Who Matters When You Want to Get Rich

(these people are all rich and famous, but do they matter?)

(these people are all rich and famous, but do they matter?)

They were rich.

I went to his house on weekends so he could teach me options trading. He and his partner were two of the biggest independent options traders in Chicago at the time. They made between $12 and $40 million per year. I wanted to learn from the best and maybe trade for them.

But he wasn’t free. He was drinking a couple years earlier and hit a baby trailer in his Porsche on his way home. The baby died but was revived and survived with a fractured leg and head injury.

His legal probation is over, but his mental probation never will be.

(my first career was in this trading pit at the chicago mercantile exchange)

(my first career was in this trading pit at the chicago mercantile exchange)

I went to a party.

It was 1998. I was a $30,000 per year trading clerk with gold dreams in my eyes. A big trader owned a 4,000 square foot loft on the near west side of Chicago. It had a basketball court and in the middle was a room made of black plywood. It had a door, and a bouncer, but I was with a well-known girl from the trading floor so we got in.

On the coffee table was a Scarface-sized mound of cocaine. Scantily-dressed models splayed out on two couches. My friend dug in, I declined. Not because I wasn’t curious but because I’d never done it and was afraid I’d embarrass myself. I didn’t want to be the uncool kid that embarrassed himself at a rich guy party. I was 20 and it was my first career; I didn’t want to mess it up.

(tony montana may have been at this party)

(tony montana may have been at this party)

His kids and I were friends in grade school.

He sold his trading company for $200M. He was renowned as being one of the brains in the business. He was once a minimum wage security guard, then a truck driver, before becoming a rich trader at the Chicago Board of Trade. His wife had MS.

I was searching for advice, and he gave counsel. I wanted advice on trading, I wanted advice on life. He was religious and found messages from God in everything around him. I wanted him to bankroll me so I could trade. I wanted him to teach me his secrets. I wanted him to adopt me so I could be rich. But all we talked about were the religious messages from his two books and his wife’s MS. He’d give all his money to take her pain away.

I taught his son to climb and I knew right away he was a trader.

He didn’t understand how I knew he was a trader when I asked him if he was. He was owner of one of the oldest clearing firms at the Chicago Board of Trade. A family man that kept his nose clean and his work ethic strong. We found some common friends like my rich friend who’s wife had MS. He gave me advice. He gave me a book about Jesus. There is a lot of Jesus in the Midwest.

He asked me if I’d found God.

He was once probably the biggest trader at The Merc.

He spent all his money on hookers and cocaine, then crack and maybe heroine. Seven girls lived in his condo at Presidential Towers. Now he was my coworker trading S&P futures at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He spent all his money and was “getting by” on Jesus and an $80,000 salaried job working for some people whom he’d made a lot of money for in years past. He fell off the wagon a lot and it tended to happen around 17 year old girls.

I’ve met a lot of people. A lot of rich people. A lot of poor people. Addicted people, ego people, humble people, confused people, smart people. A few happy people.

I was climbing one weekend and my older friend Nick, a pilot and a trader at The Merc told me I needed to meet his friend. Chuck seems happy. He became a great friend and taught me an important lesson:

“When faced with the choice of choosing your path, choose the path with heart.”

(ask yourself: does this path have heart?)

(always choose the path with heart)

The path with heart is not the easiest path. Sometimes the path leads to riches and sometimes not. Often times your path is the most difficult. Definitely, your path is unique and no one else can live your path.

Our paths are often defined by the people we come across. It’s the people that truly matter.

Most people do not follow their path, they follow the expected path. This is not necessarily bad. It’s hard to figure out your own path. People will not always understand your path. They’ll say “I’ve never heard of that before” or “that doesn’t sound like it will work”. Sometimes the path is more traditional and clearly understood by many people. This is fine. Some paths will be understood. Other paths will not be understood. You will not understand your own path sometimes. I certainly don’t understand my path sometimes, but if there is a fork, and one direction does not have heart, I know that will not be my path.

