Christopher Gardner first made headlines with his best-selling memoir, The Pursuit of Happyness, the story of his homelessness, which was made into the movie of the same name starring Will Smith. Today, he is the CEO of Gardner Rich & Co., a Chicago-based brokerage firm and the author of Start Where You Are—Life Lessons in Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Recently, business writer Susan Caminiti spoke with Gardner about the challenges of running your own business, the importance of failure, and how entrepreneurs need to sometimes get out of their own way.
SC: What aspect of starting and running a small business is most often overlooked or underappreciated?
CG: When you do something that you truly are passionate about, nothing gets overlooked. And that’s the key. It’s when you decide to do something strictly so you can make money that the problems start setting in. The glass all of sudden always looks half empty. When you start a business, it’s not easy. There are a million things that grab your attention and need to be addressed. That’s why it’s so important to do something that you’re passionate about. It has to be that feeling of, the sun can’t come up soon enough in the morning so I can go out and do my thing. That’s the part some folks overlook.
SC: Is that why it’s so hard for entrepreneurs to delegate, because they’re so passionate about what they do?
CG: No, it’s because we’re control freaks! But seriously, for any business to truly grow and be successful, the owner has to get to the point that I had to reach in my business: there are people who are better than you at certain things. The hard part is finding them and then leaving them alone. I’ll give you a perfect example. I have a bad record in hiring people. But I have a person who’s worked for me for the past 18 years who’s much better at it than I am. She has every license I have and then some. It finally dawned on me that I should let her do the hiring. And you know what? It works. Figure out what you’re good at and what you’re not good at—and then find the people that fill in those gaps. You can’t do everything. That’s just ego talking.
SC: In your book, Start Where You Are, you say there is no plan B for passion. How does someone starting or running a business balance this quest for passion with the practical needs of every day life?
CG: Passion is important but you have to have a plan and be very clear on what it is you want to start or how you want to grow a business you already have. I call it the “C-5 complex” and it revolves around these five words: clear, concise, compelling, committed, consistent. It’s great to have a dream of what you want but without a plan, that’s all it’s every going to be—a dream.
SC: Can you give me an example of how that played out in your life and company?
CG: In early 2008 my company had a $50-million commitment from an investor and I thought all was great. Then in September the financial crisis happened and that $50 million walked away. We had to re-evaluate everything. But that’s the beauty of having a plan, of being clear and committed. We didn’t try to take the company in a completely different direction. We stayed focused and kept moving ahead. And you know what? If I had gotten that $50 million and invested it before the crisis, we’d be so far under water right now it’d be hard to breathe. Sometimes the universe has a way of saying to you—step aside, the timing isn’t right on this.
SC: Failure is difficult in a corporate environment; for entrepreneurs it seems to be magnified and even more personal. How can business owners handle failure better?
CG: If you’re not failing occasionally, you’re not really trying anything. In fact, when you hire someone, the most important question to ask is: Tell me about a time you’ve failed at something. If they can’t give you an answer—or won’t—then you’ve got someone who’s not really going to get in there and be creative and energetic. They’re going to protect themselves. I always tell people, I’d rather be knocked out than tap out. I spent a part of my life homeless. It would have been so easy to give up. I didn’t. Success in life is about how many times you get up, not how many times you fall down.
SC: What’s the best piece of management advice you ever got?
CG: I was with [former Citigroup CEO] Sandy Weill years ago and we were talking about finding and keeping talented people. He said to me, ‘Chris, don’t ever be afraid to hire people smarter than you.’ Then he added, ‘But remember, even though they’re smarter it doesn’t mean you have to pay them more than you.’ I just laughed and thought, they sure don’t teach you that at Harvard!