I haven’t thought about my entrepreneurial roots in long time but this Fathers Day, in the midst of launching a new startup, I can’t help but think about all the entrepreneurial lessons that I learned from my dad. Throughout my life, my dad was (and still is) very entrepreneurial. My mom was right along side him the whole way and was an entrepreneur in her own right as well; but dad was the instigator.
As far back as I can remember, my brother, my sister and I worked in the family businesses. Yes, that’s plural, business-es. Through very high highs and very low lows, my dad took us all on an entrepreneurial adventure… from rabbit farming, to garment making, to retail, wood product manufacturing, to furniture making… and a bunch of stuff in between. One year we’d be in the poor house… the next year we’d buy a new house and a new car right off the lot — with cash! Throughout the years, we’d move through these cycles again and again.
The experiences gained and lessons learned along the way were formative and invaluable to me — from the importance of family and the basics of accounting, to operating a chop saw and optimizing manufacturing processes. If dad was a banker or a fireman or a foundry worker I would have learned other things that I would hold dear… but you dance with who brought you and for me that means the lessons of business.
My first job was feeding the rabbits at B&G Rabbitry, our family’s small commercial rabbit farm. (“B&G” stood for Bob and Gloria, my mom and dad.) I was only about 8-years-old and I didn’t consider it work… it was fun. B&G’s business was selling rabbit meat to supermarkets. I still remember walking around barefoot on the cold, bloody concrete floor of the slaughterhouse. A gruesome thought, I know. I made up for that latter in life when I became a vegetarian. By the time I was nine or ten, I was stretching those poor bunnies skins on wire racks and hanging them up to dry a huge shed.
This was hard (and often disgusting) work for a ten-year-old. And the skins had to be stretched within hours of being removed from their former owners or they would begin to rot; so my sister and I would often be working late into the night… even on a school night. Sometimes we didn’t get them hung up soon enough and the smell would make you gag. We worked very hard and we complained about it… but we did it because it had to get done — lesson learned.
After a while of selling the meat to markets and the skins to furriers, my dad realized that the furriers and the garment makers were making most of the money. So he took it upon himself to learn how to tan hides. Back in the seventies, before absolutely everything you’d ever want to learn was available online, commercial tanning techniques were a closely guarded secret of the furrier guilds and so figuring it out wasn’t easy – there was no Wikipedia page on tanning. But dad figured it out and we stopped selling the hides and started tanning them ourselves. We kids were never allowed anywhere near the caustic tanning process… but we still kept our jobs stretching and drying the fresh hides.
So right before my eyes, as a child, I saw the family business change to compete with a new product in a new segment of the market. At the same time, we (dad) turned what was initially a byproduct of the business sold cheaply to anyone who wanted it into a new line of business that would quickly come to dwarf the original meat business… and which would become the impetus for several future (and substantial) business pivots. I didn’t fully understand what was going on at the time, of course, but I was watching it happen and I was doing it right along with the rest of the family. I can’t help but think that all those family-business experiences helped shaped the entrepreneur I am now.
I told dad today when I called him to wish him happy Fathers Day that I wanted to help him share the story of all those family businesses with his grandchildren someday. I realize that I’m taking my own family on an entrepreneurial journey right now as well and I hope that someday my kids look back on the lessons of this time in there lives with some sense gratitude as well.