How to Become a Great Entrepreneur

I am part of a group of investors that formed a funding platform for early-stage companies. Some might call us angel investors. We look at a lot of start-up companies and evaluate their founders and product or service ideas. Over the years we’ve identified several founder attributes that are needed for entrepreneurial success in the start-up world. So, what traits and tendencies does the ideal founder possess?

A clear vision is at the top of the list. I’ve said before that vision is what it looks like when we get there. A great entrepreneur can articulate with clarity what the future looks like for his or her company and the products/services that it provides. For example, here’s an example of a clear vision statement – “To become the world’s most loved, most flown, and most profitable airline.” It’s clear what it looks like when Southwest Airlines “gets there.” Of course, the appropriate metrics can be layered onto this vision to quantify it.

Not only must a great entrepreneur be able to explain the vision for the company, but he or she should be able to constantly communicate clearly and effectively across a wide range of topics. We’ve funded some promising companies that have high potential for success. Unfortunately, the founders are tone deaf when it comes to staying in touch with their investors. We must always think about what others need to know. You’ll go a long way to building confidence with us if you communicate proactively and we don’t have to chase you for status updates.

We are reluctant to fund solo founders. There’s simply too much risk when betting on a single individual to grow a business and make all the right decisions. Instead, we are looking for a founding team that offers strong domain expertise and business acumen. A great entrepreneur can assemble such a team and retain them to build a great company.

The entrepreneurial world is a rough and tumble business. Setbacks are experienced every single day and can really take a toll on morale over time. We’re looking for founders that can get off the ground, brush themselves off and get back on the horse. An almost stubborn resilience is highly valued and is requisite for another quality – perseverance. Patience does not come easy for entrepreneurs – we want things to happen yesterday. As an angel investor, we need to know that not only will a founder be able to bounce back from adversity but will also stick to his/her plan over the long haul.

Great entrepreneurs have high levels of energy. Their energy is palpable and contagious. Moreover, they are indefatigable and can outwork everyone. Entrepreneurship requires a great deal of stamina, and you’ll never hear a top-flight founder say that there aren’t enough hours in the day. He or she simply figures out a way to manufacture more hours!

There’s no question that passion is a quality that is a mandatory element of success. When we’re listening to a founder’s pitch, it’s obvious if there’s passion. He or she exudes confidence and is inspirational when explaining the product or service. This enthusiasm is powerful in persuading customers, investors, and other stakeholders to say yes.

Finally, we’re looking for entrepreneurs that know their stuff. They have mastered the facts and avoid the B.S. I remember one pitch session where a founder was asked about his projections and how he justified capturing such a large market share. His response was, “We’ve studied the market and don’t see much competition. So, we think we can hit our target.” This was a classic B.S. response unsupported by any factual evidence. Needless to say, he didn’t get funded. Contrast this with a similar response from another founder who answered the same question. She walked us through the various factual assumptions that built to a market share that felt realistic to us. It was quite clear she had done her homework.

Great entrepreneurs – whether they are founders or not – possess traits and tendencies that constitute a winning formula. A clear vision; clear communications; the ability to assemble and retain a team; resilience; perseverance; energy and indefatigable spirit; passion; mastery of the facts, and avoiding B.S., are what we look for when interviewing great entrepreneurs.    

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

An Entrepreneur’s Guideposts

Here are 13 concepts by which I live. They are my guideposts and serve as an Entrepreneur’s Primer. They’ve worked well for me, and I’d like to share them with you.

