Whiz Biz Kids

Calvin Carter was a success story, no doubt about it. He'd started his Web development company in his room in the early '90s at Southern Methodist University and grown it to 55 employees. The quiet kid from Florida who liked solitary pursuits (he missed the ocean, deep-sea fishing, sand) had dropped into the back-slapping, money-loving, it's-all-about-who-ya-know-kid capital of Texas and created his own business. He was his own boss, answering to no one.

But now, he was sick of it. At the height of his success, when he was building Web sites for high-profile clients such as the Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars, he realized he was no good at this. Like so many entrepreneurs, he was great at starting a business. When everything looked hopeless--not enough money, too few clients, then too many clients, how to pay for insurance, where are we going to office, the investors are antsy--he could calm the roil. But when things got really good, Carter was no longer the man for the job. The company needed a manager. He wasn't a manager. He was an entrepreneur. He didn't dream of running companies. He had an itch to create them. He had, as they call it, "the bug."

"I just wanted out," he says, remembering the final straw. "For the umpteenth time, an employee had come to me and tried to 'bigger-better' me. You know, 'Hey, these folks across the street are going to pay me $5,000 more, and I'm starting there tomorrow, so thanks for giving me my start and training me and believing in me. The dream was fun. See ya.' I just said, 'You know, I don't need this anymore.'"

So he sold his business, cashed out, tried to kill the bug. He wandered into different consulting jobs, explored new fields, kicked the tires in new cities. Then he realized you can't kill the bug. You're born with the bug. You nurture it. You feed it. It's your living.

He needed to start more businesses. Not just one. Several. He was a freak like that. So he thought. Until he met up with several dozen others like him in Dallas. Until he realized that there are others who do this for the same reasons he does. Not just because they chafe at the corporate culture, which they do. Not just because if your business hits, really does well, you'll set yourself up for a faster retirement than a 401(k) and 4 percent annual raises will ever allow. Because inevitably they all fell into this as their first or, at worst, second jobs, and once you work for yourself, you can't ever go back. When you've driven the bus, you realize you never want to be a passenger again. It's too fun taking corners at 60 miles per.

So, you start more businesses. Any business. Doesn't matter which one. The point isn't what they are. It's what you are. You're an entrepreneur. So you may, like Carter, have a diverse portfolio: Right now, it includes a Web development company (not the same one--this one has only a handful of employees), real estate, small-biz consulting and being president of the Young Entrepreneurs Organization local chapter.

It's not as though starting a business is complicated. But there are rules, ones you don't learn while getting your MBA. Carter and the 135 other entrepreneurs in YEO learn the simple little secrets to starting businesses through trial and error. Things like: 1) Don't spend money you don't have to; 2) start it sooner rather than later; and 3) business plans are, largely, crap. No one knows for sure what will work, so get it up, get it going, find out what customers really want. So what if you fail? You don't fear failure, because odds are you'll fail, so you may as well fail fast. You can always start something else. Just do it.

The members of YEO in Dallas (to join, you must be under 40, and the business you founded or co-founded must have $1 million annual revenue--and don't fake it, because they're vigorous about scanning your books) are a personification of this principle. Like Carter, they cut against the stereotype of the young entrepreneur--the cheesy flimflam salesman who lies about how much money he or she needs to start a business or how much profit it makes. The well-known Dallas "thousandaire millionaire" who racks up debt to get the right car, clothes and Uptown pad. The person who, as the old entrepreneur joke goes, believes in the motto "fake it until you make it."

No, these Dallas entrepreneurs are hardworking, very smart, surprisingly humble. Damn them.

More important, they seem to be the epitome of Dallas. More so than the billionaires who buy sports teams and long for boldface mention in the society columns, the folks in YEO Dallas at once live the Dallas dream and create it: Look forward, dress sharp, network, bust ass and factor your receivables. From this, good things will come.

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste