You Have to Startup Somewhere

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| This is the 282nd story of Our Life Logs |


October 9, 1962: I was born in Norwood, Massachusetts, to first generation Russian/Polish Americans from immigrant families. I grew up in the nearby city of Millis in our Cape-style house. It was small, but it was home.

My young whirring mind was as sharp as a whetstone, always looking to gain more knowledge. I was fascinated by how things worked. How did cars run? How could we hear someone on the radio all the way from Russia? Why did the TV get snow? What did you have to do with a piece of wood to make it shine like that? My life was consumed with questions.

By the age of 13, my curiosity was accompanied by trips to the dump to salvage old radios and TVs. I would take them apart to look at the transistors, wires, and tubes. I would diagnose the problem, fix it, and sell them on what was then called “Want Advertiser.” Basically, a print publication halfway between the Sears Roebuck Catalog and Craigslist.

That was the beginning. That was the same spirit that led me to where I am today.

My side hustle only further stoked the flames of my entrepreneurial spirit. Back then, you could buy ice cream for a pittance and flip it at a good price. When I was 15, my brother and I decided to get in on this endeavor. We convinced my dad to loan us the money and became the proud owners of a 1971 GMC ice cream truck which we promptly painted red, white, and blue to attract attention. My favorite customer was a Saint Bernard who would stand in line with the kids. When it was his turn, he’d jump up on his hind legs and rest his paws up on the counter. We’d usually give him a screwball that had been squashed against the side of the freezer (unsellable). Even with our doggie handouts, we had paid our father back—in full—within two months.

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After high school, I went to WPI (Worcester Poly Institute) and graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering. When I graduated college, I got to work sending out resumes in between sporadic trips to Boston with alcohol and friends for company. As luck would have it, a friend from my ice cream days worked in Maynard in HR at Digital Equipment Corporation, the largest computer company in the country at the time. He got the resume into the right hands, and I started working as an Engineer I, and in two years, I moved up three roles into the Principal Engineer position.

Basically, here’s what I was doing each day. Digital’s business model at that time was to take an existing piece of technology made in the US, ship it overseas and see if our men there could reverse engineer certain parts in the computer to make them cheaper. Genius idea. In theory. One day a piece of equipment came back from overseas and I refused to pass it after it failed several of the tests we used to check for quality. It was junk. 10,000 units collected dust, while the overseas team scrambled to rectify their mistake. I thought I’d made the right call.

That was until my manager hit me with a bad review later that month claiming that I had to “become more of a team player” because my past decisions had “cost the company millions of dollars.” I was incensed. I was doing my job and doing it well. If the men overseas can’t say the same, how was it my fault? I refused to work for a company like that, so the next day I handed in my letter of resignation.

My mother cried all night. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to open my own business,” I said with the confidence of any 25-year-old with an entrepreneurial spirit and a winning track record.

You see, I had already been doing it since the age of 15. What was the difference? Now I’d just be more legit with a site, employees, stock, and the like. While at Digital, I had already started tinkering in my basement. I had a client list and everything. Digital was charging about $5,000 to repair one circuit board, so I planned to charge half that for an hour’s work and laugh all the way to the bank.

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Thus began SMH Electronics Incorporated. For about a year and a half, I was working out of my parents’ basement which was a huge challenge. Every day, 30 or so large boxes would arrive at the house and I had to offload and tag them. I employed my sister to help, but it ended up growing to the point where a warehouse was needed.

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One of our company’s posters.

So, at 27, I leased two units of warehouse space in Wareham, and we officially opened our doors in 1989. And let me tell you, business was booming. My then fiancé, now wife, was doing all the invoicing, office paperwork, and hiring and firing of employees. She’d gone to business school and let me tell you, there was nothing this Italian-and-proud, firecracker of a woman couldn’t handle.

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My wife and me.

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By the mid-’90s, we’d reached our peak as a multi-million dollar company, employing around 16 to 20 technicians and administrators on the regular payroll. I had bought a nice house on Cape Cod and two kids came along, born 1992 and 1994. The American Dream. I had made it and it felt good. But trouble was on the horizon.

I began juggling family time and business time. And to be honest, family time was proving to be more rewarding than anything I did for business. My wife and kids filled the void I’d had since childhood more than the money and the thrill of walking through a door with my name on it did.

The nature of businesses is that they must keep growing. The problem was, we weren’t. The electronics industry was failing as the values began to depreciate. A TV that would cost $1000 in 1946, $12,000 in today’s money now only cost $45, and if the TV broke, people weren’t getting it fixed. They’d just go out and buy a new one.

Wrapped up in kids, and work and life, I didn’t see the writing on the wall until it was almost too late. It seemed like my dream of being a millionaire by the time I was 30 was out of reach. With kids in private school, there was no choice but to revise the business model to be more software driven. It wasn’t exactly the future I had imagined for myself.

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Another one of our company’s posters.

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Cut to 2009. The biggest crisis since the Great Depression hit our financial sector and had our economy in a headlock. Layoffs. Bailouts. Slashing interest rates. The whole rotten enchilada. And the truth was, we had a no-layoff policy. For me, I felt that as a boss I had an obligation to my employees. I wanted to be nothing like that cowardly manager who wanted to hang me out to dry, while he kept his own nose clean. I kept everyone on, even as work dwindled. We bled money.

It was a tough time. Our oldest was looking at colleges and I was becoming increasingly frustrated as the money we pulled in failed to compare to what we used to. My life continued to move away from what I loved (tinkering with electronics) toward what I hated (being beholden to demanding people). Eventually, we had no choice but to downsize to keep ourselves afloat.

This, of course, is all entirely melodramatic. I was a success by any definition of the word. I had a beautiful house and a loving family, and a 30-foot boat and slip at a marina on Cape Cod. We weren’t dying. But my spirit was. The entrepreneurial spirit that had driven me forward, driven me to my greatest successes was languishing in this pit of mediocrity I found myself in. But we got through. Tightened our belts. Reevaluated, as everyone was forced to, but we were never the same again. We made hay while the sun shone and now had to hide in the barn and wait for the rain to pass.

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And pass it did, as all things in life do. Now my business is 35 and still moving, if not thrumming the way it was in the 1990s. I’m 56 and the father of two boys. Men now, really. Funny how that happens. I plan to retire within the next few years. And after that? I doubt I’ll rest. I think my spirit is too erratic to rest. Trips to the Caribbean and to Vermont, sure. But doing nothing all day, every day? No, thank you.

No, the entrepreneurial need that was trampled in 2008 is still there, and I doubt it will ever go away. It’s who I am, the one constant throughout my entire life. I fell in love with the grind when I was 13, and I’m not one to fall out of love so easily.

 

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This is the story of Stephen Harris

Stephen, 56, is an entrepreneur, electrical engineer, and co-owner and operator of SMH Electronics with his wife, Vicki Harris. They both live in Falmouth, Massachusetts where they enjoy gardening and boating in the summer, and skiing and hot toddies in the winter. Ever since Stephen was a kid, he loves to tinker with things and understand how they worked. This led him to start his own electronics business and enduring the ups and downs of running it. The coolest thing Stephen ever found in his TV fixing days was an original color television made by RCA circa 1954. There were under 1000 of them ever made and are a huge collector’s item today. Now semi-retired, he’s gravitated back to what put him on this crazy track in the first place, tinkering in his basement with radios and TVs and selling them on eBay. In a couple of years, he plans to sell the business and client list, and semi-retirement will become retirement.

 

 

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This story first touched our hearts on February 11, 2019.

| Writer: Matthew Harris | Editor: Kristen Petronio; Colleen Walker |

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