Bob Marley says “every man think that his burden is the heaviest” mine definitely feels heaviest some days, but rarely. Especially in the dark when the future isn’t clear. But when I’m feeling heaviest, I ask not “does this path have riches” but “does this path have heart”.

(Bob Marley lived his path with heart)

Ask this of people. Ask this of jobs. Ask this of school and the things we do every day. Ask this of relationships. Having heart doesn’t mean it’s not difficult, it means that we have faith in and trust ourselves the most.

I’ve always followed paths with heart. When I was eighteen I had dreadlocks and a VW bus. I lived in it on weekends, climbing across the country. That path had heart.

When I was sixteen and dropped out of high school to go to college, it was scary, but it had heart.

When I was working as a clerk and learning how to trade, it had heart.

Now, years later, as I’m navigating the waters of new directions, there is more heart than ever.

I hadn’t recognized it until Chuck said it, but I’d always lived a path with heart, and to me it’s the only way.

So I quit my job with the trading firm with the converted ex-addict and went to Spain to win back a girlfriend. I rented a motorcycle and toured Tenerife with her. I borrowed a small J21 racing sailboat and sailed her along the coast. We backpacked across the country. I didn’t win, but I did. Today she is one of my favorite people and a close friend. That path took time to figure out its purpose and there were painful speedbumps along the way.

When I came back from Spain I started trading on my own, in the top-floor apartment my best friend Rich and I rented from his Polish grandmother, the building owner. I strapped a satellite dish to the side of the building, just above the beet, cabbage and tomato garden Baba tended, and fired up the five-screen trading system.

But when you start doing things on your own, people want you more. So two big traders recruited me to help them build trading systems at the Chicago Board Options Exchange. We built an arbitrage system cross-trading foreign equities vs the ADR comparable and offset those with foreign currency hedge transactions. We built another arb system to trade between pit-contracts and the Chicago Board of Trade digital contracts.

We went to the partner’s house.

We grilled tenderloin at his $5 million dollar summer estate designed by a famous architect on the Lake Michigan shore in Indiana before it burned a few years later. We drank a 1980 BV and played golf. They complained about never having worked so hard for so little money and talked about dinners with Chicago film critics. One of the partners was tall, and described as Robert Redford-esque. A rockstar-type Chicago socialite who’s wife was even more prominent on the scene. The other was short, fatter, balding and always angry. We really had nothing in common and my heart wondered what the hell I was doing.

I was 24 and after a long five years trading I decided the heart was gone. My heart was in the mountains and on the coast where I’d always wanted to live, running the pines and surfing the sea. So I left.

(my idea of the perfect place)

(my idea of the perfect place)

I’ve been lucky that my paths have had heart.

Every time. Every single time I have chosen the path without heart, it has not worked. Replacing heart with money or fun or peer pressure, or replacing my heart with someone else’s takes me down the wrong path. It’s much harder to get back on the path with heart than it is to stay on the path with heart, even though it’s difficult.

(this is how it feels when I don't follow the path with heart)

(if you don’t follow the path with heart, this might happen)

However, we are not on our paths alone. The thing that defines our paths are the people. Only relative to what other people are doing, does our path become relevant. We are helping them, hearing them, learning from them, ignoring them, competing against them and falling in love with them.

Riches can be in many forms. When we go against our path with heart, we will never find riches. We may find money, but we’ll never be rich. When we go with our path, Ww may be poor, but we’ll never be broke. When you want to really get rich, who is what matters. Who are you with? Do they have heart? Who are you learning from? Who are you avoiding? Who should you step away from? The riches we find when we travel our paths with heart are the riches that everyone wishes they find: happiness.

The people who matter are all of them: the addicts, the rich people, the poor people, the confused people, the models splayed out on couches, the fat mean people, the religious people, the mentors, the critics (by no means does their criticism matter, necessarily) and the happy people. They all matter in some way, as references along our paths, guiding us.

