“My work is to create companies and build them,” writes Sam Wyly in this candid, engrossing memoir, which reveals how he established and expanded companies on the leading edge of advancements in technology, energy, retail, and investments over the last forty-five years. Wyly shares the process, relationships, struggles, and strategies that have made him one of the 1,000 wealthiest people in the world. From the hardships his parents faced trying to hold on to the family cotton farm during the Depression to the coaching he received on the high school football field, this self-made billionaire describes how his early years in Louisiana prepared him for what lay ahead. His sales experience with IBM and Honeywell in Dallas in the early 1960s gave him the idea to start the first “computer utility.” Risking $1,000 of his savings, he founded University Computing in 1963 and took it public two years later, becoming a millionaire at the age of thirty.
Part autobiography and part inspirational business guide, this audio is full of refreshing insights about what it takes to create, grow, and build successful companies.
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About the Author
Always an avid reader and student of history, he recently purchased the independent bookstore Explore Booksellers and Bistro in Aspen, Colorado, with his wife, Cheryl. Sam is also an active proponent of clean air through clean energy. He has lived most of his adult life in Dallas, and also spends time in Aspen and New York’s Greenwich Village.
Read an Excerpt
1,000 DOLLARS AND AN IDEA
Entrepreneur to Billionaire
By SAM WYLY
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One "Beat Tallulah"
Business is a lot like football.
You work hard preparing all week to score more touchdowns than the other guy. Sometimes you do that by running the ball better than him, and sometimes you do that by throwing the ball better than him, but sometimes the other guy is just too good and he stops you. Sometimes you come up short of the first down or goal line and have to settle for three points, and sometimes you have to bet the whole game on a "Hail Mary" pass in the very last second, and sometimes if you've prepared better and worked harder, your receiver is in the end zone, unmanned, and he catches the ball. But sometimes the other guy has worked even harder and prepared even better and scouted you so well that all the luck goes his way and you walk away battered and bloodied and think to yourself, "I don't want to do this again next week." But you do, you go through it all over again, because it's playing the game that matters.
And although there's certainly no prerequisite that every entrepreneur should have played football in high school or college or even just in some sandlot league, had I not played in high school, my outlook on entrepreneurship would be very different.
Football taught me about setting goals, coping with fear, using leverage, maximizing assets, and understanding weaknesses. Football also taught me about losing. As an entrepreneur, if you don't know about losing, you can't learn how to win.
When my brother, Charles, and I started high school in Delhi, Louisiana (he was one year older than me), Mama decided we ought to be able to play music, so I took up the drums and Charles took up the trumpet. But one afternoon I found Mama's scrapbook of newspaper clippings devoted to my Dad's high school football team. There were faded pictures of him and his teammates-their hair parted in the middle, 1920s style-and as I looked at those pictures and read every one of the stories about Dad's games, I found myself feeling immensely proud of him. So he and I started talking football, and when he saw how interested I was, on New Year's Day 1949, he drove Charles, my friend Pat Patterson, and me all the way to New Orleans-528 miles round-trip, which we did in one day-just to see North Carolina play Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. North Carolina were the heavy favorites with their star halfback "Choo Choo Charlie" Justice, but Choo Choo had an upset stomach that morning and the Sooners upset the Tar Heels that afternoon, 14-6. It was a great football game and a journey of epic proportions for a bunch of country boys from a town where most people had never been more than 20 miles from where they woke up.
On the drive down and on the way back home, Dad told us great stories about his high school football days, his beloved Louisiana State University Tigers and legends, like Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. He talked about always playing to the best of your ability, about good sportsmanship, and he quoted Grantland Rice's famous lines:
For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes-not that you won or lost-but how you played the game.
I was thrilled by all this, but Mama was less than thrilled because she knew boys got hurt playing football and she didn't want her sons to have anything to do with it. But, in Delhi, football was hard to avoid.
