On a Roll: From Zero to Millions or How a Kid From the Bronx Started wth Hot Dogs and Wound Up Making a Fortuneby Howard Jonas
The score was David 1, Goliath 0, after Howard Jonas, an enterprising kid from the Bronx, had a bright idea that revolutionized international telecommunications, pioneered what is now an over a billion-dollar-a-year industry, successfully fought off AT&T's aggressive attempts to pull the plug on his operation--and then took his own start-up company public, to net over $100 million for himself. And it all began with a hot-dog stand outside a methadone clinic, as the author relates in this effervescent account of a self-made multimillionaire, a book that will teach, inspire, and entertain today's (and tomorrow's) entrepreneurs and just plain dreamers. Jonas's down-to-earth and highly opinionated approaches to business have made headlines and inform every page of this energetic autobiography. Jonas worked his way through Harvard (after the hot-dog enterprise) by selling Venus flytraps by mail order from his dorm room and saved enough to start a publishing business after graduation. This led him to develop a revolutionary system for inexpensive international phone calls--and right into the gunsights of AT&T. How he won this and other battles are lessons that everyone, from would-be entrepreneurs to top CEOs, should learn. Jonas is a terrific storyteller, full of wry wit and iconoclastic wisdom, and his book teaches you how to succeed at the business you love--and love the business you do.
- Viking Adult
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.32(w) x 9.28(h) x 1.03(d)
Read an Excerpt
One Finger for Onions
On March 15, 1996, I made over a hundred million dollars. That was the day my company, IDT, one of the world's largest Internet and alternative telecommunications providers, went public. As IDT's founder, president, and majority shareholder, I was instantly rich beyond my wildest dreams. People ask me if this was the greatest moment in my business life. It wasn't.
Four months later, on July 18, 1996, we released a new technology, a breakthrough that would eventually cut the cost of international calls by a remarkable 95 percent. That day Sara Grosvenor, the great-granddaughter of Alexander Graham Bell, joined us in New York to use our new technology in order to place the first phone call ever over the network to Susan Cheever, the great-granddaughter of Thomas Watson, in London.
Within twenty-four hours of Ms. Grosvenor saying "Come here, Ms. Watson, I need to see you" over our system, CNN, CNBC, and newspapers had spread word of the development to investors and potential users and partners around the world. Combined with a more than fivefold increase in our quarterly revenues for the second year in a row, IDT's stock price started to move upward again. Many people who saw me glowing that morning asked if this was the greatest moment of my business life. It wasn't.
The greatest moment actually occurred approximately twenty-seven years earlier on the morning of July 23, 1970. That was the morning I pushed my newly built hot dog stand past Joe and Vinny's butcher shop on Eastchester Road inthe Bronx. Only two months before, Joe had driven me from my after-school job in the butcher shop by forcing me to eat five pounds of rice pudding (a task that took me close to two hours) after catching me sampling the pudding while I waited on a customer at the deli counter.
I couldn't resist stopping in front of the butcher shop on my way to the spot I'd picked out three-quarters of a mile away to set up my stand. As Joe, Vinny, and Joe's nephew, Patsy, came out to see the new stand, I was gloating over the fact that I was now just as independent in business as they were. Nobody could make me clean out the rotten chicken tank anymore. Nobody could send me five miles away on the delivery bike in the snow to deliver ribs to a rich finicky lady who would just send them back to be trimmed, and never tipped more than a quarter. Nobody could make me lay in the sawdust and dig ground-up bones, blood, and fat out of the meat band saw. And, most importantly, nobody could do all this while poking fun at what a jerk I was to get all the dirty jobs. I was only fourteen years old, and the wheels would fall off my homemade hot dog stand many times before that summer ended, but that day, in my mind, I was as rich as a Rockefeller.
The idea for a hot dog stand had actually come to me about two months before the rice pudding attack, while sitting at the Crotona Park Lake with my grandmother. She had just fried warm potato latkes (pancakes), and we were taking them out of their wax paper covering and dipping them into an old Maxwell House coffee jar full of cold, sweet homemade apple sauce we had cooked together the night before. Nothing, I thought, could make this moment more perfect than a nice long hot dog with mustard, covered with onions in tomato sauce. There was a cart vendor by the far side of the lake. Unfortunately for me, it was the Jewish holiday of Passover, when leavened bread (buns) and (nonkosher) hot dogs were especially prohibited, and so the lust for hot dogs had to just linger in my mind. Until I thought, why not run a hot dog stand of my own instead of working afternoons and weekends in the butcher shop?
