Skip to content
The Startup of You: Executive Summary
Instructor Guide

icon picker
Appendix: Additional Case Studies to Those in the Book

Insights from exemplary leaders and companies.


The conventional wisdom among car companies used to be that you couldn’t talk about safety, because doing so might remind customers that you could die while driving. So the industry as a whole talked about anything else: styling details, new colors, faster engines, and so on. “Cars are driven by people. The guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo, therefore, is and must remain, safety,” said Assar Gabrielsson and Gustav
Larson, at the founding of Volvo in 1927. Volvo didn’t just make cars in a slightly different color or produce somewhat nicer interior leather. They focused on making ultra-safe cars (pioneering three-point seatbelts, for example) and proudly advertised that fact. They massively differentiated themselves by focusing on something no other company did. This made them top choice with consumers who put safety first. Even today—with most manufacturers touting safety—if you ask most any potential car buyer which car stands for safety, you’ll get this answer: “Volvo.”

Tim Green, NFL

Inflection points don’t just threaten industries like print media that are going through huge amounts of change. They threaten people in all kinds of industries and careers. Professional athletes in their prime, for example, often lead a life of fame, fortune, and glory. But their bodies won’t let them play forever. An inflection point in the careers of athletes (and actors, musicians, models, and others) is not a question of if, but
when. Sadly, many ex-professional athletes don’t prepare and the inflection point proves devastating to their careers. A Sports
Illustrated investigation concluded that almost 80% of NFL players are bankrupt or under financial stress within two years of retiring from the sport.[i]
Tim Green is not part of that 80%. The Atlanta Falcons picked Tim Green in the first round of the 1986 NFL draft. When they found Green reading War and Peace in the locker room before a game, the Falcons knew they hadn’t drafted an ordinary All-American defensive end. Even though Green was fulfilling his childhood dream of playing in the NFL, he was no dummy about how long the dream would last. He knew someday he would be too old to play in the pros. So he started to prepare. To build assets that would serve him in life after football, he went to law school during the football offseason and earned a JD over eight years. To nurture a burgeoning interest in writing, he wrote commentaries on life as a pro athlete for outlets like NPR, often cooking up first drafts on the plane when flying to road games. When he retired from the game after eight seasons in Atlanta, he shifted to Plan B. He started a law practice in upstate New York and began writing books. So far, he’s written 10 novels, several of which are about sports.[ii] He’s also written non-fiction, including a book about the dark side of the NFL. His Plan B leverages his sports background.[iii]
[iii] Marci Alboher, One Person, Multiple Careers: A New Model For Work-Life Success (New York: Warner Business Books, 2007) p. 177

Peter Thiel — The Value of a Relationship

Peter Thiel and Reid were good friends in college. They conjoined their campaigns for Student Senate to share resources. They drove to Kinko’s in Peter’s car and printed posters that they hung around the Stanford campus. They each won seats in the Senate. Campus politicking was fun, but they really bonded when thinking about questions related to issues beyond the campus. Their curiosity about the ways of the world
brought them closer, even as they discovered differences in their beliefs. Peter was forming staunch libertarian views; Reid was hashing out his version of a “free-market socialist.” But their back-and-forth banter was formative. After college, their paths diverged. Peter attended law school and then worked for the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell in New York. I went to graduate school and then moved back to Silicon Valley to work at Apple and Fujitsu. It seemed at the time they were destined to lead different adult lives in different places. Neither of them knew that their relationship would be hugely consequential in both of their careers. That’s the thrill of relationships you never know, your roommate or casual friend of today may turn out to be one of your tightest friends or allies down the road.
Eight years had passed since college graduation when Peter called I with a few questions. It was 1998. I was co-founder of Socialnet, an online dating venture. Peter had moved back to California, during the dot-com mania, and co-founded PayPal. Peter wanted the advice of a trusted friend who was familiar with internet start-ups.

