Have You Got What It Takes to Be Rich?
Get over the notion that the rich have special powers, and look for what really drives their success. Chances are, you've got it in you too.
(MONEY Magazine) – American business lore is filled with tales of dynamic visionaries taking insane risks in pursuit of a distant dream--and then striking it rich. But get past the Texas wildcatters, railroad barons and Steve Jobs, and the heroes of the American dream begin to look more life-size, like the regular (but wealthy) folks profiled in the preceding story, "Road Trip to Riches." They look more, in fact, like you.
Are the rich smart? Sure. Ambitious? Yep. Blessed with gifts bestowed upon only a chosen few? Nah. "The people who get rich really want success," says Stephen Goldbart, a psychologist in Kentfield, Calif. who works with wealthy clients. "But where does that drive come from? I don't have a single answer."
There's nothing predetermined about getting rich, or so we'll assume until scientists identify the rich gene. Even people who end up wealthy often find themselves at a loss to explain why. "People pay me a whole bunch of money to make speeches," says author and management consultant Patrick Lencioni, who charges $45,000 to stand at a podium and does so about 35 times a year. He has also sold approximately a million copies of his five management books. "This is all foreign to me," he says.
No doubt he, and you, can get used to being rich. But before that, you have to start believing that you can make it big--and clear your cranium of all those myths about what you have to be like to do so. The rich may be different from you and me, to borrow from F. Scott Fitzgerald. But they didn't start out that way.
MYTH NO. 1 You've Got to Have Incredible Charisma
• Everyone believes a modern-day leader has to generate a few sparks. "You can't pull together resources and people if you don't have the capacity for making other people want to contribute," says Paul Reynolds, a management professor at Florida International University in Miami. Perhaps no business leader epitomized that notion more than Herb Kelleher, the chain-smoking, hard-drinking co-founder of no-frills Southwest Airlines, who revolutionized his industry, charmed the unions and inspired his thousands of employees by (among other things) impersonating Elvis and donning an Easter Bunny suit.
REALITY: It's not about charming people; it's about evaluating them. In Southwest's case, witness that the Dallas airline hasn't lost any altitude without the boss, who retired as CEO in 2001. It's on track to log profit growth of at least 15% this year. "Charisma was never the key to Herb Kelleher's success," says Bill Payne, entrepreneur-in-residence at Kansas City's Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which promotes entrepreneurship. "He surrounded himself with an exceptional team."
To do that yourself, you need to assess people's skills in a calculating way. Business leaders "may be social misfits themselves, but they know how to size people up," says Bill Heiden, a Lyme, Conn. financial adviser to business owners. "They have the ability to extract the value from other people."
In fact, management guru Jim Collins argues that charisma can be a liability. The force-of-nature leader appeals to employees who need a hero--so when the chief exits, no one can measure up. Even Reynolds, who thinks charisma does help snare talent, agrees that "to be effective, a person has to have something to offer beyond personality."
MYTH NO. 2 You Must Be Able to See into the Future
• What George H.W. Bush called "the vision thing" does indeed exist. Think about Gordon Moore, the Intel co-founder who predicted in 1965 that chip processing power would double every two years. Or Bill Gates. Or the Amazing Kreskin, who claims only to be a "mentalist" but could probably do more. Get the vision thing wrong, and you're dead. The only thing foretold by minicomputer magnate Ken Olsen's famous 1977 pronouncement, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home," was the decline of his company, Digital Equipment.
REALITY: Plenty of visionaries were and are firmly rooted in the present. Did Henry Ford invent the car? (Hint: No.) Did Sam Walton invent discounting? (See earlier hint.) In each case, they took what existed, saw the potential in figuring out how to make it better, and then slaved away on the details.
Tom Kinnear, executive director of the Zell-Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Michigan, refers to this pattern of action as "telescoping." Successful builders of businesses, whether they're on their own or in a corporate setting, can see the big picture well enough, but they succeed by mastering the little things. "They pay attention to the smallest details, so they can answer any questions," says Kinnear. "They want to be sure they're getting it right."
Amy Domini didn't invent the mutual fund, but 15 years ago she saw an opportunity to mass-market socially responsible funds that appealed to investors who felt they couldn't put money into businesses they found morally objectionable. Today, Domini Social Investments manages nearly $2 billion in assets.
Once she launched the business, Domini says, she quickly developed "an intense interest in minutiae." Sure she fretted over the details of structuring a product for big institutions. That seems sensible. But she also analyzed the thickness of the firm's brochure paper and looked at thousands of samples of exotic fabrics to find a combination that could muffle the sound in her company's New York City headquarters. "To build something, you have to fall in love with it," says Domini, 56. "Otherwise you might as well be a corporate cog."
MYTH NO. 3 You've Got to Stick to Your Guns, No Matter What
• "The concept is interesting and well formed, but in order to earn better than a C, the idea must be feasible," a college professor supposedly wrote in response to a student's term paper outlining the need for a reliable overnight delivery service. But Fred Smith ignored those discouraging words. "I thought this was a revolutionary idea.... I wasn't intimidated," said the fellow who founded FedEx in 1973. Kelleher, of Southwest Airlines, has been known to bray, "If it's conventional, it ain't wisdom, and if it's wisdom, it ain't conventional." After all, has anybody ever done anything innovative by consulting a focus group?
REALITY: Yes, actually. If you're intent on creating value--from either a giant company's command center or your guest bedroom at home--you carefully evaluate and absorb feedback. True, successful people don't change their minds easily, says the Kauffman Foundation's Payne. But they are strategically flexible when they have to be. In 1984, FedEx launched Zap-Mail, a high-speed fax service. But then cheap fax machines started popping up. "At that juncture," Smith once told an interviewer, "we knew we had to change."
