Class of '77

We aren't the only business that's taking a look back at its first quarter-century.
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the May 2002 issue of Entrepreneurs Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

If today's entrepreneurs could travel back in time and start a business in 1977, they would hardly recognize Stephen B. Holben's world.

Sure, some of what they'd find would feel familiar-the new Star Wars movie coming out, and, hey, this is the year Elvis dies?-but what would seem strange is starting your company the way Holben, now 57, did. You would be without the aid of e-mail, a cell phone or a fax machine. There's no Staples or Office Depot. FedEx delivers to only a handful of cities. There aren't even a dozen business incubators in the country (today, there are over 900). With the exception of your fresh copy of the debut issue of Entrepreneur, you'll have to go through this mostly alone.

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Today, Holben Building Corp. is, in many ways, typical of entrepreneurial businesses. It is prosperous, if not a phenom. The commercial and residential construction company averages about $3 million a year, way up from the less than $200,000 it brought in in 1977. He once had several employees, but Holben is now on his own, overseeing about 50 contractors, and on some projects as many as 400.

Decked out in his bell-bottoms and large shirt collars, Holben started Holben Building Corp. in his native Denver in June 1977, one month after Entrepreneur debuted and more than a year after he was laid off from the corporate world. Although he was full of admiration for his father, who owned a public accounting practice, the way Holben felt about entrepreneurship back then pretty much sums up the attitude of his generation: "I thought, 'Yeah, I'd like to do this, but one has to first develop the confidence-or desperation-to start a company.' "

By 1977, Holben was just desperate enough. His cousin, Bill Holben, an accountant, suggested they go into business constructing houses, and Steve agreed. Bill soon lost interest and left, but Steve was hooked. "I loved, and still love, the independence and flexibility that being an entrepreneur provides."

Not that he's been living in Opportunity City. Holben's business was clobbered by soaring interest rates in the early 1980s, blasted by the fallout from the Savings and Loan crash and bruised in the oil bust that crippled Denver. He has watched the housing market plummet and climb through the dotcom debacle and the post-September 11 world.

His darkest moments, however, came in his company's dawn. Just two years after Holben Building Corp. launched, interest rates skyrocketed, and the housing market became extremely depressed. So did Holben. "I wasn't sure what would happen," he says. "It put a great deal of pressure on me, my marriage and my self-esteem, and created a great deal of uncertainty. And then out of the blue, my former partner [who had gone back to accounting] was moving offices and asked if I would build offices for him."

Would he? Does a starving man refuse a beef hoagie just because he's a vegetarian? Holben and his crew went to work, and for the next 15 years or so, he concentrated on building commercially, constructing everything from restaurants and banks to a post office and a nuclear weapons plant. "What started as my darkest hour turned into an opportunity, and I attribute that solely to my flexibility," says Holben, who recently returned to building custom homes.

Holben's flexibility allowed him to adapt to ever-changing technology, which he sees as the biggest change any industry has had to face. "That's pervaded every bit of my business," says Holben, who used to employ a bookkeeper, a job superintendent and several others. As employees exited, he found he could replace them with computer software. "During the early 1990s, it developed to the point where I could keep all of my job costing and tax planning and scheduling on a computer, and it's gotten better since then."

Better is the key word. Holben enjoys his work more than ever, and even carries his competitive entrepreneurial spirit over into his free time-running 10Ks and bicycling. To his delight, his children have been following their entrepreneurial instincts: His daughter writes for magazines, and his 31-year-old son has produced Spanish/English phrase guides for restaurants and landscaping businesses.

But Holben has no plans to cede the entrepreneurial stage to the next generation. He expects Holben Building Corp. to flourish for years to come. Says Holben: "I'm in very good health, and I don't like the idea of not working, so I anticipate staying in business for the next 10 or 15 years." Maybe even the next 25.

At a Later Date
Add 25 years to 1977, shake, bake, and you'll probably get a tale somewhat similar to Kim Reed's. Once upon a time, Reed, 25, worked at Xdrive Technologies, an Internet hard-drive business. When the company laid off 70 percent of its work force, Reed managed to escape with some serious savings. She moved from California to Kaneohe, Hawaii, last April and founded Frontline Direct Marketing LLC with $30,000 of her own cash. Her partner, Steve Pearman, 23, who worked for her at Xdrive, lives a half-mile away. Now the pair operates the company out of their homes, bringing in an estimated $650,000 in their first year.

But while the dotcom experience was good for Reed, she and her peers are pushing themselves as hard as any entrepreneur did 25 years ago-arguably, they're pushing harder. "I'll be working at 2 a.m., talking to people on the East Coast," says Reed, who doesn't seem to mind the long hours. "They're just getting up, and I haven't gone to bed."

Now that she has experienced entrepreneurship, Reed vows that she's an entrepreneur for life. "No, definitely not, never," she says, when asked if she could return to working for somebody else. "Having your own business means you're in control of your own destiny."

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