Burn the Ships – An Entrepreneurial Memoir

Today’s blog is a guest post from central Ohio entrepreneur Luke Henry. (Yes, we are related; he’s my brother.) His story is unique but rural entrepreneurs will identify with much of Luke’s journey.

I believe that entrepreneurs are some of the most vital agents of renewal in rural communities. We do well to nurture business, social, and ministry entrepreneurs in our communities and do whatever we need to help them succeed. They bring vitality, opportunity, dignity, and hope wherever they have a chance to thrive.

Of course, entrepreneurship is much easier said than done. Luke’s story makes that clear. Sometimes there comes a point of decision in which one must “burn the ships” and go all in. For others, the process is more gradual, moving toward one’s dreams without quitting the “day job.”

Whether you are an entrepreneur yourself or someone who cares about renewing rural communities, I hope you find something meaningful in Luke’s story. Enjoy!

Today I am burning the ships. If you’re not familiar with the reference, the story goes that in 1519 Captain Hernán Cortés landed in Veracruz to begin his great conquest. Upon arriving, he gave the order to his men to burn the ships that they arrived in. With no ships to fall back to, they had no option but to move forward with the mission. Cortés knew that retreat was easy when you have the option, but he would not allow himself or his men to give in to fear.

Five hundred years later, now in 2019, I am burning my ships. To fully explain what I’m talking about, I have to rewind about 20 years, when I began mowing grass to earn money in high school so I could 1.) buy my first car, 2.) take girls out on dates. (I soon learned that I also needed to work on my salesmanship if I was going to get any girls to go out with me.) Turns out, hustling and learning to sell served me well, because that little business I started as a means to an end, continued to grow over the years as I was in high school and college.

Also while in high school, I started working in a small pharmacy in my hometown as a stock boy, delivering bedside commode chairs and stocking the adult diapers. The pharmacists there were great people, and my mom told me that pharmacists made a good living. It sounded good, so I decided to go for it. Pharmacy school is a pretty tough gig and not everyone can hack it. I worked hard, had fun, and met lots of great people in my pharmacy class and in the music department where I spent a lot of time. All the while, I kept growing my little business.

When I graduated in 2007, I landed a great job at a brand new Rite Aid Pharmacy store, received a sign-on bonus (there was a pharmacist shortage at the time), and was officially a white-collar, white coat, medical professional.

But after 2 years, I decided to quit my job as a pharmacist, leave the security and six-figure income to fully pursue my dream of being an entrepreneur. Seem crazy? Believe me, you aren’t the only one to think that.

Don’t think it was an easy choice to quit pharmacy. It’s not that I didn’t like the people or the work – I did. I liked helping, and I learned a lot about working with the public! Aside from eating all my meals standing up, it was a pretty good gig. When I quit, I not only gave up the income stream, I even had to pay back my sign-on bonus. I was walking away from health insurance, a 401k with employer match, stock options, bonuses, and stability. At the time, it was the middle of a recession, yet healthcare was growing and pharmacists were in high demand and well-respected. But I thought I could do better running a landscaping business. Can you even imagine all the sideways looks I got? I told people what I was doing, and they usually replied with some niced-up version of “you are an idiot and you’re making a big mistake”. Why would I have spent 6 years of my life and nearly $200,000 on pharmacy school if I was only going to work as a full-time pharmacist for 2 years? I distinctly remember staring out the window and praying if this was the right decision. It didn’t make any sense, and I felt so uneasy, but at the same time I still believed it was the right thing to do.

But one way or the other, my wonderful, understanding, and long-suffering wife Lindsey told me that it was time to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. The first 2 years we were married, I worked nonstop doing landscaping and plowing snow to make a meager living to support our life together, while I was still going to school full time. We are talking 14 to 15 hour work days every time I had a day off, weekend, or school break, sometimes skipping class to go back and work. Or plow snow all night then go to take a 7am pharmacy exam. But she stuck with me, because I was going to be a pharmacist and that’s a secure, laid back job that would give us a good life. Then I passed my pharmacy board exam and started working as a pharmacist, but I kept building the business. There was something so energizing about entrepreneurship. Even though I was now working a full time job, I would still plow snow all night, then work 9-9 at the pharmacy, sell work, hire more people, work some more, repeat, repeat. During the spring, summer, and fall, it was the same. There was always new opportunities and new challenges. When I quit the pharmacy, I was able to fully pursue the dreams I had, and since we needed more to do, I also got into buying and rehabbing rental properties. Through it all, Lindsey has always been my biggest supporter.

Even after I quit my pharmacy job, I would occasionally work shifts here and there to make some extra money. For the first few years, I would go back and work pharmacy shifts on a fairly regular basis, and it sometimes felt good to just clock in, make a few bucks, clock out, and go home. While I was working I would get my continuing education done so that I could keep my license active. What I never wanted to really admit to myself, was that in the back of my mind I was keeping my pharmacy license out of fear. It was that little security blanket that I kept balled up in the closet just in case. If things ever went south with my business ventures, I could always take the security blanket back out, go get a pharmacy job, and earn a good income again to take care of my family.

When I went all-in as an entrepreneur 10 years ago, I never knew the way that my life would change. There is no such thing as clocking in and clocking out. I have had to develop grit, work ethic, and determination that is deeper than what I ever imagined. I have learned 1,001 tough lessons the hard way. I have lost sleep countless nights as I agonized over decisions about a real estate purchase, people to hire or fire, how to deal with tough customer situations, how I would scrape up the money for the next payroll, whether to buy or start another business, and umpteen other decisions for which there was not a clear answer. I have always worked hard, and I always had some kind of side hustle ever since I was 12 years old, starting with mowing grass, running a mail order coin business, and doing odd jobs for friends and family.

But the reality takes a completely different shape when you no longer have a real job, a steady income, and your entire livelihood is contingent on what you can bring in from your businesses. It got even heavier when we had our first child just over a year later, and Lindsey and I decided it was best for her to stay home and quit her secure teaching job with a predictable income and benefits. But I always had that security blanket. I could go back to that old, steady, good paying pharmacy job if I really needed to.

Until today. You see, I haven’t worked in a pharmacy at all for over 2 years. But even still, I paid my fees and did my continuing education to keep my license up. But my current license expires September 15, 2019. Tomorrow, the burned ships will be nothing but a pile of ashes, and I will no longer be able to practice pharmacy in the state of Ohio. But that’s ok with me. It’s been 10 years since I made the most difficult decision of my life.

I chose opportunity over security. Passion over predictability. Faith over fear. Sacrifice now for reward later. Growth over stagnation. Courage over complacency.

And I did again today as I burned the ships, my security blanket, and quite literally-my expired pharmacy license.

You can do it too. Is there something that you are afraid to let go of? Are you paralyzed to take the next step because of a fear of failure or just the unknown? Are you waiting on a little more information or a little more assurance? Sometimes you have to take away the option of retreat, and just push forward. Dream big, work hard, live faithfully, decide courageously, lead passionately. Success will come, and you won’t look back.

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