With Julian MacQueen, Founder and CEO, Innisfree Hotels

There’s an idea that has always resonated with me. Entrepreneurs are not necessarily the smartest people in the room, but they learn quickly from their mistakes. It’s a ‘Ready, Shoot, Aim’ approach to life. There’s a sense of trusting in the universe that I think is part of that.

It’s the idea of being able to manage chaos and thrive in it … sometimes seek it out and almost create it. I think it can be done to a fault, and I’ve known some people who love creating chaos just for the sake of it, but it’s not productive unless you do something with it.

The notion of ‘being a disrupter’ is really popular these days, but disrupting for disruption’s sake is really a waste of time. It has to be purposeful. What I’m finding as I age is a lot of these things I intuited along my journey are becoming modern-day strategies. People make them into lists. “The Top 6 Things You Should Know Before You Become an Entrepreneur” or “20 Secrets to Success”.

Something that came to me early on was this idea that it’s not the rank-and-file people who make things happen. There is something, there’s an ‘X’ factor that really makes an entrepreneur. I call it the ‘it’. Either you have it, or you don’t.

I know it when I see it. I’m using ‘it’ as a noun. It’s a thing, it’s a title … it’s an attribute you can see. Somebody who can take in the whole picture of an opportunity and see their way through to the other end, not necessarily in a linear way, but with the view that this is leading somewhere.

There’s a great book called “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”. The wage earner father puts his son into situations with the business owner father down the street, because business owners think differently than employees. There’s the person who’s willing to go take the risk, and the one who is happy earning a salary.

I see something and think, “Where’s the opportunity? How do I monetize it?”

Someone else might take it at face value and say, “That’s an interesting idea … I would work for someone who had that business.”

This whole idea of being an entrepreneur is almost like a gene. When I think about what influenced me to think that way, I think about my cousin who grew up with me every single day. We were so close.

From Kindergarten through Junior High, we were in lockstep. I remember spending every day with him. We took two different directions after we got out of college. He got a job making a salary, and I was envious. A title and a job and enough money that you could buy your own house! Imagine that?!

I thought that would be GREAT. And I finally got to a point where I drew a salary and had a career path … but I was always trying to figure out how to augment that with some kind of side business.

The Early Days

I think that comes from my early training with my Dad pushing me to go out and do stuff that was entrepreneurial. My Dad set me up early in business at 9 or 10 years old.

There were these MERLITE light bulbs, ‘guaranteed for life’. They had three posts and two filaments and cost 95 cents a piece. The year was 1960. You could buy a box, and if you sold those 50 bulbs, you could net $25.88. This was the starter kit.

I would get my lightbulbs and hop on my bike with my dog, Topper, and we would pedal around the neighborhood and I would sell light bulbs door-to-door that were guaranteed for life.

Dad told me, “If you sell the light bulbs and you get enough money to buy a boat, I will supply the motor.”

I still have my savings account book. I would put money in the bank and buy the next supply and work toward the boat. I finally got a couple hundred bucks and found this old wooden boat that needed a lot of work, and I had a boat. I was 12 years old and I had a boat, and a motor!

We would take it up to the Black Warrior River outside of Birmingham and my brother would haul it around and we would go camping. It was fantastic. We took it to Destin and skied behind it. It was my boat, and I got it by selling those light bulbs.

That’s probably where it started, eh?

Dad was a salesman. He was very charming, but he couldn’t quite find where he needed to land. Stocks, insurance … what I remember him doing the most was selling coin-operated laundromats for Maytag.

I remember him drawing up the plans for the laundromat. I still have some of them. Then he bought a few of the laundromats back from his clients and we would ’rob’ the machines every week for the quarters. I thought we were fabulously rich! We would have all these quarters on the table and we’d roll them. I started collecting coins because I had such a great choice of quarters.

Maybe that’s where it all started. The idea that you would go to these places and they would have money waiting for you. You would take these quarters and go home and you were suddenly fabulously rich. He also opened a coin-operated car wash. I worked there, too.

These were big deals for me, knowing that you could leverage your time to make money. It was an investment. You didn’t have to be there to earn it.

Funny Business

My brother and I were both pilots, and we wanted to figure out how to own an airplane. So we contacted Shoney’s, who had a chain of lobster restaurants at the time called Fisherman’s Wharf.

My brother lived in Boston, so he knew Maine and how to get the lobsters. We had this business plan where we would buy a Cessna 206 or Cherokee or some cheap single engine airplane that could haul a lot of weight. We were going to configure it to haul live lobsters from Maine.

To prove the concept, we had to deliver consistently to three restaurants in Knoxville. Kim and I had no money, so Delta would fly them in and we’d pick them up and deliver them to the restaurants, and we guaranteed them to be alive.

That’s what Kim and I would eat – dead lobsters – for like a year. We didn’t have a big pot, so we had to boil them one half at a time. She’d stick them in head first and they would scream and the tail would flop around, and Kim would scream and run away until the deed was done. (Consequently, we now hate lobster.)

Later, with a love for aviation that I couldn’t satisfy, I started a hot air balloon business. I thought it would be a way for me to earn money on the side. I was a Sales Manager at The Hyatt regency in Knoxville, a real corporate job. My brother was the chief aeronaut. He did all the flights, and I did all the sales.

We would contact a radio station, and they would sell our package to a business and the DJ would get in the hot air balloon with my brother, and we’d do “The Great Balloon Chase.”

People would be in the parking lot of the mall and he would take off, and the first person to reach him would get a bottle of champagne or a T-shirt. I learned I could create revenue, and I didn’t have to spend time on it.

Every time you land a hot air balloon, it’s a party. The eight-story balloon attracted people. We’d carry champagne and share it with whoever’s yard we landed in. So we met a lot of people.

I started another business with this one guy who was a young college student with the gift of gab and that promoter personality, and we started talking about things we could do to make money.

He had a contact who could buy Chinese yo-yos … you know, the paper wrapped around a stick that you could stretch out, very colorful. We decided to buy them and sell them at University of Tennessee football games. We’d buy them for a nickel a piece and sell them for a dollar. We hired beautiful co-eds with short pants.

It was just like coining money. 100,000 people go to these games. So if we sold to just five percent, that’d be $5,000 a day.

We bought 10,000 yo-yos and sold about seven. Nobody wanted a damn Chinese yo-yo.

Behind all this is this is the idea that you can have your own business and other people will help you leverage your time so you’re not ‘working for the man’ every day … you are ‘the man’.

We went through failure, and we learned quickly and we didn’t do it again.

(By the way, I don’t know where the yo-yos are today. That was my partner’s problem.)

– As told to Ashley Kahn Salley

Lead Storyteller, Innisfree Hotels