Originally posted – Feb issue/2012

Cliff Michaels is a writer, speaker, strategist and entrepreneur. For more than 20 years, he has built companies in real estate, technology, publishing and consulting.

He also is the former president and a board member of the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization Los Angeles. As a chapter leader, he launched the first outreach and mentor programs for charities and student entrepreneurs.

In his new book, “The 4 Essentials of Entrepreneurial Thinking,” Michaels shares lessons as an entrepreneur and introduces readers to a series of essays on the common threads that link extraordinary people.

What prompted you to write “The 4 Essentials of Entrepreneurial Thinking” in the first place?

I wanted to not only inspire others, but to raise the bar for personal growth and entrepreneurship, and show that it doesn’t require an advanced degree or higher intelligence or socioeconomic advantages or spending money you don’t have on marketing and advertising. I wanted to show that there was a connectivity of principles that applied to anyone and everyone – from small businesses or Fortune 500 companies.

One of your core beliefs is that the notion of “born entrepreneurs” is false. Why is that?

It’s patently false. It’s as much a myth as the “born genius.” When we talk about the great entrepreneurs, we find that, while some of them came from privilege and economic advantage or had an innate intelligence, we know many had physical challenges, came from poverty, or didn’t have high IQs.

We’re also told that being an entrepreneur requires an extroverted personality, that they’re all great speakers. Completely not true. For example, rapper Jay-Z was a shy kid. What about Helen Keller or Stephen Hawking? They’re all entrepreneurs in their fields.

What we find with entrepreneurs is that they typically have the innate ability of persistence and a work ethic or a curiosity.

With Mozart, for example, we have a father who is a disciplinarian who puts his kid at age 2 on his lap and begins to teach him. We’re told that Mozart is given these gifts from divine spark, but when we analyze it, we find that Mozart’s earliest work sounded extraordinarily familiar to his contemporaries. So, was it born genius or working around the clock under the eye of father who is watching over him 24/7, to the exclusion of everything else? After all, Mozart was a failure financially, socially and so on.

Look at Tiger Woods. Same thing. We have a father who is an ex-Green Beret who taught his son military training at the age of 2 and takes him on the Mike Douglas Show to show off his “natural swing.” But it wasn’t a natural swing. Again, it was around-the-clock, methodical, hyper-focused learning.

It gets back to the nature vs. nurture debate. Let’s move that dialogue to Steve Jobs. He didn’t finish college. He failed over and over again.

And that’s the principle of the entrepreneur – they’re willing to go through failure. They’re willing to accept ridicule. They’re willing to make mistakes and try it again. They obsess about the question of “what if?” So, if anything, that curiosity is a bit of a gift at birth, but one has to combine that with the willingness to fail – because they all do.

We all know people who are shy or understated. We look at these people and wonder where their entrepreneurial spirit is – and perhaps it’s in the fact that they are more empathetic. They listen. They are more aware and in tune with what’s around them. They read people and situations better. Those quiet kids in the corner? Sometimes they’re the brilliant technology kids.

We all have shortcomings. The great entrepreneurs acknowledge them.

In your book, you talk about getting a “real-world MBA.” Tell me about that.

Some things you cannot learn in a classroom. You have to learn them through experience. You have to assume chaos. It’s never perfect. But that real world lesson and action teaches you self-discovery. What are your strengths and weaknesses? Action strategies become critical. Hardcore goal execution – not writing down goals, but how you measure performance, accountability and timelines. It’s different than writing a New Year’s resolution.

How do you define entrepreneurial thinking?

Entrepreneurial thinkers aren’t just business owners. They can be artists, athletes and high-tech CEOs. It’s a curious mindset in principle and practice that says: “What if? Why not? What’s next? What worked? What didn’t?” Entrepreneurs don’t just think differently. They’re willing to be different. They can work through failure and see past ridicule. They understand that life throws curveballs and that people will laugh at them, so they build a system of the “four essentials” – skills, strategies, values and purpose principles – that guide their mission.

The fact is there are many business owners who are not entrepreneurial thinkers. And there are many entrepreneurial thinkers who don’t own a business.

