Think of Robert Redford, and you picture an actor, environmental activist, Oscar-winning director, or, perhaps, heartthrob. You're probably less likely to think of Redford as a serial entrepreneur, even though he's the founder of multiple successful businesses and not-for-profits.

Those include the Sundance Institute, founded in 1981 to help filmmakers develop independent projects, and the related, celebrated film festival, which starts on Thursday in Park City, Utah. 

Over more than three decades, Redford has accomplished the ultimate entrepreneurial goal--changing an entire industry, and our culture. In his case, he did it by providing an incubator and showcase for independent film.

Along the way, Redford, like many entrepreneurs, has tangled with inappropriate investors and learned first-hand the difficulty of convincing doubters to get on board. "Nobody votes for a new idea," says Redford, who notes that convincing those first festival-goers to see the films he was promoting was like "standing in front of a strip joint and saying, 'Come see the girls.'"

I recently spoke with Redford about his motivations for becoming an entrepreneur, his rough education in capitalism, and why he once built a restaurant around a tree. We also spoke about the Sundance catalog, which was started to help fund the other ventures by selling clothing and furniture, and which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. This is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?

I grew up in Los Angeles at the end of the Second World War. It was a beautiful, beautiful city to grow up in. There was grass and air and trees and green spots in between the various communities. It was a lower-class working community. Everything around me was so beautiful and everyone got along. Once the war ended, all hell broke loose and development went rampant. I watched the place I loved disappear under my feet.

Then I spent some time in Yosemite National Park. I began to get really influenced by the power of the environment when it's left alone. I bought two acres of land in a semi-wilderness area, in a canyon at the foot of Utah's highest mountain. I built a cabin there in 1963.

When tax laws changed, that whole area [in Utah] became open for development. I panicked. I started to buy up more and more land to protect. I ended up with 5,000 acres. I had to make the payments for retiring the land. I thought, "How am I going to do this?" I had to have a business, because the business would generate income.

Like a lot of first-time entrepreneurs, you made deals with investors who weren't right for you.

When I started, I didn't have the wherewithal, financially, to do anything myself. My lawyer had people he knew who were interested in investing. They went to Sundance and fell in love with it. What they had in their minds was, "What a place to develop!" I was seeing it as a place to protect.

I was too young. I was only 30. I'd never been in business before.

The investors wanted to put a restaurant near the ski lift. I said that's crazy, it's ugly. I said let's put it a ways away. They said, "But there's a tree over there." I said, "We'll build it around a tree. That'll make it more unique."

That's when they realized they were in business with the wrong guy. They said, "Why don't you buy us out?" I took on the whole ball of wax in 1970. I had to spend the next 10 years paying for it with film work.

Did you realize the risk you were taking on? That the financial part of this could take 10 years?

I just happen to be somebody who believes in risk. Not taking a risk is a risk. That's how I see it. If you're going to take a risk, you have to be prepared it if doesn't work.

You have to have perseverance and a certain gumption and maybe be a little nuts.

How did you get the film festival off the ground? There was a time when it looked like it would fail.

Sundance, the institute, the catalog--they all started with very little and sometimes no support. Nobody votes for a new idea. If you really believe in it, you have to grind it out yourself and get it to a point where other people come along and say, "Hey, maybe you have something here. Maybe this is something we want to be involved in."

Those first years are pretty rough.

Did you ever have doubts that the festival would succeed?

I had nothing but doubts.

At the beginning, I knew I couldn't have the festival at Sundance because we didn't have the facilities. The nearest place was Park City. They had one theater. I would stand outside the theater to get people in. It was like standing in front of a strip joint saying, "Hey, come see the girls."

It looked like it was failing. Nobody knew about it. And those who did said, "You're going to have these films in the middle of Mormon country, films that are pretty risqué, in the middle of the winter?" I said, sure, put it in the middle of the winter in a weird place, make it as weird as possible, and maybe people will come.

Why did you keep doing it?

Maybe it was ego. I was going to push it as long as I could, as far as I could.

Why do you think it was so hard?

I was a nonprofit kind of guy. I had to learn as I went. I had a lot to learn about stepping into the business world and the rules of the game. Money rules the game. That's what I had to learn. I had to learn how to work with it.

How do you work with money? When you have this vision that others don't share?

First, you have scale way back in terms of ambition, so that there's no threat to investors. You want to start so small they don't see it as a huge risk. You put your own money in, your own sweat, and you maybe get a few people to help you build it. You struggle through to a point where it starts to look like something, and then more investors come in.

How did the catalog get started? That doesn't seem to fit in with your other businesses.

By the late 1980s, I was wondering if I was spending too much time keeping Sundance alive, and starting to neglect my career. I'd go out of country do Out of Africa for six months and I'd come back and everything would be a mess.

I thought, maybe I should create some entity that, if any profit comes from it, I can divert that to Sundance. I had someone who was business-oriented who worked for me, and asked him to give me some ideas. There were two ideas: a bottled water company and then the catalog.

The big fashion houses have always bored me. With the catalog, we thought, why not take the same concept--take people who are unknown who are doing interesting independent work, and bring their work forward? We'll go out and find artists who are interesting and different, but it'll be furniture or apparel. That was 25 years ago.

I had a lot of lessons to learn. There was this whole idea of return. Now I was on the other side. You can't just be happy-go-lucky and not think about support financially. I wanted to try things and my advisers said it'll never work, it'll take 10 years.

I read in another interview that you said failure is fun. Fun?

I think it's important to fail. Failure's not fun. I'm not that perverse. I grew up in a world that said failure is the end of the road. It's not. It's a step along the road.

Published on: Dec 17, 2014