By Evan Carmichael on January 24th, 2012
My name is Evan Carmichael and welcome to a special video post brought to you by American Express Canada. They have recently launched their Amex for Business Canada Facebook Page where you can access the latest news, information and resources for Canadian entrepreneurs.
I believe that the fastest and most effective way to build a business is to model the strategies of people who have already done what you’re trying to do. I call it Modeling the Masters.
Today we’re going to look at how a young entrepreneur went from performing in the streets and sleeping on park benches to becoming a billionaire who plays high stakes poker and is a space tourist in his spare time. This is the story of Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté and the top 3 lessons that you can learn from his success.
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“I bet everything on one night. If we failed, there was no cash for gas to come home.” – Guy Laliberté
Guy Laliberté, (born September 2, 1959) is a Canadian entrepreneur, philanthropist, poker player, space tourist and the founder of Cirque du Soleil. When Laliberté was 18 years old he left Canada for Europe to become a street performer. He played traditional Canadian music on an accordion with a hat for donations and slept on a park bench by night. He also met other street performers who taught him how to breath fire, juggle, perform magic, and walk on stilts before returning home.
Unable to find a 9-5 job back home, he started a business that would create large-scale street shows. After 3 years of successful shows in 13 Canadian cities, Laliberté wanted to get bigger. In 1987 his company was booked as the opening act for the Los Angeles Arts Festival. He spent all the money he had to get to Los Angeles and prepare for the show. If it didn’t work out he’d have to perform on the streets to get gas money to go home. Luckily for him the gamble paid off – his performance received standing ovations and ticket sales came flying in.
With an estimated net worth of US$2.5 billion, Laliberté was ranked by Forbes in 2011 as the 11th wealthiest Canadian and 459th in the world. In 2006, Laliberté was named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and his company now employs over 5,000 people – not bad for a hustling entrepreneur who started off sleeping on park benches because he couldn’t afford to pay rent.
Action Item #1: Have a Greater Purpose
Is your goal to make a lot of money or to change the way something is done? If you look at the most successful entrepreneurs in the world you’ll find that they started their businesses to have an impact. Sure they had to make money, but it wasn’t their primary objective. Strangely enough, if money is your only goal then it rarely comes to you but when you focus on a greater purpose you’re much more likely to become successful.
Laliberté’s goal isn’t to make money; it’s to touch people – even if it’s only for a few hours on a single day. He goes to great lengths to help people open their imagination, be awed like a child, and see the world in a slightly different way. He transformed the circus industry from being large-scale amusement park shows designed to make people laugh to a full out experience that expose people to new cultures and ideas.
According to Laliberté, “We are in a position of financial and social power, and we could be agents of change in our society. Without pretension, I believe we could be a nice little gardener who takes care of the garden, and hopefully our neighbor will do the same. Then, maybe we’ll achieve a better world… Inside every adult there’s still a child that lingers. We’re happiness merchants – giving people the opportunity to dream like children.”
Action Item #2: Foster a Creative Workplace
Very few entrepreneurs can’t benefit from an influx of creativity into their businesses. When you and your team and creative, you’re coming up with new ways to solve problems, unique products and services to sell, and interesting ideas to fuel your future success. Think about your own success. Did you have your best ideas when you were in a creative space or when you were stressed out and overworked?
Laliberté believes that if you create a creative place to work, you’ll be rewarded with unique ideas that will help grow your business. He’s resisted the urge many entrepreneurs have to go public because he wanted to prevent shareholder pressure for short-term profits. He also invests 40 percent of profits back into research and development, twice the average for his industry. His hands-off management style allows his team to be as creative as possible without his interference and he only provides feedback in the final phases of production.
According to Laliberté, “I believe that the profits will come from the quality of your creative products… Business is difficult. But it could be approached two ways: Seriously, or with the same way you’re doing your job, with entertainment aspect, with pleasure, with fun. And we decided to try to make it as fun that we do our creativity… I believe in nurturing creativity and offering a haven for creators, enabling them to develop their ideas to the fullest… We are each but a quarter note in a grand symphony.”
Action Item #3: Take Risks
It almost goes hand in hand that to be an entrepreneur you have to take some risks. You’re venturing into the unknown and are creating new products and services. But when you’re betting on yourself then there’s no better investment in the world. If you commit to seeing things through until you reach your goal you’ll have the confidence to take the necessary risks and move mountains to accomplish your vision.
Laliberté isn’t afraid to take risks. He attributes this quality to his early years as a street performer where he had to be creative and daring to stand out and to survive. His first big risk was to change the way a circus was run. Gone were the dancing bears and lion tamers. He would create an animal-free circus. He then introduced the concept of having a permanent show. How could a circus survive without travelling? Laliberté would show them. He continued to bet on himself believing that the risks would pay off and he was right.
According to Laliberté, “We’re not afraid of risking what was our success yesterday in order to explore some new field. We’re adventurous. We like the challenge of unknown territory, unknown artistic field, and that’s what stimulates us… I have seen many successful people fail after they start fearing they might lose what they have built. [We stop growing] if we start being afraid of taking risks and if we start diminishing our creative pertinence. We should always aim at doing more-creative endeavors, not in terms of volume but in terms of more creativity and more sharing… I don’t believe in pitfalls. I believe in taking risks and not doing the same thing twice.”
Laliberté understands the importance of getting the right people for his company. Once a year, Cirque du Soleil engages in a hiring campaign to bring new and freshly energized talent on board. For 16 weeks, anywhere between 60 and 70 candidates from around the world are gathered together to be tested. Pushed to their limits, Cirque encourages candidates to do things they probably have never done before, evaluating not only their core competencies, but also their values, generosity, courage, teamwork and problem solving skills. Laliberté wants to hire people who are risk-takers, just like himself, and who fit with the company’s core values.
“It was live or die in L.A. And we bet everything on one night.”
“If you want to be good you have to connect with the best people.”
“Today, the dream is the same: I still want to travel, I still want to entertain, and I most certainly still want to have fun.”
What Do You Think?
Does your company have a greater purpose? Are you afraid to take risks? What part of Guy Laliberté’s message impacted you the most? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts if you leave a comment below!
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