An Entrepreneurial Paycheck I Couldn’t Deposit

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The label “Entrepreneur” often brings the Bill Gates lifestyle to mind. We tend to believe that the payoffs of entrepreneurial efforts come in the form of expensive cars, mansions, luxury vacations, and opulent lifestyles. But sometimes the payoffs are nowhere near as visible. They don’t have monetary value. They only have the rewards that you experience in your heart and mind. Sometimes the memory, the sense of accomplishment, and the motivation from an entrepreneurial effort ARE the payoff.

In 1999 Susie and I moved back to North Carolina and began Masterworks School of the Arts. Initially the school had no physical location. I would drive from home to home giving piano lessons. My wife often called me the “piano man”. I was usually in the same 40 homes each week and I saw about 55 students. I have a whole treasure trove of laugh-out-loud stories from those three years that I will someday put into writing!

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in each home, getting to know the families, understanding the kids, and finding a way to unlock the learning potential of each student. As weeks passed I began to see something that I wasn’t expecting. An incredible number of families were struggling with family relationships. Parents who had to travel struggled with balancing work and family. Marriages needed help and answers. Some of the kids were out of control (one day a 4 inch rock actually landed in the middle of a grand piano from the balcony overhead as a toddler laughed uncontrollably – the parents just sighed…). I was being asked questions that I couldn’t and didn’t want to try to answer. In lighter moments I would laugh, but in reflective moments I would feel a real sadness for what I was seeing.

During this time our Pastor did a four week series called “Raising Healthy Families”. I remember sitting in the services thinking ”if only I could load up many of my customers and drive them 30 minutes to the church.” I tried handing out some invitation cards but soon realized I could not convince most of my customers to make the trek with me. I was searching for a solution for them just to hear the insight, encouragement, and principles of our Pastor. If they did it would change the dynamic of their families.

The entrepreneurial part of me wanted to create a solution and “fix” a problem. As I drove from house to house I kept wondering how I could get the families to a church thirty minutes away. Then one morning I saw a school bus from a school forty minutes away picking up a group of students. The school was expanding into an area outside the comfortable driving range of it’s normal student populace making it easy for parents to have their children in a good school. That sparked an idea – I would bring the church to them!! The solution was pretty simple. Bring the information to them in the form of a Neighborhood Guest Speaker Event. I hadn’t ever seen or heard of one, I didn’t know if it would work or exactly how to do it, but I knew the idea and motivation behind it were sound so we got to work.

Susie and I rented a venue, found a caterer, and started to promote the gathering for moms and dads. The only problem was the cost – the event would cost hundreds of dollars that I really didn’t have at that point. Still believing we had an answer to a problem that was really weighing on our hearts, we continued making plans believing that the risk was worthwhile and we would find the money somewhere. Then we had the idea to charge a seat fee. Outwardly while I was trying to tell people it was a good idea, I was thinking in my head that if I were a parent and was being asked to buy a ticket and spend my Friday evening at a speaker’s night on “How to Raise Successful Kids” I probably would have politely declined.

Then the first payoff happened. Several families said they had been waiting for something like this and asked if they could buy a table and hand tickets out to their friends. A huge sense of accomplishment came over me when I realized I had come up with a plan that was gaining traction. It was fun and rewarding to have “running partners.” Within 7 days all ten tables were purchased by supportive families and all 95 tickets were committed. I learned very quickly that there are always others who see the same needs you do – they just don’t have the mindset to get a solution rolling. Sometimes it’s just hard to come up with a creative solution and step out with a plan. But when you do the momentum becomes unstoppable! More than that – I felt like I had just had a huge “entrepreneurial payoff” knowing that we had begun something that was important and had taken on a life of its own.

The real payoff came the night of the event. However, at the outset I didn’t think there would be any reward because the evening didn’t begin well. Susie and I welcomed the couples in and I sensed a great deal of shall we say…..annoyance? Lots of wives were happy to be there because the people who bought the tables for their friends managed to creatively help us turn the evening into a social “must attend” event. As I stood up to introduce the speaker I saw a lot of crossed arms, frowning faces, and glances at wristwatches when I said “in just ninety minutes you will hear……” This had the potential to get ugly!

But slowly, things changed. As the speaker delivered his well prepared ideas, the body language in the room completely shifted. By the closing words our guests were sitting on the edge of their seats wanting more information. As I closed I asked them to say thank you to the speaker. The entire room stood to their feet and gave him a thunderous round of applause.

That evening, as I stood at the door saying goodbye and watching my customers and friends leave, time seemed to slow for a moment as I contemplated what had just happened and what it meant for the future. I knew the results of what my customers had heard would take days, weeks, and months to take effect – but I knew in some cases there could be profound differences. At that moment I felt a huge sense of reward- reward for taking a chance, reward for following my sense of need, reward for making a difference, reward for helping my customers. I felt a huge sense of accomplishment and I realized that what I was experiencing at that moment was the payout for taking the initiative to help meet a need. There was no check to deposit in the bank – no new students – no increase in the bottom lone. Nothing that I could point to and say look at that!

To this day, I feel that few of my entrepreneurial efforts were as important or as rewarding as that evening. I’ve seen a lot and done a lot, but most of it doesn’t bring me the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment as those moments did.

Looking in the review mirror I realize several important entrepreneurial life lessons:
1.  When God tells you to do something – just do it! He’s got the details!
2.  Gather people around you who see your vision – their energy and creativity will help the project take on new life and possibly a new look.
3.  You can’t always deposit your biggest payouts in your bank account. Sometimes your paycheck is only something that you can see, feel and experience from affecting someone’s life.
4.  When you see a need – don’t worry about the fact that what you see as a solution has never been done before. Chart a course of action that seems reasonable or maybe even a stretch and go for it.
5.  Sometimes you just have to risk investing when you can’t see exactly how the finances are going to work. ( I know I just lost the Dave Ramsey fans.)

Some of us don’t have the riches of an entrepreneur. You may have something more important – the heart. Some of you are true entrepreneurs and don’t even know it.

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