The Accidental Entrepreneur
Ashley Holcomb, youngest of ten, grew up chasing chickens in Ball Ground. Holcomb is now the owner of Landmarx Inc, a land surveying and construction management firm, and a board member of the Development Authority of Cherokee County. Jonathan Chambers, Community Manager of Entrepreneurship for the Cherokee Office of Economic Development (COED), interviewed Holcomb about his entrepreneurship journey for the Lunch Circuit – a monthly gathering powered by Fresh Start Cherokee for local entrepreneurs to hear from the visionary behind successful, local businesses. Holcomb shared his origin story from growing up in Ball Ground, becoming a city council member, monetizing his love of the outdoors, and navigating his business career. In true “dig, grind, hatch” fashion, the cornerstone of Fresh Start Cherokee, Holcomb has dug harder than many others around him. As a result, he has gone from a humble beginning of raising chickens to hatching successful business ventures.
“I had my first business venture when I was eight,” began Holcomb. “We had chickens, mostly laying chickens and not a very good system for them to stay in the coop so my dad would pay me fifty cents for each chicken I caught and brought back. I paid Jimmy Cowart 25 cents for each chicken he caught, and I was able to stay inside and watch cartoons. I remember this clearly because it was a big learning lesson as he came in and asked why Jimmy was out there catching chickens, and I told him that I hired Jimmy to catch the chickens for me. Dad said he was firing me and hiring Jimmy directly, so I got cut out. I told that story to my kids, and they have worked to make their own entrepreneurial opportunities. I remember being at a baseball tournament one weekend and noticing they were going to the concession stand without asking me for money. They had set up shop in a pavilion and were custom ordering colors for those rubber band bracelets that were popular at the time. They even hired salesmen. They made hundreds of dollars that weekend. There’s a lot to not giving them anything; they figure it out.”
How do you define entrepreneurship?
For me, it’s defined by seeing something you are interested in and deciding to do it yourself. Sometimes you fall into it, and that is my story. I’m not academic; I struggled all through school. I failed every math and English class at least once in high school. I was just happy to get out of there. I graduated high school and began to work for the company I own now for $6 an hour as a line crew member. I watched other developers that we were working for and I had the idea that if they could do it, I could do it and maybe do it even better.
How do you build credibility with people who think that you need a college degree?
That was an issue I faced. You have to buy your time and wait until your gray hair comes in. All of my early career I heard that I had to go back and finish school. If you are academically astute, you should go and get a degree. But for the handful of us who are bad at it, you have to figure out another way. I woke up one day and suddenly became the wiser person sitting at the table – all because of my gray hair.
When I graduated high school, my dad gave me $100 and wished me good luck. He said I could live in the house as long as I abided by their rules. He didn’t try to call and get me a job or tell me what I should do.
I wound up going back to school two years after high school, but I still didn’t do well. I was at Southern Tech and had a professor tell me that school isn’t for me. I got the message, and it fired me up. I learned there is more than one way to skin a cat and that was what I had to do. I had to dig deeper and harder.
One night I was watching an interview with a Georgia CEO about the advice they would give to the younger generation. The typical advice was to follow dreams and get an education. They got to Pete Correll, the Georgia Pacific CEO and he said: “just remember this, you can get more done working 60 to 70 hours than the guy working 40.” And that clicked for me, I may struggle academically, but I’m going to work longer hours. It takes me three times longer than others to read or write an email; email is the worst thing that has happened in my career. But I work longer hours.
What was it like living in Ball Ground while ‘American Made’ was being filmed?
The movie, American Made, helped move Ball Ground forward and everyone was hyped about it. While the film crew was setting up, they came across my mom’s house and thought it would be an excellent location for some of the scenes. The team explained what would be required to move all of the pictures and trinkets, and she has kept every ceramic trinket anyone has ever given her, so there is plenty of them around the house. The crew said that they would set the trinkets and photos out but they would put them back after the filming was completed. My mom replied, “If it were Patrick Swayze I would move my stuff, but Tom Cruise isn’t worth moving my trinkets.” The film crew came back several times, but she turned them down. I hated to inform her that Patrick Swayze is no longer with us.
When did you realize that you struggled with Dyslexia?
From an early age, around third grade, school got very hard for me. I was never diagnosed with dyslexia, and I didn’t know that I had it until my youngest children had issues with reading. We were getting them evaluated for dyslexia, and I saw an incredible resemblance with what my kids were struggling with and what I struggled with growing up. I hesitate to elevate dyslexia too much because I am glad I didn’t know I had the disorder back then. My mother said many times, “if they had class outside, he would do better; he’s about the outdoors.” So I thought, “maybe I’m not dumb, I just need to be outside.” Being dyslexic, you have a very heightened sense of concepts, emotions, and awareness.
