What Have You Overcome to Be Successful?

Entrepreneurs who don’t win business plan or pitch competitions often get down on themselves. They may wonder whether they will ever get the funding needed to turn their idea into a commercial venture. The sense of frustration when circumstances don’t appear to go the right way can lead to despondency.  Vivian Giang, writing for Business Insider in an article published earlier this week, reminds that others have overcome greater odds.

Giang shares Ryan Blair’s story of coming from a broken family, learning disorders, and gang life to become a multimillionaire serial entrepreneur. In his bookNothing to Lose, Everything to Gain,” Blair writes:

“I quickly saw how the system worked, how the street lords kept themselves in power through influence and manipulation. I observed how the older people used bribery and fear to get the younger kids to do their crimes, and I saw how the young people willingly went along with it because it seemed like the only power structure that had any kind of respect in the neighborhood.”

“Long before I became a millionaire entrepreneur, I was a kid with a criminal record, street gang experience, and a lot of emotional scarring from years of abuse from my father. My teenage years were hardly the typical starting point for a normal, productive life, let alone a successful business career. Turns out, that didn’t matter.”

Blair was arrested more than ten times. Living the street life left him facing a four year sentence and the tender age of 16. His mom began dating a businessman a couple years later who showed modeled how to make money legally. Giang observes that Blair was insightful when he decided to apply the survival skills learned on the street to make money the right way. His “street smarts,” she writes, were gained from observing the strengths of the gang system through a new lens.

“There’s a hierarchy in gangs, a hierarchy of positions and power,” he says. “A gang is an economic system, and there’s a lot of similarities between gangs and some legal companies. I know that it’s not always the most powerful organization that’s going to make it, it’s the one that’s most adaptable with the changing times, the one that understands how to manage their politics.”

At 21, Blair launched his first company (24/7 Tech) and brought his understanding of street economics, plus a determination to turn himself around, to bear on the effortToday, he’s the CEO of ViSalus and won the DSN Global Turn Around Award in 2010 when he actually turned the company around from being $6 million debt in early 2008 to sucess 16 months later.

When trying to get his first business off the ground, Blair says he was nervous about ‘taking his skeletons out of his closet,” because people were always “looking for a reason to see why they are better than you. People look at people who don’t have pedigree upbringings differently.” But “if you avoid it, or hide it, others might feel as though there’s a dishonesty there, and hiding something is a very expensive emotional thing for you.”

Blair’s belief that others, too, can overcome mistakes and troubled histories influences the way he runs his own company. He said that he’s willing to hire people with a criminal record–provided they are honest about the past in the present. It seems to be working well for him!

So, if you as an entrepreneur feel that you have long odds for success, consider what Blair and others have been through. He has faced similar challenges to your own–and additional ones that, thankfully, do not confront you. With that in mind, hopefully smaller challenges will be seen for what they are.




Starting A Biz Late in Life is Great!

We are strong believers in Boomerpreneurs– Baby Boom generation individuals who start businesses later in life, often as a second career choice. Michelle Rafter wrote the following article for Entrepreneur online about those who overcame adversity by redirecting their misfortunes into something positive and successful. She features 7 business owners who became entrepreneurs as a “second act.” Five of them are mentioned below:

Chris Gardner, Gardner Rich LLC

Second act: The Pursuit of Happyness. A homeless dad turned his life around by becoming a stockbroker in his mid-30s, and then went on to open his own investment company. Now 58, Gardner continues to reinvent himself as a motivational speaker and founder of an investment fund supporting business development in South Africa.

Lesson learned: “Probably the hardest question I get asked is ‘How do I choose between passion and practicality?’ I can’t answer that. I had to do both. I was passionate about pursuing a career in financial services. But I was also passionate about feeding my child,” Gardner told an audience at AARP’s Life@50+ convention in 2011.

