Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, September 14, 2015
My wife, Barbara Bry, has preached that everyone needs to learn to be an entrepreneur, whether for-profit, nonprofit, big or small. And taking charge of your life does not always require a college degree. Often all it takes is fierce determination and playing the cards you are dealt as well as possible.
Koko Babayan, 42, always wanted to have his own business. His path to entrepreneurship began when he was 19 and was accepted into an apprenticeship program operated by Sheet Metal Workers Local Union #206.
“I learned how to make things out of sheet metal, how to draft, fabricate, and do installations. I also learned how important it is to show up on time and finish the job on time,” he said.
(Note: Simple concepts — show up on time and finish job on time. This is not something you need to go to Harvard to absorb.)
He rose through management at A.O. Reed & Co. where he learned on-the-job business skills. In 2010, Babayan decided to take the plunge and open his own company, Balance America Inc. in San Marcos. The problem he was going to solve was environmental testing and balancing, and his customers were going to be the construction companies.
(Note: Always nice to know your customers before you need them to become customers.)
For the first year, the company’s headquarters was his living room, and his wife, pregnant with their first child, kept her day job. They now have two children, and she works part-time.
Although the economy in 2010 was still struggling, he had a secret weapon — his wife. “Everyone thought I was crazy but my wife had confidence in me and was supportive,” he said.
Babayan hustled to get clients. “I contacted every union contractor that is part of Local #206 and also nonunion contractors even though I’m a union contractor. I introduced myself and asked if I could start bidding work for them. It was difficult at the beginning. Better now, but I still personally make regular sales calls,” he said.
He was most concerned about paying the two workers he had brought with him. “I came close to having to borrow money several times. I didn’t pay myself for six months, and I lived off my savings,” he recalled.
(Note: In the Army, the generals eat after the enlisted men.)
He admits that the business, now with seven full-time employees, is all-consuming. “I don’t sleep. I worry that we have too much work or not enough work. Many nights I wake up at 2 a.m. and I start working on reports and reviewing emails,” he said. “But I have no regrets. It’s hard and stressful, but I like the challenges, and I like leading.”
As he looks back, he said, “When I started, I told my wife that if I don’t get any work, I will paint the kitchen cabinets. They still aren’t painted.”
Not just clowning around
I ride my bike on the weekends, and I always stop at the same convenience store to buy three lottery tickets. A few weekends ago, I met Casey Chavez, the second-oldest balloon artist in San Diego.
Chavez, 50, grew up in Merced amid what he called “gang and drugville.” He was marginal in high school, but got a lucky break and was admitted to Point Loma Nazarene. He was going to be a missionary, but got sidetracked and went to clown school, and became an expert at face painting, puppets and balloon animals. “All my skills come from God.”
He perfected his work in children’s hospitals, among the sick and dying. His balloons made people happy, and he had found his life’s calling. (There are actually balloon competitions and he has won several of them, based on speed and originality.)
He works the streets, restaurants, farmers markets, etc. He has made balloon animals at the Playboy Mansion. He is the classic entrepreneur; he eats what he kills.
Look, we often write about technology, but these two stories are about the grinders, the people who somehow figure it out, find a place to stand, create a life, find fulfillment and survive. I love that characteristic. I absolutely love it.
Rule No. 436
There is no substitute for relentless pursuit.