Business lessons distilled from the mind of a moonshiner include:
Adam's ancestors were arrested in 1864 for tax evasion on a shipment of moonshine bound for Canada, resulting in the collapse of Chafee & Co. Distilling. Undaunted by their demise, the family opened the grand Chafee's Hotel in Middletown, Connecticut, at the dawn of the Roaring twenties, hosting an opulent and infamous speakeasy. The family legacy continues today with Onyx Moonshine.
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About the Author
Failing out of college after one semester, Adam von Gootkin chose to embark on an entrepreneurial adventure that has traversed e-commerce, muscle cars, and the music industry. Now 32, he and his partner have resurrected his family's moonshine legacy 78 years after its inception, successfully introducing the world to the first ultra-premium American moonshine.
He has appeared on numerous national and regional media outlets, including Bloomberg, Fox, and NBC; hosted a regular radio show on Howard Stern's debut radio station, The Rock 106.9.
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McDonald's, the Military, or College
Why Taking the Road Less Traveled Really Does Make All the Difference
It all started with a mouse. Or perhaps I should say, it all started with a horde of mice. A horde of tiny, hairless, squirming pink mice that magically appeared in their mother's cage overnight during the summer of 1993. I stared into the now-crowded quarters of my 6-year-old brother Josh's pet rodent, Gizmo, with equal parts fascination and disgust. As the older sibling — I was 10 years old at the time — I couldn't help but feel the sudden weight of responsibility bearing down on my young shoulders. Those creepy little creatures would get big fast.
"What are we going to do with 20 mice?" I wondered aloud. "There's no way we can keep them all."
"We should sell them," said Josh.
I didn't know it at the time, but those words would change my life.
Our mother, perhaps unsurprisingly, agreed that selling Gizmo's offspring to the local pet store was a fine idea. And so off we went to convince the owner of our local pet store in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, that two sticky-faced, grubby-fisted kids with a boxful of baby mice should be his new snake food suppliers. It was my first business deal. Over the course of that summer, our impressively fertile mama mouse gave birth to several more litters of babies, resulting in a total revenue of about $200 for Josh and me. Sure, it might not sound like much now, but we were kids and money was tight. At the time I was fairly certain we could retire for life. Our parents had divorced two years prior, and my mother supported us by working long hours running a local daycare center. Thanks to her tireless efforts, and those of the rest of my family, my brother and I always had everything we needed. I didn't need the treats and toys I bought with the money we made from selling mice. But I sure as hell wanted them.
That first taste of success stuck with me. I gave people (or, in this case, snakes) what they wanted and got what I wanted in return. Seemed like a pretty good deal. Still, my next foray into the free market two years later was purely accidental. It was time for Corpus Christi Middle School's annual candy fundraiser. Like the rest of the students, I was given a box filled with Caramello bars to peddle door to door for a buck each, preying on unsuspecting neighbors in need of a sugar fix. There was only one problem with this arrangement: I discovered a passionate love for Caramello bars. Surely no one would notice if I took one or two for myself, right? Possibly three? If an even number were missing, maybe it would be less noticeable, I reasoned. Better to eat four.
I'm sure you can see where this is going. Over the span of two short days, I gobbled up the contents of that cardboard box like Augustus Gloop from Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Before I could stop myself, those 30 Caramello bars were gone, their shiny brown wrappers stuffed into the bottom of my trash can (as if obscuring the evidence would somehow clear me of wrongdoing). I started to panic. Now I owed my school $30! I didn't have that kind of money, and I certainly couldn't ask my mother for the cash. Then, sort of like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, I got an idea. An awful idea. I got a wonderful, awful idea: What if I told my teacher that I sold the whole box of candy and needed another, then sold those Caramello bars for twice the price?
My plan went off without a hitch. As it turned out, most people felt that $2 was a perfectly fair price for a Caramello bar. I'd figured out a way to pay my school the cash I owed and feed my Caramello habit: the proverbial win-win. Sweet.
