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Which Came First, the ‘C-word’ or the ‘E-word’?

Originally published: 09.01.08 by Greg McAfee


Once upon a time a young entrepreneur decided to start his own hvacr business, so he rented some office space with a nice little warehouse attached. Sitting in his small office the first day looking over his business plan, he noticed a potential customer about to enter his office. Wishing to appear busy and important, he picked up the phone and started to pretend he had a big deal in the works. 

He said, “I will have four of my best crews out there next week and we will get those 20 systems installed for your new facility Mr. Jones.” Finally, he hung up the phone and asked the visitor, "Can I help you?"  The man said, "Yeah, I'm here to hook up the phones."

We’ve probably all done something similar in our business life. When I started McAfee Heating and Air Conditioning Co. in 1990, I was 27 years old. I didn’t have a business degree nor enough experience, but my inner drive and passion was and will continue to take me above and beyond my goals. 

So, which came first, the “Contractor” or the “Entrepreneur”? For some reason, business owners in our industry look at themselves more as


contractors, and then as entreprenuers, but should we?  The definition of a contractor is, “a tradesman who works in the construction industry under a contract with the owner or manager of the property.” 

An entrepreneur is “one who assumes the financial risk of starting and operating a business venture. Usually carries the connotation of being creative, self-motivated and visionary.”
Which one are you? Whether you founded, purchased or inherited your business, in order for it to succeed, someone with entrepreneurial traits must be leading it. 

According to a survey done by Northeastern University's School of Technological Entrepreneurship in Boston, of more than 200 U.S. entrepreneurs, nearly two-thirds claim they were inspired to start their own companies by their innate desire and determination, rather than by their education or work experience. 

According to the survey, only 1% cited higher education as a significant motivator toward starting their own venture, while 61 percent cited their “inborn drive." Other motivators cited were work experience (2%) and success of entrepreneurial peers within their industry (16%).

While entrepreneurship skills can be taught, the survey results suggest that the desire to be an entrepreneur usually is not. Rather, as 42% of survey respondents said they launched their first venture in childhood, it seems as though the enterprising spirit is discovered within the individual, not developed by the individual's experience. 

Having had the privilege to meet several business owners in the hvacr industry, I’ve noticed that many receive their enjoyment from the technical/mechanical side of the business rather than running it. 

For some, running the business is like fitting a square peg in a round hole, but they still attempt and struggle to make it work. This may be why so many owners would rather sell or close down if they could. However, it would behoove them to hire an entrepreneurial “Operation-General Manager” to run their business, by doing so, this would allow them to focus on (what they do best) the service/installation technical side of the business or the sales side of it. 

With a good business plan in place and a few more positions filled, their businesses would not only be stronger, but it would thrive! Success should be measured by the liveliness of our business, not from the title we wear. 

For some small businesses, the depth of a management team may be limited; the leader is required to be there most of the time. They may not be able to afford a support staff to cover all business functions, and therefore they will need or in some cases prefer to work longer hours. 

We all know people who use part of their sick leave each year when they are not sick. Entrepreneurs are not found in this group. In the early morning hours before any normal person arrives at work, or after an eight-hour day when everyone leaves for home, the entrepreneur can be found there working and developing new business ideas. 

Some may try convincing business owners that they should be playing golf more than working. Granted, there should be a balance of off time and work time because our families do like to see us. But for the truly successful companies, the leader, whether he or she is working on their business or in it, they will be working longer hours than the rest of their team. It’s been said that if you own your own business you only work half days, just pick which 12 hours you want, the first half of the day or the second half. 

Entrepreneurs are unique in their own way. They all have their own set of strengths, weaknesses, talents and abilities. Although there is no single characteristic or skill that will guarantee business success, the entrepreneurs who have stood the test of time and have made a difference in their communities and industries do share some common traits. Displaying a good mixture spells growth for your company. 

Persistence- There are many upsets and challenges and you may not like everything you do, but by working hard and not giving up improves your chances of success. 

Strong Drive to Achieve- It’s that inner drive that keeps us going even when sales are down and cash is low. That drive (motivated feeling) to achieve or succeed is better than coffee or drugs. It motivates to persevere. 

High-Energy Level- There are “morning people” and “night people”, but regardless of which one you are, it takes a lot of energy to start and/or run a business. Having that high-energy level can take us to the next level and it can be contagious. 

Goal-Oriented Behavior- If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there. Writing down goals creates a visual and a commitment. Reviewing and fine-tuning them often has been proven to create a successful future. 

Self-Confidence- If you don’t believe in yourself and your business, don’t expect your team to either. Tackling problems immediately with confidence and being persistent in pursuit of objectives are common traits of a winner. 

Strong Integrity- No one will last long without it. It’s doing what is right even when no one is looking, such as reporting all income to the IRS, pulling permits, treating and paying co-workers fairly, and paying suppliers on time. These are just a few of the right things we do when we have integrity. 

Competitive- Knowing the competition and treating them fairly is good business. Wanting to win and get ahead of the competition is good too; it energizes our inner drive toward constant improvement and success. We tend to dislike losing. 

Change Agent- Changing direction is easy when it improves the chances for achieving your goals. You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read. Why and what you change will have an impact on your success or failure rate. 

Tolerance for Failure- We have to experience failure to appreciate our victories. Successful entrepreneurs have a positive mindset around the experience of failure. James Dyson, the inventor of the famous Dyson Vacuum Cleaner, quipped, “I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure. I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative…” 

Dream- Dream? This is not talked about at association meetings, but without a dream, nothing happens. When he was growing up in Houston, Michael Dell says he would look at the modern, shiny buildings going up alongside the Interstate-610 loop and imagine that one day he would have a business in one of them. "I've never imagined myself not doing something significant," he says. So if you want to achieve your goals, create a mindset made of beliefs (dreams) that support the truth you want in your future." Dream big! 

Are we not great or what? Before our egos get too big, let’s take a look at the counter side. We may lack sensitivity to other people's feelings, which can cause turmoil and turnover in our organization.

Entrepreneurs can be impatient and drive themselves and everyone around them. We may not have the tolerance or empathy necessary for team building unless it's our own team, and we can be difficult to work with.

As the business grows and assumes an organizational structure, we may experience a classic management crisis. For many of us, the need for control makes it difficult to delegate authority in the way that a structured organization demands.

Our strong direct approach causes us to seek information directly from its source, bypassing the structured chains of authority and responsibility we have worked hard to form. Our moderate interpersonal skills, which were adequate during the start-up phases, will cause us problems as we try to adjust to the structured or corporate organization.

However, entrepreneurs with good interpersonal skills will be able to adjust and survive as their organization grows and becomes more structured. The rest won't make it. Taking classes, reading good business books and having great business mentors can improve skills. Also, see article in previous HVACR Business on how forming an objective Board of Advisors will assist in the formation of structure and success in your business.


Holding the title of “Contractor” is fine, but remember that we are first and foremost “Entrepreneurs”. We must think and act like business professionals who take companies to the next level regardless of the title we bear. 


Articles by Greg McAfee

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