Statistics show that 80 percent of start-up businesses fail in the first five years. If you had asked anyone what our odds were when my brother, Shawn, and I started ours, you would have likely heaped us into that pool. It’s been a great journey, though, with twists and turns that we never expected leading to something that far surpassed any idea we had for what it might become.
This month we celebrate 25 years together with our 350 employees. Through this column, I have been writing about the market and telling stories about interesting people in it for 11 of those years. My staff and editor tell me it’s time to tell our own story at this milestone….
Shawn was in the area visiting family when a climbing accident hospitalized me for two months with a broken back. My little start-up property management business was barely breathing then, bringing in $3,000 per month on four property management contracts — well shy of the break-even point I needed to move out of the back of my Chevy. I had been living out of it, showering at the YMCA and keeping it all a secret while I hunted for more business. Now, though, the situation was dire. From my hospital bed, I offered him half of the business if he’d leave his promising career in Chicago and move his wife and new baby out West to be my partner. He took it, he saved the company, I fully recovered and I joined him soon after.
After that sort of start, our business was never going to just be about money. Young, well-educated, but terribly inexperienced, it became a reflection of us and a place to serve each other while we served the market. I was outside guy, he was inside guy then, and we’re still structured that way. We have no board of directors, so most of our biggest decisions are made on a cellphone call. That nimbleness has often been to our advantage.
Property management isn’t a glorious business, though. Without a patent on a product to protect us, we just tried to outwork our competitors. Our Irish Catholic bloodlines, our dad once told us in our youth, were full of stories of strife, immigrant struggles and getting kicked around, it seemed. But the Irish always get back up and into the fight quickly, he noted, suggesting then that perhaps our competitive advantage might be that we were just hard to knock out.
Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, but it’s suited us well. After our property management company took off, we immediately looked to diversify, expand, and create new relationships. We started a brokerage firm, an investment arm and several other business lines. Today, our employees are scattered throughout five states in the Pacific Northwest involved with more than $1 billion of real estate assets.
Being an entrepreneur is incredibly stimulating even if it is full of risk. You have an appetite for knowledge, engaging people and innovation that is unending. As I reflect a bit at this milestone, I realize now that the entrepreneurship bug was probably hard-wired in us as it is in so many other entrepreneurs we’ve met. We had a bit of moxie and toughness from growing up in a blue-collar town coupled with a shared college experience at the University of Notre Dame that fed us a world-class education, connections and a common definition of success. We might have started through a tragic accident and Shawn’s commitment to join me out of loyalty and family bonds. But as we carried on, we sustained ourselves on small-town values and those broad life experiences earned by leaving it in our youth. Those small-town values came in handy at times, too. In the current very difficult recession, we’ve relied far more on street smarts than anything we picked up in business school.
Milestones are about reflection. For us, we find that we learn from the losses but rarely dwell on the victories. Always looking ahead. We’ve won any number of flattering awards, including the Washington Family Business of the Year and some others. I think in our most private moments, though, we are most grateful for what we’ve done in the past three years. The recession has been so hard on so many business owners that to have found a way to grow while many of our peers contracted or folded has been most rewarding.
Without our wives, clients, vendors, partners, employees and trusted advisers, our experience as entrepreneurs together would not have been possible, though. You never do it alone. What we didn’t realize was just how fulfilling being a job creator would be for the two of us and how much that means to communities. Maybe that’s the purpose that we were destined for as we left college with a very different view of ourselves than before.
Someone once said that a job is the best social program on the planet. I think they’re right. We know what goes into the decision to create and support one and see firsthand what that job means to a family. We do sometimes worry about whether our story could happen in America today. Fighting to preserve an environment so it can has been part of the journey as well. Economies are complex. But nothing happens if people with abilities are afraid to take risk, create, innovate and ultimately employ people.
The cherry on top has been some of the people we’ve been able to meet and ventures we’ve been able to pursue that our businesses helped create. We’ve been partners in ownership of a minor league baseball team, have sports celebrities that have become dear friends, been able to have meaningful influence in politics and business, and served on dozens of boards while supporting more than 100 nonprofit organizations. From desperation in 1987 to that. It never seemed possible.
We could retire now, but we won’t. We started so young that we’re just hitting our stride. A former manager of ours a few years ago struggled with that. “Why don’t you guys slow down? You’ve made it. What’s left?” Honestly, I don’t think either of us knew the answer then. We still don’t. You just grow or you die in business, it seems. It’s a journey more than a financial goal. But our businesses are bigger and involve more people now so in many ways we serve them, not the other way around. Wherever they take us, they’ll carry with them 25 years of effort from two brothers whose most impressive trait may be that when they get knocked down they get up quickly and keep fighting.
Tom Hoban is CEO of The Coast Group of companies in Everett. Contact him at 425-339-3638, firstname.lastname@example.org or [URL]www.coastsvn.com;http://www.coastsvn.com[URL].[/URL]