A Letter to My Younger Self
Dear you – or should that be me?
I know that at 20-something you have already has to learn so much about business and life. However, I haven’t lived for further 40 years or so for nothing. So, I hope you’ll find time in your hectic schedule to take some advice.
You have already started out in your father’s construction company and are learning about the highs and lows of that business. So, I will begin with a word about money. Although you already recognise it’s not the be all and end all of life, if you don’t get paid, all your good ideas, business acumen and hard work turn to dust.
Construction doesn’t have a brilliant business model. You work on a huge project; but once its built, they don’t need you again. If you are running a company with high wage bills, one client holding up a payment can make the difference between staying in business and going under.
A friend had a glass brick shower wall built, but was slow to pay the bill. The builder showed up at his door with a large hammer and threatened to take his work back – or rather knock it down – if he didn’t get the money. The friend paid up. Soon you will try a similar tactic when a client refuses to pay you for a huge cable-laying project in Boston, digging up a small piece of cable will that shut down the whole system. It will work – which goes to show that sometimes in business you have to get tough.
However, if you don’t get your own way at first please don’t whine. Your grandparents first instilled this in me. Then once, when I was moaning about not being paid for the Boston job in a bar with friends, one of them, a highly successful property man and former Harvard football player, bit my nose to stop me complaining. “Either do something about it, or shut the **** up,” he said. It was a wake-up call.
Yet, all this talk about being tough and bloody noses could be misleading. You don’t have to play the hard guy all the time, because successful business is all about collaborating and sharing. Secrecy, I believe, is a great inhibitor of progress. The more people share and broadcast ideas, the more opportunities there are for cooperation and for those ideas to develop and come to fruition. Don’t just listen to me, get yourself a mentor and learn from the best.
There’s a quote I like which your current president, Ronald Reagan had on his desk in the Oval Office. It goes, “There’s no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
In other words, don’t be afraid to share expertise and to collaborate. Try your ideas out on as many people as possible and be aware that some people truly do just want to help you out, so it’s important to do the same yourself. You won’t have heard the word “crowdsourcing” yet, but when you do, it’s going to be important.
After all, if you surround yourself with people – especially people of all cultures that are stimulating to be with – doing business doesn’t feel like hard work. So, do business with people you like, but not necessarily people who are like you.
And, it’s my guess that, if you like them, they will be the type that is up for a challenge. You may not have met Blair yet, my PA for around 20 years but you soon will. “I learned from you that it’s possible to push people to do things they never dreamed they were capable of,” she once told me. The vast majority of human potential lies untapped most of the time, so I liked to challenge my employees to do something beyond their comfort zone.
If they complained that they didn’t know how on earth they would be able to do it, Blair would gently advise them not to go back in my office and ask me as I would simply give the job to someone else. She was right.
Seek out people who listen and compromise. Believe it or not, you will look back on what you are living through now as the ‘good old days’ when politicians still did this. It seems like governments these days can only set up gladiatorial contests between two sides. The old way of governing had many similarities with business, the new way has none; it has more in common with the pop TV culture of confrontation and competition (you’ll see).
With this in mind, the best people to listen to are the young and the best businesses to invest in are start-ups. Big corporations are never going to be the ones suggesting ways to rethink the model – they have vested interests in slowing the race down as much as possible.
However, take note; as I reach a certain age, I am acting more like I did when I was your age than when I was 45. In the middle of my career I employed 20,000 people. I had a company jet, a yacht and all the other trappings of corporate success.
You might be excited by the thought that you will own a yacht, but actually. It’s a chore. Yes, really. It leaves you less time to be creative and get things done. I have now shed many of these trappings and my risk profile has become more like it was when I was just starting out. This leaves me with much more energy to think creatively and continue taking big gambles.
Talking of which, you will be pleased to know, that even at my age, you won’t stop taking risks. Over the years, I’ve bought or founded 20 companies in 9 countries and I’m not stopping yet.
You’ve got lots to look forward to!