  1. Live today like you’re going to die tomorrow. It’s impossible to know when our “number” will be called. Why waste a single moment on that which is unproductive? And make sure to appreciate those whom you love – you will have regrets after they are gone if you take them for granted.
  2. What you think, will become reality. People who always have a positive mindset produce positive results and live a happy life. We can stack the deck in our favor if we train ourselves to reject negativity. Just as importantly, we don’t allow negative people to be a part of our lives. Our mind is more powerful than we can imagine, and we can use it to shape an amazing present and future.
  3. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever give up. These are the famous words of Winston Churchill, and they ring true as much today as they did in the darkest hours of World War II. The key to perseverance is to make constant tweaks and pivots until what we are striving to accomplish manifests.
  4. Don’t take risk . . . manage risk. Taking risk is like gambling. Our businesses and our lives are too valuable to be betting the farm on Red 32. Instead, we identify the risks and create strategies to contain and mitigate them. Then we can proceed to launch new initiatives without fear.
  5. Laugh every chance you get . . . especially at yourself. It has been proven scientifically that laughter is healthy. Laughing many times every day is good for establishing a positive mindset. When we laugh at ourselves and can be self-deprecating, we show others that we are comfortable in our own skin.
  6. What you give will come back to you in amazing ways. We give because it makes others feel good and us too. And when we give without quid pro quo for the simple joy of giving, our life is fuller and richer. We also remember that gratitude is part of this equation and express our thanks to many people as often as we can.
  7. March to your own tune but do so with purpose. We avoid the herd mentality and are proud of our individuality. But we don’t do so simply to be different. We do so because we have a strong set of core values and a clear vision for our future. We aren’t worried about what others think so long as we aren’t stepping on their toes.
  8. Mistakes are simply the unfinished experiments in the laboratory of life. I love this one! There’s no way to know if we are on the right track unless mistakes are made. If everything is too perfect, then it’s likely we aren’t stretching ourselves to be better. Rather than obsess over our mistakes, we figure out what there is to learn from them and then start a new experiment.
  9. Creativity is a way to express your passion. And passion allows you to see in color. Each of us has a creative streak – it may be buried deeper in some of us, but we all can innovate in some way. Amazing and wonderful things can come about because of the creative process and it’s likely that our passion will be stoked. Life is full of sunshine and light when our creativity is off-the-charts.
  10. The success of a career can be measured in the number of lasting relationships that have been collected and nurtured. I see relationship building as an opportunity to serve. When we are always looking to help others in a genuine manner without the thought of receiving anything in return, we move beyond the transactional aspects of an acquaintance into a true relationship. Putting Good out into the world through service is the Law of Attraction – and in turn, we will attract Good into our lives.
  11. Balance your life – emotionally, intellectually, financially, physically, spiritually and with your family. This one can be tough, especially if we really, really love our entrepreneurial adventure. Here’s a secret. Having this sort of balance has a giant payday. It helps us to avoid burnout and sets the foundation for greater stimulation of our creativity. Besides, who wants to be around a one-dimensional person anyway?
  12. Help others buy your ideas. Do we sell our products and services, or do we help others buy them? There is a massive distinction between the two. Helping someone buy is “customer-centric” and selling to someone is “product-centric.” We will have much more success if we focus on the customer and his or her needs. It’s quite possible our product or service isn’t right for him/her – and that’s just fine. We can then move on to help someone else with the buying decision.
  13. You can’t do this all by yourself. Develop a support network of colleagues, friends, and family. Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely proposition. Being able to share success and failure with others is important to our mental and emotional health. Our friends and family provide safe refuge to which we can turn whenever needed. There is nothing gained by being the macho Lone Ranger . . . except loneliness.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The No Quit Entrepreneur

At the time I’m writing this, my soon-to-be 16-year-old grandson is struggling to finish his service project to earn his Eagle Scout award. This project has been tough for him. He had computer issues and lost all his notes not once, but twice. This has been a tough lesson for him in not downloading stuff that contains viruses. He has watched friends obtain their Eagle award with projects that were much less rigorous than his, and where adults were more involved in the planning and preparation. To him, this has been unfair. He has wanted to quit – not just the project but abandoning the whole process of earning his Eagle award. Frustration has boiled over and turned into indifference. We continue to encourage and support him and by the time school starts he will be finished . . . we hope.

My overarching message to our grandson has not been how important it is to earn the coveted Eagle Scout award – he wonders if it really is all that coveted. No, the primary message has been to finish what you start. Do not quit. I have explained in the strongest terms that quitting at this early age sets a pattern for the rest of his life. Quit now and it will be easier the next time to quit then.

