Scott Gerber: Don’t get a real job. Make yourself.

October 21, 2011

“Being an entrepreneur is the best decision a young person can make today. Why put your future into someone else’s hands?”

Ishita Gupta: You ve done some some amazing things in a short time. I'd love some background about you and your businesses. Who is Scott Gerber?

Scott Gerber: My background is pretty simple. I came from a middle-class non-entrepreneurial household. I was brought up to believe that you work hard, get good grades, go to school, then get a job. That s what my mom, a 25+ year veteran of the education system, would tell me on a daily basis. Her life as based on maintaining stability, healthcare, benefits. Work, retire and die. And I always wanted to break off from that path, I just didn't know how.

When I was in college at New York University, I found a passion for producing projects, and I guess I was good enough that folks in the entertainment business saw me as a wunderkind. I was hired to do professional things for major record labels and commercial production houses as only a sophomore.

I got very stupid very quickly.

I thought, Well, even though I have no business education or entrepreneurial understanding, I'mobviously doing this one thing well, so I bet I can do all multimedia production well! Twelve months later I bankrupted the company that produced all these projects during my college years because I was spreading myself thin and people thought I was losing focus. I had thought I could do a million and one different things. And I ll never forget, my mom and I were talking as graduation was drawing near. She said to me, Well, you gave it a shot. Now it's time to get a real job.

I: Moms. I love how they do that. But heeding her advice was out of the question.

S: There was no way I was going to admit defeat and join the cubicle ranks after going this far, learning this much and getting my ass kicked. I took my remaining $700 and created a company called Sizzle It, which produced promotional videos called Sizzle Reels for PR and marketing professionals. We found a niche for this. Today we have clients like Procter & Gamble, Dolby, The Gap and many others. I knew I could do it. I just needed to learn from my failure in order to succeed. I had to make some gut checks.

I: You hit a wall. What are these gut checks that helped you reassess your perspective?

S: The first was a lack of focus. That one s overplayed, but it's true. You can only delegate so much time to an individual task. If you do ten things decently instead of one thing well, you ll be wiped out. You must stabilize before you move on. I didn't.

The second was my own ego. I believe that Generation Y is a spoiled, entitled generation on many levels. When we were young, we were put on a pedestal and told we could do whatever we wanted, then as we got older, we thought our poop didn't stink and that we were on the road to riches just because we were us.

I: But you were really successful at the time.

S: Well, there s success, and then there s fantasizing. Hey, wow, I'mScott Gerber! That kind of nonsense. People get put off by that. It also makes you irrational because you make decisions based on ridiculous long-term goals. Instead of focusing on creating a real production company, I focused on how I could be the next Hollywood auteur.

I: Normally visualizing goals is a good thing, but you had a a loftiness to it that wasn't practical?

S: Exactly. Just like most high school kids today think they're going to be a singer, dancer, or basketball player, I was going to be a millionaire by thirty and be on top of Hollywood. Nobody was there to tell me otherwise.

One more gut check of mine was investing money in unnecessary things like custom-builds for websites that didn't need them. I realized you have to avoid a money pit. You have to create a simple service that organically builds itself through revenue and doesn't need constant reinvestment. Learning that lesson by plunging from tens of thousands of dollars to 700 bucks was heart-wrenching.

Scott Rides Again

I: That was a very fearful time for you.

S: Terrifying. Hindsight being 20/20, of course, I can now say it was the best worst experience of my life. If it weren't for that cataclysmic failure, today I might be stuck in a real job or making even worse decisions. So it served its purpose. I'mglad I did it at an early age when I could bounce back easily.

I: You mentioned that you had no one there to set you straight. Do you think things might ve been different if you d had a role model or an example to inspire you?

S: Well, that s the reason I started the Young Entrepreneur Council, to create a peer-to-peer educational resource that I would have wanted back then. To have someone in the trenches with me, maybe a couple years ahead, to help me navigate the trials and tribulations of entrepreneurship. I think that guidance can be vital.

I: What was the transition like between the nosedive of your first business and starting over?

