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Keys to being a successful entrepreneur

In many industries there are just a few keys things that determine success and failure. In retailing, it’s location, location, location. And to be a really successful entrepreneur, the three keys are loser, loser, loser.

And by that I mean, to be really successful, you’ve got to fail, but it’s what you learn from those failures that gets you on the stepping stones to great success. In my case, I started over 20 businesses in my career, half of them were unmitigated disasters. Failures.

But it’s what I’ve learned from those failures that helped me to achieve a little bit of success.

As hopefully you can see from this high school graduation photo, this young man was destined for success. I started my first business in high school, Schultz Spray Service. We’d crawl under your house and spray for termite and bugs or trim trees. We did all sorts of things.

While I was in college, I started another company called Highlight Paint Company, and hired high school and college students to paint houses and other buildings. So during college I would have about 30 other young kids, high school and college kids, that were working with me. And what I learned from that experience is that I never, ever wanted to have a business that employed a bunch of employees.

As you can probably see from this photo, I had a great knack for design. And, also, for copy writing. “Let Schultz Spray them Dead Before They Spread.”

I wrote my thesis on the future of soybeans in Brazil. I raised money from family and friends, went down, learned a new language, cleared some ground, started a farm and a seed business. And seven years later, I came back with my tail between my legs. I learned the key concept that return of capital is much more important than return on capital.

You see, I came back with less money than what I took down to Brazil. And then I started a fax newspaper. The young people in the room may not even know what a fax machine was. But in the early 90s, the fax machine was the iPhone of its day. And if it wasn’t for my wife, who finally convinced me to finish up or we were headed towards bankruptcy, we would have ended up in bankruptcy because I was convinced I was on the cutting edge.

What I learned from this experience is that I neither wanted to be in the media or to be in high-tech. I started Agracel, and we build and lease manufacturing plants around the country. We’ve built about 100 projects in 16 states. I still own about 70 of them. We’ve developed a model that we’ve followed religiously over the last 20 years.

We didn’t have the capital to be able to do all these projects, so we set up LLCs, and found investors who’ve invested with us. We’ve been able to achieve a little bit of success. We’ve been able to return about $100 million to our investors over the last several years.

And when it comes time to raising capital because you return capital to people, you get people who will invest with you again. Last month we were trying to put together a project in a quick period of time, and with one email and two days we were able to raise $4 million in capital for a new project.

Here’s some other losers and what they did:

Henry Ford failed five times before he finally achieve success with the Ford Motor Company.

This is what Thomas Edison had to say about inventing the lightbulb. He was fired from his first job. He was told that he was too stupid to learn.

Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, but came back and achieved great success at Apple.

Walt Disney was fired from his first job at a newspaper. The editor told him that he had no talent or good ideas. So he went out and started a business on his own to do cartoons. And then he failed and failed again until he finally developed Mickey Mouse and had great success.

Oprah was fired from her first job as a television reporter because they said she had absolutely no ability in television.

Jerry Seinfeld froze the first time he got up on stage because he suffers from stage fright.

Steven King wrote the manuscript for Carrie, submitted it to 30 publishers, got 30 rejection letters. He took the manuscript and threw it in the trash. His wife fished it out of the trash, resubmitted it and the rest is history.

And Michael Jordan couldn’t even make his high school basketball team; he got cut as a junior.

So what are the lessons that I’ve learned from these people along the way?

Here’s my advice, there are ten different items:

Don’t be afraid of failure. What’s the worst thing that can happen? And usually, it’s not that bad.

Don’t let school and grades get in the way of your education. Don’t let the pursuit of As get in the way of really getting an education when you head off to college because that’s when you really learn.

Become a lifelong learner. The average high school graduate today is going to have seven different jobs in their lifetime. Four of those jobs will require significant retraining. Many of those jobs don’t exist today. So you’re going to have to continually upgrade what you’re doing.

Always share the bad news first. Good news will take care of itself. When you keep that bad news in you, it just eats you up. So get bad news out to your parents, your investors, your friends, and let the good news take care of itself.

Always ask why, not why not.

If you’ve got a passion, and I know there are several people here who have different passions with farming or the outdoors, follow that passion, you’ll be amazed at what you are able to accomplish.

I carry around a pad of paper that I write down notes to myself throughout the day. I’d probably forget them if I didn’t write them down. On one side of this note card I have a saying from Walt Disney: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

On the other side, I have these words from Winston Churchill that during the depths of the bombings in London during WWII, he had this to say to the British people: “Never give in. Never. Never. Never.”

He also had this to say, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

And the final one is, “Failure is a bruise, not a tattoo.” Just because you fail, it doesn’t mean you’re going to have (a big L) on your forehead for the rest of your life.

Craig also wanted me to talk a little bit about how CEO started. It started because Austin Brooks, who was a student at Effingham High School, wanted to interview me as part of a classroom project. He went back to talk to his teacher, and said “Students ought to get an opportunity to interact with business people like Jack, or other businesses in the community.

And Joe, who was in the process of winning Teacher of the Year for the state of Illinois thought that would be a great idea to try to build a class around. And so he and I would sit and brainstorm on how we could possibly start something like this. We didn’t have any idea of what it would eventually lead to.

We kept getting back to this thought that while this would be a great idea, the school districts didn’t have any funding to possibly fund this project. But we thought the business community would embrace this project. So we put together this one-page solicitation letter, and the key sentence, the first line said “Effingham County has a very unique opportunity to develop an educational program that could positively alter and change the community for the future.”

And on December 3, 4 and 20th of 2007, the two of us went out and called on 50 businesses, asking for $1000 a year for three years to start this program. And of those 50, 46 of the 50 gave us $1000 a year.

Of those, 35 have continually given us $1000 a year. That’s why this program got started: because of the vision of those 46 businesses that said, “Hey, we can do something to change our community for the better.”

And then we found a great teacher in Craig to get the first class started. In 2010 we asked Craig if what he was doing was a scaleable course that we could take out around the country. And Midland State Bank decided to front the money to allow Craig to start to brainstorm and look at how we could take this out.

This fall there will be 38 classes in four states. In December and January of this year we went out and raised $1,467,000 to take the idea of CEO around the country.

And so, hopefully in five years time, we’ll see this country covered with orange, and we will have hundreds of courses like this. The people in this room are going to be looked back upon at some point in time as the pioneers who made this possible to change the trajectory of these towns where we live.

A decade ago I wrote the book “Boomtown USA: the Seven and a Half Keys to Big Success in Small Towns.” Within the very narrow niche of economic development, it became somewhat of a best-seller. It gave me the wonderful opportunity to travel around this great country of ours, and do some 400 talks and tours in 43 states.

These are the seven-and-a-half keys we found in our research that separated great communities from communities that might be right next to them. If I were writing the book today, I would make one key change: I’d take key number five, “Encourage an Entrepreneurial Approach, and I would move it from number five to number two.

The reason I wouldn’t move it up to number one is that if you don’t have that can-do spirit, none of the rest of this matters one little bit. The reason that entrepreneurship is so important, especially in our small towns, is that young people today don’t look at the world or their life like those of us who are baby boomers. In our day you got a great education. Then you got that first job that took you to timbuktu, and you had to pack your bags because that’s where you were moving to. Then you coasted into retirement.

Young people today have seen that paradigm completely turn on its head, especially during the great recession of ‘08 and ‘09. When their parents and grandparents who thought they were doing a great job suddenly had the rug pulled out from under them.

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