A lot of successful people will tell you you make your own luck in this life. Bob Parsons will tell you he waited his out.
At the iCONIC: Los Angeles conference, a co-production of INC. and CNBC, on Tuesday afternoon, the GoDaddy founder told the story of his life, a tale in which he triumphed again and again by playing chicken with disaster and refusing to flinch.
It began when Parsons was a ne'er-do-well fifth grader at a Catholic school in his native Baltimore. On the last day of class, he discovered that had failed and wouldn't be moving up to sixth grade. Instead of waiting around for his report card, he fled and spent the summer hiding the news from his parents. "Starting that day, I began the longest summer of my life," he said. "Now, not only was I in trouble for screwing up the year -- I was in trouble for lying about it. "
Or not, because when Parsons reported to school for the first day of the fall semester, having resisted the temptation to confess, he was allowed to remain with his classmates. A nun told him that his behavior had so flummoxed his teacher, she'd given up and passed him. "That was one of the best feelings I've ever had in this life," said Parsons of the unintentional lesson in perseverance. "The only reason it worked out was because I hung in until the bitter end."
A few years later, Parsons was faring not much better in school and elected to enlist in the Marines. Vietnam was raging, and he was quickly assigned to a unit with a high casualty rate. As a rifleman, he routinely drew duties like carrying the 29-pound radio with an eight-foot antenna out on patrol. "That was like wearing a sign that said, 'Please shoot me first,'" he recalled.
After a panic attack, Parsons developed a strategy for keeping it together, telling himself that all he had to do was survive until the following morning's mail call. "I didn't worry about getting hurt. I didn't worry about dying. I just focued on mail call the next morning and figured that when my time would come, it would come," he said.
His time never came. After tripping an explosive booby trap, he was wounded, but not gravely, and was reassigned to a non-combat intelligence unit. "Man, I thought I hit the jackpot," he said. "After that, I'll tell you, things never really bothered me that much."
Back in civilian life, Parsons used his veteran's benefits to get a college education. This time, the schooling took, a change he credits to his Marine Corps training. "They taught me discipline and not in the sense of punishment, but discipline in the sense of if you've got a job, you have to do it. Other people are counting on me to do it," he said.
While working as an accountant, he learned how to write computer programming. Parsons decided to start his own business after flipping through computer magazines and seeing all the big, beautiful ads. His goal was to be one of the companies running the ads.
He started with $15,000 in his bank account and quickly lost it all. A year later, with $25,000 in capital, he tried again, and lost that, too. He tried one more time, and this time staked everything on a big, fancy ad of the type he had admired. It resonated with customers, and Parsons Technology made $287,000 that year. A few years later, he sold the company for $64 million.
Parsons' next move was to start GoDaddy, but it, too, was slow to catch on. By early 2001, he had only a few million left in the bank and was considering shutting it down before he lost that, too. "After you've been kicked in the teeth about 100 times, your gums start to hurt," he said.
Then, on a trip to Hawaii, he saw a valet parking cars at the Four Seasons Hotel and looking "happy as a lark" while he did it. "I decided right then that if I went broke, the worst thing that happened was I'd go park cars," he said. (Actually, he quickly clarified, his dream fallback job would be as a "stick man on a craps table.")
A few months later, the dotcom bubble burst. Overnight, demand for GoDaddy's super-cheap web services shot up, over-leveraged competitors and creditors went out of business and the high cost of buying advertising fell almost to zero. By October 2001, GoDaddy was profitable. "I almost shut that thing down because I was worried about failure," he marveled. Instead, "GoDaddy was born because when I had my lucky moment, I was there to take advantage of it."