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You have to be willing to recognize that you can lose everything. And when you go out to get investment, don't think it's not as dramatic as that. You can lose your family. You can lose your job, you can lose your career: your reputation. That is the risk you take. It shouldn't be called anything more euphemistic.
Ellie Rubin makes my brain sweat. To be in the same room with her and have even a part of that intense energy focused on you can be a challenging experience. It's impossible to hear her evangelize about management and self-management and "entrepreneuring as a verb" (for Christ's sake!) and not feel somewhat moved. Because you have to know that, no matter how much you've reinvented yourself and your life and how much you've shaked, rattled and rolled, Ellie Rubin has done it more and probably better. And that's why she wrote the big, fat book.
Reading that book -- the newly published Bulldog: Sprit of the New Entrepreneur -- is a similarly brain-sweating experience. The book itself is beautiful: Ellie's capable hand has guided the design as well as created the content, but it's that very content which, when closely read, can cause palpitations. Even the most unambitious can be moved to entrepreneurial dreaming in just a few paragraphs. It's kinda scary.
For some reason, a lot of photographers seem to have shot the 37-year-old Rubin from the ground, and so her press material had prepared me for a six-foot-tall entrepreneurial goddess of Amazonian proportions. It was, therefore, a surprise to meet the powerhouse in person. Rubin herself is teeny: likely just scratching above five-feet in height, and delicately built. Her hair cascades over her shoulders in the kind of dark wave that might be more expected in a romance novelist than a entrepreneurial diva. Still, once met, it all fits. It's not difficult to imagine the gamin entrepreneur with her hands on her hips and givin' 'em hell in the boardroom. Something that, if you take the book at face value, has likely happened on more than one occasion.
Rubin has guided her company, The Bulldog Group, Inc., from the relative obscurity of being a design company in Toronto -- a city littered with good design companies -- to one of the most important media management companies on the planet. In 1994, and against the better advice of a lot of her friends and family, Ellie loaded the family car with her belongings and set out for the high tech smoke: Silicon Valley. "And no matter how many people," Rubin says today, "told me I couldn't do it and I shouldn't do it and why am I doing it: it doesn't makes sense and I'm crazy. I already had my dream in my head. I was going there. I knew I was going to do it. And that's a very powerful formula that someone can't take away from you."
It's also the formula that Rubin has packed into her book: not a high tech recipe for success, Rubin maintains, but a modern one. The path -- despite the shock grammarians will evidence -- to entreprenuring as a verb.
Linda Richards: What drove you to write this book?
Ellie Rubin: You have to constantly reinvent yourself. I think people get real stale and they just stay doing what they know. I think you have to constantly take your knowledge and then twist it into a new something. Then it's better for you: it's more interesting. And people get the advantage of learning in a new way. Otherwise it's like: I've done this and I did it again. And I'm good at it. But what's next?
Who's the book for?
It's for anyone who considers themselves ambitious. I really mean that. It falls into four different groups. One is anyone who works for an entrepreneurial organization in any industry or who runs one. Because there's some real information -- especially in the second half of the book -- that's about managing cultures and making people want to be part of your company and about getting investment and all of that. Two, it's for anyone who wants to jump-start their career or evolve from where they are, because the book is so much about entreprenuring as a verb. So it's not about running your company, it's about how do you leverage opportunity no matter where you are.
You're not just talking to people who want to start a business, but also people who want to think about their career in an entrepreneurial way?
Yes. So you're in sales and you always thought about editorial. Everyone says, "you can't do that. You don't have the background." And you send them out on a journey to try and get the skills you need and you take the risk and you start to re-invent yourself. Then the last group -- which is probably a cross-section -- is young people who are just now starting to think about their working life. They're coming to an age that's chaotic, so it's to help them start to think and train like an entrepreneur from the minute they start going into college and afterwards. So that you already are getting the mindset, even if you never own your own company. You learn that business isn't about a set of rules, it's about making up your own. It's about learning all of this as you're going through the process. Not later on. So that you're actually prepared for a pretty chaotic kind of world.
