Learning from BIG mistakes

April 4th, 2011

It was 1986.  I just had to scratch the entrepreneurial itch again.  I had helped start a parent-cooperative elementary school, The Schoolhouse, ten years earlier, and wanted to start something in my ‘new’ field, energy conservation / energy management, which I entered back in ’79 after six years as an educator.  Bernie Sanders had been elected Mayor of Burlington by a 10 vote margin five years earlier and Burlington was just beginning to be a hotbed for progressive politics, food and business, my real passions.

I answered an ad in the Burlington Free Press titled “Wanted: General Manager/Entrepreneur” to start-up and head-up an employee-owned and managed energy services company, that was to be the for-profit part of Vermont Energy Investment Corp’s (VEIC) double business plan.

After meeting with Beth and Blair, the co-founders and heads of VEIC, and hearing about their plan to kick-start the business by taking over the regional Weatherization Program (with the current mayor of Burlington’s help as the then community outreach Director), along with their 25 employees and $300,000 in state contracts, and their agreeing to include my commercial/industrial energy services business idea, I signed on.

It was like strapping myself to a 2,000 ton Titan Rocket.  From zero revenue to half a million dollars in less than a few months.  30+ employees who were all being trained to be employee-owners, in addition to working on their ‘day job’.  Providing low-income weatherization services to Chittenden/Grand Isle county residents one minute, installing the first packaged cogeneration system in VT at an Enosburg Falls Senior Living facility the next.

Talk about too much too fast!!  As quickly as we had risen in ’86, we crashed down to earth in ’88 after hearing that the funding organization for our employee-owned business decided to stop funding start-ups.  Of course that was after we spent over $50,000 of our own time and money hiring the very same Boston-based organization to train us in how to be an employee-owned and managed business.

In addition to losing a business I lost a best friend, a lot of sleep and my perspective.  I did gain a tremendous amount of understanding for what it takes to embrace incredibly different kinds of people in owning and managing a business, especially a business that was trying to succeed at all three bottom lines at the same time.

I learned that my dreams might sometimes be just that… only dreams.  No basis for reality.  I learned that seeing the world through rose colored glasses had its downside.

Lots of lessons.  Costly lessons.  I often refer to that two-year period as when I earned my MBA, the hard way.

So what did I learn? Focus on one (or two, tops) thing at a time.  If you’re going to include a friend in the business make sure that you’re committed to full, and I mean FULL transparency.  No matter how difficult that becomes.

And be prepared to fail. If you think in baseball terms, where the greatest most fantastic ball players of all time are known, and idolized, for having a lifetime hitting average of .344 (Ted Williams) or .342 (Babe Ruth) which means… You miss (fail) two out of three times.

That’s what success, dare I say greatness, looks like.  Getting it right one time out of three.

As long as you’re learning, and enjoying it, most of the time.