Tiffin University Commencement Address
Christopher P. Michel
May 5, 2012
President Marion; Chairman Heminger, Trustees; faculty; staff; graduates and guests…I am absolutely thrilled to be here today – at this great university in this fabulous new building! It’s a moment I won’t ever forget.
But, to be honest, my fate in your minds is much more at risk. Frankly, I can’t remember any of my graduation speakers. I’m sure they were remarkable people but nothing at all remains from their speeches – except that they seemed to go on forever.
But I bet we’d both like a different outcome today. So, i’m going to try and use my remaining hour – Ix mean 14 minutes – to do more than just congratulate you – i’m going to share something that changed my life and has the potential to do the same for you – but I need your help to make it happen.
I’m sure you’ve heard this idea before but perhaps not fully believed or internalized it. It’s deceptively simple…yet so elusive…
In fact, it took me 40 years, 3 careers, two degrees, starting 3 companies, and years of reflection to even realize that * it * was the secret to great achievement…
Not only for me but for every successful person I know.
Simply put: ……….confidence is everything.
Well, let me amend that slightly, confidence and ethics are everything. Not your resume, not who you know, not where you live, not even your IQ.
Sure, those things are important but much more important is having the confidence to passionately pursue our highest calling. I know that may sound like so much commencement rhetoric but it’s also fundamentally true…and approached properly, more straightforward than you might have ever imagined.
Probably no one articulated this idea better than Henry David Thoreau. He encouraged each of us to “go confidently in the direction of our dreams – and to live the life we have imagined.”
Essentially, he’s hoping that each of us dream big, have high expectations and not let fear get in the way.
But, more often than not, it does — fear is the silent enemy of the extraordinary.
We live in a world where people, especially the most brilliant among us, go to remarkable lengths not to fail. We’re taught to mitigate disappointment by playing by the rules, lowering our expectations & fitting in. And the true cost of that “highly reasonable” approach is nothing short of breathtaking.
Today, we’re going to talk about confidence ….and along the way we’re going to touch on risk, failure, ethics and success – all packaged in 5 easy simple rules.
And in just a few minutes, I’m confident you’ll come to the following conclusion: ‘If Chris Michel can figure this out, so can I”
That’s because I’m one of the last people you’d ever expect to be an entrepreneur.
So, if you’ll indulge me in the obligatory flashback required by all commencement speakers, we’ll travel back to San Francisco in the fall of 2001 where you’ll find me swimming laps in my local pool.
Why, you ask, was a deeply-in-debt, harvard mba spending 4 hours a day, every day, swimming laps? Well, to put it frankly, I had just been fired from my job.
I was the 31 year-old founder of military.com, a social network for the military community– think Facebook meets the Chicago Tribune for those who served.
Barely 6 months after creating the company, the dot com bubble burst – and I was stuck inside a company losing a million dollars a month. Not good.
When the market fell apart, so did my company. Then things went from bad to worse. One of my board members called and asked me to resign so he could bring in “professional management”. Within a few weeks, the new CEO showed up and basically asked me to stop coming to work. That hurt.
Military.com was not just a job for me – it was my life. For the next few months, I literally drowned my sorrows in the pool…swimming countless laps every afternoon….thinking about how I had ended up there
…fired, embarrassed, and broke.
But often through the solitude of failure and reflection, there can be a kind of deeper understanding. In a sense, I began to realize how incredibly fortunate I was to even be an entrepreneur, albeit unsuccessful and unproven.
You see, when I was a student at the University of Illinois, I wasn’t at all interested in business. At the time, I thought flying for the nNvy would be the greatest job in the world…so I signed up and spent 4 years flying P-3 Orion aircraft as a navigator & mission commander – hunting soviet submarines and fighting drug runners – the furthest thing from business imaginable.
Near the end of my enlistment in the navy, I ran into a Navy shipmate who had just graduated from Harvard Business School. He said in no uncertain terms, “you should go there – don’t worry, they like navy guys in the admissions office.” So, I applied…. And as a clear sign that he was right about diversity recruitment, the school let me in. So I resigned my commission and headed to Boston as a 29 year old Navy vet from New Lenox, Illinois.
And from the moment I showed up, I knew I was in serious trouble. The vast majority of my class were ivy-league graduates who had worked on wall street….they had lived and breathed business…and were on campus playing to win. If that wasn’t bad enough, the school had a forced bell grading curve. My classmates seemed so much smarter and more sophisticated than me – and they probably were!
Suffice it to say, I had a very limited social life as I studied as hard as I could just to keep my head above water. I scraped by my first year and started my second year with plans to join a consulting firm when what began as an average day turned out to be not so average –
We had a guest speaker in one of my classes who literally rewired my brain. I remember it vividly.
Standing before us that day was a bearded, shaggy-haired guy whose first words were, “I’m an entrepreneur” Dan Bricklin had been a student in the late 1970s at the business school. During first year accounting, he had an epiphany…imagining a better way to manipulate numbers using digital rows & columns on a PC.
Dan literally created the spreadsheet, the predecessor of today’s excel. Dan’s product, Visicalc, was one of the most important software applications in the history of personal computing – it was one if the main reasons people bought pcs in the early 80s.
Unfortunately for Dan and Visicalc, Lotus created a superior product and put Dan out of business – something Bill Gates & Excel would do to Lotus 1, 2, 3 years later.
