Helping others shape their destinies through entrepreneurship
At age eight, Joe Harper decided it was time to increase his weekly allowance. Fifty cents simply didn’t cover his expenses: bubble gum, movie tickets, popcorn, and, of course, the latest baseball cards. So he asked his dad for a raise.
“He told me frankly that that’s all the family budget would allow, and that if I needed more money, I needed to discover how to make more money,” recalls Joe. “You know, look for something else to do.”
His father’s response was not what Joe wanted to hear. Surely, thought Joe, given the work he’d done around the house, a raise wasn’t an unreasonable request.
Nevertheless, he followed his father’s advice and retrieved from the closet the shoeshine box that he’d made for his dad at Vacation Bible School. Then he walked down to the local barbershop to set up shop.
“In those days, the barbershop was where the old men congregated and told their stories,” explains Joe. “It was more about a visit than a haircut. . . . I knew most of those men were generally interested in the success of young guys, so I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to play off of that a little bit and see if I can’t sell shoe shines.’”
Joe brought home a whopping five dollars from his first day. Proud of his achievement, he flaunted his earnings to his father.
“I showed him my five dollars,” says Joe, “and he took it, peeled off two, and gave me back three.”
“But, Dad!” said Joe, horrified. “That’s my money!”
“Well, no, not really,” said his father. “Your first lesson as an entrepreneur is cost of goods. Those were my rags; those were my waxes. And, in reality, that was my box.”
It was a tough lesson for young Joe, but it stuck with him through many entrepreneurial ventures—from baling hay and cleaning out barns to starting a construction company at age twenty.
Now director and team leader with the Small Business Development Center at Texas State University, Joe oversees a team of small business advisers in Georgetown and twelve central Texas counties. He meets daily with current and prospective business owners to help them hone their business concepts, develop their companies, and transition to new endeavors.
Georgetown View sat down with Joe to talk about entrepreneurship and his investment in helping future generations of business leaders.
It seems that entrepreneurship has always been present in your life.
My mother’s side of the family, from her father to her seven brothers, [consisted of] all entrepreneurs. And my dad was an entrepreneur; he was always trying different things. So I grew up in that environment. I understood that through entrepreneurship, you can create your own destiny.
Is someone ever too young or old to become an entrepreneur?
That’s the beautiful thing about entrepreneurship—it’s not age-bound. The spirit and intent of entrepreneurship can be found at any age.
As a farm boy, I did things [such as] when people were working by the hour to clean the dairy farm, I’d work by the job. Where people worked by the hour to stack bales of hay, I’d work by the bale. Entrepreneurship is about earning your full potential, and I don’t think you can be too young or old to learn those lessons.
You work regularly with entrepreneurs. What qualities define entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurs tend to be people who, by nature, even in their daily life, are problem solvers. They look at a situation and say, “I can make it better.” Or they look at a situation and say, “I can fix that.”
I think they have an almost innate sense of seeing where something can be improved. Then, knowing where something can be improved changes to “How do I actually take my problem-solving ability and market it?”
There are always going to be things that people can’t or won’t do, and entrepreneurs also have the ability to recognize what people can’t or won’t do as opportunities.
When I’m sitting across from someone who wants to start a business, what I get to really quickly is their ability to be an entrepreneur. Do they have those traits? Can they see and value opportunity? A lot of the entrepreneurs that fail probably lack that understanding; they don’t see their product as a solution. They see their product as something they’re good at. And those are two very different things.
What is the toughest lesson you’ve ever learned in life or business?
When you’re young, you think you’re invincible. You don’t pay attention to things that matter, such as market trends and market deviations. In the mid-eighties when I had Harpers Restorations, a construction company, I thought the good times would last forever. But the realization was that accounts receivable did not equate to cash. And if you can’t pull it in, and you can’t pay your bills, you really don’t have a business. As a young entrepreneur, I didn’t pay attention to market indicators that business was not going to go as usual and that I needed to learn how to retrench to survive.
Which do you think is more important: on-the-job experience or formal education?
There’s a practical side of what you do, and there’s a theory side of what you do. I think there’s equal value in both.
I didn’t immediately go into school; I went into business. Had I first gotten a business education, maybe knowing about market trends and understanding how to evaluate financials would have prevented the failure of my first company.
Looking back, I would have preferred to have had the education first and then had the business. But at that time, I didn’t see the value of having an education first. As a young, cocky entrepreneur, you think you know what you’re doing. But the reality was that I didn’t have enough education to be successful.
Why is helping entrepreneurs so important to you?
When I meet with entrepreneurs, I connect with them. I empathize with them. I know their struggles; I’ve been through them. I’ve had successes, and I’ve had failures. Helping other entrepreneurs is something I’m passionate about, and it’s a way of giving back.
Also, with entrepreneurship, you get out of it what you put into it, which is not always the case when you’re working with someone else. But entrepreneurship gives people the opportunity to earn their true potential. . . . And I truly believe that entrepreneurship is the anchor of our country and our way of life as a capitalist society.