Some people are natural-born entrepreneurs. There’s a particular strand of DNA that uniquely equips certain individuals with the ability to spot an opportunity and commit the required amount of time and energy and take the risks involved in capitalizing on the opportunity. Personal motivation often stems from necessity. Such was the case for Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary. When he realized, after completing high school, that he could never make a living doing what he enjoyed most, being a self-employed photographer, he resorted to Plan B, which meant getting a post-secondary education. Despite having dyslexia and not being a particularly exceptional student, O’Leary finished university and earned an MBA giving him the tools he needed to create the life he envisioned.
In Cold Hard Truth written by O’Leary about four years ago, I could relate to the value of his message of being a self-supporting, independent and financially secure entrepreneur. When I was a young girl in elementary school, I was always scheming ways to make money, with me, naturally as the boss. Whether it involved picking and selling dew worms in front of our house for a penny apiece in the summer or setting up “Freshie” stands, I was constantly on the prowl for ideas to improve my financial situation. As the bossy older sister, I’d make my younger brother round up his little friends and charge them each an empty pop bottle for admission to watch me put on song and dance shows on our back porch. Sometimes those shows would net me as much as ten or twelve cents (each pop bottle could be redeemed for two cents) which would buy me a five-cent bag of chips and an ice-cream cone. That’s good business in anyone’s books. Earned money is infinitely more precious and meaningful than a handout.
Over the years, my entrepreneurial ventures varied according to my current fiscal state. In 1967, to help earn money for a trip to Europe, I offered my services to other girls in my residence providing a manicure for fifty cents or sewing a simple A-line shift dress for two dollars. One very sympathetic friend (who is still one of my oldest and dearest friends) was my one and only customer, taking advantage of both offers adding two dollars and fifty cents to the coffers. In the nineties, during the recession while I was self-employed, I ordered five hundred tee shirts imprinted with the message “Taxed to the Max and Rae-ving Mad”. I planned to make a tidy profit selling them for ten dollars each at a Queen’s Park rally protesting the destructive anti-business policies of Bob Rae and his NDP government. That venture was not particularly well thought-out and for years all my friends wore my excess inventory of “Taxed to the Max and Rae-ving Mad” tee shirts.
Kevin O’Leary has also had his share of failures and successes over the years. His little book (just over two hundred pages) is chock full of great business advice for anyone with an urge to start their own business. He stresses the importance of hiring the right people. There was no tolerance for people who didn’t contribute to the bottom line or caused trouble. “I went to school with guys and gals who were brainiacs with the books, but utter zeros when it came to making money and building a business. They had no people skills and no ability to forge valuable relationships, proving that in the real world, interpersonal skills often trump academic achievements.” When I was in the corporate world I also found that top marks didn’t always guarantee business success. A high energy level, the willingness to work long hours, often at the expense of family life and strong interpersonal skills are essential. He stresses the importance of stocking your toolbox with valuable skills and learn to make money from it. Hire others to do what you’re not good at.
His evolution from being a self-involved young jerk with a giant ego to becoming a billionaire business success story includes realizing the importance of failure in the learning process. Despite early missteps, O’Leary credits his frugal, fiscally-savvy mother and wise step-father with being instrumental in guiding him through bad decisions. It’s also worth noting that O’Leary’s career path did not follow a carefully layed-out plan. Circumstances and missteps that at first appeared as setbacks, ultimately led to opportunities. I think this is something young university graduates should pay attention to. Keep your options open and don’t restrict your future to preconceived educational constraints. Lessons learned the hard way, on the job, and the experience of having been there and done that are valuable advice not only for would-be entrepreneurs but any business person. I enjoyed the book; it was honest, easy to read and inspiring.
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