It’s hard when you meet someone to know how or if they will change your direction, but looking back it often becomes obvious what influence they had and what value they bring.

My friend would trade anything to have his wife as she once was. My former coworker would trade his hookers and dealers for a life of normal if he could get over his addiction. My friend would give all his money to get back the day he sideswiped the baby trailer. The riches in life are where our path sits waiting, and travels through the people we meet. It’s the Who that matters.

I try to hold onto those that matter. The ones that bring happiness, courage and authentic commitment to their path. Sometimes holding on is painful, but in the long run it’s really the only thing we have.

So who matters? We all do. And that is why our path is as important as anyone else’s and we must follow our paths when we know they have heart, to the best of our abilities, using each others as references and guides to our path with heart.

As Steve Prefontaine said, “To give anything less than our best is to sacrifice the gift”, and what we have to give is only worth anything if there are those people out there who matter to us. With them, we will be richer than our wildest dreams.

(my family are those who matter most to me)

(my family are the ones who matter the most to me)

How I Became a Bestselling Writer

It happened fast and I didn’t expect it.

I was on an airplane headed to Beirut in June, 2013 thinking about the last few years.

They’re a blur.


(sometimes things are blurry)

A month before this trip I left my job as a VP of the technology company that invented the modern method of showing 3D in movie theaters. I started as their Director of Finance in 2007 building the financial infrastructure then spent five years doing deals and building new business opportunities outside the core business. I’ve always written – proposals, emails, business plans – but I’ve never been a “writer”.

Things happened, the company grew and initiated their IPO in 2010.

(the day we IPO’d on the NYSE)

It is a strange experience going from a small group of people in cramped offices working on a business that gets laughed at (“3D? I thought that was dead 20 years ago?!”), to listing on the NYSE with high visibility, press coverage, and broad brand awareness. We were a success.

In many ways it’s rewarding. I can only imagine how the founders of the company, and the original two employees, the CFO and the President, felt seeing some of their dreams realized.

It’s hard to be a founder. Your idea is worthless in the beginning, until you figure out how to convince someone that your idea is worth something, then prove it.

(Since 1995 Amazon has convinced a lot of people that it's a good idea)

(Since 1995 Amazon has convinced a lot of people of it’s idea)

The best ideas are ideas that help people. Every great idea from Bill Gates, Walt Disney, Nikola Tesla, your local restaurant and the most popular social media site has one thing in common that makes it successful: it helps people.

The best ideas don’t take things away from people, they give things to people. Some ideas make people money. Other ideas make people look cool, help them feel better (release oxytocin), teach them valuable skills or knowledge and give them opportunities.

Think about it. Every really popular thing out there gives people something they want. When you add up what all the people are getting from good ideas, you’ll see that it is much larger as a whole than what the ideamaker gets back. The value ideamakers get is much less than the value they create, but even that small piece, financially, is often more than one could use in several lifetimes.

But some ideamakers don’t structure the communication of their ideas such that they benefit (sometimes the benefits take several more lifetimes before they’re recognized). Nikola Tesla, for example, died penniless even though his ideas are some of the most powerful ever created while Ford, Rockefeller, Ellison, Gates, Andreesen, Thiel, Musk and Zuckerberg figured out ways of holding onto some ownership in their ideas and profiting from them. They convinced others – communicated – the value of their ideas in such a way that it activated groups of people to take action and, like dominoes, the communication of the idea flew from person to person as each one tipped into believing.

(ironically Marconi built comm. equipment based on 17 of Tesla's patents but it wasn't until after Tesla's death that he was awarded judgment and would have been rich)

(ironically Marconi built communication equipment based on 17 of Tesla’s patents but it wasn’t until after Tesla’s death that he was awarded judgment for inventing modern communication that would have made him seriously wealthy)

Powerful communication spreads messages like genetics on a rabbit farm.

