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Columbia Business Monthly

Entrepreneurs Aren't All Unicorns - Some Are Clydesdales

May 02, 2018 10:35PM ● By Makayla Gay

By Dr. Kasie Whitener

  In 2001, my dad suggested I start an internet company. Despite my knowing absolutely nothing about the internet or coding or even what that company would do, I took him seriously enough to call my friend who knew everything about it and say, “Wanna start a company with me?”

“Is this so you won’t have to get a real job?” my friend asked.

I shrugged. “Probably.”

When I told that story at an entrepreneurship meet-up on a Friday night at an event sponsored by the USC Entrepreneurship Club, I earned the expected giggles and snorts.

Entrepreneurship, as I’ve always known it, is building the company you want to work for.

Back in 2003, my husband went to work for Discount Tire Company, a privately-held company that is now the largest tire retailer in the nation with more than 1,000 stores. Bruce Halle, the founder of Discount Tire, started the company in 1960 and rose from poverty into the Forbes magazine list of the four hundred richest Americans. Halle’s story is recounted in Six Tires, No Plan, a book that details the creation of a sustainable, productive business.

The stories DTC employees tell about Halle’s generosity, his vision, and his engagement in the business all have an echo of awe and gratitude to them. The company carries no debt, grows only when it can afford to do so, owns all of the properties it occupies outright, and pays cash to build new stores. Its executives all began as tire techs and worked their way up through the company. They call it “the dream” to rise from part-time-tech to earning upwards of $100k a year as a bonusing manager.

“Get busy building your dream,” I said to those USC students, “before someone hires you to build his."

This, for me, is the spirit of entrepreneurship. When I mentioned that I started Clemson Road Consulting because I didn’t want to work for anyone else, one student said, “It isn’t entrepreneurship to just not want to work for anyone else.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that and what I think is that we have somehow hijacked the word ‘entrepreneur’ in the startup space. The startup ecosystem is often a short game fueled by venture capitalists looking to make money by betting on the right horse. The startup story has become one of speed, innovation, and serial founders. I submit that is not the only model of entrepreneurship.

We keep interviewing serial entrepreneurs, people who have built more than one company. As one speaker said Friday night, he’d built one and sold it and built another and failed at it and is now building his third. Many serial entrepreneurs are talented ideators: people who can solve problems, build solutions into minimum viable products, and then sell those solutions to companies with the resources to grow them into broader applicability.

An entrepreneur is a person who organizes and manages an enterprise and entrepreneurship isn’t always about cashing out. It’s not always about raising funds. It’s not even always about growth. Sometimes it’s just about finding work. Sometimes it’s just about earning money to support one’s family.

My third entrepreneur experience was working for Randy Austin of Austin International, now Vision Metering, while I was in grad school. Randy sold surplus electrical equipment to utilities. He was a junk salesman and a good one. Over the years, deregulation changed Randy’s business and he became a solution provider for his largest utility customers. Randy’s payroll was $30,000 a month when I worked for him 13 years ago.

Guys like Halle and Austin wouldn’t recognize themselves in the founders I meet at weekend startup events and pitch competitions. Halle wanted to build a legacy for his family, and he did. Austin earned business by solving problems for his customers, one problem and one customer at a time. He also lost sleep over making payroll.

Both Halle and Austin built something sustainable. It’s a life’s work, not a unicorn. Many of the business owners I talk to are entrepreneurs for the same reasons as Halle and Austin. They want to build something they can be proud of. They want to sink roots into this state and make an impact. They want to grow organically.

It’s slow and it’s purposeful and it’s not as sexy as the-next-big-thing. But it’s entrepreneurship. And we could use more of it.