I told my grandmother what I had in mind, and she said it was impossible. I was too young. I wouldn't be able to get a license. I would be robbed. This wasn't an appropriate thing for a nice junior high school student with middle-class parents to be doing. That settled it. I was going into the hot dog business.
It wasn't that I had anything against my grandma. Far from it. She was, in fact, my best friend in the world. It's just that I loved a challenge. Not only that, but in truth, I hated being a kid. I often complained to my parents as I was growing up that I was an adult trapped in a child's body. I enjoyed adult TV shows, adult books, adult conversation, and spending time in my father's adult insurance office. Adults were reasoning and tolerant. They enjoyed working, making conversation, and laughing. Kids, on the other hand, liked wasting time, ganging up on anyone different or weaker than themselves, making trouble, and fighting. This was especially true in the increasingly tough part of the South Bronx where I grew up. The rules of kid society were mean.
I could not have put it into words then, but my basic complaint against kids was that they were unproductive, takers and users. I still think one of the highest things a person can aspire to be is productive. That's why the Bible says, "Six days shall you work and on the Seventh day you shall rest." Everyone seems to know the rule about the day off, but a lot of people forget the rule about the other six days. But they're just as important. Man is supposed to imitate G-d's productivity in creating the world in six days by going out and being creative himself. This is the best way to benefit not only yourself, but humankind as well. I often run into young successful people who tell me they are retiring to pursue charitable activities. What a crock! I believe in charity. I give away 20 percent of everything I make. I always have. But I don't kid myself. The good they do is important, but it's also limited. Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, said, "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for one day, but teach him how to fish on his own and he'll eat forever."
In that spirit, weigh the work of the good done by all the combined charities in the world against the good done by just one company like General Motors. Thanks to GM, millions of people have productive jobs and can support their families with honor. Hundreds of millions of people are free to travel from place to place to enjoy themselves, and people can use their stock and dividend checks to retire in dignity. What charity can make such claims?
You hear it said a lot that "young people today just aren't as good as they used to be." The usual response to that comment is to point out that people have been saying that for hundreds of years, and this is just a bias that comes with age. But maybe not. I, for one, think that, in general, youth really has gone downhill, and I think there's a perfectly rational explanation for it.
A lot of young people don't work anymore. They mooch off their parents, go to school, hang out, consume indiscriminately, and criticize, or even attack, everyone else. Small wonder. We're all born selfish and it's only having to endure and overcome life's hard knocks that builds character and makes us empathetic to what others are going through. Not only that, but the very process of having to sell our labor or services in the marketplace educates us in how to cooperate and deal with others. Years ago, every young person had to work on the farm, in the family store, or at some other job in order to make a necessary contribution to the family's survival. This work built the character of previous generations. What builds character today? TV? Belonging to a gang? The latest fashion craze? Not much.
Eventually most people, as they get older, work in the productive sphere and develop into pretty well-rounded people. But honestly, do you think this is really the same as learning values young? I don't. I'm sorry to sound like such a pessimistic moralist, but it's just how I feel.
Back to my story. As I sat with my grandmother and dreamed in the park, I had a vision of my own hot dog stand. It was as exciting to me as having my own yacht. I could see it in my mind's eye, all polished, gleaming chrome, with the smell of boiling hot dogs, sauerkraut, and onions wafting out in small puffs from beneath the chrome food doors. And I could see myself in a white apron spearing a frank as a six-person line of eager customers looked on approvingly. Reality, I soon found out, was different.
