An Actor Turns to Entrepreneurship — And Finds Success

LeVar Burton

LeVar Burton

LeVar Burton’s long career in the entertainment industry spans a variety of roles: Geordi LaForge on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Kunta Kinte from the famed television miniseries “Roots” and longtime host of PBS’ “Reading Rainbow” TV show.

Now the actor-turned-entrepreneur has a business that’s encouraging the next generation of children to read. But he’s using the Web this time instead of TV.

Burton, 58, and business partner Mark Wolfe are the co-founders of RRKidz, which has reincarnated “Reading Rainbow” for today’s computer-oriented kids. The show first launched in 1983 as a children’s television series. It ended in 2009 after earning 26 Emmys, the Peabody Award and more than 200 other broadcast awards.

Burton and Wolfe bought the rights to the show and, in 2012, released a Reading Rainbow iPad app. A Kickstarter campaign begun in May 2014 reached its $1 million goal in just eleven hours. It eventually raised $6.4 million (600% of its original goal) from more than 105,000 backers.

“What that said to me was – you made a difference in my life and I want Reading Rainbow to be there for succeeding generations. … That’s no small thing,” he says in this CNET Magazine article.

“The thing I’ve learned most about being an entrepreneur is to not be afraid to fail.  I make 10 mistakes practically before I get out of bed every morning, and I’ve learned much more from my failings than I have from my successes in my life” — LeVar Burton 

Clearly, “Reading Rainbow” still has many fans – but that isn’t the only explanation for the strong response to the fundraising campaign. Burton made it personal, offering to record voice mails, chat with backers via Skype, have dinner with them and even have them meet his “Star Trek” co-stars.

Earlier this year, Burton and Wolfe used the Kickstarter funds to launch Skybrary, a digital library with more than 500 interactive books and over 150 video field trips on the Web. They’re also offering the Reading Rainbow app, initially available on Apple’s iPad, for other tablets, set-top boxes and game consoles.

Burton may be a well-known entertainer but that hasn’t shielded him from the same challenges faced by others who start a business.

“The thing I’ve learned most about being an entrepreneur is to not be afraid to fail,” he says in this interview. “I make 10 mistakes practically before I get out of bed every morning, and I’ve learned much more from my failings than I have from my successes in my life.”

For aspiring business owners, he has this advice: “I would encourage anybody who’s contemplating a career as an entrepreneur to remember that it’s not pretty. It’s not for the weak. You really have to have a sense of purpose and determination. You need to be resilient. Life isn’t always fair. It’s gonna knock you down. But it’s those who get up who succeed.”

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What You Can Learn from this 42-Year-Old Intern

Andrew Brill wanted a career in sports reporting. He pounded the pavement to find his first opportunity. In 2008, he  joined the sports desk at WABC-TV New York when the news director decided to give him a shot.

But here’s the thing: Brill wasn’t your typical, wet-behind-the-ears intern. He was 42 years old.

Several days a week, he’d go to the station after working all day at another job. The long hours didn’t bother him a bit. “I was watching sports at work,” he said.

After the internship, he moved on. Eventually, he became the sole sportscaster for a TV station in Albany, New York. This spring, he received an offer from ESPN Radio, one of sports’ biggest and most revered news outlets.

Brill’s story isn’t like others that you’ll read on this blog. He didn’t start a business later in life. To the contrary, he left a family business because he didn’t enjoy it. “When you wake up and dread going to work, thinking, ‘I can’t do this for another second,’ it’s time to change,” he told Men’s Fitness in this profile piece.

His story is worth reading because it has some lessons and reminders:

1)  A business owner needs passion to be successful. Brill recognized this — and got out since the passion wasn’t there.

2)  A career change later in life has its advantages. Years of life experience as well as business experience helped Brill identify a path toward his dream job.

3) Sometimes you have to start at the bottom when you start over.  At age 42, Brill had to do grunt work — and learn the nuts and bolts of his new profession. His age gave him a good perspective on this.

