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People often wonder if entrepreneurial leanings are nature or nurture. Are some folks just born “that way?” I don’t know. I’ve certainly met a lot of folks that had a creative project or side hustle that just wouldn’t stop growing. I’ve also discovered a lot of people that seem wired in a way that lends itself to entrepreneurship. I’m probably in the latter camp, and for me, it started early.
Denny and the 100 ABCs
I was in 5th grade at Hillandale Elementary School in Durham. My penchant for taking on too many projects was already showing. I was in the chorus. And played the recorder… poorly. And played YMCA sports. And I was writing articles for the school newspaper (which is funny to think that we had one in 5th grade… I’m sure the content was lacking and even more sure that no one read that thing). Oh, and I was a student. There was that.
At any rate, as all classes do, we had a few knuckleheads that were always getting into some sort of trouble. Mr. Wolfe’s standard punishment was to assign 100 ABCs, due the next day. It occurred to me, watching Denny quickly approaching 1,000 ABCs, that he probably wasn’t super keen on writing ABCs, and that I had a lot of spare time in the afternoons after school. I was a latchkey kid for awhile after the divorce (more on that later, maybe) and like most kids I’d sit and watch cartoons while eating Doritos until Mom got home. And I was fidgety, in a way that often led to rather constant sketching or doodling.
So, that afternoon, while watching Barney’s Army, I wrote 100 ABCs. Not because I was in trouble, but because I thought it’d be of value to Denny. The next day when we got into school, I asked Denny if he’d remembered to do his ABCs, and as a dark cloud of panic swept across his face, I said, “I’ll sell you mine for a quarter.”
Denny then stuffed me into a locker and took my ABCs. Hard life lesson.
I’m kidding. He dug a quarter out of his knapsack and procured a fine set of expertly crafted ABCs, with authentic Dorito stains painstakingly placed in the margins.
Without knowing it, I’d taken my first entrepreneurial leap. I’d found a need in the marketplace. I discovered that people were willing to trade financial value to fill that need. I discovered that I could use available resources (my time and labor) to create solutions, and that I had to find the courage to promote it to the marketplace (asking Denny if he needed them). I had to ascribe a value to it (pricing… which I got wrong… he would have paid more).
This played out over and over again as I went through my early life. I sold candy to kids in Mrs. Neely’s 6th grade (although my competitor John Jacobs was a dominant Amazon to my struggling Sears). I started mowing lawns in 8th grade, and quickly learned that the skill of asking neighbors on either side of my current customers was a lucrative asset. As I progressed through highschool, I ended up with 20-30 lawns and a leaf raking business in the fall, endeavors which provided a value in the marketplace, created employment (I paid other students who came out with me), and ultimately, put a fair amount of money in my pocket.
The Need for Self Sufficiency
As an aside, I was deeply, deeply proud of having my own money. I was becoming aware that there were others with more money than my family had. Other students had sweeter rides, for example, but very few students had procured their own vehicle with their own money. When I got in my Datsun B210 (the color of which my brother accurately described as “diarrhea brown”), didn’t have air conditioning or power anything and was propelled by a two-stroke weed eater engine… when I got into that car, I felt pride. It was mine. I paid for it. I was not dependent on someone else for my outcomes or my stuff. That pronounced drive (that need? that hunger?) has stayed with me all these years. It has both helped and hindered me in my progression through life and career, but it has been a powerful and central gravitational force.
And it all started with 100 ABCs in 5th grade.