Brian Grazer and Ron Howard

Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s alliance has borne fruit as an extraordinary business partnership in the entertainment industry. They originally met in their early 20’s, as up-and-comers in Hollywood. Grazer was an ambitious young producer; Howard a former child-actor who aspired to be a director.
They got along well and decided to hustle as a duo to convince a studio to finance what would be Grazers first film and Howard’s directorial debut. The movie did fine, but more important than the box office receipts was the fact that the experience expanded Grazer’s and Howard’s contacts within the industry and strengthened their own relationship. They did another movie together, Splash, featuring Tom Hanks, and it was a hit. Then, they went their separate ways. There was no disagreement or falling out, Grazer just wanted more space and control to do his own thing. Yet, they remained allies and good friends, and still found themselves talking every day about their ideas and plans. After awhile they figured they ought to try collaborating formally again, so they raised some seed funding from other Hollywood outfits to launch their own production company, Imagine Entertainment. Like Milken and Feniger, their relationships grew from a weak tie sharing a rung at the bottom of the professional ladder, to an alliance and friendship, to a full-fledged business partnership.
At the time, Howard was making more money and their initial plan was to split the profits 60/40 in favor of Howard. Yet at the urging of Howard’s wife, Grazer and Howard decided to do something simpler: they would split every profit exactly down the middle, no matter who did what it didn’t matter which of them directed, which produced, or even if one of them had nothing to do with a particular project3⁄4everything would be 50/50. For 25 years, it’s been 50/50 all the way. And there’s been more than enough dough to go around. Grazer and Howard have overseen blockbusters like American Gangster, Frost/Nixon, Apollo 13, and A Beautiful Mind, and on the TV side hits like 24, Friday Night Lights, Arrested Development, and others.
The nature of their financial arrangement, unheard of in the entertainment industry, meant that interests, financially at least, are absolutely aligned. But that’s not the main reason their alliance has stood the test of time; instead, they attribute it to a one-two punch of intellectual and professional chemistry, combined with personal friendship. “We view the world differently, but we arrive at the same conclusions,” says Howard. They bring to bear complementary skills and interests . Grazer is a strong deal man who takes care of the business side. Grazer also does more television work. Howard focuses on directing or supporting other movies in their portfolio. All the while, their underlying friendship borders on love. Grazer calls Howard “the kindest, most outstanding human being I’ve ever met in my entire life.” The essence of their alliance can be summed up by Howard: “In a business that is so crazy, to actually know that there is somebody who is really smart, who you care about, who has your interests, and who is rowing in the same direction, is something of immense value.” [1]
[1] The Feniger/Milliken and Grazer/Howard stories were adapted from Michael Eisner’s thoughtful book Working Together (HarperBusiness, 2010).

Matt Cohler (Expanded) — Bridge Ties and Allies Working Together

When my good friend Ian McCarthy got married, I got to know Ian’s now-wife Terra, as well. Terra was a weaker connection, but we saw each other occasionally when I would visit Ian, and we ultimately developed our own casual friendship.
In late 2002, Terra emailed me and mentioned there was a smart, young consultant named Matt Cohler at the McKinsey office in Palo Alto where she worked. Terra and Matt hadn’t worked together directly, but they were friends and knew each other’s reputations. At the time Matt was 25 years-old, geeky and creative. He had taken two years off from college, first to work at an internet start-up in Beijing and then to try to make a go of it as a musician. After graduating from college3⁄4or, as he puts it, after failing to drop out of college3⁄4he moved to Silicon Valley and got a job at McKinsey with the goal of eventually becoming an associate at a venture capital firm. Meanwhile, I was in the process of figuring out what to do after PayPal. At Terra’s recommendation, Matt and I met at a party in Silicon Valley, hit it off, and soon started meeting regularly one-on-one. I told Matt that if he wanted to be a VC someday, he should get operational experience first3⁄4and so why not come work with me? Which is why, in early 2003, Matt quit McKinsey to help me with my angel investments and a few other projects. Eventually, Matt joined LinkedIn full time as a general manager.
After a couple years as my (awesome) lieutenant at LinkedIn, I invited Matt to the initial Facebook pitch meeting at Peter Thiel’s office. Matt met Mark Zuckerberg, and they too took a liking to each other. Given his experience helping grow a social network on the professional side, Matt felt there was a lot he could do to help launch a network on the personal side. Matt came to me and talked about the Facebook opportunity3⁄4it was exciting but Matt would stay at LinkedIn if I wanted him to. I was an investor Facebook, knew it had potential, and encouraged Matt to pursue the opportunity as the next phase of his career. After almost four years helping Mark Zuckerberg and the team grow Facebook to be an internet giant, Matt left and is now a partner at Benchmark Capital, a leading venture capital firm.
My relationship with Matt illustrates how weak ties help spur true alliances. It started with a tip from the spouse of a good friend (a classic weak tie) who worked in a different social scene (management consulting) who thus had access to information (Matt’s burgeoning talent) that I did not. Matt and I met, and through reciprocal exchanges and shared interests, became allies over time. We worked directly with each other at LinkedIn and stayed allies even as Matt moved to Facebook and then venture capital.

Bad into Good

Shakespeare got it right: “It is neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so.” An event is not objectively good or bad. What matters is how you interpret it and respond. For Sorensen, spilled coffee and scalded skin inspired his idea for coffee sleeves, so it turned out to be a very good event indeed.
One day in 1991, Jay Sorensen of Portland picked up a cup of coffee. But the paper cup was too hot to hold so he quickly let go, and burning hot coffee spilled all over his pants. Most people would curse and move on (and perhaps even sue the café that sold him the coffee!). Sorensen, by contrast, saw silver lining in this (albeit mild) setback, and generated an incredible opportunity for himself: He invented and patented a coffee cup sleeve which now fits over paper coffee cups used by chains like Starbucks to insulate the drinker’s hands from the heat. He’s sold one billion sleeves so far.


