Lessons Chris Gardner Learned About Starting and Maintaining a Business

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Chris GardnerEntrepreneur, author and philanthropist Chris Gardner is no stranger to struggle. His journey as a homeless single father was portrayed in the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness,” released by Columbia Pictures in December 2006. Actor Will Smith starred as Gardner and received Academy Award, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for his performance. Gardner was an associate producer on the film. The film was based on Gardner’s New York Times and Washington Post bestseller, The Pursuit of Happyness.

Years later, Gardner built his multimillion?dollar brokerage firm, Gardner Rich & Company, in the face of a turbulent stock market and the ever?changing demands of running a business.  Based in Chicago, Illinois, with offices in New York and Chicago, the firm specializes in the execution of derivative product transactions as well as debt and equity for public pension plans, institutions and large unions.

Today, Gardner is deemed an inspirational business leader, so much so that he was recently tapped to team up with AT&T to inspire small business owners and entrepreneurs. Here, we share with our readers this business veteran’s take on the road to entrepreneurship.

TNJ.com: How and why did you come to launch your brokerage firm Gardner Rich & Company?

Chris Gardner: I saw an opportunity that I could not pursue working at Bear Stearns, which is where I was working at the time. I saw an opportunity in institutions that were not getting covered that I knew could benefit from my expertise and I sought to maximize that opportunity. And it evolved. It was bigger than I ever could have dreamed.

My first day in business was Oct 19, 1987. The stock market crashed 508 points, 23 percent, the biggest single drop in the history of Wall Street. That was my first day on my own. I launched the company because I was in a business I loved; I wanted to work for myself, and I was committed to becoming world-class at it.

TNJ.com: As a new business owner, what, if any, challenges did you face? 

C.G.: All of them. But because I was agile, I could handle them all. I started my business in my house with $10,000. I did not know you couldn’t do it, so I did it. I was the head of marketing, the head of sales, the head of trading, the chief compliance officer and I had to clean the place up at the end of the day.

TNJ.com: What do you know now about running a business that perhaps you didn’t know then?

C.G.: I know that there are so many people in our country right now that are doing what I did 30 years ago: they are doing something that they are truly passionate about, they are working for themselves, and they have to be agile. Yesterday, with AT&T we met so many incredible people who started with their businesses with very humble resources but they chose to pursue something they were passionate about. And in order to do that, you have to be agile.  If you’re to be successful as an entrepreneur, you have to be able to do more than one thing.

TNJ.com: What has been your biggest business or life lesson so far?

C.G.: When you’re running a business, know that the Calvary is not coming. There’s no back up. You have to do things yourself. No one is going to come and bale you out.

TNJ.com: In 2009, your second book, a New York Times bestseller called Start Where You Are: Life Lessons in Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be was published.  Are there any takeaways from the book that could be helpful to those wishing to be in business for themselves?

C.G.: Absolutely. There are 42 lessons in that book for the taking. The book was born on a subway train in NYC in 2008. I was concluding my business on the street and I was heading back to midtown. It was 1:00 in the afternoon; the train should have been empty. But on this day, the train was jam-packed, so I knew something was not right. A young guy recognized me and we started talking.

Turns out I was on the train with the first wave of tens of thousands of people who had just lost their jobs at Citibank due to the global financial crises. You look around and everybody was holding their box of personal items from their office. They would then have to go home and tell their spouses and the bank that they were let go. I started talking to this young man, and I started talking a little louder to other people on the train and I stressed that although they had lost their jobs, they had not lost their skills, talent and expertise. Skills, talent and expertise are transferrable. I told them that all they had to do was find a place to transfer their skills, talent and expertise.

I heard from that young man a year later and he said that he and some of his colleagues heard what I said on the train, combined their 401k accounts and started a business together. That’s what they did, and their first client was Citibank. That’s agility. And that’s what entrepreneurs will have to engage right now.

TNJ.com: Today you’re teaming up with AT&T and presenting at the Small Business Expo at the Javits Center.  Tell me about the campaign.

C.G.: I am so excited about what we’re doing with AT&T and this opportunity to help reboot the American dream. As a result of the financial crisis, so many people were let go of their jobs in their prime, in their late 40s early 50s. Now what? We have to reboot the dream and it is going to start with small business owners and entrepreneurs. We will encourage small business owners to participate in a new social media campaign on AT&T Business Circle and Instagram that is giving away $100,000 in prizes – including $50,000 for the grand prizewinner – to help boost small business dreams.

TNJ.com: During the Expo, what advice are you going to share with aspiring business owners and entrepreneurs? 

C.G.: I will share some of the steps that I had to take which they will probably have to take themselves right now in order to accomplish three things: 1. Do something you are truly passionate about. 2. Commit to becoming world class at it. 3. Work for yourself. And all of those things require agility.