It’s the communication of the ideas that really matters. In this post I describe the most successful companies in the world, of which many are communication companies. Newspapers, books, magazines, websites, social media, conversation, smart devices, billboards, sign language, vision, hearing, sight, taste, smells, blogs; communication may be the most valuable thing of all time. Powerful, valuable messages are carried through time and space like particles; communication channels are accelerators.

Every day we communicate outward and receive incoming communications. Processing and responding. Creating or reacting to pivot points. The stimuli meshing into micro and macro instances. Perhaps the most powerful tool we have and use is communication, but good ideas, good communication and strategic management is really tough. Think about all the people you know that communicate horribly.

(graphene may make internet communication over a thousand times faster)

(graphene may make internet communication over a thousand times faster)

Sometimes there is too much communication. Sometimes I want to hit CTRL-ALT-DELETE and start over, but not recently. Not since I figured out how to build my own momentum, creating experiments in life and adjusting as the instances are generated.

It was about eighteen months ago that I CTRL-ALT-Deleted. I felt perturbed, as if there was more I was supposed to be doing; a purpose I hadn’t yet found but couldn’t put my finger on how to find it.

It wasn’t the first time I’d felt this way, but I came across some ideas that changed the direction of my life and led me to writing, increasing outbound communication – something I never thought I’d do since I’m a terrible writer.

I realized that there was a lot of time in my life spent as a drone. I’d work all day in my office, come home, maybe do something active, like run or surf. Then I’d eat dinner, sit down and “relax” by watching TV. I’d end up there for a couple hours until I was tired, go to bed and repeat the next day. It wasn’t  relaxing because my brain was bombarded with messages, stimuli and emotions from the box.

But I’m not against TV. Entertainment is good. I love watching well-developed stories and the art and effort that goes into producing a good show or movie and epic sports matchups. It’s not bad living having a great job, eating good food and sitting in a safe, comfortable apartment watching good TV. It is a very privileged life of security, entertainment, health and free time. But we all have keys to our own happiness and I’m never happy unless I’m building something, so I choose building over watching.

I started an experiment.

I don’t like grand change-your-life schemes or stressful commitments with static goals. Success vs Failure. Life is not that black and white. I do believe in success and failure, and I’m not a give-everyone-an-A-on-their-test-because-they-all-have-capabilities-that-come-out-differently type of person but any time something is stressful it usually will not work out in the long run. Stress is like rust. Over time things will corrode and fail under too much stress. It could be your health, relationships, job or happiness. All these things affect one another and build off of each other.

I prefer experiments. Experiments are more flexible and start with hypotheses that can be adjusted with feedback.

Experiments grow into larger things if they go well, or can be killed if they don’t respond the way you hope them to. The key is staying agile, or lean, by taking it one pivot point at a time, considering the direction and adjusting. Ideally, this method helps avoid waste (time, energy, money, relationships, etc).

My experiment was asking the question “What would happen if I cut out the things in my life that make me less creative, productive, helpful, loving and happy? Eliminate the things that hold me back and block the conduit. What if I got rid of them?”

My hypothesis was that I’d have more ideas, better relationships, higher energy and get more done.

So I measured the things in my life that took up my time and hypnotized me, disabling my creativity and relationship cultivation.

In an average week I was watching twenty-eight hours of television/entertainment. I didn’t think this was bad since about seven hours (25%) was news. Then I asked why news was better and I realized news was one of the biggest drains, actually worse, than regular entertainment. News is scary. People are dying. Lies are spreading. Crimes are happening. Disasters are imminent. Revolution is brewing. Governments are failing. Security is evaporating! There are no jobs! Money is devaluing!! Your house is worthless!!! There is nothing you can do…except watch so you know when the next bad thing happens so you can escape to the future settlement on the moon or the compound in the mountains. A lot of bad communication.

