Emmitt Smith | Crain's Philadelphia

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Emmitt Smith

Background:  

E Smith Realty Partners was founded by Emmitt Smith after he retired from the NFL. The Dallas-based commercial real estate firm works with retail, office and industrial spaces as well as logistics and supply chains and data and call centers. Smith also recently became a co-owner of The Gents Place, a men's grooming franchise that offers hair, shave and spa services in a luxurious setting.

The Mistake:

When I broke into the NFL in the early 1990s with the Dallas Cowboys, my No. 22 jersey quickly became a hot-ticket item in my hometown of Pensacola, Fla. Especially if it was game-used or had my autograph on it.

But I was dismayed at all the forgeries and fake merchandise being sold to make a quick buck. Fans were getting ripped off. In the days before the Internet, it wasn’t easy to find a reputable business to buy Cowboys merchandise in Florida.

I vowed to change that by starting my own authentic sports store in Pensacola, called First and 10. Unfortunately, neither I nor my family, who ran the business while I was playing, had any real business experience.

We had good intentions — to give people a way to buy merchandise they knew was real. My parents had a big heart and would often give things away when someone told them a sad story.

You had no way of validating the story because you don’t want to make someone feel worse by questioning them about it. But there’s a fine line between running a for-profit business and running a charity.

Ultimately, the business didn’t work out and after six years, I shut it down. The market had changed and it just wasn’t feasible.

But the issue of forged merchandise continued to be a problem for fans and I remained determined to come up with a solution.

You can’t draft rookies ... You need people who have been there and done that and share your vision.

The Lesson:

The lesson here is twofold.

Now that my playing career is over, my business career has taken off with real estate, construction and even The Gents Place, a high-end men’s salon.

My experience with the memorabilia shop in the 1990s instilled in me [the lesson] that building a business is a lot like building a football team. Instead of drafting franchise quarterbacks, quick running backs and wide receivers with good hands, you’re going for CFOs, COOs, accountants and human resource experts.

You can’t draft rookies, either. You need people who have been there and done that and share your vision for what the company can be.

I’m still passionate about stopping the epidemic of fake merchandise and a new venture that I’m involved in is developing a technology that aims to do just that.

It uses the NFC (near-field communication) technology that’s already inside most mobile devices to scan a tag on the merchandise. That provides a chain of custody for that item that can be tracked back to the original source.

That way people have confidence when they buy something about where it was signed, when, and who witnessed it. My hope is that this technology will be ready soon so it can cut through the noise and give people assurances.

No matter what I’m involved in, I’ve always been in the service industry. My goal has always been to bring happiness to someone else. That’s what I did during my time with the Cowboys and the NFL and now I’m doing it in my own businesses. 

Follow Emmitt Smith on Twitter at @EmmittSmith22

Photo courtesy of E Smith Realty.

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