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Serial entrepreneur John Chisholm has seen quite a few things, most notably his first startup skydive from significant sales to minimum wage salaries. Both he and the company recovered, leading to a healthy acquisition.

Unleash Your Inner Company not only captures the chaos of startups, but provides a blueprint for how to actually start your own company. As I argue in The Bite-Sized Entrepreneur, Chisholm emphasizes passion as much as persistence. I talked with him about what elements you need - and don't need - to succeed as an entrepreneur.

One of the companies you founded, CustomerSat, survived both the dot-com bust of 2000 and the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. Some people believe we are headed for extremely turbulent times again. What advice you would give to entrepreneurs today?

Only a fraction of Internet companies survived; even fewer went on to successful exits. Why did CustomerSat do so when others did not?  That is a question that prompted me to write Unleash Your Inner Company.  I surely don't believe we were smarter than other company execs. And we certainly didn't have more resources - we had raised only $3 million.

If I had to attribute it to two factors, I would say that, first, we cared more deeply about our business: about every customer, the coolness of our products, and about each other on our team.

And second, we stuck with it longer than others did - as I mentioned, it was another seven years before CustomerSat was acquired.  Many other companies just gave up before then.  In my view, it was this combination of passion and perseverance that got us through.

I'll ask you more about passion and perseverance in just a moment.  What else did you learn?

Always keep some resources in reserve, and manage your business and personal life frugally. Unleash Your Inner Company provides many practical tips for both.

Living frugally gives you the flexibility...In a steep economic downturn such as we had in 2008, as little as a thousand dollars could save your business from bankruptcy. Any number of consumer expenses--eating out, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, clothes, travel, or theatre tickets--could easily tally to over a thousand dollars per year. Look for the easiest savings to make in your daily habits.

In your book, you say that passion and perseverance form a positive feedback loop.  What does that mean?

Passion is an attitude; perseverance is a behavior.  In many aspects of life, our attitudes and behaviors reinforce each other.  If I just stick with an activity long enough until I get good at it and start to like or even love it, that is an example of perseverance driving passion.  Conversely, if I am deeply engaged with an activity, the hours can go by like minutes.  It is easy to perseverance in that case.   That is an example of passion driving perseverance.  So you can see how the two reinforce each other.  If you can think of any area of life where you have experienced positive feedback between passion and perseverance, that is likely to be a very good area to consider starting a company.

Unleash Your Inner Company guides you through a ten-step process to discover, launch, and scale up the ideal business for you.

How can we better embrace our limitations or accept who we are?

Unleash shows you how to deliberately build your self-confidence for the challenges you will face.  For example, if there is some aspect of yourself that you genuinely cannot change, find a way to view it as an asset.  In my mid-thirties, I accepted the fact that I'm gay. Many folks don't see that as an asset. I disagree.

Similarly, if you genuinely cannot change some aspect of yourself-- height, ethnicity, accent, childhood, or that you or one of your parents were incarcerated--find a way to view it as an asset. Set your bar very high. If you would like to change something about yourself that you indeed can change, don't use this as an excuse not to make the change. But if it is genuinely out of your control, finding a way to view it as a strength will be hugely liberating for you, as it has for me, and that aspect of yourself will become one of your strengths.

One of my favorite lines is "Whatever path you chart, this is certain: you will not follow it very far. It cannot be known very far in advance". Why is that?

Unleash shows you how to draw a growth path for your business by selecting and satisfying the series of customer needs, one after another, that is best for you.  I refer the largest customer need that you can envision satisfying in the future as your vision for your business. But even the most advanced forecasting and planning tools and techniques available today cannot show you the future very far in advance.  Customer needs, technologies, and competitors are constantly changing.

Growing your venture is less like driving on interstates with Google Maps than finding your way through a thick, steep, dark, rocky jungle with only a compass and not even knowing the distances. You climb up many rocks and scramble across many ledges before being dead-ended by twenty-foot chasms and thirty-foot drops. The terrain very gradually opens up and becomes more accessible as you progress.

Your vision guides you only in the broadest sense: It doesn't tell you how to get there, or even how far you have to go, but it keeps attracting you. The more tangible you make your vision, the more strongly it attracts you. Drawing the growth path to your vision helps make it more tangible, and it also tells you what to work on next and why.  But plan to update it frequently.

You talk about entrepreneurs not being interchangeable like light bulbs. Do we waste too much time modeling our path after the most famous leaders?

No one else has your unique combination of skills, knowledge, past achievements, relationships, passions, and inner strengths.  So the ideal company for you to start is unique to you and has to be discovered by you.  We can be inspired by the passion, perseverance, courage, and other qualities of famous leaders, but the specific paths they took to reach their positions of leadership are not likely to apply to you.  Not only are you unique--so are the people, opportunities, and competitors surrounding you today.

The book is a blueprint to entrepreneurship. Can anyone be an entrepreneur?

Some say that entrepreneurs are born, not made.  I don't agree.  Anyone who deeply aspires to can start their own business and make it a success.  Not everyone is an entrepreneur because there are many easier, lower-risk alternatives today.  But 20,000 years ago, there were no salaries, health benefits, or paid vacations.  All of us were entrepreneurs back then, whether hunters, gatherers, toolmakers, or craftspeople.  We still possess those instincts, which evolved over many millennia, to create and survive, but today they can be expressed in many ways besides entrepreneurship.

I had a great advantage in starting my first company: I was fired from my previous job.  That pushed me out of the nest. 

Published on: Aug 4, 2016
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