
Anyway, my family has been a breeding ground of entrepreneurial aspirations, wild ideas, cunning promotions, get rich quick schemes, and profitable, cutting edge innovations. These legends were what my brothers and I cut our teeth on. Our father was the genetic culmination of centuries of husbandry, by hard-working and industrious Americans, seeking a free enterprise heaven on earth. So deep and wide is this strain that my father, while researching the patent on a product he was developing for Western Well Screen, once unwittingly found his great grandfather had the original patent! Still, my father’s antics could be the poster illustrations for the uncharitable axiom that there is as fine line between genius and insanity.
In my childhood I remember numerous businesses my father pioneered. At first he did much like his father, developed businesses for wealthy men, who had money but little expertise. He had just a smidgeon more than them, but learned to translate his gift for product development, sales and service into tremendous confidence on the part of his employers. Then after he built up his resume, he went out on his own. My poor mother had to endure the passion and energy of his very first sales pitches, as he begged for her blessing; Covey Coolers, Cushman Contracting (paint and industrial), Saber Equipment, worm farm, tomato hothouse, house remodeling, Advertising Specialties, Bison Instrument and Gauge. Although I was proud of his innovations, I grew up understanding the price of his entrepreneurial inclinations. Thank goodness Mom only yielded to his schemes about half the time. Each was it’s own hilarious, if not tragic chapter in our lives. Meanwhile his brother was an oilfield wildcatter, always on the edge, and making Dad appear to be stable and responsible. I won’t bore you with the details. It would take a large book anyway, and this is a blog.
So you might say I have seen the worst of free enterprise and its ugly trail of disaster. And still, I have made my own, just ask my wife! And occasionally, addictively, I have seen a glimpse of entrepreneurial glory. The business types I described in the beginning were usually the people my father partnered with, or ran into while tripping along the path to financial ruin. And at various times he represented one or more of the six groups.
So I must go back to my grandfather to get any perspective on this curious family legacy. He too had tried a couple of businesses, and failed, during the Great Depression, and ultimately found security and fulfillment building Wilson Supply under Wallace Wilson. Outside of Hughes Tool, it became one of the biggest oilfield hardware pushers in the southwest. My grandfather, Ralph B. Cushman Sr., was the credit manager (literally setting up the likes of big oilmen like Oscar Wyatt), company attorney, and personnel manager there for around thirty years. He always saw my father as a “damned optimist.” Although he was known to throw ridiculous sums of money at each of his son’s aspirations, as each tried to make their own fortunes, he always remained only cautiously supportive, as he knew best of all that free enterprise is not free. He ended up pretty much spending his lifetime earnings trying to help his two boys, neither of whom could work for anyone but themselves, but who never learned what he understood; Business was very simple... “You buy, SELL, and get gain.” That was it, but neither of them ever really wanted or practiced that concept. Or neither ever had to. Making gain or profit seemed to be an optional, residual effect of their activities, and subordinate to self fulfillment and the thrill of the chase.
In other words, my grandfather understood, having swum with the barracudas, that if you were going to make it in business, you had to put away your ego and pride, and measure every move you made, every dollar you spent, with profitability. FEASABLITY. My dad always thought he was an old tightwad, that never had any fun, or realized any of his own dreams. And that is probably true to a degree, but he never lost millions for his employers, but made them millions, and built a pretty respectable nest egg for his family to squander in the next decades. His daughter Joy was the only of his children that put his responsible, steady approach to practice, and she made a good living working for Shell Oil for almost thirty years. As a woman, she never enjoyed the net he afforded to her brothers, and this was probably the great blessing of her own success. She had to do it on her own.
So why I am I telling you guys all of this? Lately I know some of my closest friends have had conversations with me where I seemed exasperated, frustrated, impatient with them and their ideas. My closest friends are the movers and shakers of this little town, and I am constantly finding myself in a true-life drama, playing my grandfather to their haunting impersonation of my father. In one week I spend more hours than I want to admit arguing with my friends, as they seek my counsel, about their hair-brained schemes. Thank goodness none of them are the Pirates, who make money by running over others, takers who are out to get whatever they can, any way they can. And they can all breathe easy, I don’t see them as lunatics either. Unfortunately they are not in the sixth category either, that is qualified and capable visionaries.
But America was built by dreamers and well intentioned investors, and even troublemakers who all had several things in common. Beside the fact that success is often inspired by their dangerous kind of tendencies, and their flaws can be assets in a fierce market of barracudas, they feed the economy even as they fail. So even if they do not make it, somebody made it because they spent some of their money trying to make money. And some make it. Independence, risk-taking, open mindedness, fearlessness, even ignorance can often lead to innovation and problem-solving which might mean invention, and with good fortune, and even better, God’s blessings, and new wealth.
But from time to time, my friends get discouraged and suddenly one day they see what everybody else sees, the magnitude of what they are trying to do. Suddenly they question themselves, their business plan, God’s approval and their survival. They should always have done the first, and routinely questioned themselves every day. They should know that a business plan is just like a budget, a piece of paper, an ideal or more realistically, an excuse, to either justify our intentions or our loan application, and they always get so mutilated by the end of an endeavor as to be unrecognizable. They must know that they should always start every plan with a prayer for God’s permission, and subsequent blessing, or else all is in vain. If they are having doubts after serious setbacks, deep into the battle, then they need to go back and revisit this. Perhaps they forged ahead as men often do, without the proper road signs and unaided by Divine blessing. The only way to make it in that mode is as the pirate/predator. Otherwise they are sheep among wolves. They should know that their survival was always a numerical improbability, only made plausible by Divine intervention. In fact, if they are not doing God’s Will, then He is obligated not to bless it. They are on their own and are doomed.
