EARLY LIFE / YOUTH

Pedigree of an Entrepreneur

 

Growing up in New Canaan, Ct., the “Land of the Fortune 100 CEO” was not exactly conducive to becoming an entrepreneur. Yet, even at the tender age of 7, I was out by one of the local country club’s water holes, ostensibly peddling lemonade but really wading into the water and then selling the duffers’ balls back to them.

The enterprise ended abruptly when the club’s manager called my father, one of their members, and asked to have me removed from the course.

“Peter is just a child,” my mother said to my father. “Don’t worry, he’ll be like the other children.”

Numerous other entrepreneurial ventures sprang up over the years. “Boogie at the Beach” became an annual summer even where I rented out the beach club where our family belonged, throwing a huge keg party with hamburgers and hot dogs galore and a live rock band – all for an admission price to my “thousand closest friends.” I learned about supply and demand, inventory control and the pluses and minuses of an all-cash business.

“He’s just trying to find his place in the world,” mom told my dad.

Meanwhile, I barely made it out of high school. And when one of my “sure thing” business deals soured and my dad couldn’t take me anymore, I found myself with the unenviable choice of paying for college myself or joining the Army.

Off to basic training I went, and after four months in the swamps of Ft. Polk, La. (the only hole above ground), I found myself the proud and somewhat surprised recipient of a Secretary of the Army Appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Since the Academy had started for the year, I was placed at the United States Military Academy Preparatory School, where I met another cadet candidate whose father was the colonel in charge of the Army ROTC Scholarship Program. I learned that it was much better to be an officer than an enlisted man, and I surmised that going to a civilian school and coming out a full-fledged officer would be more fun than matriculating to ‘the Point.’

I was regular Army and the ROTC program was for civilians. Still, I persisted and to everyone’s surprise, I won a spot.

I started at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1976. I relinquished my West Point appointment to some deserving alternate, and off to college I went. The university was great fun. I spied a second semester course that really caught my interest – entrepreneurship. The challenge this time was that I was a freshman and the course was a senior elective. After filing my petition with the professor at the business school, I was forced to verbally defend myself in front of the entire class with why a “lowly first year student felt that he merited the honor of being in a fourth-year course.” I was admitted into the class, where I seemed to fit in as I had never before.

The course required us to come up with a potentially viable idea and draft a business plan to make its case for funding. I had a cool idea and convinced a couple of the business school nerds to help draft the pro formas and put the plan together. That brainstorm – the importation of mopeds from Europe to the United States, with the plan of establishing rental operations at select resorts – became the subject of my class project.

I got an “A” and decided to go for it in the real world.

In May 1977, I rented a dirt lot in downtown Nantucket Island, bought a folding table and cash box from the local thrift shop for 50 cents, unloaded my 15 new mopeds and started my first official business. I quickly threw away the class business plan, since nothing we researched and forecasted had any resemblance to the “rough and tumble” world of real life business ownership. I learned many invaluable lessons that summer and after counting my pennies ($55,000) at the summer’s end, I tendered back the three remaining years on my ROTC scholarship, wrote my professor to tell him that he’d been right about me, and set about on my expansion plans for world domination in the recreational rental industry.

Thirty years later – and 100 businesses, from renting mopeds and exotic cars to e-mail marketing, cost segregation, dining cards, destination clubs, magazines and more – my parents were still wondering when I was going to get a real job.

I managed to return to the University of Virginia each of the next 10 years to lecture in that same professor’s class until he retired from academia. Along the way, at the age of 29 I was accepted to Harvard Business School’s Owners and Presidents Program, the youngest member in its history. That same year, I became one of the original members of the Young Entrepreneurs Organization (now called EO), a collection of independent business owners that could be considered the world’s 52nd-largest economy with $100 billion in annual sales among 6,500 entrepreneurs in 40 countries.

I then found myself in the “Wild West” and in the first 12 years, I had been involved with a dozen different enterprises – some good, some bad and some great. In that time, I had undertaken one of the greatest challenges in my career and entered into the world of entrepreneurial education. After a one-year pro bono stint at ASU’s Barrett Honors College teaching some “Entrepreneurship 101” courses, I decided to start the country’s first “pure blood” college of entrepreneurship. Grand Canyon University had stepped up to the plate. In January 2007, we began offering a combination of fantastic courses taught by “entrepreneur-teachers,” offering startup capital to select student businesses and granting the first-ever Bachelor of Entrepreneurship degree from the first-ever fully accredited College of Entrepreneurship in the country.

Maybe I’d finally get my diploma and my mom (God rest her soul) and dad could be proud of me.

Peter J. Burns III is the founder of Financing Debt And Equity and Club Entrepreneur . Reach him at peterjburns3@gmail.com