Watching our grandson’s trials and tribulations reminds me of the many parallels with the entrepreneurial world. There are two primary elements that emerge from our grandson’s Eagle project experience for which entrepreneurs should take to heart. The first is quitting. And the second is playing the victim.

The entrepreneurial game is a rough and tumble experience. We entrepreneurs get kicked in the teeth (and elsewhere!) every single day. There are times when we wonder if it’s all worth it. The constant slog; getting beaten up by customers, vendors, team members, and investors; losing more than winning; and taking two steps forward and three steps backward. Maybe it would just be easy to throw in the towel and go do something else. But we don’t. We develop thick skin and great resilience. We persevere and continue to get off the ground and get back on the horse – over and over and over again. Why? Because we know that eventually we’ll figure out a way to succeed. As the years go by, we become smarter at our game and don’t rely so much on “muscling through” the tough times. I know there were times as a child that I wanted to quit something. Fortunately, my parents would not let me just as I’m not going to allow my grandson to quit. For those who have children, it’s critically important to help your son or daughter develop the stick-to-it mindset that will serve him or her well as an adult.

The other element I mentioned is that of playing the victim. During one of my rah-rah speeches, I told our grandson that he need not worry about how others are playing the game. It’s the same speech I give to any entrepreneur who wishes to listen. Life is unfair – it always has been and always will be. When we focus on how someone else is being treated and perceive that we’re getting the short end of the stick, we lose the focus that we need to succeed. We are buying into a sort of victim mentality. In the long run, I’ve always found that doing things the right way with integrity is always rewarded. It’s sad to say that too many people in society today seem to be fixated on how others are winning rather than figuring out for themselves how to succeed.

Successful entrepreneurs are not quitters. Their focus is on what it will take to accomplish their goals and objectives without comparing their circumstances to those of others.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Disappointed Entrepreneur

Every entrepreneur will experience disappointment at one time or another – that’s a fact. We tend to be optimistic and visualize very positive outcomes. Of course, not every outcome is realized exactly the way we anticipate. To succeed we need to have a heavy dose of resilience. But there’s more to it than just the ability to bounce back.

Once upon a time we had a very large deal blow. It involved the sale of several apartment properties and would have resulted in a very large financial gain after holding these properties for nearly 20 years. The buyer had made a preliminary inspection of the properties, and a purchase and sale agreement had been executed by both parties. Then the buyer claims that our broker misrepresented an element of the transaction that would ultimately result in a substantial reduction in the price – something we were unwilling to accept. We believe that the buyer never intended to pay the agreed-upon price and was starting the process of “chiseling” once the documents were signed.

This wasn’t the first time we’ve had a deal blow up and it certainly won’t be the last. And it isn’t the first time that a buyer acted less than honorably – nor will it likely be the last. Our initial reaction was one of disappointment. It would have been wonderful to monetize an investment that was many years in the making, and we would have disposed of some smaller assets that no longer fit our strategy going forward. Naturally, resilience kicked in and we didn’t shed any tears over this situation. The broker went back to the drawing board and worked to find another buyer. Here’s what may be a surprise to you though – our mindset in the moment.

After I understood the transaction wasn’t moving forward, I was excited in a positive way. Why? Because I tend to look at situations like this as a sign that “something better is in store!” Yes, we would have had a very favorable result had we closed the deal. But I’m convinced that there’s something much bigger and better to come from this.

Some may snicker and laugh when they hear this. They might say that this is simply naïve and wishful thinking. I would tell them that I’ve been living my life this way for 45+ years and more often than not, I’m right. Here’s why. By knowing and believing that something better is in store, I’m telling my creative juices to kick into overdrive. In the case of this apartment sale, our broker might come up with another buyer. Yet I have an idea that will require a bit more innovation and take a bit more time, but the result could be even more profitable than originally planned. And it jazzes me to develop and execute the strategy necessary to make this happen.

A more conventional approach might be to lament the loss of the original buyer. It might be to play the victim and become angry that the original buyer was less than honorable in his dealings with us. We could be mad at the broker for his misstep in the way he worded the offering document that purportedly caused the issue in the first place. But what purpose is served with all the negativity? The fact remains that the buyer backed out. The choice is ours as to which fork in the road we take. The one that leads to an even greater success or the one that leaves us wallowing in misery and limited thinking.

