I’ve been an entrepreneur for more than 17 years now, but it was never a dream I expected to pursue. I thought I’d go to college, have a career and a family and retire. And there was a time I was on that track. I was working as a sales engineer for Monsanto – which meant good pay, perks, and “security”. I was married to a wonderful woman whom I loved and who loved me. From the outside looking in I looked like the picture of success. Then in 1997 I faced a life-altering moment – I was arrested in New Jersey on a DWI. That forced me to admit that I wasn’t successful at the thing that mattered most – living in integrity with who I seemed to be.
I went home and talked with my wife. We agreed I needed help and I immediately started a 12-step program. Within a year, my boss said she’d never seen anyone grow so much so quickly. She recommended that Monsanto sponsor me in the Executive MBA program at Washington University in St. Louis. However, halfway through the program, my position at Monsanto was eliminated and I was the only person in the class without a job.
The MBA program has a prescribed curriculum with only two options for group electives. I decided to take the Entrepreneurship class. I held secret dreams of being an entrepreneur, but really lacked a business concept that I could believe in enough to pour my heart and soul into. When my group in the class was tasked with concepting a business to pitch to the class, I took my best shot. I told the team about the time a co-worker had come to me with the wisps of a business concept. Her mother had been in hospice care and refused to drink liquids because she hated the taste and texture of the thickening powder that she had to use to keep from choking. My colleague knew that dehydration would rob her of precious days, but she also knew that when her mother said, “I’m dying anyway, and that stuff tastes so horrible I won’t drink it,” she was stubborn enough to stick to it.
Faced with a desperate situation, she’d turned to xanthan gum as an alternative. It wasn’t easy to work with, but it was tasteless and the texture was pleasant enough that her mother was willing to consume it. I had some ideas on how to improve on this foundation but had never done anything to move it forward.
But the prospect of improving the quality of life of people who needed thickener to keep from choking was inspiring and my classmates were ecstatic to have a business concept based on an actual product. My professor pushed me and insisted that I pitch my idea to the rehabilitation teams at a nearby research hospital and nursing home. Slowly it began to dawn on me that I might have the opportunity to do work that did more than fund my life, I could change lives, maybe even save lives.
It turned out that my classmates saw the potential as well. They asked if this was more than just homework. If I moved forward they wanted to invest. They wanted to join the team. Then just as the business was beginning to show promise, and I was beginning to think I might try this entrepreneur thing, I was offered a position that was almost exactly the kind of opportunity I’d set my sights on after I was let go from Monsanto.
Starting a business is a series of question marks and every answer carries some risk. This job offer was a known quantity, all the blanks filled in. I talked it over with my wife. She had just delivered our first child and had quit her job to stay home. The choice I made would have many implications.
Since beginning the 12-step program I have been using one simple question to help me make difficult decisions. Rather than trying to work out all the long-term contingencies and possible outcomes I ask myself, “What is the next right thing to do?”
After talking at length, I had an answer. “If I turn down this job I’ll never wonder what it would have been like,” I told my wife, “and I can always get another offer. But if I abandon Simply Thick now I’ll always wonder what good I could have done.” Putting it that way made my decision clear. It didn’t mean that I would never take another job, it just meant that the next right thing to do was to stay the course with my business and see how much good I could do with it.
I know we all have days when we wonder if it wouldn’t be smarter, and easier, to just work for someone else. But looking back, I don’t wonder what would have happened if I’d taken that job. I know what would not have happened. I would not have learned the lessons I’ve learned or had the impact I’ve had.
So before you give up your dream and say “yes” to tying your future to someone else’s success, perhaps you can ask that same question, “Is this the next right thing to do?” The answer may surprise you.