In the early 1990s a team of British and American scientists at the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer were developing a drug to treat severe chest pain. In clinical trials the chemicals increased blood flow to the heart, as designed.
But the scientists noticed a side effect: the chemical compounds also induced muscle relaxation that allowed more blood to flow to the penises of male subjects – the biological basis of the male erection. Alert to the possibility of unexpected opportunity, they shifted focus to see if they could synthesize the compounds into a pill that could treat impotence. They could and did. In 1998 the FDA approved Viagra, which went on to become one of the most profitable drugs in history[i].
A few years ago a British writer named Danny Wallace experienced a transformational life change by riding a red London bus. When he climbed aboard, at first he minded his own business. Then a bearded man sitting next to him wanted to engage in friendly chitchat. Wallace obliged, only to realize the complete stranger was keen on offering unsolicited life advice, too. Wallace was in a tough place in life at the time recently dumped by his girlfriend, increasingly absent from the lives of his friends. So he felt like he had little to lose by engaging the man, and hearing out his wisdom.
The key to happiness, the man on the bus said, is three simple words: Say yes more. It struck a chord in Wallace and (perhaps sensing a possible memoir-in-the-making) he took it on as a guiding life principle. What would happen if he said yes to everything? Quite a lot, as it turned out.
A friend called to ask if he wanted to get a drink. Yes! A spam email came in promising a bigger penis if he only spent a few bucks for a penis patch. Yes! Attend a local meet-up? Yes! Go on jaunt to Australia? Yes! Play the lotto? Yes! (Amazingly, Wallace won 25,000 pounds on the lotto during this experiment.) “Life should be all about taking opportunities,” he says, explaining his philosophy, “The best things that ever happened to us happened because we said yes.”[i] And the opportunities just kept coming: Wallace did indeed a sell a memoir on a topic that was made into the funny movie Yes Man starring Jim Carrey.
Of course, saying yes to literally everything is not a wise strategy overall (the penis pump turned out to be a dud). But it’s an interesting thought experiment. What would happen if you defaulted to “Yes” for a full day? A full week? If you say yes to the party invite you were tempted to skip, might you overhear a comment that ignites your imagination for a new business or new research or a new relationship? Perhaps. Selected randomness brings about beautiful serendipitous happenings. It would also bring about some bumps in the road, some dead ends, some mishaps.
If you fear that aggressively saying “Yes” will introduce a dizzy of distractions, consider concentrating the randomness on certain days. When venture capitalist Brad Feld receives requests for meetings and he’s intrigued but unsure of the meeting’s potential or urgency, he has his assistant schedule the meeting for Random Day (now called Office Hours), which he holds twice a month. The days consist of a bunch of 15-minute random meetings spaced apart by 30 minutes so that if any one meeting turns out to be unusually interesting it can spill over. Brad’s is a “Say yes but not right this second” policy and some incredible things have come from it.
[i] Danny Wallace, Yes Man (New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2005), p. 20


Work your tail off. This is a prerequisite to entrepreneurial hustle. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll create solid opportunities, but it preserves the possibility. When rapper Eminem was a kid, he spent hours each day studying the dictionary, searching for rhyming words. In the offseason, football legend Jerry Rice worked out six days a week, widely regarded as the most intense training in the league. And so on. Hard work is a “necessary but not sufficient” part of opportunity generation.

From Brain Rules by John Medina

You might suspect that the odds against our survival were great. You would be right. The founding population of our direct ancestors is not thought to have been much larger than 2,000 individuals; some think the group was as small as a few hundred. How, then, did we go from such a wobbly, fragile minority population to a staggering tide of humanity 7 billion strong and growing? There is only one way, according to Richard Potts,
director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. You give up on stability. You don’t try to beat back the changes. You begin not to care about consistency within a given habitat, because such consistency isn’t an option. You adapt to variation itself.
It was a brilliant strategy. Instead of learning how to survive in just one or two ecological niches, we took on the entire globe. Those unable to rapidly solve new problems or learn from mistakes didn’t survive long enough to pass on their genes. The net effect of this evolution was that we didn’t become stronger; we became smarter. We learned to grow our fangs not in the mouth but in the head. This turned out to be a pretty savvy strategy. We went on to conquer the small rift valleys in Eastern Africa. Then we took over the world.
Back to:

Want to print your doc?
This is not the way.
Try clicking the ⋯ next to your doc name or using a keyboard shortcut (
) instead.