OCTOBER 2010 ENTREPRENEUR OF THE MONTH
Steven Schussler, founder of the Rainforest Cafe, and CEO of Schussler Creative
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.”
“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.”
Click here for Schussler’s Tips for Entrepreneurs: The 5 Ps of Business Success.