A new chrome hot dog stand, I found, would cost over one thousand dollars. Even a used one would cost much more than the hundred dollars in tips from the butcher shop that I'd saved in my wooden Macanudo cigar box. I therefore decided, with my father's help, to build my own hot dog stand. Supplies being costly, I tried to use whatever I could find around our garage, to whatever extent possible. I cut down my old crib, nailed paneling all around it to form a three-and-a-half-foot-high square box, and used the wheels from my old carriage to turn it into a rolling box. All that remained was to cut a door in the side for a picnic cooler to hold sodas and supplies. Screw our Coleman camping stove to the top to cook the franks, bore a hole into which I inserted our green picnic table umbrella, and voila! A hot dog stand! Sort of. All that was needed now was a couple of pots, hot dogs, buns, condiments, sodas, and a vending license. This was graciously supplied by my uncle Freddie, my grandmother's baby brother, who was a World War II veteran and was thus entitled to a special permit. The morning that he got the license, he'd first gone to the dentist and had all of his teeth pulled. I can still see his toothless grin as he handed over the license and shook my hand. With my old jalopy of a stand, patched together with spit and polish and my father's ingenuity, I was ready to go into business.
I wish I could see that old hot dog stand one more time. But after the first year I'd saved enough money for a used regular stand and, not realizing that I was dealing with a potential family heirloom, I junked the old stand so there'd be room in the garage for the new one.
One lesson I learned from this, and would repeat again and again, is that if you have an idea, don't overprepare, just go for it. Sure, I could've spent years saving for the chrome stand, just as later I could've spent years delaying my entry into the publishing business until I could afford good typesetting equipment, or my entry into the phone business till I could afford my first million-dollar switch. But for all I know, I'd still be waiting. If you really want to do something, even if you have to come in on just a wing and a prayer, go for it. Most things will fall into place later.
Another thing I learned in the hot dog business was the importance of quality. I, you see, was a hot dog aficionado, a maven. At eleven, as soon as I got my 50 [cts.]-a-week allowance, I would immediately go off on my bike to buy a 25 [cts.] hot dog from a local cart vendor who I determined had the best hot dogs in the world. The other quarter I'd carefully put aside for another hot dog later in the week. There were two things I figured out that made this old man's hot dogs superior to any I'd ever tasted. First, he used all-beef deli hot dogs and cooked them only a few at a time on a low flame so they never got that bland, boiled-out taste. And second, his onions were homemade. This meant they were long and spaghettilike, and the sauce was sweet, thick, and red. In contrast, most carts served commercial chopped onions. Hot dog connoisseurs can spot the difference a mile away.
Since the old man wouldn't give me his recipe, I spent hours with eyes tearing in the kitchen, dicing bag after bag of onions until I got just the right blend of onions, garlic, sauce, paste, and sugar with corn syrup so that the onions were perfect. From April, when I first discussed the idea with my grandma, until July, when I rolled out my cart, it seemed that half my time was spent cooking onions and testing them on my family. But on July 23, 1970, they were perfect. Pepsi couldn't have done a better job imitating Coke!
I wheeled my rickety cart over to the place I'd picked out in front of a nearby hospital. I fired up the flame and waited for the line to form. Business was slow at first. I think the stand scared most people away. The look of it suggested the possibility of stomach poisoning. But once an adventurous few tried the hot dogs, they came back and brought their friends. Soon I had to put a second cooler in the stand, and even then I was selling out. I was earning close to $40 a day, which meant that I was doing almost three times as well as at the butcher shop. Not only that, but I loved every minute of it.
That was probably the best lesson of all. Working hard and running my own business was fun. That was even more important than the money I made. For the first six years I was in the telecommunications business, I didn't take a dime in salary or profits. Many times I didn't know whether I'd still be in business in two months. But I loved what I was doing, just like I loved selling hot dogs.
The thing I really loved best about the hot dog business was dealing with people and learning how to treat them right. Two things come to mind in this, and both were related to where I decided to locate my stand.
The stand stood in front of a hospital and across the street from a bar. The bar was called the Tender Trap and the hospital Van Etten. One of the hospital's main functions was to run a methadone clinic for former heroin addicts. You would think these addicts would be terrible people to be around. Actually, they were great. They were really trying to get their lives together. And in a way, I, with my own hot dog stand, was the most establishment-type person many of them had ever been befriended by. We'd spend hours talking politics, sports, crime, religion--whatever you could think of. I even hired several of them to run the stand for short times while I went to buy supplies. Risky, you say? Well, they never stole a dime from me. A couple of the patients even got jobs driving cabs that summer, and would come back to visit me in their cars, or between shifts. They would proudly insist on now paying for their hot dogs and sodas. I learned from this the great potential (and potential goodness) that's locked inside everyone, if you give it a chance to come out. IDT is known today for hiring people from way-out fields, or promising young people with no background, and quickly giving them big responsibilities. More often than not, our people do their new jobs better than any of our competitors' people.