Many people think money, fame and power are the sole definition of success. That’s extremely limited thinking – hardly entrepreneurial at all. The true entrepreneurial mindset combines the “four essentials,” which create a happy, healthy and wealthy human being, a true team or community, and meaningful career or business.

What specific skills do successful entrepreneurs require?

There are certainly more, but I’ll give you a few critical pieces:

Integrity. Talent without truth is a losing formula. Your word and deeds are your bond to better personal and professional relationships. This includes being authentic. My favorite quote by Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself – everyone else is taken.”

Humility. We have to acknowledge what we don’t know, aren’t good at, don’t like or don’t have time for. We also have to admit when we’re wrong, over budget or failing.

Flexibility. Inevitably, we have to adapt to chaos, challenge, failure and change.

Passion and purpose. A love for what you do, how you do it, why you do it and who you it with.

Focus. No entrepreneurial thinker will ever be great without focus and persistence.

Communication and people skills. Emotional and social intelligence are critical to building relationships, reading situations, managing teams, selling, negotiating and so on.

Personally, who have been your mentors?

I don’t believe in a single mentor, because then you take on the bias and baggage of that person’s experience. My business guru might not be good at life balance, health or relationships. And a person who is a health expert or an educator may not know anything about running a business.

I learn from everybody. Whether it’s a book, a piece of poetry, a talk show host, a writer, anyone. I get good ideas anywhere. In my book, there are probably 200 mentors that I recommend. Learn from everyone.

Is now a good time to start up a new business?

I am a buyer and seller of real estate every day for the right deal with the right price at the right terms and conditions.

When I started Cliff Michaels & Associates, the stock market had just crashed in 1988, and the real estate market crashed in 1989. By the time 1990 rolled around I had basically lost everything. Everyone said I was crazy to start a business at the worst time. My question was: if times are bad, isn’t that when people need the most help, direction and assistance?

Don’t miss the opportunity in a crisis, because people are going to need help. There is always great opportunity when things are down because there is, theoretically, less competition. You can even go to your competitors and see how you can work together to help support each other’s businesses.

Do you have a philosophy that guides your decisions?

I have two. My personal philosophy is to learn, laugh, love, live and give with passion, humility and gratitude. And my business mantra is to inspire, give back and raise the bar for education and entrepreneurship. Those two go hand in hand.

When small businesses fail, what are the most common reasons for that failure?

Typically, they fail because they weren’t true to a core value or purpose. They lost their way.

Also, there is often a disconnect between the business plan and the business execution. The owner says, “This is the way I want it done.” But he or she hasn’t necessarily provided tools, training, resources or clear direction. You can have all the passion and a great idea, but it won’t matter if the strategy is not well thought out.

We also can look to Charles Darwin’s famous quote: “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives or the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Small-business owners tend to do the same thing every day, and they don’t realize the marketplace or the competition has past them by or that their strategy isn’t working.

This leads to the Einstein quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

When you combine the lessons from those two quotes, you get a successful entrepreneur.

You do a lot of speaking to business owners across the country, what have you learned from these interactions?

The best lesson is that they focus. They have a clear idea about what they want to do, and they recognize their strengths and weaknesses.

And they listen well. The great networkers and leaders are not what we think they are. They are not the best talkers. They are invariably the best listeners. They introduce people. The person who is talking all day only about his or her product or service is usually not the better leader.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you see small-business owners making these days?

The mistake that people make is not being willing to be humble. To learn from mistakes, we have to have the humility to say, “I don’t know. I’m not good at it.”

This enables you to do what you do best – and delegate, collaborate or eliminate the rest.

What would you most like the laundry owners reading this to take away from this interview?

Know your business well, and know yourself. Be authentic.

What’s the story that you want to get into that local paper so that people want to come to your laundromat, as opposed to the one a mile down the street. What is your differentiator? What is your unique value proposition? It’s not enough to have one. How are people going to know about it?

“The 4 Essentials of Entrepreneurial Thinking” is available at Barnes & Noble locations and on Amazon.com, as well as at Cliff Michaels.com.


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