Kevin Burkart Shares His 'Crisis of Meaning' and His Seasons
Kevin Burkart’s entrepreneurial journey started like so many others: by hating the job he was in.
“I’m a recovering CPA,” Kevin explains with a laugh. “I had gone to college for it and had been practicing for six years when I realized how bad I was at it. I enjoyed the communication arts, the creative side of things. Basically, everything an accountant wasn’t.”
So, when he and a friend conjured an idea to start an advertising company that specialized in alternative spaces such, Kevin was on board. They started with the elevator areas of parking garages.
“We did very poorly at first,” he recalls. “We didn't know what we were doing and ended up selling two ads our first two years in business. However, I learned that I loved the graphic design and content writing that went with advertising.”
When his partner’s wife advised him to stick to the stuff he knew—a.k.a. accounting and numbers—Kevin knew it was time to go out on his own. After splitting amicably with his business partner, he began approaching companies about a number of different advertising avenues. “I would meet with a business owner and he’d ask if I could do banners,” Kevin remembers. “I would say yes, then leave and spend the rest of the day or week figuring out how to do banners. Then someone would ask if I could do brochures, and I’d do the same thing. I wasn’t turning down anything, whether I had the knowledge and talent to get it done or not. I just knew I could find a way.”
Knowing you can find a way, even if you have no idea what that way may be, is a hallmark of entrepreneurs—especially in the Spring of their entrepreneurial cycle. This is the time when you’re excited, when everything seems possible. You’re not sure exactly what your business will look like when it’s all said and done, but you’re doing it. And for those who have been stuck in jobs they hate, like Kevin, this is the most exhilarating part of becoming an entrepreneur: having the freedom to fail.
The freedom to fail led Kevin to a path of incredible success. Ten years ago, he hired his first employee, then his second a year later. He bought his first office building (another failure), but this led him to learn about commercial real estate and choose better the second time around. His small advertising shop turned into a full service agency with nine employees and millions of dollars in revenue. Kevin was living the good life—then came his crisis of meaning.
“I remember it clearly,” Kevin explains. “I was on the trip of a lifetime, a scuba diving adventure in Fiji. I was with scuba diving legend Stan Waterman, one of my idols, and we were out on that beautiful water and I realized that all I could think about was work. We had a client whose website was not functioning correctly and even though I had my employees working on the issue, I could not get it out of my head. That’s when I realized that I didn’t want to do this anymore. I wanted to live my life, not be constantly torn up about what might be going on in my business. That’s when I decided to sell, but knew I had to find the right time and have the right buyer first.”
As Kevin entered the Fall of his business, he was hit with another crisis—this one a crisis that could potentially take away his option of selling the business on his own terms.
“I was out on a snowmobile ride when I collided head-on with another snowmobiler,” Kevin says. “I was in really bad shape. After multiple surgeries, I ended up with chronic pain and complete paralysis of my left arm.”
The accident—and the loss of freedom that came with it—hit Kevin hard. “I was suicidal,” he recalls. “And in this instance, being an entrepreneur became my solace.”
While he recovered, Kevin was able to delegate much of his business to his secretary and personal assistant, whom he describes as lifesavers. When he recovered enough to be able to work again, he threw himself back into the business.
“Work became the only place I felt at home. I so much pain from the spinal cord injury I couldn't sleep, so I would often come into the office at odd hours and work through into the morning and through the day. If I hadn’t had my work, I’m not sure what I would have done.”
Though it is now over three years later and Kevin is in a much better place, the initial urge to sell the business has stuck. “The business was in a really good place to be sold and I knew that I didn’t need it for my recovery anymore. I have the best team I've ever had. The time was right to sell.” On June 11th, 2015, Kevin sold the business he’d spent 19 years building. “It felt good,” he says. “It felt right.”
And so Kevin Burkart had reached the Winter of his business. He had seen it coming, he had prepared, and he had somehow made it through an unimaginable crisis to get to the place where he could exit. The next question, inevitably, is “Now what?”
“I’m having surgery at Duke University in August to help manage some of the pain I still experience,” Kevin explains. “Then I plan to focus on my other business, Gentleman Scholar Distillery. I am also actively involved in raising money for the Parkinson’s Foundation because my father suffers from the disease. I’ve participated in events where I completed 100, 150 and 151 skydives in a day to raise money for the organization.”
Kevin also just wants the freedom to see what comes next. “I’ve lived frugally, I have money in the bank,” he says. “I want to enjoy that a little and see what life throws at me next. But first, healing and a sabbatical. 19 years as an entrepreneur has taken years off my life.”