There is a zen proverb that states, “It takes a wise man to learn from his mistakes but an even wiser man to learn from others.” I like to get inspired and hear about how other business people have turned their massive efforts and sacrifices into major successes. One way that I do this is by listening to podcasts. I particularly like “How I Built This podcast by NPR.” The series interviews outstanding founders and innovators about their stories of how they created their iconic companies.
Below are some of the lessons we can learn from a few of the guests of the podcast: Mark Cuban, Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia and Sara Blakely of Spanx.
Mark Cuban is a serial entrepreneur and investor. He can dunk a basketball and he can also buy private islands by the dozen because he’s a billionaire baller. His episode is really interesting and I recommend listening to it in its entirety but here are some of the lessons he teaches us.
Work Your Ass Off
Mark said he always knew he’d be rich, even as a young kid. When Guy Raz, the host of the podcast asks Mr. Cuban what he did to actually do it, Mark replied with, “I just tried stuff, from packaging baseball cards when I was 9 or 10 and going down to the park and reselling them, to buying and selling stamps, selling garbage bags door to door, selling candies door to door.” He hustled and tried different avenues until he was successful.
He was also asked what he would do if he had lost everything and he replied, “Get a job as a bartender at night and a sales job during the day. Start working.”
Working two jobs or working all the time is what it takes sometimes. He’s always had confidence that hard work will pay off. At the age of 11 he remembers thinking that if he worked hard enough, he could be on his own and take care of himself. When I was 11, I was preoccupied with collecting all of the garbage pail kids; I guess that’s why I’m not billionaire material. Curse you, Atom Bomb! (insert pic of Atom Bomb the garbage pail kid?)
Be Fascinated With Your Work
Working long hours wasn’t hard for Mark because he genuinely wanted to find solutions to his clients’ problems. “I’d start working on an application that I was writing and I’d start working on it and I’d look up and it’d be 36 hours later.” I looked at it as being fascinating, intellectually challenging, and I wanted to solve this problem.” Working hard was made easier by the fact that he was good at doing what he did and he enjoyed the challenges his work presented.
Believe In Your Business Concept
Mark’s last company, broadcast.com, was a pioneer of internet streaming. He remembers pitching his idea of streaming media across the web to various investors only to be scoffed at and marginalized. He knew streaming was the future when no one else thought it was a good idea. He persisted in making his vision a reality despite the years of hardships and naysayers only to have his company get acquired by yahoo.com for 5.7 billion dollars in the year 2000. There were times when he and the handful of other broadcast.com employees were the only believers in their technology but their belief carried them to push past the hard times until they were successful.
Joe is the 38 year old founder of the multibillion dollar company Airbnb. When he struggled to get funding for Airbnb, he and his partner started making and selling collectable breakfast cereal based on the 2008 presidential election to help fund their fledgling travel company. Here are some of the lessons he’s learned along the way.
Don’t Quit Too Early
Joe references the “trough of sorrow” in his episode. He goes on to explain that this “trough” is where businesses are in the market but not making money or not making enough to sustain themselves. Airbnb was considered a weird idea by many people when it first launched. They sent letters to 20 silicon valley investors to try and seek funding. 10 of those investors replied to their emails, five met with them for coffee, but in the end, none of the investors gave them funds. He mentions that this is the point where most business owners quit. It goes back to the lesson we learned from Mark Cuban about believing in your business, cinching your belt and doubling your efforts in times of struggle. Learning from Joe, if you really believe in what you’re doing, don’t quit even though times are hard and you are sick of eating ramen.
Meet and Know Your Customers In a More Intimate Way
Joe explains that one of the major philosophies of Silicon Valley is to conduct every operation of your business in a scalable way so that you are ready for growth when and if the time comes. One day, when he and his co-founder were discussing the company with a mentor of theirs, the mentor asked where their market was. Only having a few host properties at that time, Joe responded that they didn’t have much of a market yet but that most of their hosts were located in New York City. The mentor then asked “What are you doing here then? Go to New York and talk to your clients.” Obviously, it can be impossible for many businesses to go and speak with all their clients as the company grows, but it turns out that heeding the advice of their mentor is what became a game changer for Airbnb. “When we went and met with the early adopters, we realized things such as people taking bad pics of their home.” Joe then took professional pics of those properties and as he did so, he was able to interact and find out what Airbnb hosts liked and didn’t like about his software platform. As a result, he was able to make real changes that resulted in the almost instant, rapid adoption of Airbnb by many new clients. “Go out and talk to the people you are designing for so that you can understand the world from their point of view which will in turn inform your point of view. I call this enlightened empathy. Seeing the world so closely in the shoes of the person that you’re creating for that you can see the world the way they see it. Bring those insights back and combine it with your own design point of view to create something new. We sat down with customers and they revealed to us the serious gap between our product and our market.”
Sara turned a once “bizarre” undergarment idea into a billion dollar company that is today known as Spanx. Making the company into the crazy success that it is was extremely difficult but her former career as a door-to-door fax salesperson helped give her the pit bull-like tenacity she needed to transform her life into the giant success it is today.
Don’t Be Afraid To Ask
Sara’s first sale was to the prestigious retailer Neiman Marcus. Her friends and family were shocked to find that she was able to land her first sale to such a high falutin organization. How did she reel in such a grand sale? She called her local Neiman Marcus in Atlanta and told the store manager that she had invented a new product for women that would change the way their clients wear clothes. The manager interrupted her and said that they had a purchasing branch in Dallas that would handle any purchasing decisions. Sara asked for the number of the purchasing wing in Dallas and proceeded to call. When she finally connected to a buyer for Neiman Marcus she gave the same pitch she had given to the store manager she had spoken with in Atlanta. The buyer said that if she flew out to Dallas from Atlanta that she would give her 10 minutes of her time to make her sales pitch. She closed the sale and that was the beginning of her climb to the top. She made the effort to ask and was granted a major opportunity. The lesson for me here is to think big and put yourself out there. You never know when the next ‘yes’ will come but it probably never will if you are afraid to ask for the sale.
Don’t Celebrate Too Soon
After she closed the sale with Neiman Marcus, Guy Raz asks Sara if it was then that she felt like she had ‘made it’. She replied, “No, that is the biggest mistake entrepreneurs make, that is when the work begins.” She explains that Spanx was initially in only seven Neiman Marcus stores and that she scoured her rolodex to find friends, family, and acquaintances to go to each participating store and buy Spanx in order to create a “buzz” around her product. She paid her friends and family for doing so. Sara also manned the local store in Atlanta from the store’s opening at 9am to 5 or 6pm each night. During this time she would demonstrating her product and sell it with all her might. It’s easy for any organization to celebrate a sale but fulfilling your brand promise and delighting your customers are ingredients for sustainable growth and success.
For me, many of these lessons aren’t new. If we look at almost any successful person, they will tell you similar bits of advice. The secret is that there isn’t a secret. The tools that build success are the ones we are all aware of. But just because we know what to do, doesn’t mean we always do it. Heck, we all know that the way to lose weight is to eat a little less and exercise more yet we have a weight epidemic in our country. For me though, hearing the nitty-gritty of why and how successful people accomplished what they have inspires me to try again. To know that even though things can be tough, others have been in similarly trying circumstances and prevailed.
Get inspired. Listen to the lessons of others and keep an open mind. Keep your eye on the prize and keep fighting like hell to make your dreams a reality. Do this and you too might be featured on the “How I Built This” podcast one day.