Eating Humble Pie: What 5 Entrepreneurs Learned From It

Last Updated Aug 2, 2011 6:31 PM EDT

By Robert Jordan
Ted Turner was reported to do just about anything for a sale, including once getting on his hands and knees and licking the shoe of a potential customer. That got me wondering how the best entrepreneurs recover from humiliating experiences.

I interviewed 45 champion company founders for "How They Did It: Billion Dollar Insights from the Heart of America" and discovered that for many great entrepreneurs, humbling experiences, and even humiliation, can be learning and character-building opportunities. Here are five of my favorite humble-pie stories:

Learn to walk away -- from a $20 million mistake.
Mike Blair, founder of Cyborg Systems, committed to spending $20 million on building object-oriented technology and then saw it all go up in smoke -- it was replaced by Java. If you're going to surf the technology waves, you have to be at the leading edge; his product was on the bleeding edge. Instead of getting everyone on his team back re-engineering a product they spent a fortune on and never really got to market, Blair shut the whole thing down. "I wrote it off and started over," he says. And he never looked back.

Don't be a whiner -- there are people with worse problems.
Early on in his startup career, Dick Costolo, founder of FeedBurner, created Spyonit.com, a wireless alerts company. He sold Spyonit to a public company for $54 million. Not bad -- except the sale closed on September 12, 2000, and they had a one-year lockup on the stock, which expired September 12, 2001. As everyone remembers, the stock markets never opened the day after the 9/11 tragedy. "When the markets finally reopened," says Costolo, "our stock had lost 85 percent of its value. I remember my wife saying, 'You know you can't go around and complain.' She was right, of course." It was no time to whine about financial losses, when so many others had lost their lives and loved ones.

Sometimes people do bad things to you -- life isn't fair.
Joseph Piscopo, founder of Pansophic, learned about unfairness one day in 1985 when he got a call one night from his data center manager saying, "someone just walked through the computer room with a magnet and erased everything on every disk in the place." We're talking about a rather significant electromagnet, not something little. As it happened, an employee who was behind on a development project sought to hide the fact that he had screwed up. He destroyed an entire library of programs. "The best we could do," says Piscopo, "was fire him. We couldn't put him in jail and we couldn't sue him. We couldn't even prevent him from getting a job somewhere else." Life goes on.

It takes time -- and sometimes grey hairs -- to earn respect.
Before Mark Tebbe founded Answers.com, he was a youngster of 23 who started a microcomputer consulting company called Tebbe & Associates. "I learned that what started as Tebbe & Associates quickly because T&A, which is not a good reference for a business." (Google "T&A" if you don't get the reference.) "It made me look like I was 18," Tebbe says. When he met with people to see if there was a desktop microcomputing project he could do for them, all he ever heard about was "what their kids were doing in high school or college, because they assumed I was the same age as their kids." Tebbe's business picked up once he partnered with an older guy of 38. A name change also helped. That partnership became the computer consulting firm Lante Corp., with sales that soared to $76 million.

Wear your scars proudly.
Dane Miller, founder of Biomet, famously implanted a piece of titanium in his arm to prove to investors that it was a superior to stainless steel for implants. But what many people don't know is that he has an ugly scar on his arm -- not from the titanium, but from another experiment he did on himself, a failed one. Says Miller, "The scar is because of the use of a product called Derma Zip, a closure device that we helped develop and intended to commercialize, but it simply didn't work." It's a scar he can shrug off. After all, he took Biomet from a raw startup and grew 30,000% in his first 25 years in business, eventually taking Biomet private for $12.9 billion. In the same period, Warren Buffett grew Berkshire Hathaway a measly 19,600%.

Dane Miller says, "Everyone should face a humiliating experience early on." How has humility shaped him? Visitors to Biomet are sometimes shocked to learn that the bus driver ferrying them from one building to another on Biomet's campus could in fact be Dane Miller himself, taking a turn at the wheel.

Flickr photo courtesy of Edsel L, CC 2.0

Robert Jordan has been launching and growing companies and helping other entrepreneurs do the same for the past 20 years. He is author of "How They Did It: Billion Dollar Insights from the Heart of America" (RedFlash Press). Learn more about the 45 founders and the book at www.HowTheyDidItBook.com.