But it is possible. My buddies MIGHT make it. They have no idea how close they are to ruin, poverty and oblivion. And that is a good thing. The old blind hog does occasionally find an acorn. I’ve been there several times with my father and it is hard to watch. And even when he did almost everything right, he was still cheated out of success by more cunning men. Yet all three of his sons still carry that inherited entrepreneur gene. Each of us has had to tame this primal urge. It can be a blessing and a curse. And here is what I want to tell every one of my wanna be entrepreneurial buddies… (Besides never, never forget: Buy, Sell, and Get Gain!) So read and consider brothers!
First of all, are you in it for the chase or for the prey? Most men are in it for the chase, and they get what they came for. And that is why most people in start-up businesses ultimately fail. Adrenaline is flowing so freely, optimism is so blinding, hopes are so high, that the euphoria sets up a happy striver for the kill. They never see the sharks coming. Those in it for the prey, which is success, whatever that takes, the attainment of a specific goal, which is probably PROFIT in the end, show a very different approach. They do not waste time pontificating about all the huge grandiose vision they have dreamed up. They have learned that “vision” without the means, is just delusion or insanity. They achieve in measured, lucrative steps, and each goal can stand on its own. Their vision does not depend on some great unforeseen or outrageous windfall to make it viable. These things will only subsidize the delusion a little longer. They have learned to stir what they have, rather than depend on others or loans or inheritance. They do not confuse artificial life support with life. Real leaders and entrepreneurs depend on no one to shape and achieve their goals, but implement anything necessary to get there. And most importantly, they get there.
So don’t indulge yourself with self-constructed delusions, and don’t tolerate others showering their well meaning, if not shallow and patronizing encouragements on your ego. That will not make, or save you a dime. Don’t listen to the people who are telling you how much money you are going to make. More often than not, they are fools. Listen to the people who are warning you of the chuckholes you are about to fall in. As my father in law, another very successful man once told me;
“Don’t go into anything telling yourself how much money you are going to make; Ask yourself, can you afford the gamble and still be able to eat afterwards… or will it devastate your life if you lose?”
Surround yourself with the most responsible, perhaps critical people you know, and win them over to your dream with reason and common sense. Don’t get mad when they think you are out on a limb… if not out of your tree. Be a listener. Answer their doubts and questions with facts, not wishes and feelings. You have the rest of your life to boast and count your money and your chickens, and tell yourself what a genius you are.
If getting rich, or just successful in a simple business was so easy, then millionaires would be the norm and what you are doing would be no big deal. Being a successful entrepreneur is harder than anything you have ever done, and in fact so hard most people never even try. Lunatics always see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow… and sound thinking men can sometimes delude themselves that they see it. But successful men see an attainable goal, and like a general, calculate the risks and brace themselves for the battle. They do not focus on victory, for that is just the result of their plan, but more importantly focus on beating the enemy: failure. A good general is flexible and takes in his best officer’s counsel, and selflessly forges a winning strategy from the pool of information. A poor general is narrow minded, and forces his expectations on his men, and runs them into the ground. A real leader is first a good follower, knows he does not know everything and is comfortable finding men with superior knowledge that he needs for his success. A counterfeit leader is insecure, and uncomfortable with his weakness exposed, and rather than seek counsel, tries to bluff his way through.
Earl Nightingale, a famous motivational speaker, insisted that “in order to be successful, you HAD to do things you did not want to do.” That eliminates most people right there. This thing “we do not want to do” may mean getting up earlier, or working later or spending your savings, or listening to hard counsel, especially your wife or best friend. For every business failure, there was at least one mental barrier that became the insurmountable obstacle. Your success completely depends on how perceptive you are to subtle words, obstacles and developments, and how receptive you are to these challenges. Not how you dress or what you drive or how smart you look to everyone. You are in a war where most people like you lose. If you win, it’s because you listened, and weighed your counsel, and most of all, here it is, the number one reason people succeed, besides God’s help, is they persevered.
Perseverance is all powerful. Perseverance IS the entrepreneurial spirit. One of my favorite sayings about this, which I have had to read and remind myself over and over, goes like this:
"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."
--- Calvin Coolidge
In other words, even if I think you are crazy, and you are almost broke, and getting tired and are almost out of hope… Let me tell you this, I have known tons of talented people, who could not do what you do, or gotten as far. I’m not talking about your line of business. That does not matter, believe it or not. I’m talking about your inner fire. The truth is that there are many more, better artists than me, but they gave up. Most people do not have the guts and determination to succeed. President Coolidge was dead right about this.
“Quitters never win… and winners never quit”
Don’t quit now. Just stop, regroup and take a deep breath, talk to God, LISTEN, (for a change) and IF HE SAYS GO, charge the hill one more time. At this point, after going this far, the only thing you have to lose, is victory.