Thanks to Catholic schools' well-known affinity for snack-based sales, candy would feature prominently in the next phase of my entrepreneurial development as well. Football was a major focus at Xavier High School in Middletown, Connecticut, and there were many sales devoted to benefiting the team. I couldn't afford to play sports (participating would have tacked another $1,000 or so on to the tuition my mother and other extended family members were already struggling to pay), but that didn't stop me from participating in fundraising efforts — in my own way. I'll never forget the moment inspiration struck. It was around 11:00 a.m. on a Tuesday. Running late, I rushed into my second-period math class to find that none of my fellow classmates were at their seats yet; instead, everybody was gathered around one desk in the center of the room. Sitting at the desk was Big George, Xavier's star linebacker. In the center of the desk was a cardboard box filled with candy bars — M&M's, Skittles, even my beloved Caramello bars. I moved closer to the edge of the throng and watched as kids threw — literally threw — money at the football player. Victims of mid-morning blood sugar crash, I guessed. George had picked a genius time of day to whip out that box of candy. Not only was he giving people what they wanted, he was giving it to them when they wanted it most. The only flaw in George's system, as far as I was concerned, was that all of his profits were going to the team, a mistake I would be sure to avoid.
Before I go any further, allow me to explain: When I said money was "tight" while I was growing up, I meant that more often than not, I didn't even have enough pocket change to buy lunch. So when I figured out a way to cash in big on my school's fundraiser, I didn't feel terribly guilty. I needed the money, or I wouldn't eat. Besides, my "crime" would be victimless — sort of.
After class that day, I approached George's desk. "All out of candy, dude," he said, thumbing through a stack of dollar bills. "That's cool," I said, trying to sound casual. "Hey, are you done with that cardboard box? Do you still need it?"
George looked up from his wad of cash. "Nah, I was just gonna throw it out," he said, shrugging. "You can have it, if you want."
"Thanks," I said, in the most nonchalant manner possible, and picked up the box. Score.
My next move was to call my Aunt Kathie, who had a membership to Sam's Club. Candy bars sold in bulk at Sam's Club for 30 cents each. If Kathie would take me to Sam's and let me use her membership, I figured I could fill up that empty cardboard box and sell them at school for a dollar apiece, like George. Everyone would just assume the money was going to the football team.
As with the Great Caramello Bar Caper, my plan went perfectly — better than perfectly, in fact: The candy sold out in less than an hour, 30 bars multiplied by a profit of 70 cents each came out to $21, which was a lot more than I would have made in an hour mowing lawns or washing dishes in a diner. I started collecting George's empty cardboard boxes and told my aunt I would need another ride to Sam's Club in the near future. Before long, my sugar shakedown was getting almost too successful for me to handle on my own. It was time to expand my operation. I rounded up a couple of kids from each grade who were enterprising and trustworthy (but not so trustworthy that they'd be opposed to some good old-fashioned business) and explained that if they would be willing to help me out with sales, I'd split the profits. We met each morning at my car. They would hand over the money they earned the day before, and I would give them their share of the cash, fill up their boxes, and send them off in search of kids who forgot to eat breakfast. I was like Xavier's own Willy Wonka. My locker had literally become a candy supply closet; the trunk of my 1987 Volvo was packed full of crates of corn syrup–laden junk food. Within a few months, my "staff" and I had pulled in thousands of dollars. I had never, ever seen money like that, and it was beyond thrilling. At a certain point, however, so many kids started asking me for boxes that I began to get concerned. My school was very strict and it was only a matter of time before one of the administrators figured out what was going on; in fact, I'd heard whisperings of an investigation. So I pulled the plug on our candy con. Years later, I made an anonymous donation to my school to assuage a bit of the lingering guilt I felt. In the process, I found out it felt pretty good to give back.
