IntroductionThis is the story of my father, Burt Walker, a poor kid from Brooklyn who made millions taking the company he founded public — and then lost it all when he left my mother for a younger woman. I am sharing this personal story to help entrepreneurs.
Setting the stage
My father was raised in Brownsville, a poor section of Brooklyn, New York. He had an absentee father, a crazy mother and a wild younger brother. He worked from the time he was 9 or 10 years old, including selling ice-cream sandwiches at the Coney Island beach.
My father’s father, Arnold Walker, was the son of immigrants who arrived in this country with nothing but the shirts on their backs. Grandpa Arnold was a tough, Golden Gloves boxer, who worked at the local railroad and then opened a hardware store with his brother.
My father’s mother, Goldie Buch, was a High School beauty and then lost her mind somewhat due to medication administered to her during my father’s birth. Grandma Goldie stayed at home and raised the two boys, but had few tools to cope. For example, she rarely cleaned the apartment and kept three types of milk in the refrigerator: fresh for my father’s brother; a few days’ old for my father; and sour for my father’s father (who was rarely around in any event).
My father was a good High School student and was accepted for admission at the Brooklyn Polytechnic University, where he studied electrical engineering and paid his way by going ROTC (i.e., by joining the army). Upon graduation, he married my mother and was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina for two years, where I was born.
Our family then moved back to Brooklyn (where my brother was born) and then to Long Island into a small house my parents purchased with a loan from my mother’s father. It is here where my father began his 15-year journey from entry-level engineer at Western Union to founder and CEO of Walker Telecommunications Corporation, a NASDAQ-listed public company.
Lesson #1: Work Hard and Be Patient
My father was intensely driven to prove himself. Deep down, he always felt like “the poor kid with the crazy mother” (as my mother’s mother referred to him when she initially forbade my mother from marrying him). But his insecurity and drive created in him a powerful work ethic and singular focus to succeed. Indeed, this is why many CEO’s and other business leaders prefer hiring hungry, working-class guys over the wealthy Ivy-leaguers.
[Editor’s note: For me too, “insecurity” and the desire to “prove something” to no one in particular is a primary driver. It also results in Impostor’s Syndrome and other undesirable side-effects, but if you’re conscious of it you can keep down-sides under control.]
In addition to his strong work ethic, my father had an extraordinary ability to be patient.
My father spent the first 12+ years of his career working his tail off at several different companies. He even went back to school at night for four years and obtained an MBA-equivalent in electrical engineering. I remember as a little kid watching him come home from his “day job,” have a quick dinner, and then get back into his car to go to “night school.” In fact, looking back, it seemed like he had a master plan that he knew from the start was going take many years to execute.
Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs today are looking for the quick home-run — the lottery ticket. Other than in very rare circumstances, however, it just doesn’t work that way. You have to grind it out for years to succeed: seven years, 10 years — maybe even longer. Day in and day out — pushing that big rock up the hill, one step at a time.
“Nobody is an overnight success. Most overnight successes you see have been working at it for 10 years. And that’s exactly how it was for us.” [starting at the 0:12 mark]
“I used to work in a liquor store from seven in the morning until 10 at night for seven straight years, and the only days-off I took were to watch the New York Jets.” [starting at the 3:20 mark]
“I went seven years — literally seven years — without a single vacation. I didn’t take a day off — I didn’t go anywhere — I didn’t do squat.” [starting @ the 4:07 mark]
Work hard and be patient.
Lesson #2: Build Strong Relationships with Key People in Your Industry
When I was about 14 years old, my father quit Comtech Telecommunications Corp. (“Comtech”), a small public company in Long Island where he was the Director of Marketing, and launched his own consulting firm. This was the beginning of something big — very big. While at Comtech, my father had developed strong relationships with a few key senior executives at Nissho Iwai Corporation, a huge Japanese trading company. They now wanted to retain his services to help them sell satellite earth stations and other telecommunications equipment to US-based companies.
This relationship with Nissho Iwai would become the foundation of Walker Telecommunications Corporation — and it took years for my father to nurture and grow. I remember him reading book after book about the Japanese culture and customs, and I remember his many trips to Japan — when my mother, brother and I wouldn’t see him for weeks at a time. Indeed, I still have a few of his postcards in my childhood scrapbook.
And this is lesson #2 for entrepreneurs: build strong relationships with key people in your industry.
Many entrepreneurs don’t understand the importance of building strong relationships — or even understand what a strong relationship is. Building a strong relationship requires time and effort and usually requires providing the other party with some kind of value. Yes, give and you shall receive.
