The concept of entrepreneurship is intricately entwined in the national character of America, where for more than two centuries children grew up hearing various permutations of the Horatio Alger story. This message of resourcefulness and self-reliance conveniently meshes with our deep cultural attachment to the go-it-alone hero, who in our own time has been romanticized in innumerable guises – Gary Cooper in High Noon, Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo in Star Wars.
For a wide swath of today’s Americans, the face is now that of a real person – Steve Jobs, the enigmatic Man in the Black Turtleneck who always went his own way and believed unwaveringly in his own vision. He could be abrasive, and he got fired for it. But he persisted on his path, fought his way back to power, and in the end created the world’s most successful consumer technology company.
That is a powerful narrative, one that has no doubt inspired many would-be entrepreneurs as well as several successful ones. Tech startups have become the new garage bands. Rock stars in their own eyes, they run on dreams of the elusive unicorn –that billion-dollar IPO – just around the next corner.
What initially sparked my interest in writing about entrepreneurship was my fascination with a handful of legendary entrepreneurs from my home state of Arkansas, a great number of whom are renowned in international business circles: Sam Walton of Walmart, Don Tyson of Tyson Foods, Charlie Murphy of Murphy Oil, J.B. Hunt of J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, Bill Dillard of Dillard’s department stores, Kemmons Wilson of Holiday Inn, Witt and Jack Stephens of the financial firm that bears their name. Even Fred Smith of FedEx is an Arkansas entrepreneur with an asterisk – he tried to start FedEx in Little Rock, but the city fathers wouldn’t cooperate. Talk about missed opportunity.
Is there something in the water? That’s long been the joke within this small, largely rural state, and for a while I thought about examining each of these entrepreneurs in detail – what motivated them to do what they did, how they pulled it off, what they had in common.
That’s the conclusion I came to.
The thing is, I knew these guys; for many years I was the young up-and-comer in their midst. After helping sell Sam Walton his company’s first computer, I jumped ship from IBM at age 29 to start building my own database marketing business, eventually growing Acxiom Corporation from 25 employees to 7,000, with some $1.5 billion in annual revenue. Along the way, I was invited to join the Arkansas Business Council, known locally as the “Good Suit Club,” to which most of the above-mentioned business leaders belonged. In those sometimes wild meetings, and especially in the various committees through which we did our work, I was treated to a fascinating interplay of personalities and leadership styles.
And that, upon reflection, is what finally steered me away from trying to package these entrepreneurs into neat, little non-overlapping boxes, but, rather, to focus on telling the unvarnished story of one tech startup and let these legendary entrepreneurs show up in the narrative whenever and however they wanted. Not only were these seminal businessmen vital and sometimes over-the-top alive, but so – to me – is business itself.
I saw that instinct borne out in my last book, Matters of Life and Data. Labeled a “memoir’” it told my story organically, from boyhood into the grownup world, with all the challenges of home and office swirled together on the page just as they are in real life. We expect such an intertwined narrative from memoir, but what surprised me was the reaction I got from businesspeople who read my story as a “business book.” I heard from several CEOs who told me they’d ordered my book for each member of their senior staffs. And I was especially interested in the comments of a college business professor who wrote that my “memoir,” with its context and nuance and questioning and screw-ups and constant attempts to do better, was much more effective for teaching students about the reality of business than any number of textbooks with prescriptions handed down from the corner office on high.
I’ve taken that professor’s words to heart, which is why in my new book you won’t find any neat little lists of do’s and don’ts. What you will find is a no-holds-barred depiction of the colorful, crazy, messy, and immensely fun business of getting an enterprise off the ground and, hopefully, guiding it to a successful life. As you’ll see, my involvement with First Orion began merely as an investor; then, as various calamities ensued and numerous goals went unmet, I found myself sucked in further and further, I was running the show – despite my silly protestations that I was somehow “retired.” To my mind, this story is textbook entrepreneurialism, at least as “textbook” as any entrepreneurial narrative could ever be.
An entrepreneur is one who sets up a business and takes financial risks in hope of turning a profit, but I sometimes suspect that the word entrepreneur, from Old French, originally meant, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”
The preceding is adapted from Now What? The Biography Of A (Finally) Successful Startup by Charles D. Morgan ©2019 and published with permission from the author.