At 32, Smith was elected to the state senate and then pleaded guilty of lying to the government and sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison. His autobiographical Mr. Smith Goes To Prison, recounts his time in prison and includes great advice for entrepreneurs.
While incarcerated, Smith listened and learned. He also observed the emotional side of prison life and identified five tendencies that many prisoners developed which can help drive personal and business success--or prevent it.
Those that can be beneficial to entrepreneurs include:
1.) Stay on an even keel: Most veteran prisoners trained themselves to become numb. They knew never to get too high or low; nearly every judicial ruling was subject to another appeal, in front of another judge or panel, which likely meant another year before they'd know something.
The same holds true for entrepreneurs. We hold our collective breath as we await the outcome of a major new business pitch. Or, alternatively, we'll party like its 1999 when we've won the largest contract in our nascent firm's history. Worse, though, we'll sink like a leaded weight when a huge customer decides to switch its account to a competitor. Keeping your emotions in check will make you a better leader.
2.) Don't show fear. In prison, correction officers and inmates alike will prey on weakness, fear or pain. That's because both groups are bored and unhappy; so once they see a festering wound, many will arrive gleefully with salt.
My employees are amazingly astute at reading my behavior, especially in the aftermath of such business disasters as the dotcom crash, the 2008 market correction or the departure of an anchor client. So, while I may not be sporting a sh*t-eating grin after these calamities, I model calm in a perfect storm.
3.) Have grit. Smith describes walking into prison at 5'6", 117 lbs. and being flattened on the basketball court. So he hit the outdoor weight pile daily. The 30 lbs. of muscle he gained emboldened him to return to the basketball court where he built critical alliances.
Entrepreneurs know well the importance of grit. After 20 rejections of your pitch for venture capital, it can be difficult to get up off the mat for pitch #21. But like the prisoner steadily increasing his bench press, successful entrepreneurs never allow a few hard knocks to take their eyes off the prize.
4.) Be patient. Prison is like India: You have to wait in line for everything, often for hours. But Smith notes that many veteran prisoners developed a Zen mentality, peacefully sleeping their days away.
While many have called impatience key to successful entrepreneurship, it also requires patience. That prospective investor may not return your first call, or even your second, and you may be tempted to bug him a third time that week. Better to wait a few months until the prototype is complete or a top-tier exec's been hired to follow up again with your new, improved narrative. There's a thin line between persistence and desperation, be patient.
5.) Have ingenuity. Other than boredom, the defining feature of prison life is ingenuity. Most prisoners are destitute and struggle to survive on sub-poverty wages and develop "hustles"in order to afford the basics - deodorant, pencils, stamps, and the occasional snack. Hustles ran the gamut from drawing portraits to running barbershops or tattoo parlors.
Ingenuity is also a key ingredient of entrepreneurship. Almost all start-ups must figure out how to make do with less until they get their first big investment--even though no angel investor wants to see her money frittered away on luxuries. Barren start-up offices tell customers and prospective investors alike that you're running a lean operation--and nothing teaches you to be grateful for Spartan quarters like time in prison.
Conclusion: In addition to his role with Concordance Academy, Smith also serves on the national advisory board for the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. PEP provides a Baylor University certified MBA-level entrepreneurial training program that has cut recidivism by 90 percent in Texas, and paved the way for six ex-cons to become very successful entrepreneurs
Smith's goal is two-fold: help the 650,000 Americans who leave prison every year with a bus ticket and $10 for a hot meal to find gainful employment, and, secondly, to arm entrepreneurially-mined ex-cons with the support needed to fulfill their passion and launch a successful start-up. Here's hoping he achieves both. And soon.