All Lessons

All Lessons

The 15 Lessons Every Entrepreneur Must Learn: Forbes
Forbes  |  By Steven KotlerPosted: 09/06/2013 3:46 pm EDT In the middle of the economic meltdown that was 2007-2009, James Marshall Reillynoticed a particular new breed of high-minded entrepreneur who, well, didn’t seem to be melting. It was peculiar all right. Not only was this new breed making money hand over fist, they were doing so by trying […]

September 7, 2013

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Forbes  |  By Steven KotlerPosted: 09/06/2013 3:46 pm EDT

In the middle of the economic meltdown that was 2007-2009, James Marshall Reillynoticed a particular new breed of high-minded entrepreneur who, well, didn’t seem to be melting. It was peculiar all right. Not only was this new breed making money hand over fist, they were doing so by trying to make the world a much better place.

Reilly was curious. So he quit his job and spent the next few years playing detective, interviewing folks like Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and TOMs founder Blake Mycoskie (among many others) and culling their wisdom together in a book called Shake the World. The paperback edition of Shake hits stores today (I wrote the foreward) and as a sneak preview, I asked Reilly to distill down all the entrepreneurial wisdom he details in Shake into a top ten list (he ended up writing a top fifteen, see below) of key lessons for any entrepreneur interested in building a better planet while making boatloads of cash (plus a little introduction). Take a look:

In 2009, as unemployment soared to record highs and ominous economic headlines reported escalating sovereign and student debt, the housing crisis, and potential global economic collapse, the youth demographic was hit particularly hard. Historically, data indicates that—from the standpoint of salary and savings—when young people begin their careers in a recession, they often fail to “catch up.” As a member of the millennial generation, it was hard for me to come to terms with these dire economic predictions.

At the time, I found myself looking for good news in all the bad, and I became intrigued by the fact that there was a segment of the population was seemingly immune to these catastrophic economic conditions. There were people, particularly millennials, who were still achieving stunning success at a dramatically accelerated pace. What interested me most wasn’t simply that these individuals were succeeding in the midst of this economic free fall, it was that they were achieving this success, despite often having none of the traditional prerequisites of education, experience, or capital normally required.

Out of sheer necessity, a poor economy always leads to an increase in entrepreneurial ventures. A percentage of people who can’t find jobs, or those who lose the jobs they had, start their own businesses. Even still, it was clear in 2009 that this time was different. These young people who were finding success (however defined) weren’t starting traditional, “old-school” businesses with slow-growth trajectories. In fact, it was clear that they had no intentions of modeling what they were doing on anything remotely resembling “old-school” or “ordinary.” In other words, they weren’t opening bakeries or bike shops. They were reinventing bread—and rethinking the wheel.

The people I wrote about in Shake the World are a group undeterred by just about any obstacle. Whether it was a complete lack of startup capital, or the fact that they had dropped out of college, or had never run a company, or had no training or experience in a specific field, or were told by everyone that what they wanted to do made no sense and would never work—they all managed to innovate and accomplish on the highest levels. In other words, their success wasn’t based on the fact that they were smarter or had more resources than the rest of us. It came from the fact that these people learned to think differently. And that changes everything. It means that “success” is accessible to anyone willing to change how he or she thinks. It means that success is a behavior-driven outcome. Not a predetermined one.

It took a global economic collapse for me to figure out that the key to success isn’t contingent upon how smart we are or where we went to school, and it is rarely a result of a degree, an unearned opportunity, or a false perception of what we can and cannot do. It also has nothing to do with being an “outlier,” as Gladwell would argue. The seeds of success are found in that sweet spot where life and career collide with passion, determination and mindset. And that is exceptionally good news, because it means that success is accessible to all of us—regardless of our goals or background—if we just realign how we think.

Here are the top 15 lessons I learned from Tony Hsieh of Zappos, Blake Mycoskie of TOMS, Shawn Fanning of Napster, Jason Russell of Invisible Children, Doug Ulman of LIVESTRONG, Jessica Jackley of KIVA, and Ellen Gustafson of FEED, among others.

*Skip graduate school and get an “experience MBA.” We are the first generation that has access to extreme self-education, which means that traditional degrees are often irrelevant and sometimes financially crippling. As a generation, it’s time to rethink our trillion-dollar education debt.

*Hone a powerful network. One that can generate world changing energy. NetflixNFLX -0.85% improved its film recommendation algorithm by crowdsourcing code writing, KIVA generated hundreds of millions of dollars in microloans and re-architected the traditional system of bank lending as a route to network fundamental and massive change and we all have access to the same powerful tools they used.

*Approach traditional spaces from unique angles. Yes, thinking “outside-the-box” creates a competitive advantage. Always. Blake Mycoskie wasn’t a shoemaker or a force in global health and education until he decided to be one. Join the Renaissance and reinvent the world, as you reinvent yourself.

* Keep your venture tethered to social good and positive culture. Companies today are engaging in philanthrocapitalistic ventures in record numbers, and in unique ways. Ventures that tie every day consumption to harness our collective consumer dollars to affect positive change. This not only does good, it feels good.

*Employ a multidisciplinary approach to everything as you explore markets in new and unique ways. What does micro-finance in Kenya have to do with your company culture and ultimate profit? What can a computer scientist learn from a social psychologist or an environmentalist learn from an artist? What can the world learn from you?

*Time, knowledge and participation in each other’s stories are all viable forms of currency, and the most valuable currency is not necessarily “green.” Nor is the most valuable solution already written, or dollar driven. KIVA taught us that those simple human stories and personal connections can be powerful vectors for change.

*Harness capitalism for good by incorporating giving into everything that you do. What you buy, what you wear, what you eat, and where and how you work, can be both a significant global force and self-defining.

* Exploit low-risk, high-reward opportunities. This mitigates risk and allows room for explosive, rapid-fire success. Today a company can be started for next to nothing and an education secured with the touch of our fingers. We all have the chance to create and exploit derivative success markets for ourselves. Right now.

*When you are young and starting out, you are starting at zero, which means that you can’t fail. And that means we should avoid the safe choices early in our careers. “Failure is not a badge of shame. It is a right of passage,” Tony Hsieh brilliantly explained to me.

*Open your mind to the concept of being a “polymath,” and embrace the almost unending number of career permutations open to us all. We are no longer living in a time in which we are limited to having one or two single-focused jobs over the course of our careers. If we embrace the option of change, not only can we accelerate our own personal growth and the growth of those around us, but also introduce new ideas by cross-pollinating fields with unique perspectives.

*Risk assessment and risk management are paramount throughout our lives and careers, and knowing how to assess risk is different in today’s hyper-connected world than it was 2 years ago, let alone 5, 10, or 20 years ago.

* Listen to your gut, follow your passions, and craft a career and a life that will define you. While following passion may sound like a cheesy sound bite, I have yet to encounter a successful person who isn’t passionate about what he or she does. And don’t take “no” for an answer. Even if “on paper” no seems to make sense. Success is not linear or arithmetic; it is curvaceous and exponential; and most important, it is more right than left-brain.

* Disrupt. Then disrupt some more. Positive disruption is where our greatest innovations, ideas, opportunities, and inventions come from. And when we act as a disruptive force, we can find success as we create the opportunities and find the solutions that have eluded us.