When we realize that our entrepreneurial lives are continually unfolding as a series of opportunities, we never look at unexpected outcomes as setbacks. Instead, they give us a chance to use our skills, our resilience, our experience, and our creativity to achieve even better results than we initially sought. Allowing negative thoughts and emotions enables limitations on our creativity. What might otherwise be viewed as a disappointment is simply a nudge to adjust, modify and tweak in such a way as to eventually win a better prize.

Entrepreneurs need a baseline level of resilience to survive. Seeing greater opportunity in what others might term as failure is a step beyond resilience. And knowing and believing that something better is in store enables us to thrive in amazing ways.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Superhero Entrepreneur

Superheroes are known for their superpowers. Superman could fly and possessed incredible strength. Captain Marvel could levitate. Wonder Woman had x-ray vision. Hercules could self-heal. Iron Man could become invisible, and Stretch Armstrong was a shape shifter. Cartoon characters are bestowed with amazing superpowers and always seem to find themselves in situations that call for the use of those powers specifically unique to them.

Successful entrepreneurs also have their own unique superpowers. Discovering and utilizing such powers can lead to some amazing results. As we progress through our careers, we become more and more aware of our superpowers. The earlier in life we can discern our special abilities, the sooner we’ll be able to focus them and realize our full potential. Just like most of the superheroes, we entrepreneurs can’t lay claim to all the superpowers which is why we need to understand what ours is and how to use it. Here are a few ideas on the subject.

Creativity and Imagination are foundational superpowers for many entrepreneurs. Probably one of the most creative individuals ever to walk the planet was Steve Jobs of Apple fame. Jobs had a vision that was unmatched, and he transformed society by imagining things that had never been done before. He envisioned the iPhone to have on-screen features rather than the old buttons that were used on other cell phones.   

Tesla’s Elon Musk exemplifies the superpowers of Perseverance and Resilience. Another of his enterprises is a company called SpaceX which is attempting to commercialize space travel. Even though there have been countless setbacks including rockets that failed to function properly or exploded in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2015 and 2016, Musk continued to stay the course to reach his goal of making space travel affordable and colonizing Mars. And SpaceX has had numerous successful launches since the earlier failures.

McDonald’s would not be the company it is today had it not been for its founder, Ray Kroc and his superpowers of Optimism and Ambition. Very early in his career he met Earl Prince, the inventor of a five-spindle milk shake machine called the Multimixer. He spent 15 years selling the machine to a variety of customers including two brothers in San Bernardino, California. Dick and Mac McDonald entered an arrangement with Kroc to expand McDonald’s beyond a single restaurant and the rest is history. Because of his Ambition, Kroc was able to effectively push the expansion plan. And his Optimism was contagious and enabled others – franchisees, suppliers, bankers, and investors, to believe in him and his plan.

When we think of Amazon, we understandably think of its founder Jeff Bezos. Here is a man who is not afraid of failure because his superpower is seeing the world as a laboratory in which to Experiment. Is there any doubt that he’s done exactly that? He started selling books online, and today sells EVERYTHING through the Amazon website. In addition, Amazon Web Services, is a subsidiary that provides a cloud-based computing platform to the business community. Bezos convinced investors to back his approach of experimentation from Amazon’s launch in 1995 to 2021 when it achieved annual sales of $469 billion. He advises entrepreneurs to focus on process not failure, and further to “deconstruct products, processes and ideas.”

Building and serving Relationships are Reid Hoffman’s superpowers. Hoffman was the COO of PayPal and co-founder of LinkedIn. He likes to build deep, long-term relationship that give insider knowledge. Says he, “If you reverse engineer the relationships of many successful entrepreneurs as I have, you will realize that many people work with the same people over and over in their careers.”

What is your superpower? Once you find it, focus on it, refine it, and exploit it. It may not enable you to leap over tall buildings in a single bound, but it may be just what you need to build a successful and sustainable organization.  

