Words From The Wise

Entrepreneurial legends share timeless advice to take you into the next century.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the May 1997 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

These days, we hear a lot of people singing the praises of entrepreneurs. It's said they are the engine of our economy, the backbone of our country. But the daily challenges of running a small business can often be discouraging. We asked eight of America's top entrepreneurs what advice they would give to entrepreneurs to keep them motivated and going strong, today and for the next 20 years.

Wayne Huizenga

Chairman Of Diversified Services Company Republic Industries Inc., Former Chairman Of Entertainment Company Blockbuster Inc., And Co-Founder Of Environmental Services Company Wastemanagement Inc.

I have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time on more than one occasion in my career. However, there have been many times when I didn't see the opportunities around me; others had to persuade me to take a look.

Opportunities are all around us today, just as they were 10, 20 and 50 years ago, and individual success stories can still be written. This is the greatest country there is, and a combination of hard work, skill and determination can be rewarded. All you need to do is be in the right place at the right time--and, once there, if you want to accomplish twice as much as your competition, you must work twice as hard.

Harvey Mackay

Bestselling author and founder and CEO of envelope manufacturing company Mackay Envelope Corp.

Today there are unlimited, unparalleled opportunities. Go to any library, and take a look in The Encyclopedia of Associations. You'll find 20,000 different industries! There is plenty of room for the hungry fighter.

One big lesson: There's no such word as "can't." Early on I learned that if I worked hard and persevered, I would prevail. [You] can prevail regardless of price wars, recessions, employee turnover, and the rest of the problems every entrepreneur goes through.

But my main teaching is this: If I had to name the single characteristic shared by all the truly successful people I have met over a lifetime, I would say it is the ability to create and nurture a network of contacts.

I know when I don't know [something]. But I also know where to go to get good advice. It's amazing how giving people are with their advice. Don't suffer from "call reluctance." Pick up the phone or your pen, and ask for the advice you need. And never say no when you're asked for advice. That philosophy keeps the opportunities flowing for everybody.

Dave Thomas

Founder And Senior Chairman Of Fast-Food Restaurant Chain Wendy's International Inc.

Are all the opportunities gone? No way. There are lots of profits still to be made, but you have to have quality. What we talk about in making a successful restaurant is so simple: clean restaurants, being nice to our people and our customers, and producing a quality product. Do those things, and you'll succeed. The same basic formula works in any business.

I think back to when I decided to become an entrepreneur. Why did I? Because I wanted to make money. I've always wanted to make money because I wanted to buy things. So I became inquisitive about how people get successful, and I discovered it's called work.

When I was growing up--and I've been on my own since I was 15--I knew if I didn't work, I wouldn't have the money to buy food, and I like to eat too well. There are so many opportunities--if you are willing to work!

Rich Melman

Co-founder/CEO of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc., a restaurant company with 50 locations

The big lesson I've learned as an entrepreneur is: Stay paranoid. I never feel I'm good enough; I'm always striving to be better. I don't want to be the biggest, the richest, the most well-known. My goal is just to be as good as I can be, and for me, all the riches have come when I've done that.

The other big lesson: Stay close to the customer. Whenever I get confused, I go back to the restaurants. The answer always seems to be where the customer is.

This isn't work for me--and it shouldn't be for any entrepreneur who really wants success. This is fun. If this got to be work, I'd stop doing it.

Lillian Vernon

Founder And CEO Of Mail Order Company Lillian Vernon Corp.

Perseverance is synonymous with being an entrepreneur. The biggest lesson every entrepreneur has to understand: Always expect the unexpected--and be prepared to deal with whatever surprises come your way. Don't let mistakes discourage you. Learn from them and grow.

My biggest mistake was trying to do it all. This worked when my business was small, but as it grew, I had a difficult time relinquishing responsibility. I finally realized the only healthy way to grow a business is with a qualified, dedicated management team. This is a lesson entrepreneurs have to learn in order to grow.

Jack Canfield

Co-Creator Of The Book Series, Chicken Soup For The Soul (Health Communications Inc.)

Being an entrepreneur is like climbing a mountain. It's a challenge--maybe impossible. But you say to yourself, "I'm doing it anyway." You start climbing, and you hit obstacles. You have to reach inside and also look for outside support. Then, suddenly, you reach the top. You get the money--that's nice. But what's important is knowing that [you did it].

What kept me going through tough times was knowing I had a message for the world that was important. We have sold 14 million Chicken Soups to date, and, yes, I could pack this in, but for me, the journey of life is about mastery. The stuff you acquire can rust and rot. What's important is who you become. That's why I set bigger and bigger goals. What turns me on about being an entrepreneur is the juice you get when you win.

Stephen Covey

Author Of The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People (Simon & Schuster) And Chairman Of The Covey Leadership Center

There are more opportunities [for entrepreneurs] today than ever before. Whole new industries have arisen--look at the Internet. The global marketplace is breeding so many opportunities for entrepreneurs with an instinct for [solving] customers' needs and problems. [These entrepreneurs] can compete against the big boys!

The biggest mistake most entrepreneurs make is that so many of them are strong-willed, strong-minded people, and the problem is they get myopic about their product and nobody gives them feedback because the people around them are overwhelmed by this strong individual. Your very strength can become your weakness and your undoing. I think this is why many entrepreneurial start-ups fail. You need a complementary team around you, people who bring new strengths to the team.

Ken Blanchard

Co-Author Of The One Minute Manager (William Morris & Co.) And Co-Founder Of Blanchard Training & Development Co. Inc.

When my wife, Marjorie [Blanchard Training's CEO], and I were starting out, a successful Australian entrepreneur, Dick Pratt, told me there are four secrets to building a business:

1. Sales have to exceed expenses. A lot of entrepreneurs forget this--they have the fancy office but no customers.

2. Collect on your bills. A lot of businesses go under with a lot of people owing them money. When you do your job, expect to get paid.

3. Take care of your customers. Without them, you're nothing.

4. Take care of your people.

The biggest lesson I've learned as an entrepreneur: Don't let your ego get in the way. It can destroy your business. I've learned to know my own strengths and to stick with what I'm good at. That's a secret every entrepreneur should use.

Contact Sources

Blanchard Training & Development Co. Inc., 125 State Pl., Escondido, CA 92029, (800) 728-6000, (619) 489-5005;

Jack Canfield, c/o The Canfield Group, P.O. Box 30880, Santa Barbara, CA 93130, (800) 237-8336, (805) 563-2935;

Covey Leadership Center, 3507 N. University Ave., Provo, UT 84604, (800) 331-7716, (801) 377-1888;

Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc., 5419 N. Sheridan Rd., Chicago, IL 60640, (773) 878-7340;

Lillian Vernon Corp., 543 Main St., New Rochelle, NY 10801, (800) 285-5555;

Mackay Envelope Corp., 2100 Elm St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414, (612) 331-9311;

Wendy's International Inc., P.O. Box 256, Dublin, OH 43017, (614) 764-3100.

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