How is ‘Rock Bottom to Rock Star’ different from heaps of startup literature out there in the market? First, it is not a typical how-to book on entrepreneurship, it goes well beyond that. Second, Ryan Blair is not your garden variety author. From being a gang member to running a million-dollar business, Ryan Blair has a major turn-around story to tell. A story that is both motivating and awe-inspiring. Add to that his blunt, no-nonsense candor, and you have on your hands a book that leaves with you a lingering sense of inspiration.
The first thing that strikes you about Ryan Blair, right from the first chapter, is the firmness of his convictions. He dropped out of school when he was on the dean’s list, he withheld his company’s IPO when $70 million was up for grabs. I believe not many would have taken the plunge ensconced in a position of sheer comfort.
You won’t find many entrepreneurs who went from zero to one without having faced a major adversity. From collecting p**s-stained cans to tossing newspapers to getting fired for messing up a TV celebrity’s yogurt smoothie, Ryan Blair has had his fair share of rock bottom moments. But he kept on building and growing until there was no room for anything else. Failure, as long as it happens in the direction you wish to go, builds your perspective.
Haters are going to hate no matter what you do. When you are successful, at no one else’s expense, even then, there will be people trying to get under your skin and secretively praying your bubble bursts. Can you help it? No. Blair advises the reader to continue doing the good work in life, and not to go around seeking the approval of every Tom, Dick and Harry. He wants you to take control of your life before someone else does. He warns, “If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, you can’t make excuses, and you sure as hell can’t take them, especially, not from yourself.”
Your time is what you do today. Blair’s success mantra is to live with intentionality, i.e., focus on the activities pivotal to your life goals. He suggests, “Find something you believe in enough that you’ll continue doing it even when success seems more than fifty-two weeks away.” Think it from this perspective: If you wish to become a millionaire, then you must bring yourself to zero in on the meaningful pursuits that are going to take you there. You need to optimize your life and habits in strict accordance with your ultimate goal which is to be a millionaire and cut out the habits that contribute zilch. Blair is apparently gung-ho about optimization of time and talent. He declares in a later chapter, “I refuse to work in a suit-and-tie culture that isn’t designed around optimizing talent.”
In the early days of a startup, an entrepreneur wears different hats to make his venture a success. From creating world-class products to raising funds, an entrepreneur runs the whole gamut. Funding is the much-needed fuel to keep a venture going. Unless you are hermetically sealed from the outside world, says Blair, there is no way you can’t raise money. And, once the business gets off the ground, Blair strongly advises delegation of jobs since few entrepreneurs are stellar at both raising funds and creating blockbuster products. Even Bill Gates and Paul Allen tapped Steve Ballmer – Microsoft’s first business manager – to scale their business part as they focused on the product part. Entrepreneurs who know their shortcomings and still want to raise their game will always get hold of brilliant people to offset their gray areas.
Scaling a business, in addition to funding, is another hot pursuit for every entrepreneur. Growth without the right structure and processes, however, can bring any high-flying startup screeching to a halt. Startups that jump the gun to reach the finishing line often end up in the pile of have-beens. Ryan Blair sums it up neatly: “When you’re hot, it’s too easy to lose perspective.” An argument against growth sounds counterintuitive but if you look around, you will find plenty of examples of companies that failed due to reckless or premature growth. In the Indian e-commerce space, once-the-hot-darlings such as Peppertap, Askme, Dazo, etc. crashed and burned because they failed to slow down their wheels.
I found the second half of the book to be much more intellectually stimulating than the first. Blair turns the spotlight on several issues pivotal to entrepreneurs. He shares his insights on launching products, going public, overcoming existential crisis – personal and professional, and much more. Blair details the psychological conflict he had to overcome when Blythe corporation, a larger public company acquired his network marketing company ViSalus. It could be a big mental hop for any entrepreneur to go from working in a creative, offbeat culture of a startup to working in a buttoned-up publicly traded company. However, given the fact that so many startups haemorrhage money, it’s an alarming scenario for many entrepreneurs.
“The IPO is the biggest thing you can do as an entrepreneur,” claims Blair as he reflects on the time he was about to take his company public. It’s a huge thing. A guy from the streets builds a company, takes it to millions in sales, gets acquired by a public traded company and reaches a milestone where he is ready for the IPO. And, then in a moment of revelation, he cancels it! Stakes were high, the shares of the parent company were at an all time high, IPO money was right there on the table for the taking, yet Ryan Blair took a step back, sized up the situation and decided against going public. Not fearing the showdown with the CEO of the parent company, he foresaw what others failed to. He saw through the bankers’ sweet-talk even as they dangled the $70 million carrot in front of him. He trusted his gut and never lost sight of the bigger picture even in the face of a tempting windfall, two top traits of a top entrepreneur.
Blair saves the best for the last. In the penultimate chapter called ‘Survival Skills’, he is at his best; he lets his storytelling skills outshine his business wisdom. I am not sure when was the last time my eyes welled up while reading a business book, but Ryan’s heart-rending description of the personal trauma he went through when his mother slipped into a comatose state after a terrible accident moved me a great deal. It’s really one of the most emotional things I’ve ever read. Despite all the fame, money and success, Ryan has had his share of personal tragedies. But what sets him apart from normal mortals is the fact that he never let these tragedies throw him off track. His ruminations about life sufferings are, perhaps, spot on: What weakens you, strengthens you.
Engrossing and insightful, ‘Rock Bottom to Rock Star’, is as intellectually stimulating as it is mentally satisfying. It’s a genuine fiesta for the mind. A word about the writing style of the author. I am way too impressed. Not only is Blair a gifted storyteller who interweaves personal stories with business insights, he also knows how to get them across succinctly and without any fluff. Way to go, Ryan Blair!