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Insecure Entrepreneur

Let’s go exploring. Let’s explore the mind of an entrepreneur. What types of thoughts are entrepreneurs thinking? The answer may surprise you. Many people see entrepreneurs as self-confident, assertive individuals who always have it “all together.” Look at the roster of famous entrepreneurs – Sir Richard Branson, Mark Cuban, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg. Certainly, no shrinking violets in this bunch!

So, we’re all like this star-studded list of entrepreneurs – right? Well . . . maybe not so much. All that moxie and nerves of steel gives way to self-doubts and uncertainty. Am I a fake? Am I not good enough? What if I fail and lose all my money? No one likes me or my idea. These thoughts are insidious and destructive. And yet we think them anyway.

We’ve all heard the “fake it till you make it” mantra. This implies that an entrepreneur is continuing to perfect his or her product/service while still pulling out the stops to sell it. Products and services are iterative and there will always be newer and better models. Our entrepreneurial insecurities emerge when we worry that there may be flaws in the current version that cause such a strong level of customer dissatisfaction that our whole enterprise bombs. This is where the “fake it” part of the equation can spill over into our psyche and cause us to question whether we really know what we’re doing.

“What if I’m not good enough?” Often, we’ll see other entrepreneurs who seem to be riding the wave. Everything is going right for them, and we surmise that they are on top of the world. Perhaps we’ve just suffered a setback of some sort. We look at the competitive landscape and begin to wonder if we’re losing the race. This feeling intensifies as this cycle persists – others seem to be winning and we aren’t.

It’s 3:00 AM and we wake up in a cold sweat. Our hearts are pounding and we’re a bit disoriented. We’ve just launched a major project that by our assessment, involves more risk than we’re used to taking. Then the mind games begin. We see the endeavor cratering which will cost us a lot of money . . . not to mention reputation. This is followed by the thought that we’re losing our mojo and our business will eventually fail. Ultimately, we declare bankruptcy, lose our house, are divorced by our spouse, and end up living under a bridge!

Finally, some of us may be feeling rejected. Again, we may have been told “no” so many times that we begin to wonder what is wrong with us. Is there something about our personality, the way we look, the things we say or the way we act? Maybe it has something to do with where we live, the car we drive, the people who are our friends or even where we went to school. Our natural reaction is to feel hurt and maybe even victimized.

Entrepreneurial insecurities are understandable but unproductive. It’s important that we recognize them; resolve them as quickly as possible and move on. Allowing them to fester can be a slippery slope to some serious career or life-threatening behaviors. Drug and alcohol abuse, deteriorating health, extramarital affairs, gambling, physical and psychological abuse of loved ones and even suicidal tendencies are some of the more prevalent examples.

We entrepreneurs thrive when we have a healthy self-image. Developing great resilience is critical to our success in this arena. Smoothing out the ups and downs of our fast-paced lives is also a step in the right direction. Earlier in my career I would experience the euphoria of winning to the fullest. But similarly, I would experience the depression of losing to the fullest as well. These wild emotional swings would result in my feeling on “edge” much of the time. The feeling of victory was fantastic, but I always wondered when the other shoe was going to drop.

I’ve learned to moderate my emotions. When I am part of a winning experience, I know I’ve been there before. And it’s the same with the losses. I know what it takes to achieve victory and I know what to do to avoid defeat. Some of this is simply age and experience. But I believe most of it is the mindset I have chosen for myself. The key word in the previous sentence is “choice.”

We can avoid the pitfalls and traps that are set when we have entrepreneurial insecurities. This is accomplished by celebrating our success not by spiking the ball in the end zone, but through understanding exactly how we won and replicating it over and over. Steadfastly focusing on our vision for the future is paramount to warding off negativity and self-doubt. Above all, we build our resilience by maintaining our optimism and positive attitude, no matter what.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Hustling Entrepreneur

The legendary Sir Richard Branson was 16 when he launched his first business venture in 1967 – a magazine called Student. He followed this with a business selling records through the mail. Thus, was born Virgin Records and ultimately a multitude of companies under the Virgin brand.

Mark Cuban was 25-years old when he started software company, MicroSolutions. Seven years later he sold it at a price that put $6 million in his pocket. He reinvested his winnings into another of his start-ups, Broadcast.com which netted $5.7 billion when sold.