4) Family support is critical for career transitions. Brill’s wife and three children knew he had been miserable before — and could see how much he enjoyed his new career. Their willingness to endure long separations, make sacrifices and support him along the way made all the difference.

5) You never know when an opportunity will turn out to be “the big one.” Jump at every chance you’re given. That’s what Andrew Brill did.  And it paid off — in spades.

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Where to Look for Your Second Act

Last week, I did an audio interview with Angela Raspass, an Australia-based entrepreneur and the host for the 2015 Second Act Success Summit. I am one of 16 speakers for this year’s summit, an online event for women seeking to start a new life journey.

Speakers for the 2015 Second Act Success Summit

Speakers for the 2015 Second Act Success Summit

Among Angela’s questions was this one: What does the second act concept mean to you?

To me, a second act is something you do later in life after years spent on something else. Unlike some first careers, the second go-around isn’t about meeting someone else’s expectations or going to work just to earn a paycheck. It’s about dedicating yourself to an endeavor that brings gratification and a sense of purpose.

For the late bloomer whose second-act aspiration is to become an entrepreneur, here’s the big question: How do you create a business that provides personal fulfillment and profits?

Thorough research is needed to find an answer. So is self-introspection and an understanding of what matters to you. Here are six places to start looking for your business idea:

1) A vexing problem in your life – Ever wished that one of your everyday products worked better? Grace Welch, a mother of four, invented the Patemm diaper changing pad after she became frustrated with the traditional pad she was using to change her baby.

2) A personal causeJohn D’Eri, whose youngest son is autistic, opened the Rising Tide Car Wash with his older son, Tom, to help people with autism find employment.

3) Your hobbiesJohn Olson turned his pastime of carving stone fountains into Graystone Industries, a pond and fountain supplies distributor/retailer.

4) Your skills – An aptitude for accounting, tutoring or organizing can lead to a business. Just be sure to choose a service you enjoy providing so you don’t find yourself in a rut.

5) Your network – Consider a brainstorming session with friends, family, a personal coach and/or professional contacts. Giorgio Armani’s success might not have happened if his partner hadn’t seen his gift for fashion design.

6) A childhood dream – At age five, Rory Kelly longed to drive a shiny, elegant limousine. That dream became a reality when he founded Prestige Limousine in his late 40s.

Speaking of Rory, here’s his motto: “Be profitable and have fun doing it.” Why not go for a second act that lets you do the same?

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How a Fashion Icon Found his Life Purpose at Age 40

Finding your genius – that special something you do very, very well – can take time.

Look at Giorgio Armani, who started the Italian fashion brand named after him in 1975 — when he was 40 years old. Back then, he “was just another middle-aged man” wondering if the best days of his life were behind him, writes Michael Hainey in this gq.com piece.

Armani started as a window dresser at a department store in Milan. He became the store’s menswear buyer, then moved on to work as a designer for Nino Cerruti.

At the time, his significant other was Sergio Galeotti. It was Galeotti who recognized Armani’s potential and persuaded him to sell his Volkswagen Beetle for money to open his own business. They started small, with Galeotti (now deceased) running the books and Armani handling the creative.

Today, Armani is in his 80s and has a personal fortune that Forbes calculates to be worth more than $7 billion. Not bad for a guy who didn’t start his business until he was 40.

“Your forties are the moment when you start to become aware,” he tells gq.com. “It’s just the beginning. I’ve always believed that to confirm your way of thinking takes time. It takes experimenting. You have to confront different chapters of your life.”

When asked about the reasons behind his success, Armani says he doesn’t have a special formula. “I always did it my own way. Even today I hold my independence close. It’s what’s most precious to me. Passion. Risk. Tenacity. Consistency. This is my professional history.”

And then there’s this: “I always had a burning ambition to realize my potential,” says Armani. Many of us can relate to that feeling.

Like Armani, it may take you awhile to realize your potential and discover that special something that defines your business. Keep probing.

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Seven Leadership Tips from a Public Speaking Champion

Craig Valentine

Craig Valentine

What does it take to get remarkable results in leadership and life? Craig Valentine has a pretty good handle on this question.