Uggh. I’d rather watch South Park and Louis C.K. At least they make me laugh – give me some oxytocin for goodness sake. But it was all hypnotizing. Blocking my ideas and thoughts. I needed silence.

So I started with News then cancelled cable and got rid of my 73” 3D TV.

(I got tired of worshiping the tv gods)

(I got tired of worshiping the tv gods)

This meant no news at all and no television programming except by demand via online portals. No newspapers, CNN, news magazines, nothing. Most importantly, no more distraction.

It’s scary. media is like a thick down comforter hugging you so tightly that you are padded from yourself. When you drop the thick cushy blanket you realize you’ve been naked the whole time and your thoughts silenced, inundated with content produced by Hollywood.

I looked at relationships. How much time was I spending nurturing unhealthy relationships with negative people? How much time was I spending hoping for people to return feelings they didn’t share with me? Why was I spending time with pits in my stomach and hopes in my head?

I leaned away from negative, needy, selfish people and leaned towards creative, motivated, thoughtful people cultivating their own experiments, and towards those who care for me as I care for them. In the short run there will be pain and withdrawal, but in the long run this strategy works. Ask yourself the question “if this thing happening to me  were happening to someone I love unconditionally, what would I want for that person?”  You are who you hang out with, and I could see my life improve immediately. My energy redirected towards creating, communicating and ideating.

The first thing that happens when you get rid of the negative is brain diarrhea. I was scared. Lonely convulsing thoughts running out of my head and depositing fear all over the place. Like a cleanse, this was natural. My brain was jailed and now it wasn’t. Like Morgan Freeman in “The Shawshank Redemption”, I was institutionalized and now I was free and freaking out. With so much freedom, what does one do first? Once your brain is free, you can get busy living.

(get busy living)

(get busy living)

So I focused on my job and in my free time read a lot and got obsessed with ideas. I started writing down ideas every day. About anything. Mostly the company I worked for, and then new ideas to consider someday like things I want to build, people I’d like to meet or help. I’d throw all of those ideas out a few weeks after writing them down. Most were terrible. Something funny happens when you write down ideas: once they hit the paper it’s like there’s more room in your brain and ideas just start gushing out.

Many of my ideas are business ideas. There is nothing better than creating something and putting it out into the world for people to use. Money is great. We all need it. Seeing creations come to life while getting paid for them is an indescribable feeling, but it’s rare because that’s not how we’re taught. We’re taught to work for the people with ideas, not create them ourselves.

Ideas are hard to start when you aren’t sure what to do with them or where to go next, so I started doing something else.

I sought out people I thought had the secrets to the future. These people were the rare ideamakers. Many were wealthy, had started companies, went from nothing to something, were covered heavily by media and their stories were well known. They, I was sure, could tell the stories of how they did it and maybe I could steal their methods.

So I started connecting. I’d send notes, comment on blogs, ask mutual friends for introductions or send an honest message on LinkedIn asking to connect.

Once connected, I’d tell them what I was doing and ask for a short conversation – no more than ten minutes – during which I had three questions in the area of ideas and innovation that I’d like to ask.

I was shocked to find that people actually care. They want to give and help. The secret they know, is if they are a conduit to others, giving to those that are creative, unselfish, proactive (my friend Casey calls them Doers) and sincere, that they would get back many times what they gave. Like Kevin Systrom giving us Instagram, a platform that helps our horrible photos look better so we can more easily share them, we gave him billions of photos per day, hundreds of millions of users, that brought him a $billion along with respect and fame in the developer community. This is the power of ideas. They start small, like experiments, and if they go well, they grow out of their petri dishes until they cover the earth like oxygen.

I connected with CEOs, VCs, entrepreneurs, investors, ideamakers, creatives, writers, connectors, influencers and filmmakers among others.

And that led to more clarity and ideas and inspiration and excitement. I found that my relationships were getting better, my thoughts clearer and my energy higher. Like a snowball.