The story of the bar was perhaps more interesting than the story of the clinic. The bar, you see, served only alcohol (no food), and drinking seemed to build a considerable appetite on the part of many of the patrons. The reverse also seemed to be the case; that is, the more people ate, the longer they were able to keep drinking. As naturally as between man and woman, a partnership formed between me and the bar. At first the bar hostesses would come running across the street to pick up hot dogs for their patrons. Soon they would just yell the order across the two-way, six-lane street and I would prepare the hot dogs and run them over. This was a good deal for me, since I usually got a tip, and sometimes another order as well. Leaving the stand alone for a couple of minutes was no big deal, since one of my friends from the clinic was always happy to run the business while I was away. Eventually the bar and I developed a signaling system similar to that between a major league catcher and pitcher. The hostesses would go to the window and on the right hand hold up fingers to signal the number of hot dogs needed. Then, on the left, they put up one finger for onions, two for sauerkraut, three for mustard only, or four for plain. After receiving the signal, I'd prepare the dogs and, sure as any major league screwball pitcher, deliver them pronto to the bar.
There was one other thing the bar had that interested me besides the hungry drinkers, and that was their ice. (To be honest, there was a third, but I was only fourteen and had never been on a date yet. So though the hostesses were nice to think about, they didn't have as much practical value in my life as hungry hot dog eaters and ice.) Ice was a magical substance that could make my business thrive. You see, I sold twice as many sodas a day as hot dogs. Not only that, but on every 25 [cts.] can of soda I made 15 [cts.], whereas on every 25 [cts.] frank I only made a dime. The hotter the summer day, the more I made. And in New York City, summer gets pretty hot. Unfortunately, by two or three in the afternoon, my ice was usually all melted, so by four my soda sales were finished--and just before the hospital complex let their hot, tired, and, most importantly, thirsty employees off of work.
The ice machine in the Tender Trap, though, could solve all of my problems. It was huge--the size of a coffin for a hippopotamus. A huge bin opened on the bottom, from which you could literally shovel out ice and new ice would just fall into place. At first I asked if I could just fill up a small paper bag with ice. Eventually, seeing the bartender's nonchalant good humor over my taking ice, I requested more. Soon three times a day I was carrying pails of ice across the street to my stand. Before long, I even stopped bringing any ice from home at all and relied exclusively on the bar. To show my appreciation, I always brought free hot dogs for the bartenders, though they often told me not to bother.
In short, I loved the Tender Trap--everything about it and everyone who worked there. Every morning when I came in to get my ice, their staff and I chewed over details about the day just passed and the day to come. Every day, that is, but Sunday. Sunday, by law, all bars in New York are closed till afternoon. This was probably a good thing for the Tender Trap, since Saturday night was always party night till the wee hours, so on Sunday mornings the place was always in shambles. Cleanup work was not done by the regular staff, but by an elderly, sort of grizzly-looking couple who pulled up each Sunday in an old blue Dodge sedan, unloaded their cleaning supplies, and went to work. This was a problem. I still needed ice, but these people didn't know I was a part of the enterprise, and the first week I asked for the ice, the old lady said she didn't know if she was allowed to give it out. The next week, though, I went in all prepared to tell this tough old lady that Frankie, the bartender, said it was okay, but the old lady said, "Oh, you're that nice young man with the hot dog cart. Well, why didn't you tell me last week? You're so ambitious. Your mother must be so proud. Of course you can have ice; you can have whatever you like." I was stunned. This was no tough old lady. She was like my grandmother. I tried to bring her and her husband free hot dogs, but she said they couldn't eat them because they were on a salt-free diet. No problem. I had another way to say thank you. I had started selling flowers on weekends, on consignment from a local florist. I selected the nicest bouquet of red roses and brought them to the old lady.