Craig won the world championship of public speaking for Toastmasters International in 1999. Before becoming a full-time professional speaker and executive speech coach, he had a successful sales career with Glencoe/McGraw-Hill. He’s also an author whose books include The Nuts & Bolts of Public Speaking.

He’s come a long way. At age ten, Craig had a pronounced lisp. One day, a friend’s father told him, “Every time you talk you remind me of Daffy Duck.” That remark crushed young Craig–and changed the direction of his life.

Several years later, he walked into a bookstore and happened to come across Les Brown’s Live Your Dreams. After he paid for the book, the cashier said to him, “Good luck living your dreams.”

Craig shared these stories when he spoke this month at a Toastmasters’ conference near Washington, D.C. Here are seven takeaways from his talk:

1) Average people place blame. Successful people take responsibility. Avoid the tendency to point fingers at spouses or employees when something goes wrong.

2) You are always too something to someone. Some examples: You’re “too quiet” to be a leader, “too inexperienced’ to manage a department or “too old” to start a business. Be too good for it to matter.

3) Create a mess to create a message. You may have to sift through a huge pile of thoughts and wordy ideas before you find a message that’s succinct — and right. Aim for a crystal-clear foundational phrase that’s fewer than ten words.

4) Always state the result before the request. Figure out what your audience really wants and start from there.

5) Don’t get ready. Stay ready. You never know when an opportunity will come along.  Be prepared to seize it when it does.

6) Silence is the best tease. This is a good tidbit to remember for a business pitch. Use pauses to let your key ideas sink in and keep your audience hungry for your message.

7) Specifics stick. Avoid vagueness if you want to be memorable.

Good luck living your dreams.

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How a Late Bloomer Created the World’s Largest Burger Chain

One of the best-known late-blooming entrepreneurs is Ray Kroc, creator of the McDonald’s fast-food chain. This month marks the 60th anniversary of when Kroc opened his first McDonald’s franchise in Des Plaines, Illinois back in April 1955. He was 52 years old.

Time magazine recently retold the Ray Kroc story. Before McDonald’s, Kroc was a salesman for 34 years. For half of that time, he sold paper cups to Dairy Queen, Howard Johnson’s and other fast food retailers. The other half was spent selling a machine that could mix five milkshakes simultaneously.

When two brothers bought eight of the “Multi mixers” for their small hamburger chain in California, Kroc went there to check out their operation. That meeting with Dick and Mac McDonald changed the course of events, to put it mildly.

Kroc was so impressed with this operation that, despite the opposition of his family and friends, he opened the first franchise of what he called “the McDonald’s System.” In 1961, Kroc bought the company from the McDonald brothers.

Sixty years after its first franchise opened, McDonald’s is one of the biggest corporations in the world — and Kroc’s lessons about vision, persistence and hard work continue to inspire today’s business owners.  As he once said,  “I was an overnight success alright, but 30 years is a long, long night.”

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Five Inspiring TED Talks for Entrepreneurs 40 and Older

Longevity, opportunity and living life to its fullest. Those are some of the themes you’ll find in the following five TED Talks. Enjoy.

“How to live passionately — no matter your age” —  Author Isabel Allende, 71, gives a candid talk about her fears as she gets older and how she plans to keep on living passionately.

“Life’s third act” — Jane Fonda, who has had multiple careers as an actor, activist and fitness guru, talks about the extra 30 years that have been added to the average life expectancy, and how we can think about this phase of our lives.

“How to live to be 100+” — National Geographic writer and explorer Dan Buettner shares nine common diet and lifestyle habits found among certain communities whose elders live long past the rest of us.

“How to make work-life balance work” — Author and marketer Nigel Marsh lays out an ideal day balanced between family time, personal time and productivity — and offers some stirring encouragement to make it happen.

“Older people are happier” — Psychologist Laura Carstensen shows research that demonstrates people become happier, more content and more positive about the world as they get older.

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