I wouldn't consider myself an entrepreneur. I skew more towards the intrapreneur side of things professionally. That doesn't stop me from wanting to learn more about the journeys of some of the most successful entrepreneurs out there. There's a lot we can all learn and apply from the stories these folks have to share.
NPR's How I Built This is one of my favorite podcasts out right now (you can see what else I'm listening to here). I hardly miss an episode. Guy Raz interviews the founders of well known startups and large corporations like Spanx, Warby Parker, Chuck E. Cheese and Atari (built by the same guy!), WeWork, Sam Adams, and other serial entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Mark Cuban.
While all the stories are wildly different and all the founders have their own unique perspectives, skills and stories they bring to the world, here are a few common threads I've noticed over the many episodes I've listened to.
Several of them made it sound easy
I would say Spanx is the best example of this kind of episode. While I am sure it was far from easy, hearing Sarah Blakely talk about her role building out Spanx sounds like a logical, seamless upward trajectory. "Yeah, I invented this undergarment and now I'm a billionaire."
Other people also made it sound easy. The founders of Compaq and Atari talk about the creation and distribution of complex pieces of hardware sound about as complicated as opening a lemonade stand. The Atari/Chuck E. Cheese founder talks about how he just spins up companies like he's baking cookies. While I'm sure they are understating the complexity and difficulty of what they do, they have an ease and a confidence that I think takes a particular cut of person to have.
Sure that confidence was probably learned over time - and likely the result of massive success - but it's something I still admire.
They didn't have it all figured out
The founders of wildly successful companies weren't 100% experts on what they built. In many cases, it really sounded like many of these folks didn't have a clue what they were doing in their early days. The founder of Atari had an idea and just took a non-functioning, wooden model of an Atari kit to a conference and drove orders of a product that didn't exist yet. The founder of Southwest was an attorney by trade, not a pilot or aviation expert - he just thought there was a better way to travel by air.
While they didn't have it all figured out, these people kept making progress. They also learned quickly and adjusted quickly along the way. It's taught me a lot. I am the type that doesn't want to pursue anything until I have every angle of that thing at mastery. My parents tell me I was like that as a baby, that I could walk several months before I actually did because I was waiting for mastery to start.
Sometimes all you need is to just start. It's hard to master something you haven't actually tried.
They went all in on their idea
Though there were some mild exceptions (the founder of Southwest did remain a practicing attorney while starting his airline), most everyone had a tipping point where they had to go all in on their idea. It wasn't until that happened did their ideas and companies really begin to flourish. I don't know that anyone has a multi-billion dollar side hustle. They had to make the decision to bet on their idea - and themselves - taking a shot while they had the chance.
Some left comfortable situations for wild ideas
A few of these entrepreneurs had to make hard decisions early on. A few, like Sam Adams founder Jim Koch, left really high paying, cozy jobs (like his job at BCG) to pursue their dream. Looking in hindsight, it seems like a no-brainer decision. However, at the time, I'm sure it sounded crazy.
In Koch's example, he had a cozy consulting job with BCG, flying around first class doing executive level work. When he decided to go all-in trying to perfect and sell his family's beer recipe, even his dad said he was stupid. After all, craft brewing was pretty much non-existent here during that time. American beer had a bad reputation and light beers were all the rage, not the darker, flavored beer like his. Still, he went all in on an idea and quickly grew his company.
I still don't think I want to start my own company any time soon (if ever). However, I think learning about entrepreneurs is applicable to any stage of your career. It's put career decisions I've struggled with in the past in perspective. It's made me realize that sometimes the best career decision some people can make is one that doesn't make sense at the time...and may not even work out. But sometimes not taking that chance negates a lot of learning experiences you could have.
Have any of you listened to this podcast? If so, what's your favorite episode?