John Paul DeJoria bounced around in the foster system as a boy. He was involved with crime and spent time in the military before he borrowed $700 to start John Paul Mitchell Systems. His humble beginnings included door-to-door sales and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Later he founded Patron tequila, another killer brand. Today he’s worth more than $3 billion.

What did all three of these entrepreneurs have in common? They were all “hustlers.” I know that when many of us hear that term, it doesn’t have positive connotations. We have images of a smarmy, greasy, fast-talking character who is constantly trying to run a con. But this isn’t the kind of hustle to which I refer. Instead, this kind of hustle is all about a desire to win.

Entrepreneurs who have hustle are resilient. They are creative and they are fearless. The easiest way to describe an entrepreneurial hustler is to look at the parallel of a hard-fought basketball game. We’ve all seen players scrambling after loose balls, flying into the stands, and throwing themselves onto the floor. They are willing to sacrifice their bodies with reckless abandon in their quest to achieve victory.

When we hustle we have a warrior’s mindset. Our initial focus is on survival. How many successful entrepreneurs started from deep and dark places? Remember how J. K. Rowling faced tremendous adversity in the early days before her celebrity as the author of the Harry Potter books? Her mother passed away; she gave birth to a child and went through a divorce; was clinically depressed and lived on welfare for a time. But her only choice was to write to survive. When we are ready to curl up and hide from the world, we should remember how others were able to make it through the tough times and come out the other side stronger and ready to whip the world. Resilience is a major key to survival.

Perhaps our business isn’t growing like we planned. Maybe we’ve even seen it slide backward. Now is the time to get into “hustle mode.” This can take many forms but the most important is a mindset of renewed determination. We examine our strategy and tactics so that we can make the necessary adjustments . . . with renewed determination. We push to new levels of innovation . . . with renewed determination. And we may even do things we’ve never done before . . . with renewed determination, so that we can survive.

Eventually we begin to achieve momentum. We begin to win. And we continue to hustle. Our mindset shifts away from simple survival, and the focus is now on how to thrive. We are relentless in discovering ways to become even more creative. We absolutely, positively know that we are going to succeed. Our “hustle” now involves an even greater sense of urgency along with commitment and dedication to setting our goals even higher. We ignore our critics and all the naysayers. We work hard and we endure the pain. There is no question we’ll make many sacrifices along the way. I can remember in the early years of my career when we were building our business. We had passed the point of survival and were beginning to thrive. I would sometimes arrive at work very early – 3:00 AM. And I would meet another colleague who was leaving to go home for a few hours of sleep. We were hustling and we were winning.

The entrepreneurial hustle often begins with survival and eventually results in a breakthrough where we thrive. Resilience, hard work, creativity, a fanatically positive mindset, and laser like focus are some of the more important factors to this equation.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Failed and Defeated Entrepreneur

What two words in the English language couldn’t be further apart in their meaning, but are often intertwined for entrepreneurs? The first word by itself is part of the everyday life of an entrepreneur – and every other person in the world as well. This word is relatively innocuous. But when connected with the second word it’s like adding the primer to dynamite. The resulting explosion can have all sorts of detrimental effects on our lives.

That first word is “failure.” Many entrepreneurs (and others) fear failure. But successful entrepreneurs have almost always experienced failure in different ways and multiple times. They use their failure to recalibrate or pivot and find a new way to make something work. David H. McConnell was a door-to-door book salesman who offered a little gift of perfume to female customers. Selling the books didn’t work out so well, but there was great demand for the perfume. So, McConnell ditched the books and turned the perfume concept into what is now known as Avon. Ever heard of Traf-O-Data? It was a partnership between Bill Gates and Paul Allen for the purpose of developing reports from traffic counters for traffic engineers. The business was not a success. But Gates went on to launch another venture called . . . Microsoft. And then there’s the famous story about a man named Fred Smith who wrote a paper for his Yale University economics class involving overnight parcel deliveries. The professor wasn’t impressed and gave him what Smith recalls was a C. Undaunted, Smith pursued the idea which today is known as Federal Express.

