As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Gary Schoeniger, founder of the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative (ELI) and co-author of Who Owns the Ice House? Eight Life Lessons from an Unlikely Entrepreneur. He led the development of the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program and has presented about re-defining entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking at numerous keynotes, workshops, and training programs throughout the U.S. and abroad.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?
I became an entrepreneur out of necessity. I wasn’t a great student in high school. I never went to college. I had a number of low-paying, high school diploma-type jobs. I failed at my first small business attempt. I found myself in my mid-20s, dead broke, unemployed, in debt.
I took a borrowed ladder, strapped it on the roof of my car, and offered to clean the leaves out of people’s gutters. That experience taught me to think like an entrepreneur. I didn’t know what the word meant. I just realized the only way I was going to get somewhere in this world was by figuring it out by myself.
The gutter cleaning unfolded into a multimillion-dollar business. It took more than a decade. I don’t want people to think I’m a miraculous person. I just had enough common sense to do what I said I was going to do at the price I said I was going to do it for.
From an intuitive level, I’m now trying to figure out what other people need to serve others, to help them get to the logic that I was operating on — but that I didn’t know that I was operating on. People saw I was reliable. I showed up early, stayed late, cleaned up after myself. They started asking me to solve other problems.
It was that fundamental logic that helped me to help others and led to my next opportunities: homebuilding and real estate development. I didn’t have passion for gutter cleaning. It wasn’t a fad. I now realize that the hope circuit in my brain was open.
School was an unpleasant experience for me, and I didn’t connect with it at all. Through my work experiences, I found that when people would ask me to solve a problem, I loved to find out how to do it. I hated school, but I loved to learn when it allowed me to pursue my interests and help others.
When you have an entrepreneurial mindset, you sidestep all of that. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to school. But just find a way to make yourself more yourself.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
One happened during the last few days in January 1991 in Las Vegas at 7 a.m. I had rolled quarters to save every penny to get to this home builders conference. I put blueprints in my truck just to look like a builder.
In the newspaper that morning, there was a huge metro section human interest story about a guy who lost his job. In the picture, he was sitting on a couch, his job was gone, and it wasn’t coming back, and his unemployment benefits were running out. His wife was working, but they were afraid of losing their home.
I thought to myself, “I can see opportunities to make money everywhere I look. Why can’t he?
Entrepreneurs learn how to think differently. Not because of a genetic predisposition. We learn to think differently because of the self-directed circumstances within which we learn and function. That guy couldn’t see it.
I realized that I could figure out what those logical differences are between the way a traditional employee thinks and the way an entrepreneur thinks. That was the literal a-ha moment. To paraphrase Carl Young, “you don’t have ideas, they have you.
That was the story that set me off in this direction 30 years ago. I was obsessed with the idea. I started reading interviews, biographies, books to understand what was possible, and then I began to interview these entrepreneurs.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or “takeaways” you learned from that?
Expecting it to be easy or an overnight success is a big mistake. Looking for an overnight success is a fool’s errand. Entrepreneurship is not about getting rich quick.
As I look back on all the things I tried to make happen, almost all of them are embarrassing. You’ve got to be willing to do things poorly before you do them well. You’ve got to get into the arena. You can’t figure it out and perfect it first. Be willing to fail.
For example, I got invited to present an idea at the Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education
Conference. What I had realized is that the way entrepreneurship is portrayed in the classroom and what entrepreneurs are actually doing is totally is disconnected. My idea was to present a curriculum on what entrepreneurs are actually doing and then intersperse video clips of them speaking about their experience. The audience could learn from the entrepreneurs without the teacher having to be an expert or an experienced entrepreneur. .
I stood up before 400 educators — by myself, with only a high school diploma. I had to have someone make a PowerPoint for me. I was so frightened that my teeth were sticking to my lips. I was so far out of my domain and area of expertise.
As I spoke, some people were leaning in, they seemed genuinely interested, and some people were like, “Who’s this guy?” I was totally frightened. Finally, I was done with my dog and pony show — and I got hired by Cisco right after the talk. In the next hour, we agreed on a time on when I would present my idea to a team at Cisco. A month after, that I had a contract.
My lesson in all of this is to put yourself out there! Put yourself in situations that are so intimidating that your brain just about rejects the idea. Assess the upsides and the downsides. At that conference, the downside was that people could have told me to leave. The upside was endless possibilities, and look what happened!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
At first, I didn’t have the brains to find mentors I could interact with. But I discovered Tom Peters, who had written some really cool books. I would drive around in my beat-up old pickup truck listening to his audio book “In Search of Excellence” over and over.
He was a consultant to Fortune 100 executives, and his message of delivering excellence and value and doing the best you can inspired me and provided messages of positive reinforcement. He would say people matter, and I believed that. I once heard him speak live and I was fortunate enough to be able to thank him and tell him how I started out.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
There were many, many hardships along the way. There were numerous missteps, failures, economic setbacks, and mistakes like hiring the wrong people. I think in many ways that becomes an advantage. I didn’t have an expectation of linearity or predictability that someone who works in a large organization might have.