"Now, isn't that nice," she said. "But I have so many flowers at home, I have no place to keep them. Plus you need to save your money for college, not waste it on an old lady like me. So you just take these back, but thank you anyway for the lovely thought." No, I insisted. Finally she agreed to take just one rose, which she put in her hair, just above her ear. "Now, aren't I beautiful?" She giggled, spreading her arms--and we both laughed. After that it became a ritual each Sunday morning. After they showed up I'd go across the street to get my ice and bring her the nicest rose I could find in all the buckets.
A word about the flowers. In business if you don't innovate, you're dead. Just opening a hot dog stand on the hospital's corner wasn't nearly enough. If it was, someone else would already have claimed the corner. In fact, the hospital I was in front of was actually the smallest one in a very large medical center. All the larger hospitals already had one or more stands in front of them and the local mob, in cooperation with the police, was paid for these choice spots near the hospital and guaranteed a complete or partial monopoly as the value of the spot warranted. I, a fourteen-year-old boy selling hot dogs during the summer and on weekends, had to take what nobody else wanted. I was forced to ignore the old adage that the three most important things that matter in the retail business are location, location, location. My job, therefore, was to convert my location from a loser to a winner. This I did by asking all my customers what else they'd like me to carry and, if possible, adding it to my repertoire. Thanks to advice from a nursing student, I was one of the first stands to carry diet soda. Thanks to requests from kids, I became an authorized Lay's potato chip dealer. For doctors, I had fruit drinks, and for Hispanics, Coco Lopez soda. Pretty soon my little hot dog stand was like the neighborhood convenience store. In fact, my hot dog distributor let the local powers know that I was selling as many hot dogs as the guys at the busy spots, and I had to fend off payoff requests from the local "protection" agent and even from some cops.
My most profitable innovation, though, was flowers. The section of the hospital center where I stood was the most remote part of the complex, but it was where the visitors' parking was placed. Weekdays this didn't matter much, since most people were busy. But on weekends the lot filled up with visitors. I arranged with a local florist to deliver pails of prewrapped flower bouquets. The deal was I'd get half the money on each bunch sold and he'd take back the unsold inventory to sell at his store during the week. Flowers wound up being so profitable that some weeks just the flower profit for Saturday and Sunday was more than I made on the stand the whole rest of the week. I remember one Mother's Day, which is by more than triple the best flower day of the year, I made over $300! If every day were Mother's Day, I'd advise all entrepreneurs to forget about high tech and go into flowers.
Again and again I proved that by innovating you could take what was essentially a mediocre draw and turn it into a winning hand. Years later IDT would be the first call-back phone company to offer Internet access, E-mail-to-fax service, worldwide direct dialing, real phone calling over the Internet, and our own unlimited on-line service. These innovations raised us from being just another phone company to the most innovative company in the telecom business. Of course, not every new idea we've tried has been as successful as adding flowers. If fact, some haven't worked at all. But the important thing is that whether you're running a hot dog stand or a global telecom company, you've got to keep trying new things if you want to get ahead.
Back to the hot dog stand, the bar, and the old lady, though. One Sunday morning it seemed my whole business was crashing down around me. That morning another vendor with a huge mechanized stand came with his twenty-four-year-old son to take my spot. This vendor had a great spot in a commercial area during the week, and on Saturday an even better spot in the park where league ball games are played. (I can tell any prospective food vendor from experience that a field with several amateur baseball or football games going on is a gold mine. Even today, when I drive down the highway and see a series of occupied fields with no hot dog stands present, I am mentally tempted to pull over to the side and set up shop.) On Sunday, however, his park wasn't that profitable, and so he came down to cash in on my visitor trade.
That would have been bad enough, as most first-time hospital visitors were unfamiliar with my superior onions and would clearly have preferred his gleaming stand to my homemade wooden one. But at least I'd still have my regulars and the flowers. His son went a step further, though. He came over and told me that this was his spot now, and I had fifteen minutes to clear out or he'd "come over and kick your a--." Then he pulled a switchblade, exposed the blade, and said he'd kill me if I fought back. This was not a good situation, and I definitely did not want to have any part of my anatomy kicked, nor did I want to be stabbed. On the other hand, I wasn't giving up my spot. So I just sat there for about fifteen minutes, and then I went into the Tender Trap and told the old lady that she should keep looking out the window and, if she saw anything happening to me, to call the cops at once. When I went back out to sell my hot dogs, though, the old lady emerged from the bar. I'd never seen her like this. She was hopping mad. She ran over to the father-and-son duo and started screaming at them that this was my spot and nobody was here before and it was wrong to steal a spot from a kid and they'd better leave right now or she was going to do something about it.