Since I was spending time connecting with people, cultivating my health and creativity, the snowball was getting big and there was more to share. I got more deals done at work and had more financial security.

It’s hard when we’re just getting by, or even doing well, not to be selfish and concerned about what we’re going to get out of a deal, conversation, job or any effort that we put forth; we are concerned with our own hunger. When we have a lot, we let others have a taste of our kill, but when we’re just getting by it’s hard not to hold onto every little morsel.

When I started to realize that for every idea I gave away or helped someone else with, I would have 10 more ideas, I got excited, even giddy, about giving away ideas. I was full and since I was full, I could give without worry about receiving.

But getting started was the trick. So I connected with James Altucher on his blog and wrote a comment.

James recently published “Choose Yourself:  be happy, make millions, live the dream”.

I preordered it and it arrived just prior to my flight to Beirut. I was over Switzerland when I turned the page and saw this:

(I hope this technique works for you)

(I hope this technique works for you)

James had included my comment in his book because it’s a technique that works.

His book is now a Wall Street Journal bestseller and I became a bestselling writer. People all over the world are benefitting from the technique I wrote, and I’m happy if it helps them. Maybe it will help you? It helps me every day.

(James' book made me a bestselling writer)

(James’ book made me a bestselling writer)

James continues to give me advice on building things, and I’m grateful for his time and effort.

It’s been 18 months since I took back control of my life and filtered in the right people. Somehow I still know most of what’s going on in the world and am wayyyy more productive.

I’ve converted 28 hours per week from hypnosis to 28 hours of productive energy and experimentation. I launched two ideas (with more on the way) and the free browser app www.noppl.com, invested in a disruptive Chicago-based startup while advising three more companies on strategy and direction.

And I’ve also failed. I tried to launch other things that fell flat. I lost at a relationship with someone who didn’t reciprocate the same feelings and I had to step away. I wanted to help someone else who didn’t want help and it’s hard to see them struggle. I pitched at least 5 ideas to the company I worked for and they didn’t do them. I sent other companies at least 20 ideas and they all said “these are great ideas” but haven’t called me back. Those things hurt but being grateful is the basis I use to stay positive and happy through the ups and downs.

I’m not sure what will happen next. There are too many things I want to do and I’m not good at saying no, but the best people know how to say no. I’m working on it. I’d like to run 21 miles of trail every month in a new destination around the world, share ideas with people that need them and build something really great that matters. Spend more time with my family, find love, listen to great music, watch amazing sunsets, design cool things and hopefully keep myself financially secure. We all have dreams.

But it starts with silence so the ideas can shine through. And ideas start with saying no to distractions. And saying yes to the possibilities that are out there waiting, just outside of that numb comforter around you, preventing you from feeling the warmth and opportunities of life.

I used my technique and met my friend Kash. I’d love to know what you’re doing to create your own freedom in your life, or as Kash says, what you’re doing to #besomebody.

How To Start The Most Successful Company In The World

Google is a boring company. So are Facebook and Apple. Have you ever been inside these companies? A bunch of people crouched over computers talking bits and bytes. BORING.

(Pamela Anderson thinks Google is sexy)

(Pam Anderson thinks google is sexy)

Where will Google, Apple and Facebook be in fifty years? They may not be around, and if they are it is likely they’ll look nothing like they do today. Parts of these companies will fall into the abyss and be replaced by something else, or the whole company will disappear and be replaced by something better. Constant innovation is almost impossible under managerial change over long periods of time. Even Mr. Jobs agreed that technology is short-lived, making it very hard for companies to remain on top:

So where does that leave us? Most ideas fail. Most startups fail. In the long-run, most companies disappear. In the words of Paul Graham, “…the number of failed startups should be proportionate to the size of the successes”, which they are. This means the odds are not in our favor, the market is fairly efficient and profitability and adoption are unlikely. Every day I try to think of new companies to start and new ideas that will help owners of existing companies. I can’t help it. It’s like a disease. I’m obsessed with ideas. Most of these ideas are terrible. Most won’t matter in five years let alone five months. Many of them never see reality and stay on the pages of my notebooks. Some of them get started and a few of those become something.

