Golf Balls & Lemonade: How I Learned To Be An Entrepreneur
Maybe I was born to be an entrepreneur. I spent several years of my childhood growing up in a middle class, suburban neighborhood surrounded by a country club. It wasn’t a fancy golf course in any sense of the word. If it had been, this story may have never been told. All I knew was it felt like one big, amazing playground. As one of our countless adventures, my friends and I would sneak our bikes onto the golf cart paths for some pretty amazing joy rides that required dodging flying golf balls and oncoming golf carts. Thank goodness my little sister never flew off my handlebars where she liked to ride.
A couple of times a week we’d venture over to the golf course clubhouse to buy a coke and a snack from the vending machine with the four quarters we saved up for the purchase. Don’t tell but sometimes they’d even let us into the bar area and let us buy a coke from the fountain. I listened as golfers boasted outrageous tales of their prowess on the course, laying claim to 400 yard shots off the tee into the wind and onto the green. They’d describe hitting the flag out of the sand trap and sinking 30 foot putts in the rain…with their eyes closed. But I knew better. Because I watched. From the woods.
My friends and I spent much of our time looking for lost golf balls in those woods and ponds. They were everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Sometimes we’d find one so far off the fairway we’d howl in laughter. “How could anyone have hit one this poorly!” These poor, lonely golf balls were just begging to be found. And find them we did. By the hundreds.
We got good at not only spotting them but training our eyes to dig out the good ones. The shiny yellow Pinnacle was a real beauty. Or how about the orange Top Flite? And the mother of all golf ball finds – a shiny brand new Titleist. Probably hit once and left to die in these dense, muddy woods that no one dared crawl through. Except for us. It was like having an Easter egg hunt every day of the year. We’d find these little beauties, toss them into our bag, and then head back to my driveway to see who’d reeled in the greatest catch. Many times our newly found golf balls needed a little work. That only added to the fun. We cleaned and polished them, sometimes with the handy dandy golf ball cleaning station on the cart paths, until they looked like they were right of the box.
One day I had an idea. And a business was born.
I set up shop on the spots near the toughest, most wooded holes. Golfers do some hilarious things when they make a poor shot. I saw clubs fly through the air. And putters snapped into like twigs. That’s not to mention what I heard. Let’s just say I learned some new words. But I learned about more than temper tantrums and four letter words. I learned that a frustrated golfer tends to spend more. He’s thinking, “I’m having such a lousy day I’d better buy some extras.” So does one who just birdied a hole. He’s thinking, “I’m such a pro and in such a good mood that I only need one golf ball for this entire course but I’m gonna make this nice little kids’ day.”
As the golf cart came racing toward my strategically placed position beside the ball washer at the end of the hole, I was ready for the pitch. They were either speeding toward me in anger over what had just happened on the fairway or they were cruising along rather cooly with a “I’m on my way to the PGA” grin. Either way. I was ready. “How are y’all hittin’ ‘em today gentlemen? Need any golf balls?” I sold the ones that looked new for 50 cents. And then there were some with scuff marks that I valued at 25 cents. The one with scuffs and cuts we put into a grab bucket that we could bundle for the best offer. Five for a quarter sounded good. What else were we going to do with them?
Over the years I sold hundreds of golf balls. Almost every golfer that forked over their money said the same thing with a chuckle: “I’m probably buying back my own golf ball that I hit into the woods.” It was true. At least once I think I watched the ball go into the woods off the tee shot, recovered it from the muck, shined it up on the spot, and offered it back for sale before the same golfer arrived at my little shop. I know. It was shrewd. They lost it. I found it. And then sold it right back to them. Everybody won. They didn’t have to pay for a high priced new golf ball and I had enough money to go back to the country club for a few cokes and snacks that week. And the opportunity to hear a few more outlandish golf stories as I rubbed elbows with these PGA wannabes.
I’ll never forget when one time a jolly old golfer offered me $20 for my bucket of golf balls. It was the grab bag. The leftovers. The ones no one else really wanted. I don’t know if he really wanted them or if he was just being nice. As a kid it felt like $1000 as I gladly accepted his offer. It was in my blood.
One day things changed. And so did my perspective.
It was time to expand the business. We spent many days in the sweltering Atlanta heat. And there was something I thought golfers would surely want as much as a golfball – cold lemonade. I was wrong. We made 5 gallons and were ready to grow this little business into an empire as we set up in the shade on hole # 7. Now we were big time. Golf balls and lemonade. But no one bought it. I’m still not sure why. Maybe we overvalued the product and priced it too high. They’d buy the golf balls and offer a polite, “No thanks.” on the lemonade.
We were about to call it a day and pack it up. So much for expanding the product line. Then I had the idea. “We can’t drink all of this. Let’s just give it away.” As each golfer came by, I had my sweet little 5 year old, snaggletoothed, blonde sister, make the offer. “Sure is hot today. Would you fellers like some lemonade? It’s free!” And would you believe, every single golfer had the same reaction? They reached out their hand for the lemonade with a grateful big smile. And then something unexpected happened. Without exception, EVERY golfer that stopped by reached into their pockets with a grin…and handed us a dollar. We made more money that day than ever before. By giving it away.
I learned something of tremendous value that day. Business is about more than making a buck or two for myself. It was about people. It was about generosity. There was joy in giving something away. On both sides. It wasn’t about the dollar they handed us. It was seeing each golfer moved to generosity in response…to generosity. We generously gave them a gift. And they generously gave back.
I continued my golf ball business until that sad day when we sold our house and moved away. I continued to sell and golfers continued to buy. We didn’t break out the lemonade again but preserved that special memory as a lesson that would move from a lemonade stand into real life. Between the golf balls and the lemonade a missional entrepreneur was born even though it may have taken me almost 30 years to realize it. But I wasn’t put here to just be a creator of business. I was designed to be a facilitator of grace and generosity. To partner business and mission. Grace. On both sides of the transaction. That’s what we’ve been blessed to experience every day of our first 2 and a half years of The Well Coffeehouse.
And so I begin a new journey as the new Director of Missional Entrepreneurship at Lipscomb University. I learned a lot from golf balls and lemonade. I’ve learned even more from coffee and clean water. And I’m thrilled to invite aspiring entrepreneurial students to see their lives as something bigger than they’ve ever imagined. Business as mission. A way to bring about change in the world…on both sides of the transaction.