Business Lessons from Alternative Sources

The most valuable business lessons can be found in the places you'd least expect.
9 min read

This story appears in the February 2009 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Each year, a new crop of business books dispenses tips on how to take your enterprise to the next level. But business inspiration can be found in more unexpected places, too: in stories of tragedy and triumph on the evening news, a basketball player's drive down the court, a hit TV show or movie, or the success of a hot new band.

We scanned recent events and found a dozen unusual sources of powerful business advice. We're hoping our choices and the lessons they offer entrepreneurs will help you view each day's news with fresh eyes.

Valentino Achak Deng
What you can learn: Even when the obstacles seem insurmountable, keep your goals in mind and persevere.

In Dave Eggers' riveting biographic novel What Is the What, readers follow the travails of Deng, a "lost boy" of Sudan. Deng is separated from his family and dodges enemy soldiers and man-eating lions on his journey to safety. Despite this, Deng never loses hope, keeping to his commitment to speak out about his country's plight and educate his countrymen, eventually building an education center back in his hometown with his What profits.

"I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don't want to listen," Deng says, "to people who seek me out and to those who run."

Tina Fey
What you can learn: Always keep your eye out for a new opportunity, even if you're really busy.

Former Saturday Night Live player Fey had her hands full writing and starring in the savagely funny behind-the-scenes TV comedy 30 Rock, which took home seven Emmys last year, including writing and acting nods for Fey. But when a real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presented itself last fall-to impersonate Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin on SNL-Fey cleared her calendar.

Her uncanny resemblance to the Alaska governor and dead-on impressions of Palin made her sketches hot YouTube viewing, upping Fey's name recognition and leading to multiple return engagements.

To top it off, her efforts to discredit the Republican ticket seem to have worked. Is it possible her Palin parodies persuaded some of those key swing-state voters to switch to Obama? We'll never know for sure, but for Fey, it's got to be a pretty sweet cherry on the already tasty sundae of her comedy career.

What you can learn: Innovation can bring you through tough times.

The internet era has had an undeniably huge impact on business, but it's been a bane to some. One unlucky victim: the music industry. The dilemma is so critical that, in 2007, music industry moguls met in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a conference titled "Who is in control?" to discuss the future of their dying industry.

So what do you do if you're a groundbreaking alt rock band with millions of fans? If you're Radiohead, you offer up a download of your latest album and let fans choose their own price--only to release an $81 deluxe two-CD/vinyl box set to hardcore fans. Some might say the band gave in to the pressures of a rapidly changing music industry, but Radiohead and its string of followers know better. As of October 2008, the aforementioned album had sold 3 million copies.

And as if offering up their album as a freebie wasn't innovative enough, Radiohead also ran a series of remix contests attracting thousands of remixers and even more thousands of voters, followed by a music-video contest on animation site

In 2008, music moguls, including representatives for Radiohead, reconvened in Reykjavik for another conference, this time titled "You are in control."

Dr. Drew
What you can learn: Tackling a controversy can get you a lot of attention.

Loveline radio host and addiction-medicine specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky was already a minor celebrity, but he took his fame to a whole new level when he signed on to host Celebrity Rehab, a VH1 show that exposes the previously confidential world of drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

Some rehab professionals were appalled, but the risk paid off. Pinsky has never been hotter: A reunion show, Dr. Drew's Celebrity Addiction Special aired in November; a spinoff show, Sober Living, is being discussed; and the second season of Rehab debuted in October with a high-profile cast including actor Gary Busey and media personality Tawny Kitaen.

Indian Entrepreneurs
What you can learn: To beat the competition, beef up your training program.

While Americans were busy bemoaning outsourcing, it turns out Indian entrepreneurs have been quietly outflanking us. In a study of Indian business released this year, Duke University executive in residence and Harvard fellow Vivek Wadhwa found American entrepreneurs might want to take some pointers from their Indian counterparts.

First off, we do little training for both new and long-term employees. Also, workers in India who show promise receive mentoring from senior executives, and fast-track training can elevate them to manager status within three years. U.S. companies have little that's comparable.

Says Wadhwa, "Here, if you seek outside training, the bosses think you're doing it to get another job."

LeBron James
What you can learn: No matter how successful you are, keep growing and don't get complacent.

Where most athletes merely hope to score a few endorsement deals, hoop star James had a bigger vision, and he's willing to stretch himself to achieve it. Still in his early 20s, he chucked his manager and created his own company, LRMR Marketing, as a home base for his ambitions.