You have a background in theater and English.
Yes. McGill. I talk a lot about this in the book. It doesn't matter what you take: anthropology, engineering, psychology, whatever. As long as you come out of university learning how to speak, how to write, and how to get up on stage. Because in life -- in business -- you're going to have to do that all the time. It's much easier to learn it when you're younger and get comfortable: even if you don't like it. Even if you're not great at it. The more you do it, the better you get at it.
Right after school, did you head for theater or English or...?
I worked for the Toronto Arts Council. I was an assistant to the executive director. It was a great convergence of learning about PR and marketing and lobbying the government and all that kind of stuff on behalf of arts organizations. It was everything at once. I sort of had the background, but not really. I wasn't an arts administrator but I was there a couple of years and I learned so much from that job and really got a sense of sales. That's actually where I discovered the business side of the world and I thought that though I love arts and I will always do arts and it will always be part of my life, I wanted to make my living in the business world.
You're not only real busy with your business stuff, but you're involved with some cool giving back type things as well.
That's the thing I love about entreprenuering. In French it means "between taking". But in my world another way of saying "between taking" is "giving". I think that is what entreprenuring is. You create opportunity. People get jobs. People get to have excitement. That's what I think is the most optimistic thing about this whole thing. It's not about being in technology or being in business, it's about creating great stuff that people get to be part of.
A lot of the book is nothing about business. It's about how to explain the mindset and how to think differently so that people want to be part of what you're talking about. If people aren't engaged and interested, it doesn't matter how great your idea is. They're never going to buy into it.
I really put my heart and soul into this book. I didn't want it to be a boring business book. I wanted visually-oriented people also to pick it up. Because that's the world I came from. I didn't want to intimidate people and I wanted it to be fun.
I noticed that the publicity material -- though not the book itself -- is geared towards women. Is there a reason for that?
It's an interesting question. When we first started looking at the book there was a real push for that. I pushed against it. Because I've never called myself a female entrepreneur: I just don't think of myself like that. I think there's good entrepreneurs and great entrepreneurs. That's not a gender-specific thing. So in the book there's really only one chapter that talks about women. My husband was kind of like a litmus test because he said, "If you make it about female and everything is very women-oriented, I wouldn't read it. And you have great things to tell people that have nothing to do with gender."
I read the story in your book about someone you called Jackson. He was developing a software package. And I realize that there were several messages in that section and there were some composite lessons. But I was thinking while I was reading it that he was doing things in a fairly traditional way. And maybe some more non-traditional thinking might have helped him. Was that part of it?
It was part of it. I use that story because when I went out to look for investments first round, no one told me the questions to ask myself. Even before I'd ever met anyone. And they had a lot less to do with money and a lot more to do with what kind of business did I want to keep around me? What kind of people did I want to associate with? What was the profile of the investor that's going to be complimentary to my management style? All of those questions. What Jackson didn't do is ask himself a lot of those questions. Many entrepreneurs make that mistake because you're in a rush: you don't have time because you're in a panic and you think no one's going to give you money. You get into this kind of seat-of-the-pants feeling. Sometimes you can't help that. But I was trying to illustrate that thinking and talking and dreaming and getting money starts with questions that have nothing to do with money. Make sure you ask them. So that was number one. And number two is, as you're going along the way there are certain tactical recommendations that you need to do that are almost like your signposts and your guides so when trouble arises -- which it always does -- you talk about money and people get weird. It's just a way to help you.
Also I just wanted to let people know that it was really optimistic that in the end, Jackson doesn't think he failed. I think that is an important thing. It's not did you get the money or didn't you get the money. Yes, those are signs of traditional failure. So I love that part of the story. He's gone on and recreated himself and there is no doubt in my mind that one day he will do another business. He'll try again and maybe he'll succeed and maybe he won't but he was very keen that I tell people that his story was all part of the bruises and the scars that you get along the way.