You’ve mentioned the importance of self-awareness and knowing your weaknesses
I compare it to driving a car; you have to know your blind spots. The bottom line is that as individuals you have to know your blind spots. You have to know that you lose your cool a little too quick and be aware of that, so you don’t do it. It’s easy to get frustrated in leadership roles, but it is critical to stop immediately and do your very best to extend grace. People say that you can’t stop making mistakes, but you can minimize it. You can hone your art of business, the art of parenting, the art of friendship or whatever the case may be by knowing your blind spots. I tell investors that you are not successful by the deals you do but by the deals you choose not to do.
Tell us about your political career.
I have a way of accidentally falling into things and getting in over my head. I had no plans of running, but there was an issue in the city. When I brought it up to the council members, someone encouraged me to run because I was so interested and had great ideas. I was 22 and had to run against the incumbent who had been there for several years, but it was Ball Ground, and I had a big family, so it wasn’t fair. I campaigned door-to-door. If I’m doing anything, I do it; I usually make it a bigger deal than it is.
I would tell every young person that getting involved, like working with a board, is a great opportunity for the insight and education that it provides. Being a board member is probably one of the most instrumental roles in my career.
Cherokee is primed for some of the best economic development opportunities in its history, and I got on the economic development board because I thought I could learn a lot from the other members and make a difference. I believe that anyone who is interested in building a business and learning about their market should make an effort to get involved in those organizations.
Thinking about my generation and the one below me, we have a reputation for not staying at a job for long, but you have been at yours for the past 30 years, how do you stick with something that long?
By accident. I would have been game to change jobs, and in fact, I have changed jobs. I started as an employee and then joined a partnership. One partner left, and it was a partnership of two, and then heading into the recession I bought the other partner out, and it was just me. During the recession, he wanted to shut down, but I knew that it wouldn’t be easy to crank the motor back up if we stopped. I looked through the recession, not knowing I was looking way through the recession, but I didn’t want to start all over. I could navigate through it; I just needed to reinvent the process.
Today’s environment is not like any other time in the past. The people and mentors I look up to have defined themselves by their career. The millennials are not defined by their job but by their recreation. For example, a guy who is an attorney will post more pictures of him rock climbing, and people begin thinking of him as a rock climber more than an attorney. I am a little more defined by my career because I don’t have many hobbies. My job is my hobby. Millenials are not seeking to be determined by their careers.
What was it like from having two other partners to being the boss?
It was by accident a great transition because I had partners early on and saw the downside of having them. I was going to leave and start another company. I had put in my notice and wanted to start a development company. The company I was at did not own any of their projects, and I did. I was told the development company was a bad idea, and I would lose a lot of clients, but I didn’t care – I wanted to do my own thing. They quickly got on board with my idea and made me a partner from there.
There are negatives to both; there are disagreements with the first, but you are on your own if you’re by yourself. I have people dropping by the office all the time, and I bounce ideas off of them.
How do you find your mentors?
I’ve met my best mentor, Skip Spears, while on the comprehensive land use planning committee back in the 90’s and he and I disagreed about everything. He became a great mentor in teaching me financial literacy. When I grew up, we didn’t talk about investing money; we talked about chickens, not investing millions of dollars. It was foreign to me to hear about those kinds of things but being in the right place and putting myself out there led me to all of the mentors that I’ve had. You have to put yourself in a position to meet the people you look up to and respect.
All of my mentors were an accident; they wound up being more casual relationships, most of them began by being partners first.
Now that you are a CEO, what advice would you give to the younger generation?
First and foremost, you have to know the numbers. Financial literacy is huge, and it’s important to be transparent about what you can and can’t afford. I owned six percent of my first land venture.
A critical component of the business is understanding the balance sheet. Many people who go into business don’t realize they are set up to fail because they haven’t run the numbers or been honest with the numbers. You may have a great idea that is a terrible business. You have to dig as you have never dug before. A lot of companies have failed because the leader doesn’t have the tenacity to face obstacles. You have to be willing to work longer hours. Once you’re in it, be in it.
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Monthly ticket only event. To join us for our next Lunch Circuit featuring Lee Lusk on September 12th, 11:30 am – 1 pm, visit the following link: Lunch Circuit with Lee Lusk