When I started my career in 1959 as a fresh MBA graduate from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce, I had no idea I would someday find myself building my own company with offices throughout the world to serve global clients from North America to Europe, India to China.
I also had no idea I would embark on a pursuit that would provide not just opportunities for myself, but a shared purpose for my family and an education for my children that would last a lifetime.
In the late 1950s, working for an automobile company was like a golden ticket for life: white-collar workers were almost guaranteed security, prestige, honor and upward mobility. The industry was responsible for one out of every six jobs in the United States, so it presented an implied promise of stability and prosperity for those who were looking to build a career.
In early 1968 I was unfulfilled by the career track I was on and, at the age of almost 37 (with a wife and three young children), I decided to join the ranks of “entrepreneur.” In some ways, looking back I realize I had no idea what I was doing, but at the time I felt like I carefully weighed the risks and benefits of starting my own business.
Perhaps many of the readers at this site share that understanding. I was tired of working for someone else who dictated the priorities and strategy. I had worked for some great companies and great bosses, but I had this burning desire to do something more, something my employers felt was too risky. I saw the opportunity or, I should say, I saw a fuzzy idea of an opportunity: to conduct market research independently for a group of companies, not being held captive to one client in a product category.
My late wife, Julie, and our children were integral to the experience and the satisfaction we gained from it. All four of our children worked after school and during summers helping us mail out and process the surveys. Sometimes they helped by conducting telephone or face-to-face interviews at shopping centers. Sometimes their jobs were boring, repetitive tasks like key punching data into the computer. As they grew up they took on more sophisticated tasks -- not to mention cleaning a few toilets, painting a few walls and delivering materials around the horrible Los Angeles traffic.
While we joke about utilizing child labor, we paid them minimum wage, including deductions for Social Security and other taxes, just like other part-time employees. It was my way of helping educate them on earning money. As they progressed, our children earned a little more and it was always in line, if not a little below, the market value we paid our other associates.
I knew they faced the burden of being the owner’s kids. But I also think nearly all of our employees thought that it was great to have my kids working. I know the kids learned they had to work a little harder because the expectations were different. And that was good for them.
All of this experience helped them prepare for their working lives and, I think, taught them how to balance family and work. It also provided me with work-life balance: had my kids not been involved with the work I did, I could not have possibly spent the time with them to forge a relationship.
My wife Julie played a big role too. Early on she helped with some of the processing and hand-tabbing of the data. But I valued her most for being my sounding board about ideas, people and strategies. In time, as I brought more people into the company at senior levels, she was still there giving me advice and support. And, she was always a great hostess when there were dinners, parties or events with clients and industry people.
We were in it together and my family understood the business better because they were part of it. Sure, they joked that I spent more time with the business than the other husbands and dads, but they understood. They continue to take pride in what we did and the impact we had and, though we sold the company in 2005, the work we did as a family informs my grandchildren’s view of their own opportunities in the working world. This legacy is something I’d never considered when I took the plunge in 1968.
I would not do anything differently if I could do it all over again. So, my advice to entrepreneurs out there is to find a job for your kids, or your niece or nephew, so that they can understand better what’s going on and can get a leg up in preparing for their working life.