The older man started yelling back that I didn't own the street and he'd stay where he wanted and called her a really horrible name. She turned and went back into the bar.
What happened next is so unbelievable that I know you'll think it's the creation of a youthful imagination, but I promise you it's true. Minutes later, three big Cadillacs, the front one pink and the two behind white, came screeching up in front of the stands. Seven enormous men got out slowly while the driver of the lead Caddy came charging out at the two hot dog men, screaming, "Who insulted my mother?" The hot dog seller's son looked plenty scared. "Johnny," he said, "I swear I didn't know she was your mother." The old lady's son started pummeling and kicking the younger man. Two of the other guys tried to hold Johnny back, saying, "Calm down, Johnny. You don't want to kill him." The father, in the meantime, was trying to throw himself in the middle to protect his son, while Johnny was screaming, "You don't teach your son no respect, I will."
Johnny finally calmed down and told my competitors that if they ever brought their stand anywhere near here again, that would be the last day they ever sold hot dogs. He then calmly opened his trunk, took out a baseball bat, and smashed the chromium stand about eight or nine times, terrifying everyone until he told them to leave. They did, and I never had another competitor again.
When it was all over, Johnny and his associates came over to my stand and started laughing and ordering hot dogs like nothing had happened and they hadn't eaten for days. I, of course, just assumed that the hot dogs were on the house for services rendered. Johnny, however, not only insisted on paying, but gave me a twenty-dollar tip as well. When I tried to refuse, he told me it was for the flowers, and anyway, he said, "anyone who is a friend of my mother is a friend of mine, and I don't take no money from friends. You hear? By the way, kid, these are great onions. I might be back." And with that they jumped into their Caddies and roared off.
Why exactly had I originally become friends with the old lady? Part of it surely was I needed the ice, and wanted to ensure my supply. But another part of it was I felt empathy with the old couple. As I sat across the street watching them get out of their old car to clean the bar every Sunday morning I could imagine myself in their shoes. They sure didn't seem rich and their lives didn't seem to be filled with great accomplishment. Clearly, it wasn't easy getting up early in the morning, especially at that age, to clean out a bar. But they weren't depending on anyone else. They were working hard and doing the best they could. That made me admire and respect them. Everyone gets dealt a different hand in life. You have to do the best with the hand you're dealt, and keep yourself in the game creatively.
At fourteen, of course, I had visions of glory dancing in my head. I would go from a hot dog stand to a fast-growing company, and who knew from there--maybe President of the United States! Hot dogs and flowers were just a first step. But even at fourteen I had a sense that things in my life might not always work out the way I expected. Many things can go wrong unexpectedly along the way--illness, business setbacks, bankruptcy, disgrace, war, prison. You just never know.
In life, luck sometimes counts for a lot. Bad luck and good. Take marriage. There's almost nothing worse than being stuck in a bad marriage, and nothing better than having a good one. I've been unbelievably lucky in this regard. Even with eight kids, I'm more in love with my wife than the day we married. But, really, do you honestly think that when we met in high school I was able to rationally divine the future? Of course not. With raging teenage hormones, rational decision making was impossible. I just got lucky; not everyone does. I could just as easily have wound up in divorce court.
I thought of luck and the old couple. They could be me in forty years' time. This double awareness--first, that people should be judged on how much they do with what they're given, and not just how much they accomplish; and second, that in a slightly altered circumstance, you and most other people in the world could easily have your roles reversed--makes me look upon everyone as an equal. This made it easy and natural to want to help them and be their friends, even if I hadn't needed the ice.
Today, I don't sit in a private office but out on the general sales floor. We don't live in a fancy house or neighborhood, but in a relatively modest one. And I don't drive an exotic car or fly first class. (Of course, my inherent parsimony contributes to at least some of this.) I don't have a personal secretary and find it very difficult to ask people to do personal errands for me. I answer my own phone. I also try very hard to include as many people as possible in our company's decisionmaking process, and I really listen to what everyone who advises me has to say. I never assume I just know better than someone who, at the moment, is much lower in the organization, but who might know more and deserve to be higher.
