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Steven Schussler explains why "It's a Jungle in There," and what entrepreneurs can do to tame the beasts

By Hope Katz Gibbs
October 1, 2010
Be Inkandescent Magazine

When Steven Schussler was 18, he got a job in Miami climbing phone poles for the Southern Bell Telephone Company. But the young man, who as a teen figured out a way to make thousands of dollars each summer selling playing cards and soda and running errands to poker-playing rich guys at the beach, had his sights set on something bigger.

“It was hard work for little pay and offered limited opportunities for advancement,” he writes in his new book, It’s a Jungle in There. “When I learned I could make more money selling airtime for radio and television stations and build a future career for myself, I knew it was time for me to make a move.”

A risk-taker with a flair for the dramatic

Schussler says he not only wanted to land a new job, he wanted to do something so wild and crazy that no one would ever forget him. So he donned a Superman suit, rented a giant barrel that he climbed inside of and sealed shut, then had two friends who were cops deliver him to the office of Don Hamlin, the manager of the TV station where he wanted to work.

The trip took a tad longer than expected — the manager was in a meeting and air was running out in the barrel. But Hamlin finally walked in with several members of his board of directors who had also been in the meeting. When he saw the barrel, the first words out of his mouth were, “What the hell is this all about?”

With that, Schussler jumped out jack-in-the-box style and said, “I’m your new super salesman,” and began shaking hands. One of the board members responded, “Son, you are the sickest person we’ve ever met. You’re hired.”

Lesson learned

“A successful businessman operating in a corporate environment is like an acrobat doing all kinds of elaborate tricks on a high wire,” Schussler shares. “Sure, it’s impressive, but he’s got a safety harness on. Where’s the danger in that?

“Entrepreneurship is like performing a steady walk across two 40-foot-high platforms. It doesn’t have to involve fancy footwork; it can be just moving gingerly along the taut wire strung 40 feet above the arena floor. What makes the performance impressive is that lack of safety net.”

It’s a Jungle in There

Schussler prides himself on his daring and has choreographed several stunts in his three-decades long career as an entrepreneur. He believes, “You can’t worry about falling. There’s no room for the faint of heart in the entrepreneurial game.”

Consider his approach to convincing investors to support his theme restaurant concept, Rainforest Cafe.

A fan of rain forests and owner of several macaws since he was a kid, Schussler had the idea to open a restaurant that would honor and educate people about parrots, fish, and our dying natural resources.

His plan was grand, and expensive to execute, and he knew that he had to show potential supporters what he was dreaming up. So he turned his suburban Minnesota split-level home into a makeshift rain forest.

“When you are passionate about a project, anything is possible,” he says, noting that over a period of years he added more and more to his house: rock outcroppings, waterfalls, rivers, layers of fog, mists that rose from the ground, tiki torches, and on the roof — a thatched hut covered with vines.

Inside, he lived with 40 tropical birds, two 150-pound tortoises, a baboon, an iguana, and tropical fish that filled 10, 300-gallon tanks. The pièce de résistance was a 12-foot neon “paradise” sign and full-size replica of an elephant that stood near the front door.

Needless to say, his neighbors weren’t pleased

“They started a watch group,” Schussler admits. “They even bought walkie-talkies and would update each other on what was happening.”

One day, they called the cops. Nearly a dozen showed up. “They were going to search the premises for drugs,” Schussler realized. “One guy put me up against the door and said he was with DEA, and they were going to search the premises for drugs. Because of my huge residential electric bill, they assumed I was growing marijuana in the house.”

They were astonished when they discovered the tropical rain forest. After the cops left, one actually returned with his kids to show them the paradise Schussler had built.

The hoopla that surrounded the event drew the attention of an investor named Lyle Berman. Two years later, after several visits — some with his kids, parents, and other investors — he helped raise the funds to get the Rainforest Cafe up and running.

“I guess my tenacity and passion for the Rainforest Cafe idea kept growing on him,” Schussler says with a contagious grin.

Be upbeat or beat down

It is a never-say-die attitude that has helped the entrepreneur achieve great success — and handle great disappointment.

In chapter 19 of his book, Schussler asks the self-examination question: “Can you remain generally optimistic, even when things aren’t going your way?” He proudly says he can.

Never have a bad day

The phrase that Schussler is often quoted as saying, “Never have a bad day,” was first printed in a newspaper on the day utilities officials showed up at his house to dig a 25-foot hole in the street to cut off the juice to his suburban rainforest exhibit. He hadn’t yet sold Berman on his big idea, and the energy needed to feed the 3,700 extension cords and 20 sound systems he had installed was costing a bundle.

A reporter approached him and asked how he was feeling about the situation, noting, “This has got to be the worst day of your life.”

“No,” said Schussler. “I consider myself to be lucky. Sure, I’ve had some rough times. I’ve been hit hard, and been down, but at least I’ve been able to pick myself up. I can put up with the utilities company and a lot worse, and you can, too!”

Schussler insists: “You are fortunate to be an entrepreneur. You get to do your own thing. If it comes with certain costs, like suffering through some rough times, try to think like I do: Proclaim there have been cloudy days, rainy days, tornado and hurricane days … but never a bad day.”

How did a boy from Far Rockaway, NY, raised by a single mom and without a college degree, become one of Entrepreneur magazine’s top 100 entrepreneurs in the U.S.? Rainforest Cafe founder Steven Schussler, now the CEO of Schussler Creative, believes his success is linked to his deep understanding of the 5 Ps: Personality, Product, Persistence, People, and Philanthropy.

