From School Dropout to CEO: Advice for Creative Entrepreneurs

The path to entrepreneurship success is often a rocky one, yet incredibly fulfilling all the same. Here are three lessons I've learned on my journey.

By Simon Berg

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When people say, "Well, everyone has to start somewhere," they're usually not referring to drop-outs like me. I was a pretty rebellious kid, to be honest, and at age 16, I'd managed to flunk most of my classes — all but art and technology — so, I dropped out. You could say I wasn't exactly setting myself up for success, but what 16-year-old doesn't like a good challenge?

One thing I knew was that I wanted to use my art skills, so I set my sights on becoming a designer and applied to graphic design school. But my low grades and lack of detectable academic skills did me no favors, and my application was rejected. Irritated, I got a job working at a creative production agency as a tea boy (yes, it's exactly what it sounds like). It didn't take me long to realize that if I made the tea badly enough, my colleagues wouldn't request it as often. I'd then have more time to figure out how to make myself actually useful at the company.

But the biggest challenge I faced at the agency was not the tea kettle; it was my family. I was the son of one of the agency's three owners, which meant I had to do twice as much work to gain acceptance from my fellow employees. But it soon became clear that it wasn't working. Two weeks into my tenure, my older brother, who'd been at the agency for a few years, pulled me aside. "Everybody hates you," he said.

That stung. I couldn't believe it. I was hurt, angry and more than a little embarrassed. But that harsh slap of reality motivated me to prove myself over the next 20 years by consistently searching for ways to make myself valuable to the organization. By the time I was named CEO some two decades later, I'd worked in nearly every position. Along the way, I learned lessons that would end up being incredibly useful to me as CEO. And I only could have learned them by slowly moving up the ranks and working in all corners of the business.

Here are three lessons I'd like to pass along to any inspiring entrepreneur:

1. Don't believe what you see in the movies

Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart: New problems, scary unknowns and intriguing (but distracting) opportunities will challenge you every day. And you'll second-guess yourself every step of the way while others rely on you to make decisions. People will rely on you to make the right decisions — and they expect you to do it with a degree of confidence, whether you have any or not!

Movies love to depict entrepreneurs with automatic access to lavish parties, luxury cars and a golden ticket to Silicon Valley. In this case, life doesn't imitate art. Entrepreneurship includes many struggles. And if you're lucky, and your company begins to grow, your struggles grow as well.

In fact, you can compare entrepreneurship to parenting. Some of the most difficult, challenging and stressful moments in life involve raising a child. The bigger the child, the bigger the mess, right? It often feels like an uphill battle trying to keep the house clean. But parenting is also magic. It includes some of the most moving and memorable moments of your life. Parents and entrepreneurs often find themselves in high-pressure situations, managing unique personalities and getting zero credit. But these facts hold true for both:

  • The trials and tribulations are worth it. Always.

  • Failure is inevitable.

  • You can't control everything.

Despite the difficulties, you can achieve success with persistence. As Benjamin Franklin once said, "Energy and persistence conquer all things."

Related: 4 Success Secrets for Creative Entrepreneurs

2. Passion supports persistence

As an entrepreneur, you need passion to succeed. It inspires your business plans and sets you apart from the competition. Your passion attracts the right customers and employees, and perhaps most importantly, gives you the motivation to deliver on your mission.

If you want to give everything to something, you have to do what you love. Otherwise, you'll burn out, get frustrated and be tempted to throw in the towel. To identify your purpose, ask yourself:

  • What was I put on this earth to do?

  • What motivates me to get out of bed every morning instead of languishing under the covers and pondering life?

  • What makes me tick?

Once you identify your purpose, take a step back and examine your career. Ask yourself: Does my career feed my purpose? Stepping into the business world means choosing a venture you believe in and feel passionate about. Find a way to tap into that purpose and drive yourself forward to achieve the best possible outcome.

That somewhere starting point requires a vision and goals to achieve success. Where do you want to see your business in one, five and 10 years? Every day, check the alignment of your goals and your passions with your plan for the future.

My purpose is creativity. It makes me tick, and it drives me forward in my career. In my world, it's essential for me to understand the creative process, how people think and work. By thinking creatively, I find more solutions to problems and even challenge my own assumptions.

Related: Remember, Persistence Pays Off. Stay Motivated With These 5 Tips.

3. Defend, cherish and promote creativity

Creativity is born from adversity and constraint. Growing up, I was very familiar with both. My parents played infidelity tennis through much of my childhood, fighting and tormenting each other while my brother and I could only look on. My constraint was the academic system, which crushed my spirit. It wasn't the right fit for me, and it didn't give me what I needed at that time.

Adversity pushed me towards creativity to ease my anxiety and escape from my parents' tortuous relationship. I channeled my passion for the creative process into drawing, building and creating, which also served as a rebellion against the constraints of the academic system. My creative spirit protected me and helped me thrive, despite the upheavals happening at home.

To an extent, the creative spirit represents a higher power in humans. And while creativity doesn't come naturally to everyone, it lives in us all. Entrepreneurs need to use the creative process to solve problems, escape troubled times and leverage that creativity in good times to develop products and innovate. I launched my company in 2011 with the mission to unlock creativity through liberating technology. That purpose hasn't changed, and it still gets me out of bed in the morning.

The struggles I faced in my career and personal life, along with my passion and creativity, shaped me into the leader and entrepreneur I am today. If you have the next great idea, give yourself permission to explore it, and see where it goes. Use your experiences, your purpose and your creativity, of course, to unlock your potential.

Related: 7 Tips for Emerging Creative Entrepreneurs

Simon Berg

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer

CEO of Ceros

Simon Berg is founder and CEO of Ceros, an interactive SaaS design platform that empowers brands like Red Bull, United, Conde Nast and Universal to create bespoke digital experiential content without coding.

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