(this idea cleans your facebook page)

(this idea became something. it cleans your facebook page)

After a year of writing down ideas every day I got frustrated and wanted to figure out how to make my ideas better so I could start better companies, or help existing companies implement lasting ideas. Putting the nuts and bolts together is really hard. Technology is especially hard because it changes so fast.

I thought maybe there are ways to make success more likely. We don’t need to be Mark Zuckerberg or Drew Houston, we’re just looking for a small piece of pie to make our lives secure and free. A small piece of a trillion dollar economy would be more than enough for most of us to live the rest of our lives.  So I started researching.

Most people think of success as being the richest or sexiest company – the best of the best; the winner of all. Nike comes to mind. Apple, Tesla and Beats are all “winning” and these companies are SEXY. But how likely is it that you too can start the next-sexiest zillion-dollar company and win in your category? Pretty unlikely. That’s okay because success isn’t defined by one method, and that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself anyway. We all know stress erodes us. Let’s avoid stress. My research pointed in new directions.

(professional sufer Coco Ho, thinks beats is sexy)

(professional sufer Coco Ho, thinks beats is sexy)

While considering the seemingly overnight success of sexy companies I sometimes get frustrated enough that a quiet surf break on a Costa Rica beach sounds like a good early retirement plan. When I get frustrated I seek inspiration and hope. I find hope in the history and stories of incredibly resilient businesses from around the world. Many of these businesses started small, with a single person or idea, and slowly grew to brands we know today, and many are still small companies that just persist every year. This was the core of my research.

My definition of personal success is freedom to choose what I want to do every day. Successful companies provide freedom to their owners by creating meaningful products and services (maintaining relevancy), maintaining flexibility and defensibility, producing profits (on average, not every year), building lasting relationships with their customers, and serving specific vertical markets effectively.

After reading a lot about company history I compiled a list of the most successful companies in the world. There are almost 2,700 companies. Old companies have a lot of insight into successful business models. They’re not what you might think, and they are not immune to disruption (newspapers, for example are in the midst of huge disruption), but they hold clues that can help us be smarter and better entrepreneurs.

What I call the most successful companies don’t include modern “tech” but fundamental companies that serve the most basic needs and problems. These companies feed, entertain, shelter, clothe, communicate, protect and help people. These companies may never be rich like Google or sexy like Nike, but they have soul, meaning and history, and they do pretty well (some of them are rich, but you’d never know it).

Going through the companies in my list, I started noticing trends. Withing my research I found ten common clues of building successful businesses. The clues point to things that may be useful in our own ventures, tech or not.

Clue 1: Stick to the basics. Make something that people always need; maybe it’s something new. Consider the underlying foundation of the business. Publishing, for example, is not about printing, but is about communicating. The underlying need is the reason these companies exist.

Clue 2: Be patient. Think in ten or twenty-year terms rather than a few months or years, and don’t ignore technology. Just because they’re old and successful doesn’t mean they can’t be disrupted.

Clue 3: Be unique. Serve unique customers or unique areas and markets; don’t be afraid to pick a niche. It’s okay if the business has natural constraints. Like a neighborhood bar, these businesses can be more than enough for what you need, even though they’ll never be the next Instagram.

Clue 4: Be reliable and trustworthy. Only reliable and trustworthy companies survive. You might fake something over the short term, but long-term you will be discovered as a fraud and disappear, even if it’s a slow death.

Clue 5: Be customer-centric. Focus on what the customer needs and not on what you need. Knowing what the customer wants and needs (even if they don’t know themselves) will ensure long-term success.

