My evolution into entrepreneurship might, by some, be described as a windy road. Indirect, confusing, full of detours, or a roundabout way of fulfilling a dream. It’s filled with lots of highs and lows, successes, failures, lost jobs, and chance taking. Forging a path to entrepreneurship looks different for everyone, and part of my mission is to share my experiences and learnings and help others along the way. 

I’m not going to go too deep into my personal background, that’s for a private conversation around a good meal and a cold beer. Let’s just suffice it to say that I was an average kid, from a small town, who grew up knowing how to pick myself up when I fell, brush off my scraped knees, and get back on the bike. My parents taught me how to respect myself, look people in the eye, respect others, and be the kind of person whose word means something and could be counted as fiercely loyal. 

I was, however, fiercely competitive. Excelling in sports, I loved (and still do) a good competition and especially winning. Whatever challenge was thrown down, I would gladly accept. That trait, along with how to be a team player, listen and learn from good coaches, and push through till it hurts, has proven valuable life lessons that I’ve taken into my professional career. 

When I graduated from college, it was in the middle of a recession, and no one was hiring. However, I had my eyes on a company that I respected and wanted to be a part of regardless of what the economy was telling me. I went to work as an assistant manager in a national retail store to make ends meet. Together, my wife and I earned $18,000 a year! But I learned about hard work, long hours, scheduling, managing a team, and inventory. Each time I was promoted at the store and moved to a new location, I typed up a new resume on cream vellum paper along with a matching cover letter and mailed it to the hiring manager at the company I wanted to work for most. Three years later I got a call, drove from Pittsburgh to Cleveland for a day of interviews, and left with my dream job. 

By dream job I mean a product developer in the Research and Development group of a concrete chemical company in Cleveland, OH. I was shoveling stone, sweeping floors, mixing concrete, honing my analytical skills, and learning from very smart people. What did that have to do with my marketing degree? Nothing. But everything. The foresight of the hiring director to, “Hire the right person and teach them about the widget later,” was brilliant. And something I do to this day. You can teach a person who is open to learning about what you produce and sell. But you can’t teach work ethic, loyalty, values, drive, or coachability. 

Three years later I moved from Research and Development where my name is on four patents, to Product Marketing and learned how to position and launch new products into a nationwide customer base. Combining the technical knowledge with marketing experience set me up to move to a sales position. I’d never done sales, but I knew that for me to grow in my career I needed to step outside my comfort zone. Well, I certainly did and moved to another region of the country, lost 90% of the current territory to the outgoing sales guy who went to a competitor, and didn’t know a soul. I was the new guy in town who didn’t have any relationships with clients, but I knew how to connect with people and how to ask interesting questions to get people to talk about what they needed and how I could fill that need.

I probably wasn’t going to break into the old boys club with new products, but how about using the same products in new ways, for new applications, that would help their business grow in ways they hadn’t thought of? Or sell to clients no one ever thought about before? In three years, the territory had not only come back, but doubled and I was awarded national salesperson of the year. That competitive, creative, never-give-up way of thinking I learned from sports served me well again. 

I did try the “grass is greener” move once. I left the division after 15 years. Four months later, I was laid off and found myself in a life transition, for lack of a better phrase. Thirteen months without a job, a lousy economy, and not many prospects shook me to my core. I had never failed at anything, and I needed to be knocked down a bit I suppose. Faith is a central part of my life, and it was being tested like never before. I realized that I couldn’t do everything by myself. My family, friends, and network showed me what it’s like to have to rely on others, lean on what I know to be true, and that I must allow others to pour into me because I just don’t have all the answers. Another life lesson that I continue to practice…surround yourself with good people. 

Eventually, I was able to go back into the same global chemical company but in a different division which prepared me for the next chapter. In this new division (new widgets), I went into Division Management where I led a team of over 40 people. Once again, I didn’t know anything about automotive paint, but I knew people, how to listen, develop strategy, and coach to execute. I later moved to a role where I managed our largest distribution partners across the US and Canada. 

Twenty-four years with the same global company can teach you some stuff. It teaches you teamwork, loyalty, navigating politics, how to build up and make a name for your team, networking, and the importance of developing strong relationships at every level in as many areas as possible. You never know what bridge you’ll have to cross, people you’ll run into, or experiences you’ll be handed later. Treat all of it well and you’ll be treated well in return. 

But sometimes something comes out of left field that will make you scratch your head. And you just have to follow your gut and take a chance. For me, I was approached at a two-day onsite client meeting and asked, “What’s your story?” Never one to shy away from a good beer during a rainstorm, I shared my story and developed a new relationship with the client’s Chief Development Officer. 

Six weeks later, I was moving to Charlotte as the new VP of Franchise Development for two iconic national franchise brands that needed “a boost.” These two needed to be dusted off and reimagined. Remember that first job, hire the right person and teach them the widget later? I had never been in the franchising space, but was eager to learn, excited to be a part of a new story, and enjoyed this new challenge. 

Unfortunately, or fortunately, an unexpected downsize, led to another opportunity. This time with a start-up franchise sales organization. Once again, a new opportunity to learn and grow a business. I’d always wanted to build something from the ground up and here it was. In 2 ½ years, with the help of some very good people on my team, we went from 5 employees to 25. I had a really strong team that was making an impact on people’s lives and helping them to enter the world of entrepreneurship. The lessons learned there have shaped the businesses I’m part of today.

After all of these experiences, side roads if you will, I found myself both mentally and financially ready to take a giant leap of faith into my own entrepreneurship journey. As a result of some soul searching, prayer, and good old fashioned courage, I launched my own businesses. New life-shaping widgets. I’m digging deeper, working harder, and maybe losing sleep from time to time. But I’m energized, more creative, and more passionate about my work than I’ve been in awhile. For me, this windy path through corporate America, franchising organizations, and now, my own business, makes perfect sense, and I am exactly where I’m meant to be. 

I’m going to sound like “that guy” now, and there are a few lessons to keep close: 

  • Respect yourself, keep true to your values, respect others, keep your word, and stay loyal
  • Trust the process, continue learning, and be coachable. 
  • Nothing is random. Each experience is useful and important. 
  • The road to entrepreneurship, or anything, is rarely straight. It may look like one thing, morph into another, then another, and then another… but it always leads to a destination you never imagined.