A few days ago I was on the phone with a young man who was suffering from a disease that is common to all of us: depression. His company had failed. He'd put his heart, soul, and cash into the business, and he didn't know how he could face his friends -- most of whom were investors -- and admit that it was all over.
As I listened to him, I knew just how he felt, because I've been there, too. The best I could do was to pass on to him something I learned long ago: this particular kind of depression goes away the minute the next opportunity is in sight.
A lot of people think that the most distinguishing quality of entrepreneurs is their willingness to take risks, but I'm not so sure. It seems to me that it's the ability to put the past behind you and to seize now opportunities that separates the entrepreneur from everybody else.
I suspect that we each have the same number of opportunities in a lifetime. It's kind of like playing high-stakes poker. Every player gets the same number of good cards. It's how you play all the hands that determines whether you're a winner or a loser when the game is over. So it is with business.
In an attempt to cheer up my distraught young phone caller, I told him about a deal of mine that went wrong some years ago. I was, at the time, "huckstering" my way around the world. I would get on an airplane with a ticket to somewhere -- anywhere -- and when I got there I would find out who the Coca-Cola distributor was in that area. In those days at least, wherever Coca-Cola was, it hired a local person to be its distributor. And, wherever I was, he was the first person I'd look up. To begin with, he spoke English, which was the only language I knew. He had a lot of money -- otherwise he wouldn't be a distributor for Coke. And he knew all the important people in the community. Most important, he couldn't be sure that I didn't know the president of The Coca-Cola Co., since I let him know right away that I was from Georgia, which, for most Coca-Cola distributors, is the center of the universe.
At my first meeting, I would explain that I was in his country looking for possible joint ventures for various U.S. and British companies, which was true, although the U.S. and British companies weren't necessarily aware of my efforts on their behalf. In retrospect, I am shocked that anyone would believe me, but the fact, is, no one questioned my story.
Well, one day I found myself in Baghdad, Iraq, in the office of the local Coca-Cola distributor. Ahmed and I quickly got on a first-name basis and became pretty good friends. A few days after we met, he invited me to a cocktail party, which of course was illegal, since it's against Islamic law to drink liquor. And about an hour into this gathering, I met the son of the prime minister of Iraq, who invited me to go on a wild boar hunt the next day. That sounded like fun, since I had, back in my youth on a Georgia farm, killed a lot of hogs. If I had had fewer martinis, I would have asked some pertinent questions about the difference between killing hogs in Georgia and going on a wild boar hunt in Iraq, but I didn't. Hence my story.
The next day, I arrived at the appointed spot, which was an enormous palace in the middle of nowhere, at the appointed time, which was daybreak. I also arrived with a humongous hangover. It didn't take long for me to realize that I was in the wrong place, for the wrong reason. I became convinced when a guy presented me with a 12-foot spear and a horse. As I looked around, I saw all these men in white robes milling around astride their horses. It gradually sank into my head that we were supposed to go run down wild boars and stick them with our lances.
Now back where I came from, nobody in their right mind ever got that close to a mad Georgia hog, much less one that was not only mad but wild and had teeth about a foot long. As a matter of fact, the only way I had ever killed a wild hog was sitting on a platform in a very high tree with a 30-30 rifle. Here I was on a horse, about to be practically face-to-face with a wild animal that had a contrary mind about being lanced. Still, I went trotting away on my first and, I assure you, my last wild boar hunt. As luck would have it, one of the crazy beasts ran into my spear, which surprised me more than it did the boar.
Anyway, when the hunt was over, and everybody was congratulating me, I was presented with a certificate that was good for one pound sterling. You see, in Iraq at that time there were jillions of wild hogs roaming around the country and rooting up all the crops. They were a national menace, and, since Muslims don't eat pork, they had no natural enemies. All they had to worry about was the occasional hunting party, which meant that the hog population was on a steady increase.
In view of this, the government had devised a clever plan: it would give one pound sterling, which was worth about $3, for every hog that was killed. At that moment, in my mind, a new business was founded. I cornered the prime minister's son and asked him if he thought his daddy would give me the exclusive commercial rights to rid his nation of the wild hogs. He thought I was nuts until I told him my idea: I explained that we could organize a company, buy or rent about a dozen jeeps, put guns on them, and go hog hunting. It wasn't just the $3 that interested me, but the thought that here was a supply of hog meat that was not only free, but somebody would pay us for it. I reckoned that we could put up a processing plant to can 100% pork meat, and sell the world's cheapest dog food to U.S. supermarkets. How could we miss? Our raw material was free, our supply inexhaustible, and, with our exclusive arrangement, there would be no competition.
Not only did the prime minister's son agree, but by the time he had stopped laughing and telling the story, all his friends wanted to invest in the new company. I was about to become "king of the dog food business." We would all get rich selling Harrell's 100% Pork Dog Food. Now I'd like to end the story there, because the real ending will break your heart.
Armed with the exclusive franchise to establish a wild-hog processing operation in Iraq, and also armed with a lot of Iraqi money, I grabbed a plane to the United States in search of equipment, which was readily available. I met with food brokers and supermarket buyers. Everybody was excited about the potential. Why not? My price was about half the going price for the stuff they were calling dog food. I was on a roll, every day was more exciting than the day before, and then -- suddenly -- disaster. Out of the blue, the fortune was plucked right out of my hands. A coup overthrew the Iraqi government and overthrew all my investors at the same time.
I can but presume that wild hogs are still rooting up all the crops in Iraq, and I suppose that some rich young men still are riding their trusty steeds on wild boar hunts -- killing hogs for which I hold the exclusive franchise. In the meantime, there isn't any 100% pork dog food on the market, and I am not king of anything.
It's a funny story now, but I certainly wasn't smiling at the time. Like the young man who called me, I sank into a depression. The difference was that it wasn't the first such disappointment for me, and I well knew the cure. So, two weeks later I was on another plane to another place -- this time to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. When I landed, my first question was "Who is the local distributor for Coca-Cola?" And so, again, a new poker hand.