This brings us to the second word. The word is toxic to entrepreneurs for it can easily become a mindset. The word . . . “defeat.” Failure is part of a process of experimentation and discovery. Defeat is the end. Once defeat is admitted, there’s nothing more to be done. I knew a man who worked for someone else for several decades. Then he decided to spread his entrepreneurial wings and bought a business. He labored mightily but eventually had to close his doors. But rather than lean into the experience and use it as a steppingstone to success, he withdrew. His confidence was shaken, and he began making unhealthy choices. He tried working for someone else again but eventually ended up driving a taxi. Now there’s nothing wrong with driving a taxi if it’s for the right reason. But in this case, it was his way of curling up in the fetal position and saying, “I can’t.”

I think that it boils down to whether we have a “die trying” mentality. It boils down to whether we have a positive image of ourselves. It boils down to moving as fast as we can to kill our own bad ideas so we can make room for the good ones! When we are afraid to fail, we are setting ourselves up for defeat. One of the most important things about failure is making certain that it’s not so monumental that we can’t right our ship. A mindset of defeat occurs when we are convinced, we’ve lost it all – forever.

Here’s what I’ve learned. I don’t set out to fail at anything but accept the fact that I will, and I must, if only to find the good ideas that work. I always make sure there’s enough of a margin of safety that my failures aren’t going to “kill” me. This leaves room for a pivot or a more significant shift. Regardless of my failures I will always remain positive and optimistic. Sometimes this can be very hard but it’s fundamental to avoiding defeat. When I do fail, I look for what can be salvaged from the experience to bolt onto the next iteration of whatever I’m doing. And finally, I know that I’m a step closer to success by eliminating a step in the process that didn’t work.

Failure and defeat are not connected in any way, shape, or form. Great opportunity and great success can rise from failure. Nothing good comes from defeat.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Gritty Entrepreneur

What do sandpaper, tiny bits of stone and gravel, a 1969 John Wayne movie, and successful people – especially entrepreneurs – have in common? The one-word answer is . . . grit. I’ve written before about perseverance, but grit takes this idea a step beyond. It’s one thing to keep on keeping on, but grit adds a special dimension to the notion of resolve. But before we dive in, let’s go back to the opening sentence for some context. Sandpaper has a very rough surface that is referred to as grit. This grit can be very coarse or very fine depending upon the project at hand. Chickens eat tiny bits of stone and gravel to help them digest their food. These small particles are also called grit. And who can forget the classic John Wayne movie called True Grit, in which a young teenage girl works in tandem with a drunken U.S. marshal to track down her father’s killer.

Many of us call it quits too early when something isn’t going the way we had envisioned. As entrepreneurs we are told that we must persevere and eventually things will turn out the way we want. So, we slog on and keep fighting the good fight. However, this isn’t grit. Remember the earlier mention of sandpaper. Everyone knows that if we rub sandpaper on our skin, we can draw blood. Grit does this metaphorically. We invest more of ourselves in whatever we are pursuing than just time and stick-to-it-ness. In the process we may get a little bloodied. We may get a black eye or a broken nose. But in the end, we win.

So just how does grit manifest in more concrete terms? Let’s look at some people who have demonstrated “true grit” in exemplary fashion. Singer/songwriter Dolly Parton grew up dirt poor as she describes it, in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Even so, she maintained a cheerful and positive mindset throughout her childhood that has served her well during her long and illustrious career. Today, at age 75, she has amassed a fortune worth more than $650 million. She claims she had more “guts than talent.” But I think it was her optimism and sunny disposition that helped her overcome the obstacles she faced along the way.

Next, there’s the amazing success of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon. Bezos graduated from Princeton in 1986 and went to work on Wall Street. He enjoyed a lucrative career in the investment world, but he had a dream. He saw that the Internet was going to dominate the future and gave up his hedge fund job to start Amazon in 1994. The catalyst for him was his passion for that which was scientific and technological.