Anybody who thinks they’re going to step into this arena and thinks it’s going to go the way they want is in for a bit of a shock or surprise.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
That’s an easy question to answer. You’re talking about resilience. Resilience comes largely from the way we talk to ourselves. I’ll try to answer this from my personal perspective: I pay close attention to the dialogue in my head to constantly remind myself of what I’m trying to accomplish and maintain clarity around that vision. I do whatever I can to stay optimistic.
I try to follow the guidance of the buddha that your own unguarded thoughts can harm you worse than your worst enemy. Once mastered, they can help you more than your mother or your father.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I think what it all comes down to in the end is that we’ve got to figure out how to make ourselves useful to others, to our fellow humans who are flighty and complex and who change. It all comes down to not giving up when things get hard.
Entrepreneurs need to have resilience and persistence, to be attuned to shifting needs. But it’s intelligent persistence. You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over when it’s not working. Pay attention to what’s working and what’s not working.
You learn not to freak out when things are going wrong. For example, we’re still profitable amidst a global pandemic. I can’t take responsibility for all of that. It comes down to not giving up.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What distinguishes us is our focus on the entrepreneurial mindset and its broader application beyond the startup world. The underlying logic can empower people, better enable them to adapt and thrive. We have a deep understanding of the controllable factors — both within the person and the situation — that either encourage or inhibit the development of entrepreneurial attitudes and skills. That’s what distinguishes us. We have really specialized knowledge around that.
The world has changed — everyone must think like an entrepreneur whether they start a business or not. We’ve developed a deep understanding of how to cultivate this in others.
There are lots of people in the entrepreneurship space but not so many in the mindset space. Our focus is on the mindset space. We don’t see the entrepreneurial mindset as a business discipline perspective. We look at it as a behavioral phenomenon.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
We all live by exchanging, and when we’re able to pursue our interests and abilities that contribute to the greater good, we thrive.
Viktor Frankl had it right: People who have purposes in their lives live longer and have less heart disease. Use your interests and abilities to benefit others. That’s where human flourishing occurs. That’s how we become optimally engaged. That’s the magic of what we discovered. By solving problems for others, we empower ourselves. The fulfillment and purpose and motivation comes from the purpose and not from the money.
I wound up taking in a foster child and teaching him to own his own business. I didn’t set out to do that. I just got him a job cleaning up construction sites. He loved it, and he asked, “How can I grow this? How can I grow my business and find customers?”
Most of us assume that entrepreneurs are born with some sort of dispositional traits that cause them to be that way. From this perspective, we miss the opportunity to cultivate entrepreneurship — at home, in our children, our schools, or at work — because we assume they’re just born that way. When it comes down to it at the end of the day, are you engaged in self-directed value creation or other-directed value creation? The answer to that questions can make an enormous difference in your level of motivation and engagement.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
It’s an interesting question. I believe that I became successful by bringing goodness to the world. I figured out how to create something that is useful to others. I’ve never really understood the concept of “giving back.” To me, entrepreneurship is about creating value for others, and by doing so, we empower ourselves. It’s about doing well by doing good. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Entrepreneurship is about creating value for others. My first business failed because I was trying to make money for myself, not thinking about what other people needed. I got it backwards. It was a very painful lesson.
- Find mentors. Experienced entrepreneurs are perhaps the greatest underutilized resource we have. They will greatly increase the likelihood of success. They are in every community and they are willing to help. All we have to do is ask. I could have avoided so many setbacks, but I thought I could figure everything out by myself.
- Everyone can be an entrepreneur. You don’t need money, big ideas or unique personality traits to be innovative and entrepreneurial. I realized if I was going to get somewhere I had to figure it out with what I had available at the time.
- Think differently. Entrepreneurs can learn how to think and act differently. This skill is not a pre-disposition but can be taught.
- Success does not happen overnight. I found out from experience that you need to put yourself into situations that are intimidating and be willing to do things poorly before you do them well. You can’t figure out and perfect it all at once. Be willing to fail.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
I’ve come to realize that people can manage themselves. They don’t need me to tell them what to do. I have an amazing team. My job is to ask good questions and try to stay out of their way.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me.” This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I see entrepreneurship as an opportunity discovery process. It’s a process that enables us to learn by doing, to discover latent opportunities through a process of trial and error. A psychologist might refer to this as error-based learning. Very often it is the errors that lead to our greatest insights. It’s also important to recognize that entrepreneurship is not only an opportunity discovery process, it is also a self-discovery process.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I have already started a movement to empower people around the world with an entrepreneurial mindset, to help them leverage their interests and abilities in ways that contribute to the greater good. To me, entrepreneurship is about agency. It is a way of thinking and acting that exposes opportunities, optimizes engagement, and unleashes human potential. Not everyone wants to start a business, yet we are all innately driven to be engaged in work that matters, to determine our own fate, and to contribute to the greater good. Entrepreneurship is about unleashing human potential.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
At the website elimindset.com.