In our family too we try to be democratic and not arbitrary. It's easy for parents to get power-crazy and impose their wills and preferences on their children, but when children are given responsibility and authority, they develop their true selves. Sometimes this creates chaos. No two kids in my family ever want to do the same thing. No two kids can even agree about what to eat for dinner. Managing this tribe is probably as difficult, and requires as much finesse and creativity, as running IDT. And in the end, it's a lot more important. We listen to everyone, from my sixteen-year-old son who knows it all, to my fourteen-year-old son who only wants to talk about hockey equipment, to my eleven-year-old daydreamer, everybody's best friend, who who would gladly give you the shirt off his back. Then there's my nine-year-old gymnast, smart as a whip and highly opinionated, and her six-year-old brother, who thinks everyone else in the family is out to get him. My four-year-old daughter is that rare gem--a gift from G-d, for whom every glass is neither half empty nor half full, but overflowing. Even the year-old twins are included in our family's decision-making process. In fact, lately it feels like they're running the show.
When it comes to being a father, I think about a pitcher by the name of Jim Abbott, a guy who was born--and made it to the majors--with only one hand. He pitched for the Yankees for a while, then ended his career with the California Angels.
I don't know anything about his family, but in my mind his father is a true hero. Think how easy it would have been to discourage a kid with only one hand. Watch TV, Jim, watch the game. Pitch? Who are you kidding? But they must not have discouraged him at all. My late father-in-law, Irv Yatzkan, used to say that the job of a parent is neither to encourage nor discourage your children. Just courage them. Help them to have the guts to figure out what they're good at, and pursue it. Help them find their unique way to shine, and then wait and see what happens.
In business, these attitudes wound up benefiting me in the short and long runs in several practical ways. First, many people who in other companies might have been pigeonholed at some lower level, but who have vision, have risen to the top and become crucial to our success.
A second obvious benefit of treating everyone as an equal is that people really put much more of their heart, soul, and creativity into a company when they're given a lot of independence and know their contributions are valued. Even if all this weren't the case, though, treating human beings as equals would be the right thing to do, just because it is the right thing to do. That it happens to work is just one more proof that G-d really did set the world up in the best possible way.
Recently my wife threw a "surprise" fortieth birthday party for me. Now, obviously it's difficult to surprise someone with a party when they reach "the big four-o," unless they turned senile at 39 1/2. What did surprise me, though, is that she had bought me a big, shiny, stainless steel hot dog stand with a customized umbrella (the one I'd always dreamed of but could never afford). It was right there at the party waiting for me to dispense hot dogs from. You can see it on the cover of this book.
I naturally pretended I was really happy. I certainly didn't have to pretend I was surprised. But inside I thought, now she's really lost it. She must have spent thousands of dollars for this stand and, all pessimism aside, I'm not going to give up IDT and go back to selling hot dogs. What am I going to do with this thing?
Little did I know. ... This year, rather than going to camp, my fourteen- and eleven-year-old sons decided to spend part of their summer going into business in the parking lot of our office selling hot dogs. It wound up being so much fun that several of their friends, and even my younger kids, soon joined them. It turned out to be the best summer they ever had. They're even planning new, innovative items like knishes for next year. Strange thing is, they sold more hot dogs in a day than I ever did. Part of this was no doubt due to their delivery service to our several buildings. A small part, though, was probably due to the fact that many times when someone needed a decision from IDT's chairman, they finally located me hanging out by the cart, and usually heeded my suggestion to buy a hot dog first.
One last thing about my old hot dog stand. I ran it for three years, summers and weekends, and in my whole life I've never enjoyed any business more. In every other thing I've ever done I was only a part of the process, dependent on others to make the whole operation run. Not only that, but in every other business, there have been jobs I truly hated, like facing the rejection that comes from making cold sales calls. I did these jobs because I wanted to succeed and, in general, I liked being in business. But only at the hot dog stand was I constantly happy. Probably this initial, positive experience with entrepreneurship made it inevitable that I would stick with it even when things stunk. Also, during those three years I learned everything I really needed to know about how to run a global company: Treat people right, keep innovating, don't give up your spot no matter who tries to take it from you--either AT&T or the father-son duo from the park--and make the best onions. Follow these rules and you'll be just fine.
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