It was sad to see the inevitable fall of my empire, but I really couldn't complain. We'd had a good run, after all. Really good. Look, I won't pretend that all my earnings were spent on sensible things like lunch. I loved, and still love, to entertain and share my success with friends and family. And some of it was spent on showing off — by which I mean buying endless rounds of cocktails for my friends at a local bar. The fact that we were underage didn't present as much of a problem as you might think, thanks to the trusty suit my aunts had bought me for school several years earlier. Somehow, it didn't matter that I had the face of a choirboy; when I bellied up to the bar dressed to the nines with a big smile, chatting about my long day, the bartender didn't think to ask for an ID. Neither did the next bartender, or the next. Why would they, when the first bartender recommended me? They didn't question the legal status of my "work associates," either. Playing Mr. Big with my buddies at the bar at the age of 16 was a blast, I'm not going to lie. But the experience also played a crucial role in my professional growth. Henry Ford said, "Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're right." I had no experience in the business world, but imagining for an evening that I was a hotshot career person made me feel like I'd already hit the big time. Convincing a bunch of bartenders that I was a responsible adult with a job so demanding I required a stiff drink by the end of the day made me realize that people rarely question confidence. Even if you have no idea what you're doing.
That's not the only knowledge I gained from my stint as a high school candy hustler. Looking back, I can see how the experience served as my first introduction to several fundamental business principles:
Give the market what it wants, when it wants it.
Delegation is essential to amplifying your purpose.
To manage people, you have to inspire them and treat them well.
Reinvesting profits is key to business growth.
Making your business legal and legitimate means it's less likely to evaporate into thin air.
So I guess you could say I learned quite a bit in high school, even if I didn't learn it through conventional methods like pop quizzes and study breaks. But then, traditional education was never a great fit for me. I was a D student at best, even failing Spanish, a language I've been fluent in since childhood. For as long as I could remember, I found school to be exceptionally boring. I always felt like I was being programmed to live a mediocre version of somebody else's life rather than to figure out the best way to live my own. Authority for the sake of authority made absolutely no sense to me. I was hardwired to question everything and suspected anyone who demanded my respect without earning it first of not deserving respect at all. Consequently, I had less than no motivation to do what other people told me to do, particularly if I didn't fully understand why I was supposed to do something. It wasn't that I was opposed to learning. I was a voracious reader with an unquenchable curiosity about life in general. Even though we didn't have much money, my mother's rule was that she'd always buy us any book we wanted. Books were my best friends as a kid — any books I wasn't being forced to read, anyway. Years later, I would read a quote by Albert Einstein that summed up my exact feelings as a student:
School failed me, and I failed the school. It bored me. The teachers behaved like Feldwebel (sergeants). I wanted to learn what I wanted to know, but they wanted me to learn for the exam. What I hated most was the competitive system there, and especially sports. Because of this, I wasn't worth anything, and several times they suggested I leave. This was a Catholic School in Munich. I felt that my thirst for knowledge was being strangled by my teachers; grades were their only measurement. How can a teacher understand youth with such a system? From the age of 12 I began to suspect authority and distrust teachers. I learned mostly at home, first from my uncle and then from a student who came to eat with us once a week. He would give me books on physics and astronomy. The more I read, the more puzzled I was by the order of the universe and the disorder of the human mind, by the scientists who didn't agree on the how, the when, or the why of creation. Then one day this student brought me Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Reading Kant, I began to suspect everything I was taught. I no longer believed in the known God of the Bible, but rather in the mysterious God expressed in nature. (ToerMagazine.com/2014/05/03/641)
A distrust of formal education wasn't the only thing I shared with Einstein. My uncle — in fact, both of my uncles — taught me more about the world and my place in it than any teacher. My Uncle Bob, who was married to my mother's sister Charlene, was and is my ultimate inspiration. An African-American man, he grew up in the South when segregation was still in full swing, forced to drink at separate water fountains and use different restrooms. His grandparents were slaves. But Uncle Bob didn't let any of that stop him from reaching his impressively lofty goals. Now a global executive at Dell, Uncle Bob taught me the importance of not just working hard, but working smart; of incorporating wisdom into all you do, and of doing it with charm and charisma. Essentially, he taught me all the fundamentals of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People years before I discovered the book. He also taught me that we all have the same opportunities in life, no matter how humble our beginnings. Once I asked him if he ever felt intimidated when he had to give presentations in front of large, important crowds — or even in a meeting with billionaire Michael Dell. "Everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time, Adam," he told me.