To build his global brand, he began learning Mandarin two years back to maximize his business opportunities while competing in the Beijing Olympics. So far, his savvy moves have linked him up with brands from Bubblicious to management icon Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway.

Cormac McCarthy
What you can learn: There's a big market out there for unvarnished, gritty realism.

Sometimes people don't want things sugarcoated. They want to face facts and think about the unpleasant side of human nature.

Enter novelist and recluse Cormac McCarthy. Audiences have flocked to his pessimistic view--McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning, post-apocalyptic 2006 novel, The Road, becomes a major motion picture, starring Viggo Mortensen, this year. The new release follows in the footsteps of the Oscar-winning adaptation of his No Country for Old Men, a dark tale of a drug deal gone wrong.

What you can learn: Don't be content with a little success. Instead, use it as a launch pad to the next level.

Once, DJs labored anonymously in the back of darkened dance clubs, unknown outside their small circle of local devotees. No more. Refusing to be pigeonholed as disc-spinners, some DJs have ridden their club cred to bigger and better-paying gigs.

Two examples: Top DJ and trance-scene pioneer Tiësto, who had a sizzling summer, sold out a two-night solo gig at a 25,000-seat arena and created a song for Coca-Cola commemorating the 2008 Olympics. One of the oldest DJs on the scene, Tiësto's still-growing career shows that as long as you've got the creative chops, you can keep building your audience.

Then there's DJ/producer Mark Ronson, whom Vogue dubbed "the DJ king of the New York cool set." In 2007, Ronson put out a hit album of his best funk-soul remixes, Version. He's also branched out, carving another niche as a visionary producer for acts including Christina Aguilera and Amy Winehouse.

What you can learn: A good way to get noticed is by reviving something that used to be hot.

Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser of emerging rock band MGMT have hit the big time by reworking an old sound: '60s electronic-psychedelic pop. They've paired their trippy melodies with a spacey, free-love attitude and throwback music videos such as "Time to Pretend," which features VanWyngarden in a long-tailed hippie headband and Goldwasser riding neon owls with friends.

Introducing an old sound to a new crowd seems to be working. Rolling Stone named them a 2008 Artist to Watch, and they were on the cover of Spin in November. The band's early '08 release, Oracular Spectacular, still ranked on the Billboard charts in November.

Christopher Nolan
What you can learn: If you've been around for a while and become slightly dated, you can recharge your brand.

Box-office smash The Dark Knight provides an epic lesson in how to revive a brand. Director and co-writer Nolan didn't rest on his Batman Begins laurels. Instead, he delved deeper into the gray areas of this ever-popular superhero, a perfect storyline for our anxious times. Then he built a strictly top-rank production and acting team to execute his vision and delivered big on the essential element in all comic-book-genre movies--a riveting villain in the form of the late Heath Ledger's Joker.

Where others have tried and failed to revamp a comic-book brand (think: The Hulk, with two recent flops from solid movie vets), Nolan's thoughtful crafting paid off in $995 million in global box office sales and counting.

Michael Phelps
What you can learn: No matter what's happening around you, you need to stay focused.

When you set out to win an unprecedented eight gold medals in a single Olympics and you only have eight races in which to win them, you can't afford to be distracted. Not by media hoopla or sneering French competitors or even that Serbian swimmer in the 100-meter butterfly who seemed hopelessly far ahead.

The world watched, agog, while Phelps stayed on track, winning race after race, sometimes by only a heartbeat. His record stands as the triumph of a simply amazing level of drive and concentration.

Jon Stewart
What you can learn: You'll be more successful if you can win customers' trust.

Sure, he's just a comedian posing as a journalist. But something funny happened to Stewart over the course of his eight-year stint skewering politics and popular culture on The Daily Show: People started to trust him. According to a 2007 study done by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, they trust him as much as top real-news anchormen Tom Brokaw, Anderson Cooper, Dan Rather and Brian Williams.

Stewart has kept the grain of truth inside each story that turns the jokes into belly laughs. That approach has allowed The Daily Show to grow its audience beyond a few late-night comedy fans to become one of TV's hottest sources of news.

Seattle writer Carol Tice reports on business, finance and social issues for Seattle Magazine, The Seattle Times and other leading publications.
Kim Orr contributed to this article.

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