S: It was hard, but exciting. I wanted to recapture why I started producing in the first place. I wanted to prove people wrong who said You re an idiot for doing this again. It took a lot to get myself to pick my head up and go, but once I did, there was no stopping me.

I: So you had no fear of failure?

S: I did fear losing my last $700 and having to go back home to my parents. But I had already experienced fear and failure to such a degree that there was no way I wouldn't apply what I'd learned from it, or else I'd have to go through that again. So I guess my true fear was that I hadn't actually learned my lesson. it's not like entrepreneurs ever stop failing, but you don't always want to be falling off cliffs.

I: Was there ever a time where you had to catch yourself and be like Okay, Scott. Just try and stay in perspective ?

S: Oh, every day. I would be like, Okay, what would stupid Scott do here ? And I developed a system of checks and balances for certain decisions so I could weigh the pros and cons of different options and then make a decision before I got paralyzed by analysis. I created my new entrepreneurial methodologies based on the failures of old.

Anyone Can Be an Entrepreneur

I: So your abilities weren't innate. You had to learn them, and reign yourself in.

S: I do believe certain instincts make some people more cut out for entrepreneurship than others. However, and I get in trouble a lot for saying this, I also believe that anyone can become an entrepreneur. Maybe not a billion-dollar enterprise, but anyone can run a business. No question.

I: You get in trouble for that?

S: People always say to me, Well, if everyone was an entrepreneur, who would work for them ? That s not the point. I believe that anyone, out of necessity and/or desperation, can choose to swim over sinking. I think you can cover your weaknesses by partnering with other people s strengths. As long as you make morally sound decisions, no one can question you. Everyone has skills they can leverage. I think I have two innate qualities befitting an entrepreneur: hustle, and being a relationship-oriented person. Those are my building blocks. I think by constantly helping others and giving more than you receive, you ll get your name out there and get opportunities you wouldn't otherwise have. The first client I got for Sizzle It was Procter & Gamble because I was helping them deal with another vendor for nothing and when they messed up, I got a shot.

I: You re interested in the development of others. The Y.E.C. and Never Get a Job make that apparent. What do you tell novice entrepreneurs about not having stability and security?

S: Well, consider this perspective. What stability and guarantees do we have now in the traditional job force? 75% of college graduates are jobless. 40% of us have been unemployed or underemployed at some point since 2007. Stability is dead. A diploma doesn’t mean anything anymore. In this country, we push the mantra of being passive. Submit to the system, submit r sum s. You have no control over what happens then. I think it's a better approach to be proactive and spend every hour of your time building something for you. We're at a paradigm shift where globalization, automation and the recession are challenging stability. it's hard to want to give. Everyone s fighting for the disappearing crumbs at the table.

I: There s a scarcity mentality.

S: Exactly. So my opinion is that being an entrepreneur is the best decision a young person can make today. Why put your future into someone else s hands? I think that s destined for failure. Even if you find a job, you might be underemployed, never reaching your full potential. To take over your life, you need to figure out for yourself: Passive or proactive?

I: And you always said proactive. You wanted to consciously choose that.

S: I decided at a young age that nobody would tell me what to do. I get into a video game mindset where I'mconfident that no matter what, I ll figure out the entrepreneurial world, even if I have to try over and over.

Upward Youth Movements

I: What is something that you maybe only believed before, but through grit and experience, you ve proven it to yourself?

S: I used to think you needed a set path in life. Now I hate it when people say, Here s my 10-year plan. Really? How about your 10-day plan? Who can plan for 10 years? Are you kidding me? In this economy, and in life, you have no idea what s going to happen any day of the week. The rules aren’t the same anymore. You don’t have to navigate the barriers to entry and work your way up. Now that older generations want to know us and seek us out, you can get your good ideas some traction and bypass the gatekeepers. I mean, soon I'mgoing to D.C. to meet with some powerful people in the US government who think the Y.E.C. could play a role in fixing our country s problem. I never thought that that would be possible before.

I: What is the government s problem, you think?

S: Well, small businesses are hurting because young people don't have the finances or education to join their ranks. So the government needs to fine-tune their amazing resources to meet this generation s needs and train them to be more entrepreneurial.