Clue 6: Simplify. Complicated business models rarely last.

Clue 7: Be an artist. Business models can be copied, art can be copied, but character is timeless. Be the artist. Always, as David Foster Wallace says, “Make Great Art”.

Clue 8: Love what you do. It takes time to build something, and you must believe in what you do every day. “You’ve got to find what you love” (thanks Mr. Jobs).

Clue 9: Focus. Pick one thing and stick to it. You will become the best and brightest of that industry and your chances of success will expand greatly.

Clue 10: Let go. You can’t predict the future with 100% accuracy. These companies did not know they would be the most successful companies when they started, and they can’t predict where they’ll be in another 100 years. Focus on the right things and let the success happen. Don’t ignore the obvious threats or valuable tools (like technology).


Of the 2,691 companies in the list I compiled and analyzed, the top ten industries account for 1,176. The top ten segments are sake, hotels, breweries, confectioneries, restaurants, wine, food (all food except those food items listed separately), newspapers, banks and distilleries.

(the oldest company in the world)

(the oldest company in the world)

The earliest company still existing today is a hotel in Japan, founded in 705, the Keiunkan.

Some of the other oldest market segments include soy sauce, insurance, jewelry, construction, publishing, firearms, retailing, paper, tea, porcelain, watches, farms, bakeries, real estate and coffee.

(the oldest companies in the USA)

(the oldest companies in the USA)

Only 286 are in the United States, and of those, the oldest by year is a farm (1632) but most are insurance or newspapers. NOT SEXY but what does this tell us? We’ll always be worried about things that could happen to us. Security is as important to us as food and beer is pretty high on the list (Yuengling founded 1829 in Pottsville). We like to have fun. Fun, safety, sustenance, shelter. Sound familiar? The basic needs of people have been constant.

Though tech is sought after because it scales quickly, there are some things that software just can’t eat, like food, beer and real estate (though it can change the way these businesses operate and compete). However, it is obvious that banks, newspapers, publishers and lawyers are all being disrupted as we speak. Old does not mean successful, but adaptation does.

This gives me hope. Though entrepreneur extraordinaire Elon Musk is changing the world, there are opportunities everywhere building businesses in industries that have served the needs of people for centuries. We can find those opportunities if we focus on the needs. It may not be billions, but it is probably more than we’ll ever use in our lives.

Old also doesn’t mean immune to disruption. Publishing, seventeenth on our list, has suffered severe disruption: no longer do publishers control the fate of publications, but I would argue it is the publishers that got lazy and forgot to understand their business at the core.

(Yuengling was founded in 1829, almost 1,100 years after Weihenstephan, the oldest brewery in the world)

(Yuengling was founded in 1829, almost 1,100 years after Weihenstephan, the oldest brewery in the world)

Sometimes I get tired of hearing about the new Snapchats, Instagrams or Summlys because I know it is unlikely they’ll be around in ten years and I get jealous that I didn’t think of them first and make a few million. So I like to think about the meaningful companies with history like the 1,300 year old hotel where I can stay in Japan, or a 1,300 year old brewery (Weihenstephan Abbey, 768) that still uses the same recipe. With these companies I feel a connection, meaning and rich history. An experience shared with countless others throughout history, and hope that there are needs beyond fleeting. These are the most successful companies in the world, started with grain, water, ideas, blood, sweat and tears.

Honestly, I still love Google, Apple, Nike, Beats, Dropbox, Tesla and the disruptors changing the world in sexy new ways. I’ll always be a little envious that I wasn’t the mastermind behind those companies and revel in their success. Instead of copying what everyone else is doing, let’s consider doing something totally crazy: starting the next 1,000 year-old company for you and the next 33 generations. If it has to do with the basic needs of people, chances are we’ll be onto something.

Now, who wants a 200 year old beer?

p.s. for the spreadsheet of my research and all the companies within, email me at kcfaul@gmail.com and I’ll send it to you