When Sergio Zyman was chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola, he learned that sometimes things don't work out as planned. Remember New Coke? Years later, when he was on his own, Zyman raised $12 million to sell business-planning software. But he soon understood that the market was murmuring bad things about the product. "We had to kill it," he says. By the time he told his backers, he had concocted a plan for turning the Zyman Group into a consulting firm. Last year the Atlanta company raked in $65 million in sales. "You need to have enough conviction," says Zyman, "to know that you can find the right answer, even if you don't know it right away."
MYTH NO. 4 You Need to Take Big Risks
• When Viacom chief Sumner Redstone was trying to console investors after what looked like a career-crushing acquisition--the pickup of Blockbuster in 1994--he insisted, "Success isn't built on success; success is built on failure." He held on, and his big risk paid off. And Ray Kroc was down to his last two good customers as a milkshake-mixer salesman; once he saw the operations of those customers, who happened to be two brothers named McDonald, his career turned golden.
REALITY: The world offers plenty of options for those looking to live recklessly: Join a hedge fund, take up heli-skiing, make plans with somebody you've just met in a sudoku chat room. But if you're out to make a big score, you'll want to control risk any way you can. "If you know your skills, you can manage the parameters of the risk," says Kinnear.
"Invest in what you know" served as the mantra of former Fidelity fund manager Peter Lynch. And Warren Buffett has become the world's greatest investor by buying companies whose businesses he says he can understand. They have avoided the wealth-draining trap, says Reynolds, of thinking that their expertise in one area is easily transferable to another. Remember Trump Airlines? Probably not. "Successful people can forget how much they knew about a niche before they got rich in it," Reynolds notes. Redstone and Kroc, in fact, knew what they were getting into.
Now 28, Geoff Cook was 19 when he started EssayEdge, an online service that helped students with their college applications. "Editing seemed like a natural thing for me to do," he says. "I'm a good writer." The cost of starting up: a whopping $600 to cover computer servers and bank fees. Five years later he sold the business (which had grown to include ResumeEdge) to Thomson Corp. for a figure of around $10 million. In early 2005 he left his well-paid post at Thomson to follow his $250,000 investment in MyYearbook, a social-networking start-up targeted toward high schoolers. His brother and sister, both teenagers, had come up with the idea. Cook studied MySpace and Facebook, concluding that there was room for a niche player aimed squarely at teens. Having raised $1.1 million earlier this year, he's hoping to add another $6 million in funding before 2006 is out. "We've got what we need to compete, which is ideas for cool features," says Cook, who is based in New Hope, Pa. "This is either a $100 million idea or it's worthless. Either way, I know this isn't the only shot I'll have. It's just the shot I'm taking now."
MYTH NO. 5 You Need a Burning Desire to Get Rich
• "How much money is enough?" a reporter once asked John D. Rockefeller at a time when the oil tycoon was the richest man on earth. His quick reply? "Just a little bit more." To be sure, there are plenty of rich people whose sole motivation throughout their working lives was to be rich. And everyone who works hard in business wants to make money. "Certainly people who get rich want to be financially rewarded and expect to be," says psychologist Goldbart, who co-directs the Money, Meaning and Choices Institute.
REALITY: But, Goldbart adds, there's more to it than that. "Money isn't the only value they see in what they are doing," he says. "These are people who love to build." Adds Bill Dueease, co-founder of a life-coaching service in Fort Myers, Fla: "Rich people didn't get there by chasing money. They got there by chasing their passion."
So when Vu "Bill" Nguyen talks about how much he loves making it, he's not referring to all those greenbacks he's got. "I always want to make a wonderful product that people love," says the 35-year-old Nguyen, who has been part of seven tech-oriented start-ups, three of which he founded. He launched his latest venture, La La Media, last year. The Palo Alto company operates a website where users can swap music CDs for $1. His heftiest payday to date came in 2000, when a company he'd co-founded called Onebox, a service for consolidating voice and electronic messages, was acquired for roughly $850 million. Nguyen earned more than $10 million on that deal.
He's used that windfall to underwrite a collection of 10 cars; he's also splurged on hiring brand-name bands, such as Fountains of Wayne, for his private functions. The rest? It goes into "bland muni bonds," he says. "I don't want any heartache from it." Leaving his investments in bonds lets him concentrate on his next endeavor. "I am maniacal about the product. I almost completely don't think about the other stuff."
That includes other people, he admits, and that character flaw has gotten him fired in the past. But he takes solace in the following: "I'm the living example of what your high school guidance counselor told you. Figure out what you love, and do that. It's an approach that has made me ridiculously lucky." And rich too.
Can You Handle Being Rich?
Once you've made it, how will you adjust to residing on Easy Street? Not easily, warns Thayer Willis. "People can get really obnoxious," says Willis, a wealth counselor and an heiress whose father co-founded Georgia-Pacific. Here's her prescription for a rich life.
1 Stay humble.
You made it. They didn't. You must be better than them, right? Feel that way and you'll end up alone with your riches. The best way to avoid arrogance is to have a strong value system--often it's grounded in religious or spiritual practice.
2 Develop a new competence.
Tempted to just bake on the beach and do nothing forever? You'll be miserable. "People who make it to the top love success," says Willis. Master a new skill, such as painting or a sport, or find a new vocation.
It's easy to start thinking that your value to others is solely as an ATM with limbs. The antidote? Connect with the world outside your lovely realm. "Serve others," says Willis. "That can be a great source of self-esteem."