To the Class of 2020

To those whose lives and careers are just beginning, I think about what it means to enter the world at such a challenging time. 

When I was in graduate school, 2008 brought with it great challenges. It was the Great Recession. The housing market crashed, taking the global economy with it. There was uncertainty in the job market and rampant fear. Would there be enough jobs for all of us?

One of my favorite authors, Napoleon Hill, wrote in Think and Grow Rich: “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”

I believe that is right. A time of crisis may create uncertainty, but it also creates opportunity. 

Twelve years ago, I saw opportunity in the garbage space — one of the toughest industries around. I believed it was a market ripe for disruption, and I was so convinced of my idea that I maxed out my personal credit cards to create a prototype. Today that prototype has become a company, Rubicon, valued at more than $1 billion.

Will that approach work for everyone? No. I do not recommend it for all of you. But the point is I did not let anything get in my way of starting a successful business. Not the worst economy in decades. Not the bruised-knuckle garbage industry. Not a lack of resources, or time.

Adversity can be our own calling to growth. Adversity can reveal the essence of character. And we know the character of our nation is strong. 

The fact is we are living in the greatest time and the greatest place in the history of the world to create your own opportunities. Technology has lowered the barriers to entry and made starting a business a low-cost investment for most people. And the ease of finding information and digital networking has made location irrelevant. It starts with an idea and a willingness to see it through. 

I suspect that some of you might be thinking, “I’m a recent college graduate. I have student loans. I’m just starting out. How can I create my own opportunities?”

But you will often find opportunities where others have not looked. Look to where very few people are willing to go. Whether it is applying for a job that doesn’t seem cool, or, like me, starting a business about trash. When I entered the garbage space, very few others were looking there. And those in that space were some of the toughest and biggest businesses around. But I knew in my heart of hearts there was opportunity there, and I went for it — and reaped the benefits. 

Do not let your lack of resources be a deterrent. Being broke does not have to be solely a disadvantage. For me, it was a motivating factor. I considered it a challenge. If you can build an idea into an opportunity when you are running on fumes, then imagine what your idea will become when you pour on the gasoline. If you can grab that job or business opportunity when you are at the ground floor with nothing, then imagine the kinds of challenges you can overcome as you climb the ladder of success. 

But I am not here just to lob platitudes your way. Having been where you are, I have five things to share that were critical to my own success in the hope you may find them of use.

1) You are a composite of the five people you spend the most time with, and you are only as good as the people you surround yourself with. Even if you’re just starting out, you can still surround yourself with people of good character and like-minded values who make positive contributions to society to reinforce the changes you want to make as you develop your plan and chart a course. Not everyone is going to be an entrepreneur. Even if you have to volunteer part-time or take a smaller paycheck for a while, put a premium on being around highly talented people and learn everything you can from them. Equally important is getting away from negative people when you are starting out. You need to have a positive outlook at all times.

2) Do not be afraid to call on people for advice. Seeking out the best and brightest people for their advice will shave years off your learning curve. People want to be asked for their advice and opinions, and you will be surprised at the number of successful people that you can reach with a cold call. Even now that I am running a mature company, I still cold call people all the time. When I was starting Rubicon, I made it my mission to get in front of the smartest and most successful people that I could find. If you do not have a lot of personal capital, you better be good at raising it or getting access to it.

3) Do not overlook industries that may not seem cool or interesting. My mother had a lot of questions and concerns when I told her that I was starting a garbage company. However, garbage is recession proof, it is essential to the economy, and it is an industry ripe for disruption. Do not overlook the obvious situations where there might be an opportunity to reimagine an industry.

4) Brace for rejection. Rejection is just feedback that you need to refine your pitch, refine your model, and refine how you are presenting yourself to the market.

5) Be a fighter. Stand by your convictions. As a disrupter in our industry, we have experienced tremendous challenges. We have gotten sued and we have been smeared. It will probably not surprise you to learn that the garbage industry is not always nice. When we were initially sued by people who were trying to take us down, that is when we knew we were winning. If you get knocked down, keep coming back. Eventually you will find a way to win.

I love going to work and I get excited every day about the difference that my company is making in the world. If I could go back to 2008, I would do it all over again. Yes, it was a time of crisis, but it was the most exciting time of my life. And I used the uncertainty and fear as fuel to start a business that I believe will change the world.

Today we are in another time of crisis. And now it is your turn. The ball is in your court. Do not wait for someone else to give you permission to achieve. In a time of crisis like we are now experiencing, your creativity and hard work will make you successful, no matter from where you are starting out. 

I am looking forward to seeing how the Class of 2020 does in making a great nation even greater.

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