Tom Ehrenfeld’s Ho‘ohana and Kaona

Aloha, and mahalo for reading Talking Story! Welcome to our August Ho‘olaule‘a.

This is Part One of my interview with Tom Ehrenfeld, business journalist, and author of The Start Up Garden, How Growing a Business Grows You.

About this post’s title: Ho‘ohana is the passion, purpose, and intent that someone brings to what they do, and Tom explains his. Kaona, is hidden meaning; it is a word to indicate there is a story behind an event, a place, or a name. Again, Tom reveals another story behind the writing of his book. Thus my preference at times for Hawaiian words: fewer words, more meaning! 


I recently listened to the video presentation Marcus Buckingham did for’s 10th Anniversary, and in it, he says he believes that every author writes a book that they need to read, one to answer their own burning question. Was that true for you with The Startup Garden?


As a matter of fact, I don’t completely agree with Marcus’s argument as it relates to business books. Most business books are written to teach and instruct, to help the readers get something done in their business lives. While each business book should be necessary—that is the author should feel compelled to write it—and while each business book should feel unique—that is, it should feel like no other author could have written this one book—there are also many business books that are somewhat less impersonal yet deliver value nonetheless. My favorite business books manage to blend the instructional with the personal (a good example would be Managing by the Numbers, a spirited guide that teaches companies how to instill financial literacy among its employees.)

Having said that….I wrote the Startup Garden for several reasons—to share what I had learned about entrepreneurship over the course of writing about it for Inc. magazine and other outlets for a number of years, to confirm a certain belief that had been growing in me about the process, and to produce a book that I considered different from other guides for would-be company-builders. I feel like I wrote the book I wanted to. But on other hand, I also believe that you always hold a little something back in a non-fiction book designed to help others. You have to balance a sense of being true to your beliefs, and being true to reality.

I agree with Marcus that some authors have certain books that they must write—but this sense of urgency transcends books. It’s this same need to express oneself for others that can manifest itself in a business or any other creative endeavor. So I just don’t like to limit this idea to that one big book. And yes, I do have other books in me, very different from Startup Garden, but I would prefer to write them than talk too much about them!


Have you ever considered doing your own startup, something other than your present writing career?


I have considered doing my own startup. As a 14-year-old, I had a brief yet successful business selling first-day-covers of stamps on envelopes, and in high school I coined a phrase about the Yankees which I put on t-shirts and sold outside Fenway Park—another success.

Yet personally I have found that writing suits me best, it’s what I do. And while I continue to be more entrepreneurial about this process, I do not have plans for a business per se. This requires more time and commitment than I can manage at the moment. I am lucky enough to be very active raising my 8 and 13-year-old daughters, and launching a business would compete directly with this part of my life. Perhaps in the future….


In your Introduction you say you owe your book to your friend Gus Rancatore, the founder, owner, and operator of Toscanini’s Ice Cream & Coffee, and you quote him often throughout The Startup Garden as you tell parts of his story. However I want to go back to your Acknowledgement page for a moment: What was the “friendly request” that came from Eric Tyson, and who was he?  Is there another story behind your book?


The Eric Tyson tale is this: Eric is author of the very lovely Dummies books Personal Finance for Dummies and Investing for Dummies (which are much smarter than people give them credit for in my opinion!) There came a time when he started exploring a Small Business for Dummies title in this series. Eric asked his former professor Jim Collins for help in finding a co-author, and Jim, who wrote several columns for me while I was an editor at Inc., shared my name. I was excited about the prospect, but, when I gave the matter some thought it seemed better for me to create my own brand, my own book, rather than an add-on in a line owned and managed by others. During the process of thinking about what type of book I might write with Eric, literally walking the dog, I came up with the idea and title and animating spirit of The Startup Garden. It all came to me at once. Eric and I went our separate writing ways (he went on to write that book and many others, all of which I recommend).

It took me a couple days to write my proposal—the idea of it. Of course, when my agent sent it back to me and told me to write a detailed outline/table-of-contents, that took longer—about a year longer. But that’s how Eric’s request got the project started for me.


