Dr. Bob Houghton

Dr. Bob Houghton

For the last four years, the Idaho State University College of Business has hosted the Entrepreneur Challenge. For this challenge, students create a product or business idea and compete against other students for a cash prize. The students pitch their ideas to a judging panel composed of faculty members, civic leaders and successful business managers. Teams from ISU have gone on to win the state Entrepreneur Challenge, and this valuable, hands-on experience has helped some recent COB graduates launch their own businesses. The purpose of the challenge is to give ISU students a chance to gain some of the business experience gained by the great entrepreneurs of the past.

Andrew Carnegie is known today as a philanthropist and benefactor of public libraries everywhere. Our own Marshall Public Library is a Carnegie Library. However, this incredibly wealthy man started out as a poor immigrant boy who worked whatever job he could get. From that humble start, he made innovations in steel production and the railroad industry, founded U.S. Steel and the Pullman Car Company, and by the end of his life in 1919 had donated more than $350 million to educational causes. His entrepreneurial spirit drove him to achieve the American Dream. More recent examples of inspirational entrepreneurs are Bill Gates, Bill Hewlett and David Packard. While these giants of enterprising success make good hero stories, it is the less fantastical stories of small business that are the pillars of the American economy. Small businesses account for nearly 50 percent of all jobs in the United States.

Stories of small businesses are rarely researched or celebrated and are often forgotten, but these are the stories of America.

One such story begins in California in 1970. George was a sophomore in college, majoring in chemistry and working as a bicycle mechanic to help cover the costs of his education. Like the great entrepreneurs of the past, George drew on his knowledge to try to create something better. Using a system of springs and cables, he invented and patented an automatic bicycle gear changer. He then tried to market his invention to local bicycle dealers. Though he was unsuccessful at selling his invention, he had gotten a taste of the entrepreneurial spirit.

A year later, low on funds and unsure of his major, George took a break from college and took a job as a night watchman. His small wage was insufficient to cover the cost of an apartment in California, so George started thinking about how to supplement his income. In his high school years, he had taught tennis lessons at a local tennis club. He knew that teaching more students would increase his income, but he could not fit that many students into his day. Drawing on his entrepreneurial spirit, he invested his small savings into recording and publishing a series of recorded lessons called “Tennis by Tape.” He sold the packages door to door all summer before retiring the business venture with a net profit loss and many packages of “Tennis by Tape” tucked into corners of his home.

Though neither of these business ventures ultimately proved successful, George had learned an important truth: He knew he wanted to work for himself. He returned to college, changing his major to accounting, which would give him the option of owning his own business or working for someone else.

George graduated during the stagflation of the late 1970s, when opportunities for inexperienced workers were scarce. After struggling for a year to just get an interview, he changed his resume to highlight his entrepreneurial experiences rather than his schooling. This made his resume stand out in a crowded field, and he secured an interview and then a job at an accounting firm. At this accounting firm, he met a nice young lady and courted her with the same charm and spirit that had marked all of his previous endeavors. This was his first successful entrepreneurial enterprise.

A year after their marriage, George started feeling restless working for someone else. He moved his small family up north, rented out a small space in an office building (the former broom closet), set up a phone and took out an ad in the yellow pages. With this beginning, George had started his own accounting firm, which was his second successful entrepreneurial enterprise. Over the years, George built up a client base of small business owners and real estate agents. An entrepreneur himself, George knew how to speak their language. By focusing on the complexities of real estate tax, he was able to carve out a niche in the local tax world. Now, years later, he owns an office building and has 20 employees and 1,200 clients. His business has helped countless people solve complex tax problems and has saved his clients hundreds of millions of dollars.

At the end of this year, George will conclude a successful 40-year accounting career and sell his business to two of his sons, my younger brothers. George has instilled in his children his entrepreneurial spirit, the value of work and, most importantly, the motivation of failure. His story is never going to be made into a movie, best-selling novel or serial podcast, but it will live on in future generations as his oldest son has the privilege of teaching, mentoring and inspiring ISU students to start the next great American small business.

Dr. Bob Houghton serves as both an informatics professor as well as the associate dean for the Idaho State University College of Business. In his role as a professor, Dr. Houghton takes his real-world experiences and applies them in the classroom to help provide further insight to students. Through his research, Houghton works to find new ways of keeping data safe and accessible.