Walking to the Rockies game yesterday, I was struck by the bustling entrepreneurial spirit on display. From the myriad pop-up game-day parking lots (ranging from $25 – $40 per spot), to the ticket sellers (“I buy tickets”, means “I sell tickets”), to the independent street vendors outside the ballpark marketing peanuts and beverages for half the in-ballpark price.
I have been an entrepreneur in training for most of my life. For much of that time I didn’t associate the term entrepreneur with what I was doing, nor would I have been able to spell it. Yet there were several entrepreneurial things I did even before graduating from high school.
- Ran a paper-route (at age 12)
- Door-to-door newspaper sales. To get more revenue and “signing bonuses”
- Picked up odd jobs to make a few bucks. Jobs like fence painting, baby sitting & lawn mowing
- Traded collectible cards… for fun and for profit
- Built a “sluice-box” and panned for gold
In college I did even more. I was trading and auctioning collectible cards via Usenet and the Web… in addition to trading face-to-face. I found that trading up (trading several lower-value cards for one or two high-value cards) was my most lucrative strategy for making money. I had to give up my personal collector’s mindset; to be willing to break up my collections when good deals became available. I learned to put together targeted, marketable, ready-to-use (turnkey) sets in order persuade folks to part with one of their rare, sought-after cards. As I got more market savvy, I learned to trade high convenience for high value. This helped hone my fledgling negotiation skills.
I built up a reputation as a trustworthy vendor/trader who represented the quality of my cards honestly, who mailed them promptly, and packaged them carefully so they arrived in good condition. I was doing this before anyone ever heard of eBay.
In college, I developed a software product called Visual Math 3D. Looking through my notes, the proposed company structure was:
EngimaSoft, a division of Paradigm Software, a branch of Millennium Corp.
No shortage of boldness there! I see now that others have grabbed most of these names. Good for them, they are good names.
Visual Math 3D had a logo and marketing pitch for the cover of the box. Unfortunately, I had too much school work (and school play) to bring the software to market. Had I been more business-savvy at the time I would have brought in one or two partners to help market the product. Who knows… it could have grown into a competitor of Mathematica, AutoCAD, or Excel — it had aspects of all three.
I continue to be an entrepreneur in training. I’ve learned a few things.
- Business cards: I have business cards now!
- Smile, listen, and mingle.
- Listen to feedback.
- Keep your sales pitch short, then converse like a real human being, not a sales droid.
- Market both yourself and your company/venture. Online and offline.
- Market to people who are actually interested. Don’t waste time selling ice to Eskimos.
- Advertising. A necessary evil. Yes, you will likely have to part with some capital to grab the right people’s attention in a positive way.
- Branding. Logos, tag lines, style. Done right branding creates a sense of professionalism, familiarity, and trust.
Financially my most successful ventures have not been lofty, swing-for-the-fences efforts. Balhiser LLC’s rental property has earned over $10,000 and prospects remain good. The Sigma1 proprietary-trading group is currently up $2700, but markets are fickle. My card trading activities netted about $1200 over 4 years. My paper route earned about $1100 over 1.5 years.
Except for the rental property business, all my business ventures have been self financed and operated on shoe-string budgets. They have also been part-time, night and weekend activities. I have a full-time career in engineering, and while my employer hasn’t given me the golden handcuffs yet, I do wear a nice silver pair. Thus entrepreneurship will continue to be a part-time activity
My entrepreneurial successes have been modest, yet I am undaunted (at least most of the time). Today I am a minor league entrepreneur. I believe that within the next ten years I am likely to make it to the majors, because I have good ideas, tenacity, and passion. Luckily I know several successful entrepreneurs, and I listen to and learn from them. They encourage and inspire me when I need a little emotional support.
Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. It is difficult, if not impossible, to teach in a classroom; entrepreneurship must be experienced. It can be fraught with setbacks and dead ends. Passion can turn lead to burnout and frustration. Yet entrepreneurship can be exhilarating, stimulating, empowering, fulfilling and fun.
Entrepreneurs continue to drive the US economy. The best, most concise, most creative ideas come from entrepreneurs . Entrepreneurs also deliver mundane, but necessary goods and services ranging from car washes, to restaurants, street-side baseball snacks, and rental properties.
The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the US. Recessions wipe out jobs, and some of the unemployed try out an entrepreneurial path. While many fail, some succeed. Some that succeed thrive, and build the businesses of tomorrow. These people create not only jobs for themselves, they create jobs for others. They drive innovation and keep America competitive.
I am not expert on entrepreneurship, but I am an entrepreneur. I work with other entrepreneurs and admire their spirit. While Washington pays lip-service to entrepreneurs, it seems to be ignoring the obstacles it puts into place, impeding entrepreneurs:
- Self-employment taxes. Small business pays Social Security and Medicare twice on every dollar earned. Even on the very first dollar.
- Employment and payroll rules and regulations. The red tape is one reason I hesitate to hire any employees.
- Regulations. The only reason my hedge fund is not open to the public (at least to select accredited investors) is the mountain of regulatory requirements.
Even against daunting odds and government red tape, entrepreneurs find a way. There are many who let red tape and taxes cause them either not enter the entrepreneurial game or quit it out of frustration. This is a shame, and a loss for the US economy. There are those who give up one entrepreneurial path (their first) choice, to pursue an alternate entrepreneurial path. This, too is a loss, but perhaps not a severe. Finally, there are some small businesses that simply stop growing… not from lack of opportunity, but to avoid the deep, sticky, red tape of employment law.
Right now I’m the category of entrepreneurs who are forgoing (for now) my first venture: the Sigma1 Hedge Fund, and pursuing my secondary venture — financial blogging. I have a couple accredited investors willing to invest with me, but I have told them for now to put that on hold.
It’s not that financial blogging is not enjoyable, it’s simply far more difficult to make reasonable profits from a finance blog. Given a choice, I’d rather make $250,000/year from blogging than managing a hedge fund. It’s much more likely that managing a hedge fund has a greater chance of making that kind of money. That, dear readers, is why blogging is my second choice for a business undertaking.
Entrepreneurs, I’d love to hear your stories. How you succeeded, how you failed, what you learned? Has government (federal, state, local) red tape gotten in your way? Have you found ways to succeed in spite of all that?