The Billionaire’s Self-Curse: This Mistake Could Limit Your Company

It’s a big day in Helsingbord Sweden – opening day for the Museum of Failure, which features such items as Harley-Davidson perfume, Bic pens for women and Google Glass.

Failure can be very entertaining – when it hits someone else. For company leaders, failure is to be avoided at all costs.

And yet, so many company builders report that their success was achieved after a spectacular failure. You would think this leads to a lifelong lesson to embrace setbacks, but for most it doesn’t. We seem to be hardwired to avoid failure.

I’ve interviewed many self-made billionaires and multimillionaires, company founders who launched and grew great companies like Groupon and Biomet, a multi-billion dollar medical device company, from scratch.

The lessons in resiliency from these founders are inspiring. Unfortunately many highly successful leaders inflict a wound upon themselves. They say “no one could do now what I did before.” This is not bragging or ego. It sounds more like a shell shocked war survivor coming back from the front lines – the magnitude of what they survived hits them only after years. These founders are saying it is now impossible to do what they did before – that even they could not do it all over again. The usual reason cited is competition – things are just too competitive these days, they say.

But this misses the point, which is that they created the future (our present). And they did it so well that no one, not even themselves, could surmount the barriers to entry they created.

The thing they are missing is the ignorance, naivete, and lack of experience they all suffered from at the onset of their careers. They matched their youth with fire, enthusiasm, curiosity, knowledge of their plan, and ability to recruit others to their cause. An unstoppable nature that bested all obstacles.

The key difference between then, and now? Time. And unfortunately, even for successful billionaires, time can wear down even the most resourceful, keen company founders.

The lesson for the rest of us is to take on new markets in new ways. The person who built a $1 billion company yesterday may be bested today by an upstart who doesn’t realize the magnitude of their disruption. The founders of Airbnb famously said while creating the concept for Airbnb, that their mentors told them they were wildly underestimating the size of their market. One advisor told them to “add a zero” to all their projections, meaning they should make them 10x their own ambitious goal.

The skill we all need to cultivate – or if you’re already a billionaire, the skill you may need to reacquire – is the sense of curiosity and discovery. Jim Dolan, founder of Dolan Media, talks about this sense of dispassionate curiosity – spotting the flaw, the problem in the marketplace – that everyone else either ignores or takes as a given. And start from there.

About the Author

Robert Jordan

Robert Jordan is CEO of the Association of Interim Executives. He has been launching and growing companies and helping other entrepreneurs do the same for 20 years. His first company, Online Access, put him on Inc. magazine’s Inc. 500 list of fastest growing companies. Online Access, the first Internet-coverage magazine in the world, ran for 10 years and after its sale Jordan took on interim CEO assignments and authored the book "How They Did It: Billion Dollar Insights from the Heart of America"