Tom, the first time around, your book was an easy read for me—perhaps too easy. I remember reading it very quickly, and jumping head first into some of your suggestions, especially in your chapters on developing “financial literacy” (Chapter 3, The Numbers That Count) and on Bootstrapping (Chapter 4). So with my second reading I picked up quite a bit that I had sped-read over and missed before; you really cover a lot of ground in your book. As individual as entrepreneurs are, what kind of aha! moments have others shared with you from their reading? Any affirmations for you? Surprises?


I think the biggest ahas that individuals have reported to me have been around the area of what kind of a business to start. Many people get deluded by the popular press into thinking that startups have to be high-tech, high-promise, venture-qualified, go-go-go change-the-world ventures. And they become convinced that they need to focus on big ideas with big markets with the ability to change the world. And in fact the great majority of businesses are immediate, intimate, organic, and very personal. A handful of readers have read the book and taken away one key idea: you don’t need to go far far away to start your venture. You can start now, with what you know and control and have done and are passionate about. You can start to find customers, products, and services from the here-and-now as opposed to creating an elaborate business plan that you shop to potential investors so as to possibly create a company that might have customers and one day, just one day….profits. For these folks the book has acted more to give them permission to keep going, to just take that next step forward rather than get paralyzed by all the things that their potential venture isn’t.

Much of the actions I’ve pushed people to take have certainly been small ones: make five calls today to current customers or colleagues or co-workers or folks with experience, in the service of asking simple questions that move you forward….take some time to study the current and potential finances around your activities….how can you think creatively about the service you offer so that it becomes more differentiated and allows you to charge higher prices for it, and possibly replicate it so that you aren’t always the one doing it?

All small actions, but ones that keep the venture going. I believe firmly that entrepreneurs learn by doing, and that being in business is often the way people discover what business they really should be in. So again, to the degree that my book has encouraged folks to take what Dr. Leo Marvin (in What About Bob) calls “baby steps” forward, it has done its job.

As for surprises….well, I tried to come up with a distinctive title for this book,  one that would convey something special—in this case my belief that startups are organic ventures that grow the individual as well as the enterprise. I didn’t realize how many bookstores would stock this in the home/gardening section. Really.

More of Rosa’s interview with Tom tomorrow: do check back with us, for Tom’s views on the value of MBA’s and the Entrepreneurial Mindset.

Meanwhile, feel free to start your own conversation with Tom, or share your own story of growing with your business. Comments are open.


  1. Mark Hubbard says

    I like the idea of starting now and notice you did not use the word “small” as in start small.

  2. Luana says

    Aloha Tom,
    You spoke about having successful businesses as a teenager. This interest in business as a teen (or younger)is something that I have seen in many entrepreneurs. Is there a common thread among them that predisposes them to have this entrepreneurial spirit?

  3. says

    I find it very hard to generalize about the entrepreneurial spirit among teenagers. In fact, I think the key to developing entrepreneurial teens is to give individuals a sense of openness and promise–to help them find things they are passionate about, along with access to the means for taking this passion to the next level. My initial business selling stamps was never all that calculated; it occurred because a sudden opportunity (the fact that the town next to mine suddenly have 100,000 people celebrating the bicentennial) crossed with my love for stamps. My science teacher, a fellow stamp collector, helped my two friends and I launch the venture. Likewise with the t-shirts, I was propelled by a sense of mischeif as much as anything else–an opportunity to give folks a t-shirt telling the world what we Red Sox lovers really felt about the Yankees.
    I worry about trying too hard to turn youngsters into junior achiever, mini-capitalists. I think its more important to give them skills, smarts, and the chance to realize their passion. This enables those who choose to be entrepreneurs proceed on that path.

  4. Luana says

    Thank you, Mr.Ehrenfeld. My 8 year old who is managing the recycling or our cans, glass, and plastic and collecting the deposits as his earnings is off to the right start.
    You haven’t told us what the t-shirt said….It is a fun example of how you found an “opportunity” to express your “passion” for the Red Sox. Looking forward to reading the rest of the week. Thank you.

  5. says

    Well, I was hoping that being vague about the t-shirt would be enough….suffice it to say that it was r-rated (hey–I was sixteen or seventeen at the time) and not very nice about the Yankees, and that over time it became a Fenway chant–none of which I boast about to my daughters. No secrets, but, uh, I like to emphasize other aspects. At any rate, now that my beloved Red Sox are world champions, I find all that Yankee sentiment to have dissipated enormously.
    And bravo to your eight-year-old!