#24 The New Venture: Part I

In #19 The Big Shift I made the huge and what appears instantaneous decision to leave a great job, with no plan. No, it’s exactly what I did. The corporate memo that came out said I would be “pursuing other interests.” What were those interests? I wanted a year off, maybe.

I had folders about tramp steamers and brochures for around the world trips on the QEII: something to imagine during the 15 hours a week on the train rides to and from Connecticut. Earlier that year, 1983, I had considered buying a little cottage in England. Instead of such long distance eccentricity, I decided to finish my pilot’s license, go back to piano lessons and find a French class. Mostly I wanted to sleep.

I did go back to flying lessons and I looked at a print franchise to buy. But within a few weeks I was directionless.

I visited friends of my parents in Pennsylvania: the same friends I stayed with when I moved to Manhattan 12 years earlier. They were retired and considering the risk of opening a restaurant. I saw my role: help them research to make an informed decision.

We visited the state liquor license board. We studied business plans at the library. We met with retired business people. As a possible home for a new restaurant, we looked at one historic building after another in that Pennsylvania downtown city. We climbed over rotting wood and steered around pigeon poop because these once majestic buildings had become pigeon hotels. I now had a purpose, a project. I drove back and forth between Pennsylvania and Connecticut for a couple of months.

We met two young men starting out in the historic rehab business who wanted to find my friends a building, and then do the construction. Fortunately the restaurant notion was discarded. Instead, I invested some of my money in the two young men. It felt right to contribute to a community and save old buildings.

I wanted to be in Pennsylvania to guard my investment. I put my Connecticut house on the market and bought a beautiful restored townhouse in Pennsylvania: the equivalent of an unaffordable brownstone in Manhattan at a tiny fraction of the price. Nearly overnight I was in the construction and historic rehab business, something about which I knew nothing. I was 36, committing myself to a new city and two strangers who were barely out of school. They had no life savings to lose, except mine. I had spent the better part of months helping my friends research whether they should start a business. How much thought and research had I given to make my decision? NONE!

I was energized about the move and to me it made philosophical sense. The two young guys could keep me open and learning. They wouldn’t have old notions about women in business. And I would add business experience and formality.

I was so wrong. Even the word wrong looks wrong. I should have taken my life savings, put it in a box at the city limits and then drive away. But I didn’t do that. With my fortitude and determination, it took me over three years to lose nearly everything. I drifted into that partnership with about the same exquisite stupidity I had done with the men in my life.

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