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Think Tank

Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: Thinking Like a Startup

What's the Big Idea?

Before he became a socially-made millionaire, Ryan Blair was "a kid with a criminal record, street gang experience, and a lot of emotional scarring." In his newly-released autobiography, he writes, "My teenage years were hardly the typical starting point for a normal, productive life, let alone a successful business career. Turns out, that didn't matter." 


What did matter was how he would define himself. At 21-years-old, the LA-born high school dropout left his job at a call center to found 24/7 Tech, a product of the digital boom that was scooped up by investors before he hit thirty. Then he launched another business. Then another.

The string of successful flips was interrupted when his third venture, ViSalus Sciences, was nearly bankrupted by the 2008 market crash. In a Don Draper-worthy leap of faith, he injected all of his personal savings into the company's books. Sales increased 1000% percent over the following 15 months, placing ViSalus firmly among the ranks of the fastest growing businesses in the U.S.

Despite finding himself CEO of a multinational conglomerate, Blair still identifies with the independent spirit that animates small shops. In a recent interview, he told Big Think that one of the best things an employee can say to him is, “I'm quitting because you have inspired me to start a business.”

Small business owners work in service of their communities, risking financial and professional security to create jobs that are more meaningful than boring. Support an entrepreneur, and you support hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people on the path to finding work that actually fulfills them, says Blair - which is why he now invests heavily in start-ups.

What's the Significance?

What does it mean to think like a start-up? "Innovation" may be the word of the hour, but the qualities Blair values most in entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial-of-heart are strikingly traditional. Tenacity, cooperation, and dedication to a cause are paramount. If that all sounds very Dale Carnegie to you, that's because it is. Blair is well-versed in up-by-the-bootstraps Americana. He credits his stepfather, who recommended he listen to Lead the Field by Earl Nightingale on audiotape as a kid, with giving him the tools he needed to take his future into his own hands.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that he believes the best employees are fiercely self-reliant and unafraid to question those at the top. They know there's nothing glamorous about being the boss. "I don't think being the boss is a badge of honor," he says. If you build a company that you (and everyone you know) loves working for, "there will be a lot of people there who are bosses in particular categories." He'd be happy to see them all running a business some day.

In his words: We are not defined by our circumstances. Whatever situation you might find yourself in, it's easy to allow it to become the lens through which you define yourself. You are stronger than whatever circumstances you're facing. Potential is the one power you always have. The mind-set that propelled me forward came from having nothing to lose.

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