Paula Deen, Paula Deen Enterprises LLC

Second act:  Paula Deen was 42, divorced, broke and battling agoraphobia when she started a catering company to makes ends meet. Six years later, the Savannah, Ga., restaurant she opened serving cheesy meatloaf, deep-fried Twinkies and other Southern specialties earned her national acclaim and the nickname Queen of Comfort Food. Aided by sons Jamie and Bobby, she parlayed her initial success into a food empire that extends to cookbooks, books, a magazine, TV shows and frozen foods.

Lesson learned: “I’m livin’ proof that the American dream is alive and well, that you can be an imperfect person and still end up with so much fun in your life you can hardly stand it,” Deen wrote in her 2007 memoir, It Ain’t All About the Cookin’ (Simon & Schuster). 

Bethenny Frankel, Skinnygirl

Second act: The 35-year-old culinary school graduate already had overcome a privileged but tough childhood — with an absent dad and an alcoholic mom — to open a natural foods bakery when she was cast in Real Housewives of New York City in 2005. Buoyed by her new found reality TV celebrity status, she launched a string of self-help books and the Skinnygirl line of cocktail mixes, sold to Beam Global in 2011 for more than $100 million. Ellen DeGeneres produced the recent pilot for Frankel’s Fox TV talk show, Bethenny.

Lesson learned: “When you find you are off track or your actions aren’t in line with your true nature, you change course. You start again. It’s never wrong. It just is,” Frankel wrote her 2011 book A Place of Yes: 10 Rules for Getting Everything You Want Out of Life. 

Bernard ‘Bernie’ Marcus, The Home Depot

Second act: Marcus was a cabinet maker and pharmacist before taking a shine to business, working his way up to running the Handy Dan hardware chain before getting fired at 50 after a disagreement with his new boss. He and partner Arthur Blank used their accumulated knowledge to open The Home Depot, revolutionizing the home-improvement industry with their mix of warehouse pricing and hands-on customer service. Marcus retired in 2002 to focus on philanthropy, funding everything from autism research to the Georgia Aquarium. Forbes pegs his current net worth at $2.3 billion.

Lesson learned: “The first thing I did was surround myself with people who were brighter than I was,” Marcus says in a 2011 Forbes interview. “If I didn’t have the best people around, we weren’t going to make it.”

Gert Boyle, Columbia Sportswear Co.

Second act: Boyle was a 42-year-old housewife and mother of three in 1970 when her husband died of a heart attack, forcing her to take over as chairman of the outdoor apparel maker her parents had started as a hat company 33 years earlier. Assisted by son Tim, Boyle has grown Columbia Sportswear from $800,000 in annual revenue to close to $1.7 billion in fiscal 2011. In the interim, she earned the nickname “One Tough Mother,” a moniker the company built an ad campaign around and Boyle used to title her 2005 autobiography. She’s still tough: Police credited instincts and grit for helping her outwit a would-be kidnapper in 2010.

Lesson learned: “After making funeral plans all weekend, I showed up for work at Columbia Sportswear on Monday morning, and I’ve been showing up ever since,” Boyle told The Oregonian.

With EntreDot and Boom! Magazine, we are putting together a Boom!erSlam event in October for boomers to vet their ideas in front of a panel and feedback from peers. Come join us at the Cary Innovation Center on October 17th at 6pm!

Simple Stories Make Great Pitches


ABC’s hit show, Shark Tank, is one of my very favorites on TV. It attracts entrepreneurs of all ages, levels of experience, and backgrounds to come pitch their business idea for angel investment by one or more of the sharks. One of the young ‘treps who pitched this past year is Joseph Draschil, co-founder of SpyGames.me.  Draschil is currently participating in Start-Up Chile (written about here a few months ago) while enrolled in an MBA entrepreneurship program at Babson College. 

His first major assignment in a Babson course was to create an opportunity storyboard for a business idea, limited to a single PowerPoint slide. The storyboard became a rocket pitch: a three minute, three slide, live pitch in front of his professor and classmates in the entrepreneurship class. Draschil was then encouraged to enter the Babson Rocket Pitch event, to pitch his idea in front of investors, professors, members of the community and the student body.