I: You sound happy about the Y.E.C. Passionate. Did you ever think you would reach this point?

S: I never thought in a million years that I would be passionate about going into a non-profit. I'mexcited for Monday mornings now. I hate to say it, since I always caution against the mentality of ra-ra, let s go, let s do it! , but I'mhoping to change the world. Picture 100 or 1,000 of the top young self-made people in the United States, sitting in a room, ready to solve any problem. Isn't that valuable?

We're trying to convince people that entrepreneurship is not a renegade s choice, but a viable career path that leads to real opportunity. We can do that by offering resources, mentors, peer-to-peer education. I think we can really put a major dent in youth unemployment and move toward innovation and economic recovery.


Scott Gerber is a self-made man, but not the product of a traditional business school. He is the founder of Sizzle It (http://sizzleit.com) and the author of Never Get a Real Job (http://nevergetarealjob.com). He also started the Young Entrepreneur Council (http://theyec.org), a nonprofit organization which helps young people duck unemployment and underemployment by empowering them to go into business for themselves.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

John Kosturos October 21, 2011 at 11:28 am

Great article Scott. You really nailed it!

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Matt October 21, 2011 at 11:50 am

i agree

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Leslie Mock October 21, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Great points, especially about everyone’s ability to be an entrepreneur. Too often “entrepreneurship” is equated with a single goal of venture funding, millions in revenue, and big buy-outs.

In this new world order many fledgling entrepreneurs are fine with creating something modest that sustains them in a way that they never have to depend on an “employer” again.

My focus is on the “later-start, 40 year old+ entrepreneurs” who did end up putting their fate in someone else’s hands” for many years. These entrepreneurs have different needs focusing on mind-set adjustment, technology skills, but also access to money.

I’m hoping the government doesn’t ignore this group, as entrepreneurship is the only viable option for many. And this isn’t going to lessen, only increase.

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Matt October 21, 2011 at 4:55 pm

beautifully said leslie, and definitely true. whoever’s default image of an entrepreneur as a stereotypical raging reckless capitalist can rest easier knowing that not only is that no longer the most accurate use of the term, but the modern form is more available to them than ever.

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chris November 20, 2011 at 7:42 pm

I agree 100% with you Leslie. As I was reading about Scott, who I am totally impressed with by the way, I was thinking about a Wise Entreprenuer’s Club, for just what you mention in your post, the “later-start, 40 year old+ entrepreneurs” for those who did buy in to the go to college, get a job mentality, but who now realize the only way they are going to change the world, is to get out and make it happen themselves. My hope is young and old will not discount each other, and work together to bring about change.

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Gary Ares October 21, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Scott,

Excellent and candid self portrayal. I’m 60 and happy to see a Gen Y’er get past the entitlement speed-bump you described. I believe the YEC can be an extremely useful resource to provide the guidance and nurturing to an age group who is brilliant, but often entitled, and just need to hear your story (for starters).

The good news is Gen Y is MUCH smarter than my gen-old. However, our experience can be beneficial to at least listen to on occasion and adapt to meet your needs.

Gary
PS: My 4 P’s; Patience, Persistence, Perseverance, and PITA (pain in the ass).

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Matt October 21, 2011 at 4:56 pm

well-said gary. generations don’t generate much without working together.

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Shayna October 21, 2011 at 1:32 pm

THANK YOU!!! As a young entreprenuer, I’ve just closed my first ever physical store after two years being open, to focus solely on the online business and my local following in a more grassroots way. I literally teared up as I read this this morning. Your business and life experience at NYU (I was actually there my freshman year in Steinhart for music biz!!! 2001 before to returning to FL), both financially and emotionally rings universal. I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one who feels that the “privilege” that has gone with being the children of our parents’ generation has, in many ways, become an achilles heel to our generation. The life “formula” our parents learned and so diligently hammered into us doesn’t work anymore. But, that’s all they know to teach us.

