The story begins and ends with a Christmas tree.
This year, our family just put up our very first real Christmas tree. We drove to the local hardware store which had a library full of trees, chopped and reclining for our consideration. We chose the fattest one we could find, bound it and strapped it to the roof of our car, our young children clapping and celebrating the entire ride home.
My childhood Christmases were filled with real trees: sticky sap, shedding needles and all. In rural upstate New York, though, we’d usually have to trek through sprawling, snow-filled pine tree farms to find the tree we wanted to bring home. After the decision was made, there was still the ordeal of chopping it down, hauling it a half-mile through the fields in sub-zero weather and scheming about the best way to attach it to the car.
Recreating this tradition again for the first time in a long time brought to mind a flood of memories and reminded me of my very first taste of entrepreneurship. Bill Blake, a man in our church had approached me with the idea—drive up into the Adirondacks with a truck, buy as many as we could fit in the truck at bulk pricing, haul them back down to civilization and sell them for a profit. I was 16 at the time, and the whole idea seemed impossibly large, especially since I had my hands full trying to beat Super Mario World. He provided the truck, the contact with the tree farm and the prodding. I had to do all the rest: pick out and pay for the trees, set them up at home and sell them throughout the holiday season.
I brought home nearly 40 trees in all: a mix of Scotch Pine and Blue Spruce. I can’t recall the exact prices, but think I charged $10 or $15 more for Blue Spruce because they had better “needle retention”. I built some tree supports, decorated them with Christmas lights, then set up the trees in our large front yard. Fortunately, we lived on Route 9 just north of Saratoga Springs, NY, so traffic was always heavy—a big asset when you’re selling Christmas trees on your front lawn. As they say in business: location, location, location.
Most of the experience is a blur in my mind; I can only recall bits and pieces. Keeping vigil at the front window, running outside when a car would pull up, making best the “I’m a young entrepreneur” sales pitch a young thespian could muster. I vaguely remember tiring of the responsibility at times (more often than not, I’m sure), and mom or dad dutifully bundling up to collect money for me. I remember wondering what to do with the extra trees that were left over. I don’t even think I made very much off the whole thing—maybe $100 or $200 for the season.
I learned a lot that Christmas season about taking risk, taking initiative, and working hard while others were playing. I learned about loving what you do. I learned about rejection and failure.
The most important lesson was not lost on me, though: one of the greatest gifts you can give or receive is a nudge toward the unfamiliar. I’m profoundly thankful for the people in my life who challenged me to grow. Most people see a Christmas tree and think about the presents under it; I see the tree and think about the year I was given the gift of courage.