Why Every Entrepreneur Should Wear a Top Hat
Last week, I had the great honor of attending the annual Inc. 500/5000 Conference, which celebrates the fastest-growing companies in the United States. Surrounded by the country's most inspired and innovative entrepreneurs, I was constantly amazed at what people can accomplish when they set their minds to it. Truthfully, I took a look back at my life and career and thought, "Should I be doing more? Am I inspiring others?"
It was a question that hung around me, like a text bubble in a cartoon, as I met and spoke with the many attendees, honorees, and sponsors at the event. The answer came to me via multiple sources, interactions and conversations.
The first of such was when I sat in a session hosted by Norm Brodsky, author of "The Knack", Inc. Magazine columnist, and notable entrepreneur. For those who have yet to hear him speak, he's a cross between Mickey Rooney and Carl Reiner; so it's no wonder he's a dynamic CEO and writer. One of his main credos in life is, "A smart person learns from his own mistakes; a wise person learns from the mistakes of others." Brilliant. As I applied this wisdom to my daily responsibilities with Growthink, I realized that it held an ultimate truth for ALL growing companies: analyze where competitors fall short or stumble, and make THEIR mistakes YOUR advantages. In business planning, we do this all the time when we assess the competitive landscape: what can our clients do right, that predecessors did wrong? By way of illuminating these insights for clients, I truly believe we help inspire them.
While I was exiting the above discussion, a young man to my right looked at my name tag - which displayed Honoree, and said, "Congratulations." Why did I have that moniker on my badge? A compliment meant for Growthink Founders, Jay Turo and Dave Lavinsky, the designation let other attendees know that the company I represented was on the distinguished 500/5000 list. Running into that same young man later - the founder of a recruiting firm - I learned that he aspires to be on one of the lists someday. He humbly asked if he could send his business plan for review, to which I was very receptive and began speaking to him about his vision. The fact that he was able to come to the conference and talk to people that were once where he is now, or who could help him set and achieve growth milestones, was something that he treasured. Maybe one day, at another Inc. conference, I will see him again with Honoree on HIS name tag. Wouldn't that be something?
One of the most jaw-dropping moments of the conference was when Bob Williamson took the stage. Serial entrepreneur and new author with "Miracle on Luckie Street", he came out to applause and started to speak about his experiences. Jaws hit the floor when he admitted he arrived in Atlanta with only a few dollars, was homeless (living on Luckie St., no less), and began a rampage of drugs and felonies including heroin, crystal meth, dealing, armed robbery, stints in jail, and grand theft auto that led to a head-on collision and months in the hospital. Long story short, he was an avid reader that discovered the Bible and - shortly after fully recovering - quit all vices cold turkey. As we sat there, stunned, he brought the crowd to raucous laughter by admitting that "needless to say, [he] didn't have the greatest resume."
So why was he on that stage? Well, he lied to get a job in the Glidden manufacturing plant and found a way to save them $50K on labels. Several promotions, years, and companies later, he's a happily-married, soon-to-be great-grandfather who sold his last ground-up company for $75M.
Whoa. One thing is certain: I will never again pass judgment on anyone coming to Growthink for services.
Can I do more? Yes. I can believe wholeheartedly in the people who rely upon the guidance of my company to make vital business decisions; and if, at any time, the road gets rough, I'll ask them, "Have you heard of Bob Williamson?"
The most memorable moment of the conference, however, was when U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Gary Locke, spoke in the general session on Thursday afternoon. He announced a new initiative by the Obama Administration that will surely motivate those starting and running small businesses, whether left, right or center: the creation of an Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Along with an Advisory Committee/Board, the Office will enable the incubation of new and growing companies across the nation via education and a network of support (follow the Tweets at seclocke). Echoing the sentiments of the President, Mr. Locke infused the room with a sense of confidence and belief in entrepreneurs, now and in the future, and their ability to exponentially impact the economy, employment, and the generation of new ideas. Looking around me, the room was alit with the knowledge that each of us - by way of being entrepreneurs or working WITH them - could make a significant difference.
Everything culminated with an awards ceremony and gala, where "Puttin' on the Ritz" was a celebrated notion and all Honorees approached the stage in recognition of their ranking on the 500/5000 lists. As I accepted on behalf of Growthink, I commended Mr. Brodsky on his top hat; very fitting for such a festive occasion. It made think of a time when fashion statements like this were the norm for an evening out. During the Great Depression, more businesses were created than ever before; many people lacked money, but what they didn't lack was ambition, tenacity, and a good top hat. Why is that, do you think? While I don't expect we'll see a chapeau resurgence, I do think it's a relevant and bittersweet analogy about succeeding when the economic odds are pitted against you.
With that said, there were so many other speakers from whom I gleaned inspiration. Not possessing time to write a novella, I will capture their respective wisdoms below while wishing each and every reader tremendous success built upon fortitude, courage, belief, and the ability to endure.
Scott Griffith, CEO of Zipcar: 7 Steps to Success
1) Get the business model RIGHT
2) Use information as a competitive advantage
3) Keep it simple
4) Create a value-based culture
5) Sell the steak, NOT the sizzle
6) Have a world view
7) Innovate yourself, along with the company
Norm Brodsky: "Build a business like you're going to be in business forever."
Bob Williamson: "Bigger is sometimes better, but PROFITABLE is always good!"
Jill Blashak-Strahan, Founder & CEO of Tastefully Simple: 3 Things to Remember
1) Just start (many times it's the 'start' that stops us)
2) Know where you're going (which doesn't mean you always know what you're DOING. Dream it, believe it, work it)
3) Don't stop (don't get sucked into fear; fear is the gatekeeper to strength)
Herman Chinery-Hisse, "The Bill Gates of Africa": "Everyone saw Africa as a problem; I saw it as an opportunity."
Ray Anderson, author of "Confessions of a Radical Industrialist", on the mindset that transformed him and led to his polluting company evolving into a GREEN company: "If business and industry must lead, then WHO will lead business and industry?"
Jack Stack, author of "The Great Game of Business": "Operate your business, every day, as if you could GO OUT of business. A little paranoia goes a long way." (Mr. Stack ran his companies profitably through TWO economic down-turns)
And finally, per Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com: I don't have the exact quote, but suffice it to say that anyone who travels to Las Vegas and wants to visit the Zappos Corporate Office in Henderson, will be picked up by a Zappos shuttle, given a guided tour, and driven back to their hotel. Talk about customer service! (Perhaps I could wrangle a pair of shoes out of it as well?)
I hope to see many of you at next year's conference. In top hats, of course.