I had managed other people’s small businesses before, but never my own. The financial burdens and responsibilities as the sole employee that slowly (and sneakily) push you to spread yourself too thin, leading to burnout and distraction from your original purpose. They not only make it easy to find yourself in a position of having to rethink and restructure your original plan, but also to see where you went wrong, and the fact that the money is gone, as failure. Especially as you repeat to those who say “It’s ok, it didn’t work. Now go get a real job” that the present, and the financial repercussions that have come along with it, is not a failure, but a learning experience and the end of what was only the first phase of the metamorphasis of your project. Donald Trump built up an empire from scratch, then lost it all. But he knew they if he did it once, he could do it again, and do it better. Experience can seem like a really expensive mistake when you’re not rolling in the money, but the reality is, it’s the opposite. It’s priceless, and if you pick yourself back up, rethink your next steps, and continue forward, it becomes the best money you ever didn’t make. :)

Congratulations on your success and thank you so much for sharing your experience with us! I’m excited to see what the future brings for us all and for your young entrepreneur ventures, which are totally on point.

P.S. you must be a Seth Godin fan? http://www.sethgodin.com

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Matt October 21, 2011 at 4:58 pm

isn’t everyone a seth godin fan?

thank you for your massive comment, it may be a fear.less record.

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Michael Mo Weinmann October 21, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Thank you, FEAR.LESS, and thank you, Scott!

What a wealth of encouragement, and wisdom (which only counts when based on own experience)! I am just about to finish my BA studies in industrial design, and made up my mind a long time ago that I would not work for anybody else. But I am nervous to start my company, because from the first day I might not have income, but I will have costs. I also do not know where to look safely for cooperators, especially when it is about my own ideas. I have many, some of them published and awarded, some kept secret because I am lacking the funds for filing copyrights and patents.

But if you can do it, I can do it. And I even could fall flat on my face, and still bounce back. What a message. Thank you.

Michael

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Matt October 22, 2011 at 9:19 am

this is the kind of response we were hoping for. the period of entrepreneurship where there are costs but not a lot of income is very uncertain indeed. one of our contributors, leo babauta, recently put out an ebook called the effortless life that may help you streamline your lifestyle, and less needs = less costs. check it out. http://zenhabits.net/effortless/

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A Garlic Man October 22, 2011 at 1:22 am

I really liked this interview, because I feel it spoke to me directly.

Like many young entrepreneurs out there who do not have huge amounts of capital to start with, we sometimes question ourselves if we have taken the right path. This questioning starts to increase when you see your peers with “real jobs” making more money than you, especially at the start.

But in time, what is becoming more and more true, through experience, is what Scott said: “..being an entrepreneur is the best decision a young person can make today. Why put your future into someone else s hands?”

Thanks Fear.Less!

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Matt October 22, 2011 at 9:21 am

definitely. dealing with this uncertainty requires a lot of patience, faith and autonomy. scott’s pretty good at getting folks pumped up though.

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Gaurav.varma October 22, 2011 at 3:17 am

Great Post, I think even if you want to focus on any thing new, its very imp to not forget lessons learnt from ones past experiences…Learning is always on going and if a person can be a deep observer of his own decisions, actions, thoughts one can know where one can go right and where one can go wrong. What ever one may say, failure is failure, while we should not get to harsh when we fail, its imp to be smart about failing…

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Matt October 22, 2011 at 9:22 am

for sure GV. the best thing you can do with failure is to refer to it while you spring yourself to a place where you can say “that failure was ‘the best thing’ that happened to me”

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Kerry Quinn October 22, 2011 at 6:13 pm

As someone who has worked at traditional jobs and been miserable for the majority of my career, I realized during my FUNemployment that I needed to be an entrepreneur and start my own business but fear was a big obstacle for me. I got a lot of pressure from people (especially my mother who was a teacher like Scott’s) and caved when I got a great job offer. Not surprisingly, I’m back to being miserable again. I’m working on my business plan and this article helped inspire me!

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Matt October 22, 2011 at 6:47 pm

the word funemployment is making me emotional

i wish you the best of luck in your quest. the misery of the wrong job simply must be escaped. thank you.

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