My Uncle Brian, a gifted restorer of classic American muscle cars, was a self-made man of a different stripe. My first "real" business experience would come from helping him launch his muscle car restoration business shortly after I graduated high school. Detail-oriented to a fault, Uncle Brian drilled the following credo into my head: Nothing is worth doing unless you intend on doing it better than anyone else.
I was lucky to have such galvanizing, admirable adults in my family, especially because, as I mentioned, there wasn't much inspiration to be found in the authority figures at school. This was never more apparent than during my senior year when I sat down with my guidance counselor to talk about my future.
"Basically, you have three options," he said from across his desk. "You can work at McDonald's, join the military, or go to college."
"That's it, huh?" I asked.
"That's it," he confirmed.
I should mention that although I had my problems with Xavier, and Xavier with me, I think I got the most out of it I could and look back at my years there fondly. Being a college prep school, their job was to get me into college. Still, not every kid is meant to formally extend his or her education past high school. That's why now, many years later, I'm working to propose an entrepreneurship program for schools in the hopes that going forward, students will have a fourth option to choose from. Anyway, back then in my counselor's office, I wasn't thrilled about any of the options offered to me but because all my friends were going to college, I figured I might as well, too. Somehow, in spite of my less-than-stellar grades, I managed to get into Roger Williams University as a double major in international business and languages. It was a big deal. I was the first person in my family to go to a university, and my aunts and Uncle Bob were so thrilled that they agreed to help pay my tuition. I did my part by taking out some smaller loans. Actually, thrilled might not be the best word to describe my uncle's reaction; in fact, I vividly remember Uncle Bob having the foresight to say that he was only helping me because of my Aunt Charlene. He did not believe college was for me. Unfortunately, when I got to Roger Williams, I realized pretty quickly that he was right. College, it seemed, wasn't going to be all that different from high school. My first disappointment was upon finding out that none of the professors teaching my entrepreneurial courses had ever run businesses themselves. What could these people possibly have to tell me about getting ahead in the real world? Granted, there were some useful experiences to be had at university. For example, I became the youngest person ever elected to student senate. (I also set up an extremely successful "import" business, but I'll save that story for another book.) In that sense, those tuition dollars weren't entirely wasted. But the fact that I saw no point in going to my classes was a huge problem as far as administration was concerned. When I went home for winter break, there was a letter waiting for me: I would not be welcome back at school when the new semester started. That was it. The party only lasted 16 weeks.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Living Proof"
Copyright © 2016 Adam von Gootkin.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 McDonald's, the Military, or College: Why Taking the Road Less Traveled Really Does Make All the Difference 21
Chapter 2 Overwhelm Your Obstacles with Passion: Believing in Your Dream When No One Else Will 51
Chapter 3 Find Your Peter: Surrounding Yourself with People Who Support Your Strengths (and Make Up for Your Weaknesses) 77
Chapter 4 Chase the Insatiable Horizon: The Art of Setting-and Reaching-Your Goals 97
Chapter 5 Trillions of Dollars in the Air: Tapping Into the Abundance All Around You 117
Chapter 6 Rock Bottom to Bottoms up: Why Falling Behind Is Key to Moving Forward 143
Chapter 7 Anything They Can Do, You Can Do Better: Turning Mediocre Markets into Goldmines 161
Chapter 8 Snooze You Lose, Booze You Win: Seizing Opportunity before It's Too Late 183
Chapter 9 The Entreprenuer's Dilemma: Weighing the Pros and Cons of Micromanaging a "Small Business" Versus Big-Picture Thinking 203
Chapter 10 Socially Conscious Commerce: How Your Business Can Make the World a Better Place 221
About the Author 239