Strong relationships aren’t built overnight. Nor are they built by merely following someone on Twitter or friending someone on Facebook. Perhaps that’s a start, but that’s all it is. The same way passing-out business cards at an event is just a start.
Indeed, building a strong relationship takes time because the other party must learn to trust and respect you. That’s why college or business school is often a good place to build relationships. You are spending years with your fellow classmates; you are developing friendships and trust; and you are working on projects/schoolwork together.
A job is also a great place to build strong relationships — with your boss, your co-workers and/or your customers. How? By working hard, by producing, by acting with integrity and by being likable.
“It is a very small world… You are going to bump into the same people again and again and again… You need to make sure that the relationships you build now and as you move forward are ones that you’re proud of … and are not going to come back and bite you in the behind.”
Gagan Biyani, the Co-Founder and President of Udemy, discusses in this video interview with Andrew Warner of Mixergy.com how his initial fundraising failed because he did not have any strong relationships:
[N]one of these people knew us. … We’d show up at the pitch meeting, and we were some random guy who came in through an introduction. It was really hard to convince them that we were worth their time.
So what I did for the next six months after that, after we had failed and closed down the fundraising process, . . . I spent the entire time meeting as many people as possible. So I’d go to tons of Silicon Valley events. At night when I was dead tired from working all day, I would get myself up and get in the car and drive over to San Francisco or drive over to Palo Alto and attend an event and give out my business card and get business cards. And that was super important because I got to know a lot of these investors. Like Dave McClure definitely saw me 15 times before he invested in my company. He met me at conferences, he met me at dinners. I attended his events. I was friends with all of his friends. . . . So when I go to raise money, he’s like, “Oh, I kind of know this guy.” [starting at the 35:39 mark]
Lesson #3: Don’t Mix Business with Pleasure
My father was very successful in his consulting position and was instrumental in a number of significant sales of earth stations and satellite equipment. Accordingly, Nissho Iwai developed so much confidence in my father that they offered him the exclusive right to sell in the United States high-tech business telephones manufactured by a top Japanese company. As a result, Walker Telecommunications Corporation was born. This licensing agreement was indeed so valuable that my father was able to sell the story to Wall Street and go public, raising millions of dollars to scale his new company.
From there, the company’s growth was extraordinary — with expansion into other markets, including car phones, cell phones, fibre optic networks and other telecommunications equipment, and offices in New York, San Francisco and Toronto. In fact, by the time I was a freshman in college, Inc. magazine named Walker Telecommunications Corporation one of the nation’s fastest-growing companies.
But then it all came crashing down about five years later. Why? Probably a few different reasons, but the one that stands-out above all others is my father’s relationship with the wife of a company employee, the head of sales on the West coast, whom he eventually married (and then divorced). She was also a headhunter, and my father started utilising her firm to hire key executives at the company. Needless to say, this was the beginning of the end — and the third and final lesson for entrepreneurs: Do not mix business with pleasure.
Now, no matter how many times entrepreneurs hear this basic advice, there will always be a handful who will ignore it. “What’s the big deal?” “Who’s going to find out?” “Why should anyone care?”
Folks: It doesn’t work! Do not mix business with pleasure! You have to separate your company (and running a business) with your personal life. Just ask Mark Hurd, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, who was terminated as a result of his relationship with Jodie Fisher [shown at right], an actress and reality-show contestant hired as a contractor for HP.
As the Wall Street Journal aptly points out in their post, “When Workplace Flirtations Go Bad“:
[T]he [Hurd] fracas serves as a reminder that office relationships can be fraught with landmines. Even strong flirtations among co-workers that don’t culminate into full-blown affairs can have real and serious consequences — and can change the mood and equilibrium of the office. For one, it can be tough for other co-workers to concentrate when two colleagues are engaging in flirty banter or making googly eyes at each other. And if feelings change or aren’t fully reciprocated within the couple, then office tensions can run high.
David Letterman also learned the hard way about office affairs and discussed this issue and the related alleged extortion on The Late Show about a year ago.
The foregoing lessons are simple: (i) work hard and be patient; (ii) build relationships with key people; and (iii) don’t mix business with pleasure. Like anything else, however, it’s the execution which is so difficult. Good luck.
Do these lessons resonate with you? Will you do anything differently as a result? Have your own stories? Let’s continue the discussion in the comments.
© 2010 Scott Edward Walker. All rights reserved.
Thanks to Walker Corporate Law Group, a boutique law firm specializing in the representation of entrepreneurs, for supporting A Smart Bear this month. This post is by Scott Edward Walker, the firm’s founder and CEO. If you like it, check out Scott’s blog and tweets @ScottEdWalker. He’s also writes a series on VentureBeat called “Ask the attorney.”
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