Obama's Right: I Got Help Building My Business
Boy, did the president create a furor the other week when he said, in a Roanoke, Virginia speech: "If you have a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
"There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me because they want to give something back," he said. "They know they didn't--if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I am always struck by people who think, 'It must be because I was just so smart.' There are a lot of smart people out there. 'It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.' Let me tell you something: There are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you are successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you did not build that--somebody else made that happen. The Internet did not get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off of the Internet. The point is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together."
As a small business owner, I ask: Why the furor?
Yes, I get it. This kind of belief is populist. It downplays the risk takers. It's a knock on free enterprise. Even though I really do like the president, I don't support many of his economic policies. I don't share his beliefs in the role that the government should play in our lives. I still don't think his background is suitable for understanding a business person's issues. I'm not so sure reelecting him would be a very good thing for my business.
But can we all calm down about what the president said? Because he's right. Like all business owners, I didn't solely build my 10-person company. At least not alone. I had a lot of help. In fact, here are just a few key people who helped me build my business, in no particular order:
1. My father. Even though he was, in my opinion, the world's worst businessman, he did give me both a moral and financial start when we first went into business together back in the early 1990s. More importantly, his overall advice about what courses to take in college and for understanding the world were invaluable to helping me think ahead.
2. My wife. No one can truly build a business and a family together without a very supportive and understanding spouse. My wife let me use our family savings for the business initially and was patient with the hours I had to put in. And thank goodness for John, my next door neighbor, who kept her company through all those long hours alone. Hey, wait a second...
3. My landlord. For a few years, I was using a friend's rented apartment as my base of business operations. This was not a commercially-zoned building so technically I was violating the rules. The landlord of the building knew but turned a blind eye. Okay, okay. The guy was 87 years old and technically blind anyway. I'm not sure he even knew my name. But having a rent-free office while starting up was critical to building my business.
4. Howard Stern. Whenever things got tough I could always say to myself: 'At least I have more business sense then Jackie the Jokeman.' There is nothing like laughing hard to keep your mind off your start-up problems.
5. My accountant. I always make fun of accountants, mostly because I'm a bad one and was always jealous of the guys who did it better. And besides, mine is the one guy in the world that I could probably beat up in a fight, and that helps my self confidence. But in the early days my accountant gave me many free hours of his time in the form of advice and tax counseling that was incredibly valuable.
6. My early customers and vendors. These people knew I was still green and my company was very young. But my customers were patient with my technical mistakes, and my vendors let me slide a few days if cash flow was tight. People were willing to give me a shot. Then again, my customers were getting a rock bottom hourly rate so maybe they weren't as altruistic as I'm making them out to be!
7. Al Gore. For the Internet. Thank you, sir.
8. "Seth Metzman." A client of mine (real name withheld) who once sat me down for two hours and explained to me everything I was doing wrong in my business. This was from his cluttered, cigarette-smelling office above a strip mall pizza shop. I decided that doing the opposite of whatever this business genius recommended would be my best course forward. And it worked.
9. Robert C. He owned the summer camp where I worked from the age of 12 through the end of college. Initially he paid me (and a bunch of other naive teenagers like me) one dollar an hour to do maintenance jobs on Saturdays. It wasn't the money, but the lessons on how to do a job the right way that stayed with me the longest. Having said that, and looking back on it, I have to admit the guy made a mint off of us.
10. Jack Daniels. The best partner any business owner could have Especially after a long day of defeats. (In moderation, of course.)
11. Uncle Irving. My grandmother's brother. He worked most of his life for Meyer Lansky (another story for another day) and lived into his 80s. We were very close. That said, unfortunately many of the details of his stories were lost on a 15 year old at the time. One thing I did take away: make the other guy profitable and you'll have longterm success (not to mention life expectancy).
12. "Rich Anderson." One of my very first managers at KPMG. That was when I often forgot to wear a belt, wore different colored socks, and didn't know how to tie a tie. He saw something in me then although God knows what it was. He mentored me, taught me how to properly dress, and how to behave in a professional environment. Those seemingly silly lessons proved invaluable over my business career.
13. "Ed Baumdale." My all-time worst client. He paid me a pittance, abused my work, abused me, showed no appreciation, and was irrationally demanding. It's yet another story for another day. But looking back, Ed helped me crystallize which clients to avoid when building a business.
14 and 15. Mr. Brooks and Professor Sinclair. Yes, these are their real names. And they are the two best teachers I've ever had. Mr. Brooks didn't just teach me 11th grade chemistry at Central High School. He taught me how the fear of failure can bring out the best in me (and how to quickly dodge a piece of chalk thrown in my direction). And Professor Sinclair's use of the Socratic method to teach management accounting at Lehigh forced me to think ahead and be prepared for every class. How can anyone build a business without these skills?
I could go on. There are others. But you get the point. I didn't build my business by myself. I had help. Without them I wouldn't have made it to where I am today. I believe that's what the president was trying to say. And if that's the case, he's absolutely right.
GENE MARKS | Columnist | Owner, Marks Group
Gene Marks is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.