I was just reading “Tips on How to Become a Millionaire,” from each of the seven stars of Shark Tank. When you boil it down, you’ll notice four common themes, in descending order of prevalence:
- Start your own business.
- Do what you love and are good at.
- Give it all you’ve got and work your butt off.
- Don’t think about the money.
By and large, they're all solid points, except for one. The most important one. The first one. Wait! What? You’re kidding, right? How can such remarkably successful people be wrong about the one thing they most agree on?
This is how. First, all the Shark Tank stars are cut from the same cloth -- they’re all entrepreneurs. That’s their perspective, and as perspectives go, it’s actually pretty darn narrow.
Second, the show is about startup founders pitching their companies to investors, and its success is based on the entrepreneurship craze du jour. That’s a given and it’s their job to fuel it.
Nevertheless, I do think the sharks believe in the gospel they preach. Entrepreneurship is their thing. But it’s not the only thing. There are lots of ways to achieve financial success, and for many-if-not-most of you, it doesn’t include running out and starting a business.
To be fair, one or two of the seven never mentioned starting a business, so they get a pass. Of those who did, Kevin O’Leary -- a brilliant guy who I generally agree with -- made a strong case with great clarity:
"First of all, you’re not going to become a millionaire working for someone else. That’s a highly unlikely outcome, unless it’s an entrepreneurial situation where you’re getting some equity in the company. If you can afford to take a risk and you’re young enough, either start your own company or be involved with one where you’re racking up equity. There’s no other path to becoming a millionaire.”
While there are threads of truth in what O’Leary says, there are also gaping holes in the argument. The biggest one is that nobody is going to grant you equity until you have the talent and experience to warrant it. The same conditions apply to running a successful business. While I agree that entrepreneurship and equity can bring financial independence, O'Leary sort of skips over how you get there.
It’s called a "career path'' for a reason. It doesn’t happen all at once. Just as any business has various phases -- startup, development, and growth, for example -- so does an individual’s career.
Take mine, for example. O’Leary is right about equity. In my experience, monetary compensation essentially pays the bills but equity is the windfall that launches you into the big leagues. But here’s the thing. It took many years to develop my functional expertise, business acumen, management capability and network before I could land executive positions with significant equity that would pay off. Twelve years, to be exact.
That first IPO was followed by several senior leadership positions at publicly-traded growth companies, an acquisition by an S&P 500 company and, finally, another IPO.
But here’s the thing: I’m convinced that none of that would have happened –--I would not have landed a single one of those lucrative gigs -- if not for those first dozen years of experience. And I believe that’s true of nearly every one of the hundreds of successful executives and business leaders I’ve known.
That second phase would last another dozen years before I quit the corporate world and started my own business, but again, without all that senior executive experience, I’d have no distinct expertise or value proposition to offer my management consulting clients. That’s why the third phase of my career has been successful.
Don’t get hung up on the details of how many years it takes for each phase. That’s different for everyone. As the boilerplate disclaimers always say, your experience may differ, your mileage may vary, yada yada. Just remember, your career is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a long, long road with lots of twists and turns along the way.
Perhaps a better analogy is to think of your career as a rocket ship. If you start out shooting for the stars (financial success) but only have enough fuel (talent and experience) to get a few miles up, you’re just going to fall right back down to Earth. Instead, take your career in stages. First the moon. Then the planets. Then the stars.
If you’re destined to be the next Mark Zuckerberg … or Kevin O’Leary, fine, go straight to the stars. Be my guest. But I bet the vast majority of you will have a better chance of getting there in stages.
For more on what it takes to be successful in today's highly competitive business world, get Steve’s new book, Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur, and check out his blog at stevetobak.com.