Some people are born entrepreneurs, some achieve entrepreneurship, and some have entrepreneurship thrust upon them. For Cal Tingey, all three apply.
He started his first business as a teenager growing up in Tempe, Arizona. His father, a business professor at Arizona State University and an entrepreneur, was an indelible influence. “I heard over and over again that if you want to get paid what you’re worth,” says Tingey, “you must have your own business.”
It was another experience, in his early twenties, of witnessing his next business going up in flames, literally, that changed the course of his life and his career–and taught him the incalculable value of remaining open to new and unexpected opportunities.
Has a strong entrepreneurial drive always been part of your makeup?
For as long as I can remember, it has. Because my dad was a business professor, he frequently had business people over to our house for dinner–including a friend who was one of the president’s economic advisers. As a kid, all this stuff fascinated me. Other times, my dad would say, “I’m having this guy come talk to my class about how he started this cool business. I think you’d really like that.” I’d hop on my bicycle and ride the 5 miles to ASU to sit in on the class, hearing these stories of how people put everything on the line and sometimes came close to losing it, but they persevered. I was so impressed by that.
When did you start putting what you’d learned into practice? I was 14 when I realized that I wanted my own business. Back then, I woke up at 4:30 in the morning and delivered newspapers on my bike. Then I got a second route in the evening. I went to my dad and said, “I’m doing a lot of work around the house on top of my paper routes, and I’m only getting a couple dollars’ allowance.” I went on strike, and after a few weeks, we ended up negotiating a fair raise in my allowance. A couple of days later, he came home from work and said, “I’ve got an idea for a business. I’ll give you the initial funding, but you’ve got to do all the work.” Soon enough, I’m pulling in a hundred bucks a week while my friends are sitting home watching Gilligan’s Island. It was thrilling.
Fast-forward about eight years. You’re newly married. You’re launching your own business after getting your MBA. Then, everything changes overnight.
I decided to get myself an executive suite for the new business. I signed a lease in a building in Phoenix and got a call letting me know that if I wanted to move in that weekend, before my lease was due to take effect, I could. I called up my friends with the classic line: “Free pizza! Come help me move.”
I was thrilled to death. I’m sitting there looking at my new desk, filing cabinet, one of the first desktop computers–which cost an arm and a leg. Leaving the office that night, I grabbed my suit coat so I’d have something to wear on Sunday. But I left my briefcase and everything else there. I was so pleased with myself–my own business!
Six o’clock Saturday morning, the phone rings: “Your office burned down.” I thought it was one of my friends. I told him that was very funny and hung up. Seven o’clock, the phone rings again. This time the guy says, “Look, I’ll have a police officer dispatched to your home, so you know this is for real.” I grab my wife and we head to the building. We lived a mile away and could smell the smoke in the air.
The place was completely burned down. That’s when the tears came. I couldn’t believe it. Everything was gone. Everything.
Weren’t you insured? I had an appointment on Monday morning to get insurance. I didn’t know I was going to move in on Friday night.
Just like that, you’ve lost your business. What did you do?
The next day, I got the paper and started looking for a job, any job. Yellow Freight was looking for people to pack trucks at night. I figured I could make enough to keep my family going, and during the day I’d rebuild the client portfolios that had burned up in my filing cabinet. I jumped at the job and got it. But I was still worried sick.
I called all of my buddies and asked if they knew of any job openings. One told me about a rich guy who wanted his son tutored in business. The son was 34, I was in my early twenties, but I got the gig–despite quoting a ridiculously high price for my services.
The first assignment was writing a business plan. We put one together for a due diligence firm for companies looking for investments. When his dad saw it, he asked if I thought it was viable. I told him yes, the numbers worked out. He said, “Okay, you put in the sweat, I’ll put in the money, and we’ll be partners.” And that’s what happened.
That man, Jerry Wisotsky, had a very successful printing business in Phoenix. He and I went on to build two successful businesses together.
Looking back, what did you learn from that time in your life?
What strikes me is that there’s no way I could have foreseen where that 6 a.m. call would take me. If that fire had not destroyed everything, and if I’d continued down the road I was on, I’m sure life would have been good–but I would never have had all the other experiences I’ve had.
Don’t get me wrong. There was a price to be paid for striking out on my own. I remember one week when my wife and I picked peaches at a grove, making pennies, and we ate peaches and bread that whole week because I didn’t have any money. No cream on the peaches, no cheese on the bread. Just peaches and bread. When we look back, 30 years later, we don’t see it as romantic. We both get the shivers. I can’t believe we did that.
How did this whole experience–coming back from that loss–help shape who you are today?
It had a huge impact. There are so many lessons that have stayed with me, starting with tenacity. It means not wallowing in self-pity, not blaming others for my misfortune, not giving up, but instead creating a plan to move forward and take positive action. That puts me in control of my future. And I realized that if I could handle the loss of my business, I could handle anything.
How did you know that progress was possible amid such uncertainty?
My previous experience, being able to start businesses, even at a young age, gave me confidence. Hearing the stories of other entrepreneurs was helpful, too. Almost all of them overcame some difficulty. So I figured that was part of the solution: If they could do it, I could overcome this devastating event.
Today, Cal Tingey is a manager at Mediware, a medical software company, and lives in Tempe, Arizona. Ever the entrepreneur and very much his father’s son, he’s at work on his next company, which he’s starting with his son and daughter.