These five big ideas create the framework for his 28-chapter book, It’s a Jungle in There, published this month by Sterling. Part self-help book, part business-school primer, each chapter begins with an inspirational quote that reflects Schussler’s philosophy of life.

Chapter one, for instance, starts off with this famous quote by poet, dramatist, and literary critic T.S. Eliot: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

Each chapter also offers a “self-examination question,” which you’ll find outlined below. While this format is a slight departure from our other Tips for Entrepreneurs, we believe that Schussler’s questions are great food for entrepreneurial thought.

This synopsis is just the appetizer, of course. To enjoy all of Schussler’s delicious and daring insights, you’ll have to read the book, available on amazon.com.

Steven Schussler’s 5 Ps of Entrepreneurial Success

Watch him on YouTube.

I. PERSONALITY: What makes you a smart business person?

Chapter 1: The role of risk taking. Many people prefer to play it safe when it comes to business matters. Are you willing to take risks in the pursuit of entrepreneurial success?

Chapter 2: The importance of passion. If you were independently wealthy and never had to work a day in your life, would you still choose to spend your time attempting to become a successful entrepreneur?

Chapter 3: Ambition: taking your passions public. Do you desire and seek public recognition for what you have accomplished?

Chapter 4. I dream … therefore I can. Do you enjoy using your imagination to dream up new ideas, products, or services that could generate profits in the marketplace?

Chapter 5. The multi-tasker. Can you comfortably and successfully perform two or more tasks at the same time?

Chapter 6. You’ve learned your ABCs, so now practice your CBAs. Do you have the desire to Create something new; the strength of conviction to Believe your creation will be successful, and the reservoir of energy necessary to Achieve what is needed to thrust it into the marketplace?

II. PRODUCT: What makes a product or service viable?

Chapter 7. Be Excellent or Be Gone. Are you willing to take the extra time and effort necessary to create a product or service that is excellent rather than acceptable? Remember, when you are out of quality, you are out of business. The noblest search is the search for excellence.

Chapter 8. Sweat the small stuff: It’ll help you earn the big stuff. Do you believe that it’s often the little things that make a big difference between success and failure in business?

Chapter 9. Always be on the lookout for your next big thing. As you observe the world around you, are you making a consistent, conscious effort to ask yourself this question: Is there something here I could change by providing a product or service that would bring me financial gain?

Chapter 10. Research and development — learn it if you want to earn it. Even though it can be costly, are you willing to undertake sufficient R&D in exploring new ideas, products, and services? (If so, check out Schussler’s “11 Commandments for Creating Successful Themed Restaurants,” which is featured in this chapter.)

Chapter 11. Make improvements before and after a launch. Once your creation is in the marketplace, do you look for ways to expand and improve on it?

Chapter 12. Customers won’t buy what they don’t know exists. Is marketing a significant part of your entrepreneurial plan?

Chapter 13. Budget — don’t begrudge it. Do you give proper attention to keeping within budget when completing your projects?

Chapter 14. Don’t be afraid to develop strategic partnerships. When you develop a product or service, do you consider forging strategic alliances with other established businesses to help market and/or sell your creation more successfully? (Check out how Schussler partnered with Maxine Clark, CEO of Build-A-Bear.)

Chapter 15. Marketing yourself to market your product. Do you consider, and take advantage of, the impact you have when selling your idea, product, or service?

III. PERSISTENCE: Don’t let failure stand in the way of achieving your dream.

Chapter 16. Persist and prevail. Do you give up easily, or are you willing to pursue your goals with tenacity and determination?

Chapter 17. No is Yes waiting to happen. Are you the kind of person who will make a concentrated effort to convince somebody they might have made a wrong decision?

Chapter 18. Learn from failure and graduate to success. Can you experience failure and still retain the self-confidence necessary to seek success?

Chapter 19. Be upbeat or beat down. Can you remain generally optimistic, even when things aren’t going your way?

IV. PEOPLE: You can’t do this by yourself.

Chapter 20. Have a caring attitude toward all living things. Do you take active steps to help others achieve their personal goals?

Chapter 21. Make people feel special. When was the last time you did something to make somebody feel special?

Chapter 22. Help others achieve their goals. Are you willing to help other people succeed, even when it’s not a requirement of your job?

Chapter 23. Manage perception for maximum impact. Do you ever behave in a specific manner to influence how another person will perceive you?

Chapter 24. Create positive press. Do you make a concerted effort to establish good media contacts, and use them to generate positive publicity for the work you do?

Chapter 25. Harness the power of trust in transactions. Do you recognize the crucial role trust plays in successful business relationships, and do everything possible to establish and maintain trust with your clients?

Chapter 26. Don’t burn bridges. Just cross them carefully the second time around. Are you willing to give a person a second chance?

V. PHILANTHROPY: Success means giving back.

Chapter 27. Entrepreneurial social responsibility. Do you try to incorporate sustainability and socially responsible practices in your business?

Chapter 28. The importance of entrepreneurial philanthropy. Do you believe it is important to give back some portion of your wealth to support charitable causes? Check out Schussler’s favorite nonprofit here.

For more information:

Visit Schussler Creative at www.schusslercreative.com.

Meet him in person: Schussler will appear at the National Press Club Book Fair on November 9. Buy a ticket here.


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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.