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Images courtesy of Tim and Dagny Du Val

Knowing Your Own Brand of Crazy

Taking a risk on building a business means you need to know your strengths and weaknesses better than almost anyone else. Here’s why.

“Take it—you’ll need it…”

John, a friend of Tim Du Val, handed him a rifle and patted him on the shoulder. Tim, horrified, nodded and offered a despondent,“Thanks.”

It was December 15, 1982; Tim and Dagny Du Val, two married entrepreneurs, had just walked into the courtyard of their new purchase, an old metal foundry almost the size of a city block in Long Island City, New York. Nestled in the shadow of the 59th Street Bridge, Du Val’s new property looked post-apocalyptic. Burned-out cars littered the courtyard, the buildings were in desperate disrepair, drug dealers and squatters had taken up residence and rats roamed freely. Tim and Dagny looked at each other and said in unison, “We must be crazy…”

The Long Island City foundry before and during construction 

They were crazy—and still are. And I mean that with the utmost respect: The Du Vals have been great friends, investors and mentors of mine for many years. It’s just that I view “crazy” through a different lens than many people do.

When I think of crazy, I’m not referring to Merriam Webster’s definition: “not mentally sound.” The craziness that Tim and Dagny possess is the same brand of crazy that afflicted the Wright brothers, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. Their brand of crazy is a combination of vision, passion, enthusiasm, imagination and purpose. It means the pursuit of a goal against long odds and relentless naysayers. Every successful entrepreneur has been told by people they despise and by people they admire that they’re crazy, and typically what most such naysayers mean is “not mentally sound.” The accusation is a signal—a gateway—at the start of almost every entrepreneurial journey.

But I think that, in addition to possessing the above qualities, there’s one more ingredient necessary for success: Entrepreneurs and builders must know their specific flavor of crazy. They have to appreciate their abilities, limitations, tolerance for suffering, deepest motivations, strengths, weaknesses and, most importantly, how all those qualities fit into a skill set.

My friend Tim, for example, handed that rifle back almost immediately. He knew he wasn’t the kind of guy who could threaten someone with a gun. He also understood that the combination of his and Dagny’s skill sets, vision and fortitude would guide them on the journey ahead. Their skill as designers, landscape architects, horticulturalists, community organizers and business people was matched by their refusal to succumb to imposing challenges, such as:

– Being told by their Manhattan landlord that the rent for their landscaping business would increase from $2,000 per month to $10,000 in 60 days. After a trip to court, their final agreement gave them six months to find a location, obtain financing and move—all during the busiest part of their business cycle.

Tim and Dagny divided up the maps of Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island and New Jersey. Then they drove up and down the streets looking for appropriate properties. They did it on weekends, when the business didn’t require their time, with their 2-year-old along for the rides. They dubbed the Long Island City location “the diamond in the rough,” but their friends told the Du Vals that they were, yes, crazy to consider it.

– Completing and submitting six 100-plus-page applications for a New York state agency, three New York City agencies and two banks within a two-month timeframe to obtain financing to buy the property;

– Not knowing if their financing hopes, which were bound to an intricate, intertwined group of state and city agencies and banks, would materialize until less than a week before their rent was set to set to quintuple;

– Living in a trailer in the courtyard for the first six months with their two-year-old daughter while reconstruction was ongoing.

The Foundry event space after construction was complete

Ultimately, though, that journey through the crazy led to:

  • A beautiful home in one section of the building;
  • A profitable base from which they operate their urban landscaping business, Plant Specialists;
  • Annuity rental income from curated tenants including a bakery, caterers, a glass blower, a wine importer and an assemblage of artists for whom they helped build studios throughout the complex;
  • One of New York’s most sought-after filming locations, event and wedding venues, the Foundry. Companies including Apple and American Express, as well as televisions productions including Girls, The Blacklist, Mr. Robot, Madam Secretary, Sex and the City, 30 Rock and The Sopranos have all used the space.

It took the Du Vals years of hard work and risk-taking, as well as some good luck, to get there. But most importantly, it took the self-awareness to know that they weren’t actually crazy—at least, not in the way their doubters said.

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