A HANDBOOK FOR ENTREPRENEURS DALLAS: A CITY BUILT FOR ENTREPRENEURS

It never has been and never will be stylish to have a job in Dallas. Admitting you work for and at a company somehow implies a weakness of spirit and a lack of respect for the virtues of going it alone. Social acceptance comes only when you’re able to say, “We’re [implies company with employees) in [implies your own company] a lot of different areas [implies growth].”

Entrepreneurs are our city’s celebrities: Jim Ling and Ross Perot and H. L. Hunt have turned up on as many national magazine covers as Roger Staubach. There are a lot of explanations for this phenomenon, but the best is historical – after all, Dallas itself began as a kind of entrepreneurial venture. John Neely Bryan did not mean to make history when he first set foot on this soil in 1839; he meant to make a fast buck. Bryan saw a likely spot for a trading post here, at the natural crossing of the Forks of the Trinity, and like any smart entrepreneur, he set out to create his own market – in this case, a town. Two years after settling on the site, Bryan journeyed 22 miles to Bird’s Fort, where several families had already settled. That day in November 1841 may have been the occasion of the first Dallas sales pitch: Within a few months, Bryan had convinced the 14 inhabitants of Bird’s Fort to move to his budding enterprise on the banks of the Trinity. It may not do much for civic legend, but it seems somehow appropriate that Dallas’ first settler, like the hundreds of thousands who followed him, came here with the profit motive in mind.

The entrepreneurial spirit flourished, even in the rough days of the frontier. Bryan was followed by even more energetic capitalists: Alexander Cockrell, the man who saw that Dallas’ role as a trading and distribution center could be doubled by building a bridge across the Trinity; T. L. Marsalis and J. S. Armstrong; Sanger and Schoell-kopf and Wilson. These men were of different cuts, but they shared the special hunger of the self-made man. From the beginning, it seems, Dallas was not just a city built by entrepreneurs, but a city built for the sake of entrepreneurs.

Their legacy has survived war, depression, social turmoil. With the coming of the railroad in 1872, Dallas immediately became a center of trade and distribution. Its first commodity was cotton, but in succeeding decades the city would become a middleman for everything from leather to computer terminals. The early cotton traders were the founders of the first dominant strain of entrepreneurship in Dallas. They were our first product or service providers, the ancestors of today’s retailers, restaurateurs, and advertising executives.

As the 20th Century wore on. these entrepreneurs would split into two basic categories: adapters and marketers. The distinction is a thin one, but nonetheless significant. The adapters were men like Erik Jonsson and, later, Jim Ling, Ross Perot, and Sam Wyly. These entrepreneurs took existing technology and used it to fashion new products. They were not necessarily inventors: Inventors create a new device; they do not necessarily create a product. Nonetheless, the adapters began with hardware, and they put it on the shelves in the hopes that the market would find it.

The marketers, on the other hand, began with demand. They perceived, or perhaps fashioned, a special niche in the marketplace to be filled by already existing products. Dallas’ predominant marketers have been retailers (Sanger and Marcus and Cullum) and communicators (Dealey and Bloom and Hite).

In the early 20th century, as the product and service providers began taking advantage of Dallas’ boom town growth, another kind of entrepreneur emerged: the moneymaker. Dallas first moneymakers were the oil wildcatters, the Hunts and Murchisons who gambled for high stakes on the precious black gold of East Texas. Two things distinguished them from the product and service providers:

First, they were gamblers; they faced sometimes ludicrous odds in their drilling. That is quite a different kind of entrepreneurship from building a retail business or developing new electronics products: Those entrepreneurs were risk-takers, but they weren’t gamblers. There was uncertainty to their venture, but it was an uncertainty carefully measured by assumptions and projections, by anticipated demand and anticipated return.

The second distinction is perhaps more crucial: The moneymakers, as the label implies, were in it only for the quick buck. Unlike the product or service providers, they had no notion of creating or building a new enterprise. There was nothing noble in their venture. The adapters and the marketers, of course, wanted to make money. That is the bottom line of entrepre-neurship. But they also wanted to build something. Money, more than anything else, was a symbolic measure of their success at the pursuit. The distinction can perhaps be best understood by comparing the real estate developer and the real estate speculator: a developer like North-Park’s Raymond Nasher is clearly a marketer; the speculator like Ken Good, who made a fortune and lost it on land around the new regional airport, is a moneymaker. Of course, it takes more than a rich legacy to keep the wheels of entrepreneurship rolling. Aside from her heritage, Dallas has always enjoyed a unique combination of economic conditions conducive to starting a business: Our major bankers, Florence of Republic and Thornton of Mercantile, were themselves entrepreneurs; Florence is said to have almost single-handedly fueled the East Texas oil boom with his bank’s venture capital. This has created a special understanding of the use of capital among Dallas bankers: They still will listen to a venture proposal, and will put up the bucks if they like what they hear.

Second, Dallas has never been an industrial city, a “company town.” Such cities, like, say, Pittsburgh, develop a success ethic based on the climb from the loading dock to the executive suite. That’s not entrepreneurship: Getting ahead is not making it. Dallas has a decidedly different version of the American Dream. Better to have been the founder of a company than to have become its president.

Today’s entrepreneur still abides by that ethic, but he is a far cry from his predecessors. Traditionally, entrepreneurship has been associated with a lower to lower middle class blue collar background. The drive to make it was essentially an attempt to flee an impoverished childhood. Bill Clements nurtured the idea for SEDCO as a teenager in the oil fields; Erik Jonsson first began dreaming of his own business as a poor immigrant kid in New Jersey.

The new entrepreneur is a product of the post-War baby boom. His background is normally middle class, white collar; he is well educated and accustomed to affluence. He seems more interested in merely exceeding his father’s financial station than in escaping his background. Moreover, he seems to value entre-preneurship as much for its freedom as for its possible fi-ancial rewards. The new entrepreneur is primarily a marketer, but he has gravitated to niches in the marketplace that offer maximum creative expression: media, food-and-beverage, entertainment, to name a few.

As for the future, it seems safe to say that Dallas will always have more than its share of self-made men. The ethos will not die easily, even if the American marketplace seems to have less and less respect for innovation. There will always be a certain number among us who just don’t like admitting they have a job.

Marketer and Adapter



Stanley Marcus, the marketer

Dallas’ first entrepreneur, John Neely Bryan, was a marketer, and the tradition has survived well. The marketers are shrewd businessmen who find a special niche in the marketplace to be filled with already existing products. Aside from Marcus and other retailers, major Dallas marketers have been in communications: G. B. Dealey and Sam Bloom, to name only two.



Erik Jonsson, the adapter

The adapters are the foundation of Dallas’ light technology industry. TI’s Jonsson, Green and McDer-mott, and Jim Ling, Ross Perot and Sam Wyly who followed them, took existing hardware and fashioned new products from it. Unlike the marketers, they started at the supply end of the system, assuming their new product would find a market.

Newsletter

Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Comments