Southern Legitimacy Statement: I grew up in the southwestern corner of Virginia and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I currently reside in Wilmington, North Carolina. My father’s businesses were always headquartered in southwest Virginia.
My father, Bill Mullins, lived the American entrepreneurial dream, and he did so in an era before all the excitement over tech startups began. This isn’t to say that his businesses didn’t involve technology, but they certainly didn’t rely on selling products or services via the internet. Rather, they were based in everything from electronics wholesaling to coin operated amusements ventures.
When dad sold his final business, he purchased a laptop and started to do some day trading. This was the first endeavor that ever required him to utilize a computer. Indeed, very few people in his companies ever needed to use a computer. The most common exception would have been a handful of individuals in the accounting department.
Simple Beginnings and Enduring Success
Dad’s 35-year career as an entrepreneur began when he sold a van full of rugs for a profit in his early twenties. Among the longest running of his businesses were Mountain Service Corporation, largely oriented toward electronics wholesaling in the 1970s to early 1980s and an amusements company he ran in association with a couple of business partners from about 1984 to 1998, which involved claw machines and video games that he and his partners contracted to set up in grocery store chains, truck stop chains, and other locations.
At one point, I believe the amusements company supplied all of the machines in the arcade at Tweetsie Railroad amusement park in the North Carolina mountains and a number of machines at prominent locations in the resort town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee as well. At the height of the business, the company had locations and contracts with various retail chains pretty much all over the East Coast.
Always one to take on a new entrepreneurial endeavor, dad once bought the rights to a patented brake spring removal tool for large trucks. He and his business partner Alan went to the Pentagon to pitch the tool to some aspect of the military. On another occasion, he sponsored a professional golfer on tour. At one point, he owned the rights to a toy line that a number of people in Hollywood were trying to develop a film about (with pro-conservation themes).
An Entrepreneurial Mindset
Dad did not subscribe to “9 to 5” business practices. He stayed up late at night, slept until 10:00 or later, and started the workday at around 11:00 with a business lunch. Then, he typically went back to work for a few hours after dinner. He dressed as he pleased, typically even when he was out of town for a convention or business meeting (and even when he was in the uptight offices of certain companies based in larger urban areas).
When I was growing up, he routinely spent his entire summer on the Grand Strand, golfing six days a week as if it became his work routine for three months of the year. He looked at the extended summer vacation as his reward for the long, late hours that he regularly put in during the rest of the year.
My father followed a couple of simple but effective rules for creating and sustaining success: (1) Learn how to master a service or product by getting the first instance of it right – if you can make one work, you can make a thousand work and (2) When negotiating, never walk away from the table until you get what you want even if you are taking a great risk in standing your ground. These principles served him well throughout the years, but he also followed higher imperatives such as knowing how to treat people with respect and kindness rather than allowing himself to become overly jaded by the competition and various disagreements that were inherent to the businesses world.
Notably, dad was a second-generation entrepreneur. His father owned and managed a number of storefront businesses in his small town. Running such businesses didn’t lead to the kind of profits my dad experienced, but it did lead to a close knit relationship with the local community, thus positively affecting quality of life for both business owner and customer alike. Rather than obsessing over how to market to and attract new customers, my grandfather was able to focus on building relationships within his home town and on providing quality products to people he actually knew.
Dad’s business practices continued in the same mindset as his father’s. He simply applied those principles to a broader customer base as he succeeded in expanding his share of the market. He certainly didn’t know the majority of his customers, but he worked hard to have a positive impact on the lives of his customers and the people who worked for his companies as well.
What can we learn from the experiences of two prior generations of lifelong entrepreneurs? The economy requires the presence of all kinds of businesses in order to thrive, but to be clear, so does our collected “emotional economy” as a nation. As progress continues to occur in the technology sectors, there are many human needs that must still be served by traditional products and human interaction.
While it is true that the ways in which we are entertained and live our lives have changed substantially over the past twenty years, maintaining a diverse economy is necessary to serve both those who seek entrepreneurial opportunity and those who will benefit from the products and services offered. I’m not striking a regressive pose.
I am however, advocating for an embrace of our humanity in all business ventures and the hope that social entrepreneurship will become a widely accepted mindset in all aspects of the world’s economy. I believe that the two generations of past entrepreneurs in my own family are early examples of that thinking, along with the thinking and actions of many other good people who have taken the entrepreneurial journey before the new generations that are currently doing so. As I tell some small piece of my dad’s story, I hope for that positive vision to continue and to evolve among the business founders of today, whatever the nature of their enterprises and dreams.