I’ve been drawn to entrepreneurship since I was a child. When Costco first opened a warehouse in my home town of Boise, Idaho in the early ’90s, I couldn’t believe how inexpensive candy and chewing gum was when purchased in bulk – the very same crap my fellow students were paying a premium for at the school vending machines. I invested maybe $30 and started selling the stuff out of my backpack at school, undercutting the vending machines in the cafeteria and still enjoying a 60-80% markup.
This wasn’t just a random stroke of prepubescent genius on my part. I was born into a family of entrepreneurs, including most of the men as far back as I can trace both my maternal and paternal lineages. My mother’s ancestors grew olives and citrus in California’s Central Valley (when they weren’t distilling spirits in their basements during the prohibition era), with subsequent generations getting into car dealing and restoration, and my father’s American ancestors engaged in all manner of private enterprise, including bootlegging liquor and financing underground liquor production operations in dry counties in the South.
My father, never much of a lawbreaker, owned a series of small businesses throughout his adult life. As far back as I can remember, he ran a small retail store which was our family’s primary source of income. I spent a lot of time at that shop with my dad learning how retail sales work, how we’d buy products in bulk from distributors and then mark up the price in order to turn a profit. By the time I was 13 or so, I had a thorough enough understanding of how the business worked that I was frequently responsible for the closing shift at the store. I would ride my bike over after school and relieve either my father or one of the various part time employees we had. At closing time, I’d lock the door and then balance the daily transactions, counting up the cash and credit card receipts and matching it with the hand-written sales ledger we kept each day. I would then bike home with an envelope containing the day’s revenue in my backpack. Through this experience I learned the gritty details of how our family kept bills paid and food on the table, and, more importantly, exactly how one might operate a basic retail business profitably.
After a few weeks of being the seventh-grade discount junk food dealer at school, I discovered something much more interesting to buy in bulk and mark up for sale to my peers. My grandfather, a fun-loving, manly, and somewhat reckless World War II vet (Marines, front-line stuff) who taught me nearly everything I know about being a trouble-maker, had a friend out in the country who had a large supply of illegal fireworks. Grandpa knew all sorts of people like this. He seemed to have a “guy” for just about anything a 13 year old might want – explosives, firearms, cigars, unlicensed driving lessons, you name it. And if he didn’t have a guy for it, he certainly knew where to go to find whatever it was we wanted (usually Mexico). While Grandpa probably sounds like a crazy old coot here, he was fantastically responsible when it came to teaching me how critically important safety was when engaging with dangerous things. Like gunpowder. I don’t even remember the first time he handed me a 35mm film canister full of black powder, but I do remember that he drilled into me the various dangers of playing with it, after which I would go and blow something up, typically an ant hill. It was the same with knives, firearms and, for the most part, vehicles. As a result, I never once blew a digit off one of my hands or had an accident with a firearm. He probably shouldn’t have let me drive his stick-shift pickup truck for a hundred miles on Highway 191 in remote Utah when I was 12, but I am forever grateful he did.
The Boise area is technically high desert in terms of its climate. Which means it’s exceptionally flammable during the summer. As a result, most fireworks were illegal, especially anything that fired burning projectiles or flew into the sky. So when I heard about this illicit fireworks guy outside town, Grandpa was more than happy to drive me out there to have a look. After maybe an hour driving we arrived at a typical southern Idaho plot of land in the middle of nowhere. Dusty, sage brush, tumbleweeds, a run-down single-wide. A couple dozen yards from the single-wide, though, was a shipping container resting on an unhitched trailer. Grandpa’s friend, who looked exactly as you might imagine – unshaven, overweight, grubby clothes and hands, probably wearing overalls but my memory isn’t that accurate from 20+ years ago – led us into the trailer. It was packed full of boxes of illegal fireworks. Like, everything you can imagine. I decided to buy some bottle rockets, which I learned were sold by the gross, and some roman candles. These would be samples that I would show off to potential customers in the alleyways near our school. Grandpa bought some M-80s, which in this particular trailer were actually about as powerful as a quarter stick of dynamite (“REAL M-80s,” according to Grandpa).
Once my friends had seen what I could acquire, I began taking orders. I spent a week letting the word travel among the various trouble-making boys in my class, and I carried a notepad and pen with me at school so I could write down each customer’s orders. I knew the bulk distributor pricing from my first visit with the man in the trailer, so I had already worked out a healthy profit margin into my retail prices, but of course I also offered discounts for bulk orders. I also demanded cash up front, because I didn’t have nearly the operating capital to go out and just buy this stuff on my own. My customers didn’t even hesitate. On my next trip to the fireworks dealer with Grandpa I had a pocket full of small denomination bills and returned with more fireworks than I could fit into my school bag. Needless to say, my customers were not disappointed. Over the following weeks kids were building custom bottle rocket launchers out of PVC pipes, some even fitted with mounts to hold roman candles. They would wage battles in places that really should not have had burning projectiles flying around, such as lightly wooded areas and gullies within Boise’s foothills, both completely covered in highly combustible vegetation. Looking back, I can hardly believe my illegal fireworks distribution business didn’t wind up causing The Great Boise Fire of 1994. And also that no one was seriously injured or burned.
By the time I was in high school I had pretty much grown tired of this basic buy-markup-sell business model. I got my own car and suddenly found all of my time consumed with school work, after-school jobs, and girls. And the occasional weekend party, thanks to the kids at the local Catholic school I happened to be good friends with. Once I got to college, however, I discovered a whole new array of potential businesses… but I’ll cover that in another post.