Entrepreneurs Must Strike a Balance Between Business and Personal Lives
If there is such as thing as a "Zen of entrepreneurship," those seeking enlightenment might do well to make a pilgrimage to a used book dealership just outside Philadelphia. There they will find Eugene Okamoto, founder and co-owner of Harvest Book Co.
Like many small business owners, Okamoto has experienced the ups and downs, the good and the bad that entrepreneurship has to offer. However, rather than allow the challenges that come with running a business to create conflict with his personal life and goals, Okamoto has succeeded in blending those often disparate demands into a harmonious whole-balancing, as it were, the yin of his role as husband and father with the yang of his position as head of Harvest Book.
"You read so much about people struggling to find ways to balance their work and personal lives, and in some ways, I'm no different," Okamoto says. "But the way most people seem to deal with this issue has always struck me as the wrong approach. If you set the scales up with work on one side and life on the other, you are dividing the two as if they were distinct. That can't be so. You only have one life. The trick is not to let one area distort the other."
To be sure, achieving that kind of balance is easier said than done for most people, but it's something Okamoto has been working toward-and growing into-his entire adult life. He and his wife started Harvest Book Co., a used, rare and out-of-print bookseller located in Fort Washington, Pa., in 1988, when he was just 24. Since then, the company has gone out of business twice, only to reemerge in its current form.
The evolution of Harvest Book has been an ongoing learning experience for its founder. "As the business has grown and changed, I have been constantly surprised at how much flexibility you must maintain in order to succeed. Many of the ideas I held so firmly early on didn't age well," he admits. "Today I find myself more and more questioning-even eager to destroy the old mindset."
"At the time, the only way to track down hard-to-find books was to place ads in magazines, send postcards to other dealers, or give yourself over to the gods of serendipity and browse every small book shop you came across," Okamoto recalls.
OLD WORLD AURA
Although the process was slow and expensive, he confesses that he loved being part of the fraternity of book dealers and reveled in the Dickensian charm and time-honored customs that characterized the world of old books.
With the emergence of the Internet and online commerce in the late 1990s, Okamoto's little book search business was suddenly part of the new paradigm of e-commerce. This was a world of technology as much as a world of books, and Okamoto did not have the expertise in this area that his business now demanded.
For Harvest Book Co., it was a period of building data processing networks and web sites and call centers, and it made him truly grateful that he had teamed up with a partner, Jeff Blake, who did have the skill set required to navigate this brave new high-tech world.
As much as Okamoto did or did not comprehend about the inner workings of the company's new high-tech infrastructure, he had one thing that too many of the era's dot.com wunderkinds turned out to lack: an intrinsic understanding that Harvest Book's success or failure depended on the validity of its underlying business concept, that it was the concept that drove the business, and that the high-tech bells and whistles existed to support the concept, not the other way around."
"A well-stocked used bookstore is going to have more interesting titles to offer readers than any new bookstore, no matter how big," Okamoto explains. "That's because there have been millions and millions of great books written over the years, but only a minuscule percentage of them are available as new books at any given time."
His company focused on just that for awhile, with a fair amount of success. But as that same technology became widely accessible to anyone with a PC and an Internet connection over the past few years and shrunk demand for its book search services, Harvest Book once again faced the challenge of change. On the upside, readers' virtual access to the shelves of thousands of secondhand book dealers around the world was also creating an unprecedented demand for used books, and that is the market need against which Okamoto repositioned Harvest Book.
Having the book a customer wants in stock is what sets Harvest Book apart from many other used booksellers, he explains. The company works hard to maintain a broad, well-developed collection of both hard-to-find and general interest books, and it is the largest buyer of used books in the Greater Philadelphia area. With a staff of 22 employees, Harvest buys collections from many sources, including libraries, universities and individuals.
"Through those efforts, we handle hundreds of thousands of books each year, and that gives us the opportunity to search for the special ones that we catalogue, shelve and hold ready for that one person who is searching for them," Okamoto says.
Having to deal with all that change along with the ongoing responsibility of running a business that provides a livelihood for almost two dozen people might be enough to tip the average entrepreneur over the edge into workaholism, but not Okamoto. What keeps him balanced and grounded, he says, is the memory of his father and the importance of his marriage and children in his life.
"My father was a bibliophile-maybe even a bibliomaniac-and that is one of his legacies to me," he says. "My wife, who started the business with me 15 years ago, shares my love of books, and we both read constantly. At that time, I did not think about success or failure, just doing something interesting."
Ironically, Okamoto's father, an immigrant college professor who died when Eugene was 21 and a junior in college, was staunchly risk-averse, something Okamoto finds odd "for someone who chucked it all to get on a boat and come to the states." If his father had lived, he admits, Okamoto never would have started a business. "The grief of his death was eventually freeing, enabling me to explore new things," he says.
While the company bumped along for years, one of the factors that sparked its real growth was the birth of his first child, a daughter, seven years ago. "Seeing your children born gets you serious about growing a business," says Okamoto, who also has a five-year-old son. At the same time, it made him realize that success in business would be hollow if it came at the expense of his family.
While he may not use this particular expression to describe the stamp of his business philosophy on Harvest Books, it is clear to the objective observer that there is, indeed, a "Zen of entrepreneurialism." It can be found just outside of Philadelphia, Pa.