Hustle, Not Muscle: The Key to Lifelong Success

This blog post was originally published by on ActiveRain.

Has anyone with true hustle ever failed?  Have ever you met or known anyone
who hustled and did not achieve their goals?  Me neither.

I was recently asked to speak on a panel to MBA’s from the University of Utah talking about Seattle, technology and entrepreneurship.  We had a GREAT panel of speakers: Kevin Nakao of MeritShare, WhitePages, RealNetworks; Will O’Brien from Big Fish Games & TrialPay; Edward Yim from ClassifiedAds and Blue Moon Ventures, and Meredith Turner from PitchBook and WhitePages.

Much of the panel was the standard stuff – how did you end up in Seattle, how does Seattle compare to Silicon Valley, and what is the hiring environment like?  Inevitably you get down to the question of: what advice do you have for finding a job or for life in general?

Down the line, every panelist gave the same answer: HUSTLE.

It is very rare to put five people on a panel and they all agree that pure and simple hustle and effort are the keys to success.  Kevin gave an example of how he broke into the music industry by showing up in LA, knocking on doors and working for free, until someone gave him a job.  Will talked about how he managed to open up the “London” office for his former consulting company by cold calling companies in the UK until one of them listened to his pitch.  He landed a $15m engagement from this UK company, which ended up being the largest consulting project for his employer.  Edward talked about raising a search fund out of business school by asking people he did not know for money to go buy a company.   Hustle is at the heart of every example.
When I think about my own career, I would say hustle and fear are a powerful combination.  Throw in serendipity or luck and you have a recipe for success.  As the CTO of my former company Bio Architecture Lab Yasuo Yoshikuni would say, “The more shots on goal you have, the more you score.”   When I was CEO of Bio Architecture Lab, we were commercializing a technology to convert seaweed into low cost biofuels and chemicals.  I started with the company in March of 2008.  Shortly thereafter oil prices peaked at $140 per barrel and then crashed below $60 per barrel, making it that much harder to commercialize new clean technologies at a price competitive with oil.   Simultaneously, Lehman Brothers failed and the financial crisis ensued, taking the entire financial system with it, making it even harder to raise financing for a speculative cleantech venture with unproven technology.

The fear of not raising money and having Bio Architecture Lab fail pushed me to be more aggressive in seeking out financing.  Though it wasn’t pretty, we threw immense amounts of spaghetti against the wall to see what would stick.  We continued to speak with venture capitalists.   Additionally, we sought out commercial partnerships and government grants.  AND we looked internationally when things looked bleak in the US.  In the end, we ended up raising $8m in venture capital from Norway, Chile and the US, we raised $12m in government grants from the US and Chile, AND we raised $15m in a commercial partnerships with Statoil & DuPont.  All in all, we raised $35m in financing (only $8m of which was dilutive from venture capital), in the WORST financial market in history.

Though luck played a big role, hustle was our muse and fear was our motivator.  We spoke with 120 venture capital firms to get three yes’s.  Similarly, we spoke with any oil or chemicals company willing to speak with us and applied for every government grant possible, even in Chile.

In the title of the blog, I talk about “Hustle, Not Muscle.”  Many times, we get very used to resting on our laurels or the success of our last job or education.  Every now and again, each one of us has a moment, generally when interacting with someone younger than us, when crudely we think, “Do you know who I am?”

Just like lifting weights, we can become really good or skilled at a very narrow competency or skill set.  We can become blind to competition or major changes happening in the industry.  That young, inexperienced person who has no idea who you are is going to want it more than you and they are going to OUT-HUSTLE you to the prize.

Yes, you may be a twenty year veteran of the industry, but times are a changing my friends.  There will always be someone who wants it more and is willing to work harder to get it.

At the same time, behind every success is a successful person with HUSTLE.

Work hard.  Throw lots of spaghetti against the wall.  A few strands will stick.  Those few strands can make all the difference in life and a career.

(I was hiking in Lynn Canyon outside of Vancouver and came across this memorial bench to Philippa Ellaway who said, “Running is the greatest metaphor for life: you get out of it, what you put into it.”  So true, so true.  I had to Google Philippa Ellaway when I got home.  She sounds like she was an amazing woman.)

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