April has come to represent an exciting time in the life of this old Atlanta entrepreneur. This month, we start a new paper called Atlanta Downtown. A year ago, we started Atlanta 30305 for Buckhead. Two years ago, I hired my first employee to pull all-nighters, listen to James Brown’s Greatest Hits and crunch out Atlanta 30306 on two Macintosh computers.
I suppose my entrepreneurial streak started one April more than 20 years ago. I was in Florida on spring break with my friend Charles Driebe (our current music editor). My mother called and said if we hadn’t already figured out what we were going to do for a summer job, that she was going to send my Dad down to Atlanta Area Tech and register us for a bricklaying course. She needed some repair work in her yard and so did some of her friends, so she figured we could be somewhat useful that way.
I woke Charles up and asked if he wanted to learn to lay bricks. He grumbled, “Sure,” and thus a four-year company was begun. After graduation from night brick school, Charles and I had to make a few strategic decisions. One was the name of the company. Another was a slogan. Every company had a slogan. The next decision was whom to hire to be our first employee (read: mud mixer and brick hauler). Our final decisions centered around our marketing strategy.
We assembled a crackerjack marketing advisory board: our high school buddies. During a lengthy executive brainstorming session: our name and our legendary positioning slogan were born: The Buckhead Bricklayers: “We Lay for Less.” Following an arduous interview process, Charles and I agreed to hire our best friend, Mike Egan, as our mud man. He had all the necessary credentials: he had just been accepted as a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina, he was an ex-football play of considerable brawn, he had access to his parents’ 1954 Ford Fairlane (a.k.a. “The Bomb”) to haul bricks with a U-Haul trailer – and he was willing to accept $2 a hour.
Since I was the graphics guy, I designed a fine brochure with a brick border. We promoted our status as graduates of an Atlanta Area Tech course, our recently attained high school degrees, our name, slogan, phone numbers and the clincher: free estimates. Our marketing strategy thus set, we set about determining who was our “market.” We carefully selected our target audience as we drove around the finer streets of northwest Atlanta in The Bomb. Potential customers had to own a big house, seem rich and, most important of all, have lots of big shade trees in their yard. This was after all, going to be a summer job in Atlanta. We didn’t go to night brick school for nothing.
Our first “exhibition” was in my parents front yard. We added a couple of additional layers and wings and posts to their existing brick wall next to the street. With this drive-by resume in place, we set about distributing our brochures and sat back and waited for the phone calls. We were totally shocked: people actually called.
Our first customer was on Woodward Way. Big brick house, lots of walls needing repair in the backyard – and huge primary growth white oak trees all around. After our first morning of hard laying, we nodded with approval when our customer leaned out her back kitchen door and asked how we would like her chef to cook our hamburgers for lunch.
As we sat amidst the shade of a beautiful azalea garden, ate our hamburgers, potato chips and cookies off of antique Coca-Cola lunch trays, we sat back and tried to picture the paths our futures would hold. We talked about expansion and buying other bricklaying companies and becoming big bricklaying executives in air-conditioned offices. Little did we know we were enjoying the last lunch a customer would ever offer us.
After a couple of summers, Mike drifted off to pursue an education at Harvard Law and to become a partner at King & Spalding. Charles went to Georgia Law and practices with his Dad in Jonesboro and Atlanta. I became an itinerant journalist, traveling from town to town in the South. I’m the only one who kept up the bricklaying and have projects with my signature from Virginia to South Carolina.
And I never quite lost the entrepreneurial bug. Today I head up a two-and-half-year-old newspaper company and a few weeks ago we moved into our first air-conditioned offices. I never get too worried about whether things will work out. When things get tight, I look out my window beyond the big office buildings. Out there I see the rolling hills of Atlanta, full of large white oak trees and brick terraces and walls that surely need some repair.