There are two good movies about what high school sports mean in small towns across America: Friday Night Lights about football in Odessa, Texas, and Hoosiers about basketball in Milan, Indiana. In Delhi, football was the town religion. Our battles with neighboring towns were won and lost to grand notions of victory and defeat, triumph and humiliation. Every Friday night during the season a lot was at stake. It was something very important, something very tangible.
In my mind, football became a way to be like my dad, to earn respect and to be an important part of the school and the town. So in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I exchanged my drums and tasseled marching hat for shoulder pads and a helmet.
I was only 5'7" and 155 pounds, too small to be a noseguard, but that's where the coach put me and I was teeth-gritted determined to make the team. It was the first big goal I ever set for myself.
Setting a goal and then going after it is difficult for some people. For me, it's as natural as waking up in the morning.
You begin by defining what you want. But to decide that, you have to know who you are. I think that's probably the key to getting it right. If you don't know who you are, becoming an entrepreneur can be a very expensive way of finding out. My wife, Cheryl, says: "Be careful what you wish for 'cause you just might get it."
Next, a goal needs to be realistic. Many people yearn for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but have no idea how to find a rainbow. Or they aren't willing to put in the time looking for one, or don't have the courage to walk all the way to the end of it.
Everyone needs a mission, no matter what it is: dominating the global marketplace with a product, losing 5 pounds, or just putting money aside to save for something special. The feelings that arise when you think of yourself as being on a mission become the fuel that keeps you moving even when your spirit lags or times get tough. Over the years I've also found that whatever someone's ultimate goal might be, the easiest way to get there is to map out a course with smaller goals along the way. You find one small thing you can do, and you keep on doing it.
Little victories add up.
Coach Raymond Richards was a deacon in the Baptist church. His tall, slender appearance and quiet demeanor masked a highly competitive soul. He'd come from Arkansas full of new ideas about training, discipline, and strategy when it came to coaching football. He was demanding and gave his all and expected us to do the same.
We were small and inexperienced but, on the first day, he made it clear that we were going to be in better physical shape than any of our opponents. He taught us to focus on what we could attain, which was superior endurance, rather than worry about what we didn't have, which was size and experience.
He taught me that if you want to win, you have to emphasize what you are and what you can do. He also taught me that before you go into battle you look at your own strengths, then you look at your opponent's strengths, and then you work out how to maximize the first and how to minimize the second. He taught me to study the opportunities and the obstacles until I understood them, and then to boil everything down to just a few key things that needed to fall into place.
August in Louisiana is hot, and doing push-ups, running laps, and doing wind sprints on a dusty field under the burning glare of the afternoon sun were nothing short of brutal. It was so bad one afternoon that, after running sprints for the fourth time, I collapsed in front of Coach Richards and pleaded for mercy. I didn't have another sprint left in me. He wasn't buying it.
He said to me, "There is no limit to the endurance of a sixteen-year-old boy."
He made me get up and keep running. He wasn't being mean; he was teaching me to recognize the huge reservoir of energy, enthusiasm, and strength that we all have within us. He was teaching me that what we perceive as our limitations are often only mental obstacles.
Charles was put at halfback and me at noseguard, and because we both wanted it so bad and worked so hard, we both made the team.
I had achieved my goal and could have stopped right there, but in my head that goal was just one milestone on a long trail. Achieving that goal simply meant I could now move on to the next goal, going from benchwarmer to the starting lineup.
Being innately forward-looking and progress-oriented, once one mountaintop is reached, I look over the horizon for the next mountaintop. Just as the pioneers knew how to scout the horizon for the first signs of a rainstorm or daybreak or danger, anyone looking to get ahead in life-especially anyone who wants to be in the business of building companies-needs the ability to spot opportunities, and to do that you keep your eyes on the horizon.
On the most basic level, you learn to see what's there by being engaged with the world, by being in touch with your own internal compass and sense of direction.
When I lined up at noseguard, I was giving away 30 pounds or more to the guy opposite me. But Coach Richards would tell me, "So what if you're small in a big guy's game? You're quick and you're smart and you're tough." And he'd remind me, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog."