You have to be willing to recognize that you can lose everything. And when you go out to get investment, don't think it's not as dramatic as that. You can lose your family. You can lose your job, you can lose your career: your reputation. That is the risk you take. It shouldn't be called anything more euphemistic. Hiding behind terms like "strategic partners" or "outside capital". That's why I call it money. It's actually money and there's nothing wrong with it, but call it what it is because it comes with a price. Just know that before you get involved.
The worst thing -- and I see this all the time -- some young entrepreneur gets out of college, has a great idea and the first thing they do is try to get investors. If you can beg or borrow from family or friends or the bank or a line of credit or your Visa card or anything and then go about spending it as wisely as possible. Try as much as possible not to get investors until you absolutely need to. So one of the first questions to ask yourself is, what is the business you want to be in? Because if you want to have a very small service business, and you just want to have a real fun time and be creative and have kooky, wacky designers working for you, then you can find a business plan where you don't need outside investors. Because you don't care how fast you grow: so build a business plan based on that.
But if you say that you want to change the world and come up with a product, unless you happen to be incredibly wealthy and can come up with five million dollars, it's a reality that you've got to find an investor. But I still say only do it once you've actually got your prototype. That's how we got into debt: we didn't have something to show someone. We weren't going to be able to find an investor because what were we talking about? Media management? We thought multimedia was hard to explain. Media management was like, no one knew what we were talking about. So again it gets back to ask the right questions. Don't let anyone tell you how to do it. There's a million ways. Decide what kind of business you want to be in. That will dictate how much and who and how you want to structure it.
I love "entrepreneurial rage". You mention that early in the book and it seems like it's meant to be a catchphrase.
No matter how you look at it, this kind of entrepreneurial rage is good for all of us. It's kind of like my idea about being obsessed instead of being passionate. I think people get this idea that you're passionate about entreprenuring. I really love what I'm doing. But, you know what? Tomorrow I could be doing something else and I'm going to love it just as much. So I think entrepreneur is more about being obsessed with what it is they're building. They can switch and be obsessed about something else. That's a skill that is a lot more transportable.
So you're talking about developing obsession?
Yes: cultivate this notion that to be obsessed is a little more removed than passion. It sounds like the opposite, but it's when you're an architect of all the pieces and you're obsessed with making it right. I think that's something that a lot of people have to commit to. Because you can't be obsessed with something unless you're 100 per cent committed to it. That means risk. That can mean falling on your face. And not being afraid of that, because it's all right because then you go and you do it and then you get up and say, 'Well, that was pretty lousy but I learned something.'
People said to me, 'You can't go to Silicon Valley. You're not a technologist. You don't have an engineering degree. You've never been there.' And I just said, 'Watch me.' My husband and I threw all of our clothes in our hatchback and we drove across the country in four days. That was four years ago. We were not a software company. We were nowhere near a software company and I only was able to do that because I had spent years training myself so that challenge and that risk weren't huge. No matter how many people told me I couldn't do it and I shouldn't do it and why am I doing it; it doesn't make sense and I'm crazy: I already had my dream in my head. I was going there. I knew I was going to do it. And that's a very powerful formula that someone can't take away from you. That is so liberating.
That's what I mean by entrepreneurial rage and that is what it means to say, "I entrepreneur". That means I'm in a leverage opportunity. I'm going to do things everyone says I can't. I'm going to train like an athlete. I always say like a triathlete. You can't just train at one thing: you've got to keep up everything or your muscles atrophy. So whether it's intuition, or learning how to live with risk or edging your way over on the risk scale a little more than you're comfortable, if you don't train at it every day then when the big ones come, you miss them.
So what's the most important thing you're trying to share with people?
The number one thing that I'm trying to share is entrepreneuring is a verb and a state of mind and it's accessible to everyone whether they interpret that as starting their own company, or jump-starting their career or doing something with the job they're already in. You have to know how to do that to be able to live in this world: I really believe that. Yes: you can survive. But we're not talking about survival. We're talking about having a good time and making your mark and being an individual. Entrepreneuring is the beginning point of how to get started on that journey. | March 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.