The following week, his team entered the Big Idea Competition, for which they were required us to upload a three-minute pitch video to YouTube, secure the most “likes” and move to the finalist round to pitch on stage for three judges. Within one week of being named one of two winning teams, Draschil received an e-mail from the director of the entrepreneurship center at Babson. Two of the “sharks” were to visit the school and hear the pitch. Here’s the young entrepreneur’s perspective on the experience:

Although I was terrified of failing in front of entrepreneur celebrities and all of Babson, I committed to participate and the pitch went great. My partner and I stumbled a couple of times during the Q&A session, but that’s okay. You make mistakes, learn from them, and improve — that’s the essence of the startup journey. After the event, Mark Cuban mentioned to us that he believed if we could get the marketing down, we would kill it.

While I continue to work on the business, I have learned a few key lessons about creating a dynamic pitch:

  1. Be visual. Please, no slides full of bullet points. Use simple and clean images that clarify and complement what you’re saying — not complicate it. When slides are cluttered and busy, the audience will be focused on deciphering them instead of focusing on you. Don’t forget that for most investors, the entrepreneur is more important than the product or idea being pitched.
  2. Tell a story. Storytelling lies at the heart of who we are as humans. Remember, you are not a court lawyer trying to amass evidence for the jury as to why your idea is destined to make millions. If your pitch is just a crowd of facts, figures and pie charts, you may lose your audience.
  3. Practice, practice, practice. Get in front of others and pitch — a lot. Don’t worry about your pitch being bad the first few times you do it. It most definitely will be. As you practice, though, you will learn which parts your audience is responding to and which parts need to be adjusted. Over time, your confidence and delivery will improve.

These 3 lessons are important for any entrepreneur. Pay attention to Draschil’s advice to be simple & clear in your slides. Way too much information in the presentations of many. The difference between an engaged audience and a bored one is your ability to weave a compelling story. Finally, the admonition to practice is so practical, fundamental, and predictive of one’s likelihood of success.

Endurance Runners Are Like Entrepreneurs

In writing for Inc magazine, Patricia Fletcher draws a comparison between entrepreneurs and marathon runners. In addition to being a little crazy, she says both have a plan to follow that prepares them for success. The performance for which you are judged is predictable from the “practice” that leads up to it. Here are Fletcher’s observations about the right mindset both need–

Get comfortable being uncomfortable for long periods of time.  Believe it or not, this will become a badge of honor.  Most of your work as an entrepreneur requires you to try new approaches, to push yourself beyond your limits. This means that you will fail a lot. You will struggle for funding–a lot. You will lose customers and opportunities–a lot. It’s all part of the training process. Your response to rejection is as good a determinant of your entrepreneurial ability as your response to success.

Adopt a resilient mindset. You are going to have some tough days; days when you question your own sanity and want throw in the towel.  Much like a marathon, the entrepreneurial experience is long, twisting, and filled with ups and downs. Every successful entrepreneur and marathoner I have talked with believes mindset is either your biggest asset or your biggest barrier. The pros handle it by maintaining an objective mindset that looks at setbacks as opportunities for improvement.

Embrace others like you. Working in a vacuum is not going to help you finish the race. Runners find running partners or join running clubs. They get faster because they push each other. They become stronger because they share tips for nutrition and avoiding injury. You can do the same thing. 

Connect with other entrepreneurs. Get together to practice your pitches, test your demos, and talk about go-to-market strategies. Working together will give you practice and insights while creating the relationships that will push you forward.

Don’t over-train. In my first few years as a runner and professional, I over-trained, thinking it would make me stronger and better, and prove that I belonged. Instead, I burned out. You will not succeed if you have 10 No. 1 priorities. Identify your top three goals. Don’t do anything that won’t make a big impact on your progress toward those three.