So, was Dan bitter about the failure of Visicalc?? – not that I could tell. In fact, the theme of his talk before class was about taking chances in life. And, in the fullness of time, that creating something that wouldn’t exist without your vision feeds the soul. He might not be the richest person in the world – but he changed the world –and forever. For him, it had been about meaning not money. He had found success even in failure.
I was converted, hook, line & sinker. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur – and badly.
One year later, I had quit my consulting job and started Military.com. Just a few years before, I had been in the navy and hadn’t even considered taking a private sector job…and now here I was…the CEO of a venture backed startup in San Francisco.
Military.com had grown to this side of a hundred people and raised almost 30 million dollars. For an all-too brief period, we were dot-com darlings. I had no idea what I was doing but my experience at school had given me the confidence to go out there and try.
I was flying high for the first six months but then it all fell apart – in 2000, Wall Street decided there was more puff than pastry in the Internet sector. The Internet bubble burst in dramatic fashion, and we weren’t able to raise more capital. I was forced cut costs. We went from nearly a hundred people down to 25.
Morale was an all-time low and it became increasingly clear that I needed to get the company sold or it would disappear like so many of its dot-com brethren. But, as you’ve already surmised, I wasn’t successful and our investors had had enough.
Hence, i’m back at the pool.
Not surprisingly, the professional CEO the board hired didn’t succeed either– look, it wasn’t completely his fault, these were difficult times. The company spiraled further and further into the abyss….It was so very hard to watch the thing I cared about most disappear.
After good advice from a friend, I proposed to the board that I return as CEO and either shutter the company or sell it to someone who would at least allow the service to continue.
Probably because they had given up all hope, the board agreed. To make a long story short, we were able to cut the staff to 10 people and generate enough advertising revenue to cover our costs. A year later, we had turned the company around…eventually selling to Monster.
I wish I could take credit for the turnaround – but all the credit goes to my team…they simply refused to give up. A few years later, I left monster to start another business, Affinity Labs. This time around, we made far fewer mistakes and were rewarded with a quick acquisition.
I left Affinity and returned to Harvard as their Entrepreneur in Residence – trying to help students the way Dan helped me. And that’s why I’m here today – to help channel a bit of Dan’s wisdom. I’m here to share 5 simple ideas that I sincerely believe have the potential to change your lives the way they did mine.
1. First and foremost, we’re all entrepreneurs of our own lives. My friend, Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, deserves the credit for this important idea.
Whether you are starting your own business or working in an existing organization or leading your own family, you have the choice to either play by someone else’s playbook or objectively consider your own path.
We grow up being taught countless rules – if you follow them, you’re rewarded…if not, punished. Our brains have been programmed to keep us on the straight and narrow. But not all rules deserve to be followed blindly. There is almost always a better way to do something. And those that find it are disproportionally rewarded.
Great leaders challenge themselves and others – and are driven by a passion for excellence. Most entrepreneurs once worked for someone until they found the confidence to go out on their own.
George Bernard Shaw said “reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.” As Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, & Mark Zuckerberg have proven – unreasonable confidence coupled with passionate insight is a billion dollar trait.
Point 2. Confidence is a choice – life rewards those who believe in themselves and have high expectations. A few years back, I was at an event with a well-known entrepreneur in Silicon Valley – he held degrees from Illinois and Stanford. He said something really profound — that there was little difference in the quality of education he received at both schools but there was a world of difference in what expectations the graduates had for themselves.
U of I grads wanted great jobs at big corporations in Chicago while many Stanford grads wanted to start the next Google – you can guess which approach worked better. Funny enough, now Illinois grads are coming to silicon valley in droves to start companies, too. There is no difference between them and you…if you want it, it’s yours….
You’ve got a great degree from a great school so set your sights high and reject mediocrity in every form.
Great companies, great wealth, and great experiences are being created by people who live by this rule. The world rallies around people who believe in themselves and their ideas. Instagram, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Groupon – all founded by people whose resumes would have been rejected by much of corporate America… fortunately for us, they didn’t let that stop them.
Rule number 3 – without risk, there is no gain. Heck, I didn’t make that up – it’s Tiffin’s own motto. If you hedge, take the well-traveled route, play it safe, you will miss out. Period.
But, I’ve got good news….as John Borroughs once observed “if we leap … The net will appear.” Trust me, he got it right. The net is there. I’ve fallen in it countless times.
And that’s point 4: most people overstate the risk of failure. The amount of trouble you can get into for not paying your credit card bill is infinitely higher than failing as an entrepreneur. It’s part of the American spirit – we love people who take big bets, regardless of the outcome. In the fullness of life, we almost never regret the things we did – only the things left untried.
Finally, point 5. Don’t embarrass your mother. Yes, that’s what I said. Never, ever do anything that violates your principles of right and wrong. One of my heroes, former Secretary of Navy Gordon England often says,”the gray zone is black so stay on the white side.” You can’t get better advice than that.
So if an average Navy guy from Illinois can use these 5 rules to stumble his way to becoming an entrepreneur, what can you do? I’m betting a whole lot more.
My 15 minutes is up –
Perhaps you’ll remember me or, over time, my words will blend into a hazy recollection of your last great days here at Tiffin. But before I leave the dais, I want to ask you for that favor I mentioned earlier.
In a week or two, take some dedicated time to consider what it is you truly want for your one precious life.
And, perhaps…for a minute …or for a day…or for the rest of your life, you’ll really believe you can have it. And, you’d be right.
So, take a chance. Move to where the action is. Swing for the fences…
Go confidently in the direction of your dreams and live the life you imagined….