That's why I worked harder than anyone else to build up my strength and to get into better shape. During an average practice, I'd sweat off six pounds. I'd throw myself into those heavy blocking dummies and push them across the field as Coach Richards rode on the back. He worked me on angles of attack and timing. Being small, I could get down real low, and being strong, I could hit the guy real hard, using the power in my legs to lift him up and out of the way. Coach Richards was the one who first told me it was called "leverage."
I was fueled by my belief that there was nothing I couldn't do. Every time I got bashed and ground into the dirt, I got up, dusted off, and headed back for another go. Sure enough, I made the starting lineup. And later, long before the term "leveraged buyout" was invented, I was using the same football techniques in business, going after much larger companies by relying on agility, quickness, smarts, and the leverage of other people's money.
Having made the starting team in my first year, I moved on to my next goal for my second year. This time my new goal wasn't just for me, it was for the team. My battle cry was, "Beat Tallulah!"
They were the Darth Vaders of northeast Louisiana football, thirty minutes east of us down Highway 80, about halfway to Vicksburg. They were also the five-time State Champs. We played them every year on Thanksgiving Day, and every year on Thanksgiving Day they whipped us.
This year, I was determined, would be different.
To begin with, we were now a year older and a year wiser. Also, oil had been discovered in Delhi, and not just a little bit of it, so we were living smack in the middle of a frontier boomtown, which meant all sorts of new people were coming to town. Many of them were oil workers-roughnecks and roustabouts-and they had some good-sized kids who might otherwise have been playing for schools in East Texas or in the rich, natural gas land of south Louisiana. Now they were playing for Delhi. It changed the dynamics of our team, and that is how I started learning about how teams succeed.
Whether you are talking about sports or you are looking at corporate competition, each individual player is essential and yet, oddly enough, winning isn't determined by any one person. In football, if the front line doesn't open up holes, the backs have no place to run. If the backs can't run, the quarterback has fewer options, like no one to pass to. Survival in football, just like survival in business, depends on many varied factors synchronized together to create something much larger that somehow works in unison, each varied factor complementing and expanding the others.
The dictionary word for that is "synergy." If you put an egg, some water, some flour, some sugar, some chocolate, and some pecans on a table, all you have are the ingredients. If you know how to mix them and make them work together, you can wind up with a prize-winning batch of brownies. The result is greater than the sum of its parts.
Understanding that, and with these big kids coming on the team, Coach Richards introduced a new defensive strategy: a five-man line with four linebackers. Being the smallest guy on the field meant that if I was going to play my part, I needed to be the smartest guy on the field. So I memorized what I had to do for each play, and then worked out what everyone else had to do. I neutralized my size disadvantage by maximizing my quickness, instincts, and flexibility. In a game of split-second decisions, playing well meant playing smart. And just like that, we started winning football games.
Then we played Tallulah.
It was Thanksgiving Day, 1950. And it was a brutal game. We came off the field with cleat gashes, bruises, fat lips, and bloodied noses. The begrudgers were sure we'd be beaten, and we were losing 12-7 in the fourth quarter, when my brother, Charles, shot out of the backfield and our quarterback hit him cutting back across the center. Three Tallulah guys had a shot at him, but the first two bounced off and the last dove into empty space just as Charles reached the end zone.
We won 13-12.
I'd never felt better in my life. Beating Tallulah had been so big in my mind, such an enormous mountain to climb, that I could not think of anything beyond that. Then, in the exhilaration of our celebration, I suddenly realized that we were now in the playoffs for the State Championships.
It was the first time in five years that Tallulah would not be playing for the title, which made beating them that much sweeter. As I was walking off the field at the end of the game, though, I felt a tinge of sadness when I saw my Tallulah cousin, Flo Montgomery, crying over their loss.
