Fran Tarkenton on Winning as a Self-Taught Entrepreneur

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Senior Entrepreneurship Writer at CNBC
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As a pro-football player, Fran Tarkenton took the Minnesota Vikings to the Super Bowl three times. But National Football League players didn’t make the same kind of money in the 1960s that they do today. He made $12,500 in 1961 playing football. He picked up work during off-seasons and learned how to run a business.

At 73, Atlanta-based Tarkenton owns seven companies including a conference-call company Teleconferencing Services LLC, a financial-planning business for seniors Tarkenton Financial LLC and a collection of small-business cloud-based services called Lodestar Technology Labs LLC.

On Friday, Tarkenton will keynote at the final day of the National Small Business Week in Washington, D.C. One sponsor of the event is Office Depot, which Tarkenton partnered with to launch an entrepreneur resource website,

Related: SBA Roadshow for Small Business Week's 50-Year Anniversary

Some of what made Tarkenton a successful entrepreneur is also what made him a Hall of Fame quarterback, he says. “You have to love what you are doing,” he says. “In football, I love playing. I love every aspect of it, so I was willing to go and work long hours and push my body and my mind to extremes to be able to play at the very highest level.”

Also, entrepreneurs, like athletes, have to know that they aren’t experts at everything. To grow, as a football player or a business owner, Tarkenton says, you have to be humble and inquisitive. “When you think … that you have the formula, that you have got the secret, that is when you lose,” he says. “You have got to have that little edge of understanding that you never have it, it is a process.”

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As an entrepreneur, Tarkenton sought out the advice and mentorship of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus. Most of what he learned about running a business he taught himself. Here are his five secrets to successful entrepreneurship.

1. Don’t believe the shortcuts. “There are no silver bullets. There are no get rich schemes,” says Tarkenton, who hosts a radio show for small-business owners on Sirius XM Radio. “The No. 1 thing is that you have got to work hard.” Don’t believe the advertisements for seminars, bargain-priced courses or franchises which promise to make you a “multibillionaire overnight,” he says.

2. You have to be driven by more than money. “So many people get lured by the notion that I just want to be rich,” Tarkenton says. “That’s the wrong mission.” If your bottom line is to help people, you are likely to have a better chance of making money, he says.

Related: What Craft Beer Can Teach You About Business Growth: Best Advice from Jim Koch of Sam Adams

3. Obsess over customers. “You can do all of the formalities of business and none of them mean much unless you have a customer. I wake up every morning even today my first thought is, ‘How do I get one more customer?’ My last thought of the day is ‘How do I get one more customer?’” Tarkenton says. Having people buy your product is the ultimate validation of your business model, he says.

4. Be careful with the cliché that you must “spend money to make money.” Entrepreneurs “sometimes slap money up against the wall thinking that just by spending money, it is going to create a profitable situation and that is the furthest from the truth. You have got to spend money responsibly,” says Tarkenton. Early in his life, Tarkenton raised money for a business, often before figuring out how the business was going to generate revenue. Now, he bootstraps all of his businesses.

5. Be sure you are making mistakes. Otherwise you are playing it too safe. “Every entrepreneur is going to have losses,” says Tarkenton. In the 1980s, Tarkenton had an idea to advertise on airplane ticket jackets. After two years, Tarkenton had to shutter the business. When he loses, on the field or in business, Tarkenton says he reflects on it and dissects what went wrong. “If you are not losing, you are not stretching enough,” he says.

Related: Small Companies, Big Hearts: Leading Social Entrepreneurs

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