At conferences, I have heard several speakers tell up-and-coming women entrepreneurs and executives that they should say yes to any high-profile opportunities. I disagree. Go after new opportunities only if they’ll help you achieve one of your three big goals.

Measure. A good plan incorporates key performance indicators to track your progress. It also helps lessen risk by proactively addressing problems. What measurements will tell you that you are making progress?  How often should you track your progress?  What are your biggest obstacles?  Which do you need to address and which can be ignored? 

As someone who has been a distance runner for over 30 years, I can relate to each of these. When I was competing, I had a mental edginess honed from the daily effort I put into psyche and development of my skills. As an entrepreneur, I have  been more successful when I have brought my “A” game to what I do. How about you?


Be An Ultimo Entrepreneur

Entrepreneur Country is a UK magazine I enjoy reading for stories that are refreshingly different insights. The views “from across the pond” provide a perspective on entrepreneurship that is distinct from the usual fare in the United States. Instead of a fascination with high-tech start-ups and deal making, the editors choose to feature entrepreneurs from other industries. The stories that are shared bring to light principles that can be applied across many settings.

Identifying a gap in the market to provide a unique solution to a problem can be hard, but very rewarding.  Michelle Mone found that helping women get what they want has been a path to success for her company, MJM International. MJM has made her one of the top 3 female entrepreneurs in the UK. Mone shared key points of her entrepreneurial journey in the July issue of the magazine.

In October 1996, at a dinner dance, Michelle was wearing an uncomfortable bra and decided she would invent her own in its place that would be comfortable, cleavage enhancing and improved in appearance. MJM International was born, (and the Ultimo brand was launched.)

Not only (has) Ultimo (been) revolutionizing the lingerie industry, it (is) now taking on cosmetics, with every product going through several rounds of testing [‘Every product has to be the best, I don’t accept second best’ – Michelle] and perfecting before it reaches the high street. “We have new products launching all the time and we have 13 inventions in total. The gel filled bra that we invented 12 years ago as an alternative to plastic surgery was what made us, because Julia Roberts wore it in Erin Brokovich. Then we have the 24 hour bra that you can’t feel that you’re wearing, and now UTan. I think next year we will expand further with a full on cosmetics range”.

Key points in Mone’s life story included:

  1. Taking a job to support her family as a teen when her father became wheelchair bound,
  2. Tacking Richard Branson posters on her wall instead of teen idols,
  3. Hiring 11 other teens to help her with a newspaper delivery route,
  4. Distributing Avon books,
  5. Working as sales and marketing lead for Labatt’s in her early 20s, and
  6. Launching MJM soon thereafter.

After taking her severance pay and putting it to good use with MJM, she moved from idea to commercialization. Here’s how she described the transition to becoming a successful entrepreneur:

“You have to do your research and find out if you have a viable product. See if you can meet a manufacturer too, because there will be issues in terms of shipping and some factories are too large for a new product. Go smaller, work out the volume and do as much homework as possible.”

“You just have to be incredibly organised, but I’m not super woman and I do get things wrong.” Ultimo suffered an enormous setback in 2002 when a married couple, distributors for MJM, fled with £1.6million.

She exhibited tremendous tenacity in overcoming this obstacle. a divorce, and other setbacks. Kelly Dolan, who conducted the interview with Mone, saluted her “ability to leverage MJM’s press position through PR campaigns (comprised of)  celebrity endorsements and clever marketing” Dolan asked how young businesses can optimize PR, to which Mone responded, 

“If you can’t afford a PR company then remember that there is nobody more passionate about your business than you. Write a press release, send it out to everyone and hope for the best. Hire a PR company if you have the money, but you have to get across to whoever is representing you that real passion for the business.” 

Well put! Every entrepreneur–female or male, in fashion or services, regardless of challenges–will meet with greater success if able to convey passion for the target audience and its needs.