Finally, most of us know the story of J. K. Rowling. Divorced, on welfare and struggling to provide for her baby, she was nearly out of options in 1994. Despite these challenges, she wrote the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The manuscript was rejected by 12 different publishers before finding one that would print it. And in several cases, the rejections weren’t very kind. But Rowling had no choice but to bounce back and keep trying – it was either that or she would never be able to climb out of the deep hole she was in. Her resilience made all the difference – and of course the rest is history with 500 million copies of the Potter books being sold.

There are many other elements that can be included when defining grit – courage, bravery, pluck, mettle, backbone, spirit, strength of character, strength of will, moral fiber, steel, nerve, fortitude, toughness, hardiness, determination, tenacity, guts, and spunk, to name a few. I’m partial to a combination of optimism, passion and resilience that accompany persistence and endurance.

Call it what you will, grit is essential for moving beyond perseverance to the successful outcomes we desire. And yes, there will be blood, sweat and tears along the way. But they are merely proof that we have invested our heart and soul in the arduous and exhilarating process of fulfilling our vision.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Never Say Never Entrepreneur

“If you think life is magical or life is hard, either way you are right. Your thoughts are the source of reality.” I love this quote by Dr. Debasish Mridha, an American physician and philosopher. And here is a phrase that is toxic to the entrepreneurial mindset – “It’s too hard.” Why? Because it is an affirmation – and a powerful one at that. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that the mountain in front of us may be huge. But we can easily tip over into defeatist territory if we say something is “too hard.” Often that is a signal that it is time to give up. Au contraire!

Conquering something difficult and maybe even insurmountable is a true entrepreneur’s dream, much in the same vein as climbing Mount Everest or something less daring like public speaking. I want to “run to hard” and embrace it. I do so because I know that many others have run away from it. “Too hard” is an opportunity to blend innovation and creativity into a solution. It is an opportunity to witness the power of a positive attitude. It is an opportunity to learn how tough we are and how able we are to persevere.

There are examples all around us of how “too hard” really wasn’t. Think how hard it must have been to put a man on the moon in 1969 before the technological advancements we have today. The first heart transplant must have been amazingly hard – yet someone did it. And how hard was it for swimmer Michael Phelps to win 28 Olympic medals over the course of his career? There is no doubt that someone uttered the “too hard” phrase with each of these accomplishments. And that someone was obviously dead wrong.

Here is what I have learned. A leader must be the eternal optimist. He or she must absolutely and totally believe in the goal or objective. This belief must be authentic and genuine – not playacting for the team. There’s confidence on steroids at work here. But more than sheer willpower is necessary to generate the desired result. The effort must be strategic and smart.

Hoover, Electrolux, and Oreck seemed to have a corner on the vacuum market for years. Then along came James Dyson with a revolutionary idea in the late 1970s.  He created 5,127 prototypes over five years and the G-Force Dual Cyclone was born. Dyson has since become a worldwide market leader with 2019 sales of more than $7.3 billion. Here is another example. Blockbuster had 2004 revenue of $6 billion while Netflix brought in $500 million. Today, Netflix has more than nearly 208 million streaming subscribers and Blockbuster is out of business. What happened to “too hard” with Dyson and Netflix?

Dyson revolutionized vacuum cleaner design and eliminated the need for a bag. It was clearly a disruptor in its industry. Its swivel ball technology also made it easier to use a vacuum cleaner in tight spaces – something the incumbent makers had failed to do. Netflix was all about convenience for its customers. I remember having to drive to the Blockbuster store to rent a movie. Meanwhile Netflix was sending them through the mail. Ultimately, the company figured out that streaming was the future and rode the wave in handsome fashion. “Too hard” was transformed into stunning success through innovation, creativity, perseverance, resilience and above all a “can’t lose” mindset.

How do these stories apply to us? If nothing else, it is imperative that we learn how to convert too hard into let’s do it.” We must first convince ourselves that we can do whatever we set out to do. Then we must persuade our team to believe the same way. I know that this sounds like a lot of rah-rah. But the formula is a simple one. Yes, there will be risks – but we figure out how to manage them. Yes, there will be failure – but we use it to learn what works and what doesn’t. And yes, there will be periods where progress seems painfully slow – but we keep moving forward until we break through.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.