Make Up Your Mind
Uncommon Factors to Consider Before Quitting Your Day Job
Call me naïve. It never occurred to me that my new business might fail.
Hey, this was me we're talking about. Tom Gegax. Four-sport high-school hotshot. Rising star at Shell Oil—earning promotions like compliments at the prom, tooling around town in a company car, illuminating for service-station managers the finer points of running their businesses. I knew it all.
In reality, I had no idea what I was about to do to myself—and to my family. Oh sure, my wife, Jan, and I had talked it through: Should I stay or should I go? Jan was supportive, telling me that I knew best whether I was up to the challenge. Of course I was. So I took the leap—and landed chest-deep in the proverbial creek, with the rapids rising fast.
Don't get me wrong: I'm glad I went out on my own. I just wish I had better anticipated the toll it would take. If I had been as prepared as you'll be after reading these pages, I would've dealt better with the inevitable crises that flew my way—and dodged many of them altogether.
Entrepreneurial types are apt to jump the starting gun. That pedal-to-the-metal mind-set is one of our greatest strengths. But it can also be our Achilles' heel. In our zeal to conquer the business world, we may disregard or overlook these critical start-up issues.
Consider the impact on your family. In my acceptance speech for Inc. magazine's 1995 Midwest Entrepreneur of the Year Award, I wondered aloud whether the price I'd paid was too steep. In the early years, I was a slave to the business, working miserably long hours. While I did attend most of my kids' activities, and even coached their baseball and basketball teams, it felt as if I was always multitasking, wondering how to replace a key employee who had just resigned or whether I would make the next payroll. My kids, who quickly learned to recognize when I was zoning out, would jar me back into real time by tapping on my shoulder: "Earth to Dad." As the business grew, I had more flexibility for family time, although it took a lot of focus to keep my mind off business when I was off the clock.
Was it all worth it? Would I do it all over again? Yes—under two conditions. First, I'd need to know everything in The Big Book so I could escape the straightjacket stress and strain of running a business. That calmer state of mind would fulfill the second condition: a better balance of work and family.
Face the fear. I was twenty-nine years old, my first day off Shell's payroll, and my wife and two sons were at a Dairy Queen in suburban Minneapolis. We ordered Peanut Buster Parfaits and Dilly Bars. As I handed over a five-dollar bill and took the ice cream, ten words ambushed my mind: Where will the money come from to pay for these? That thought was more chilling than an Arctic Rush brain freeze. No more checks on the first and fifteenth. No profit sharing, no company car, no expense account. Really, I had no idea if my new business could generate enough revenue to support the four of us. That undercurrent of quiet terror was my constant companion for a long, long time.
When in doubt, gut it out. Tell me I can't do something that I want to do, and I'll work my butt off to prove I can. My junior year of high school, there were fifteen seconds left in the last basketball game of the season. We were trailing by one point against a much larger school that my small town hadn't beaten in twenty years. I had the ball. Dribbling down court, I saw an open teammate streak down the sideline. Misjudging how far to lead him with the ball, I passed it behind him and out of bounds—and threw away our chance to take the final, potentially game-winning shot. I was so embarrassed and guilt-ridden that I didn't show my face in school for two days. The only thing my coach ever said about it was, "Don't bother going out next year; you won't make the team." I loved basketball, so his words lit a bonfire in my belly. I practiced five hours a day, every day, all summer long—with ankle weights. Not only did I make the team, I was leading scorer and all-state honorable mention in Indiana, where basketball is right there next to Mom, God, and country.
That unshakable—and, in hindsight, borderline delusional—belief in myself saved my business bacon countless times. At Shell, my manager said I wasn't tough enough to transfer from HR to the field. After a year, he relented and assigned me to the toughest part of Chicago, the near South Side, Bad Bad Leroy Brown's neighborhood. I helped take South Side dealers from worst to first in tire sales. As soon as I started my own business, before the paint had even dried on my store signs, a competitor told me straight to my face, "You're not going to make it, Tom." Even my equipment supplier had no faith. "I wish you the best," he said, "but it's just not going to happen." Oh, and Michelin initially to supply tires to us because we weren't big enough. Perversely, all that only inspired me to build a team that captured 1.5 percent of the U.S. tire market, selling over a million tires annually.
My post-Shell cluelessness did have a few advantages. Had I known how hard it was to launch a business, price and market products, hire and train people, make payroll, and pay off loans, I might have stayed in my corporate cocoon. But leave I did. Head down and plowing through crisis after crisis, I earned a Ph.D. in business management from the school of hard knocks. I can appreciate Winston Churchill's sentiment when he said, "If you're going through hell, keep going."