On a cold and rainy night in Cajun country, we played for all the marbles against Clinton, a town north of Baton Rouge. We were losing 14-7 but, through sheer determination, little by little we brought the ball all the way down to the goal line. We could taste the touchdown coming, which would tie the game, and we knew that if we tied them, we could beat them.
They stopped us four inches short. It was a terrible disappointment, but as I dragged my aching body to the locker room, I decided this defeat simply meant we had a new goal to set. We'd been whipped by a bigger, more powerful team. The next goal had to be that next time we would not let that happen.
In football, just like in business and just like in life, the best teacher of all is failure.
Charles won himself a football scholarship to Northwestern State in Natchitoches, but there was a funny rule in those days that allowed graduating seniors who were under nineteen years old and had played fewer than four seasons to postpone their college enrollment and stay eligible in high school for one more semester. He was our best running back and, in my mind, keeping him on the team meant that if we really wanted to be State Champions-and believe me, I really wanted that-it was entirely within our reach.
That was another lesson I learned on the gridiron: never let failure predetermine your future.
So Charles signed on for another season, ran riot against our opponents, and halfway through the season we were unbeaten. We'd mauled six teams, outscoring them by a merciless 200-13.
Around town, the begrudgers had faded into the woodwork, and people were telling us the championship title was ours for the taking. Unfortunately, some of us made the mistake of believing that.
The Winnsboro Wildcats came to Delhi after losing to teams we had already trounced, and in our minds we'd whip them without shaking the dust off our boots. But we were so overly impressed with ourselves and so believed our own press clippings that, before we knew what had happened, we were down 14-0.
Confident is good but overconfident can be fatal, and I have seen this same disease of overconfidence afflict more company managers and chief executives than I care to mention. I call it the Terrible P's: Pictures in the newspaper, Perks, Power, and Prestige go straight to their heads. These afflicted managers and CEOs fall under a kind of spell, lulled into a state of inertia by the seduction of so much attention and flattery. When that happens, it is time for those people either to regain their integrity or to move on. If they will not do either, someone had better kick them out.
This is exactly what Coach Richards did to us. He pulled our whole starting lineup off the field and put in the second string. I kept thinking, "Maybe a few guys needed to be pulled, but all of us?"
Excerpted from 1,000 DOLLARS AND AN IDEA by SAM WYLY Copyright © 2008 by Sam Wyly. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
"Beat Tallulah" 4
Flora's Boys 14
Big Blue 26
Peter Drucker Wrote the Bible 32
Reach for a Star, Not a Handful of Mud 43
Me and Ross Perot 55
The Birth of a Company 58
A Thousand Dollars and an Idea 71
Multinational Entrepreneur 81
If You Can't Join 'em, Beat 'em 90
Monopoly Buster: Datran, or Die Trying 96
Before There Was Software, There Was Don Thomson 108
Earth Resources 115
Taking My Losses 138
Sterling Software 142
Money's Not Scarce 158
Never Let Your Pocketbook Tell You What You Can Do 174
The Crafty Woman 191
Maverick Investor 209
The Good Earth 226
What People are Saying About This
"I cannot think of a proper way to salute Sam Wyly. He has accomplished a great deal, and his success has always been accomplished with honor and integrity."
"Sam's book is an inspirational journey through the early years of online computing, the creation and growth of the software products industry, and the many and diverse achievements of one of the most important entrepreneurs of the 20th century."
"A joy to read. Sam Wyly is a wonderful American character: a natural entrepreneur and builder with an outsized personality and humor to match his success. This book captures the magic of the American dream."--(Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute and author of Einstein: His Life and Universe)
"Spanning four decades and remarkably diverse industries, the career of Sam Wyly-a true original-shows what good ideas, strong will, and access to capital can accomplish."--(Michael Milken, Chairman, The Milken Institute)
"Sam Wyly has been an extraordinary visionary for the long term. . . . I highly recommend this exceptionally entertaining and inspiring book."--(John Mackey, Founder, Whole Foods)