“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.