Mark Thompson is a senior executive leadership coach to some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, a venture capitalist, and a Tony-nominated Broadway producer. So how does he quantify success?
Balancing hubris and humility
Mark Thompson’s story is a textbook example of the American dream. His labourer parents went bankrupt and faced homelessness on many occasions, he struggled through school with learning difficulties and his brother suffered a brain injury at birth.
But the quiet rural valley of Northern California where Mr Thompson grew up was about to develop into the world’s foremost hub for tech companies – Silicon Valley – and Mr Thompson reaped the rewards of that development. Among his numerous roles that caused him to rub shoulders with the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Mr Thompson was the chairman of Rioport, whose parent company popularised the MP3 player before the iPod.
He is now a senior executive leadership coach to some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, a venture capitalist, and a Tony-nominated Broadway producer. It’s no wonder Mr Thompson, who spoke at the 10th annual International Network of Small and Medium Entreprises (Insme) on Yas Island this week, also writes New York Times bestselling books on how to achieve success.
How did you come to eat breakfast with President Obama on Inauguration Day in January?
[The US president Barack] Obama has been a real advocate for SMEs to charge ahead through a period of economic uncertainty, and I’m part of a group of entrepreneurs who have been invited regularly to meetings at the White House on economic growth. Like me, he believes the privilege you develop needs to be paid back by helping the next generation of entrepreneurs. He’s been successful, but he hasn’t lost that connection with where he came from.
What qualities do you see in the most successful entrepreneurs?
It takes this driving ambition and almost hubris to be able to think you can build something that can grow and that you can compete with others. But at the same time, you have to have this humility where you realise you have to get better every time or someone else will take your place and that it’s not about you, it’s about us. It’s difficult for a lot of gifted, ambitious people to understand that it’s about humility and ambition at the same time. You need critics who can say: ‘You’re full of yourself right now, you need to be listening to those around you.’ It’s a balancing act. Steve Jobs once told me my Rioport company’s MP3 Player was ‘a geeky piece of garbage, and I’m going to crush you’. He was right, I wish I’d listened to him. He took features from our device for his, but developed this beautifully simple design.
What did you learn from that?
Large companies should [be able to] crush every entrepreneur because they have more resources, staff, customers, and channels – they’ve figured it all out. Yet every day, SMEs come along and disrupt their industries. That there’s actually room for them to compete against the big boys is remarkable. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has this crazy idea to deliver with flying robots. He was asked: ‘Why do you continue to push the envelope in this way?’ He answered: ‘Because I always have to think about the next start-up that’s going to come along and disrupt my business model.’ I think that’s a great message for big companies, to have that humility, and for the SMEs to have that hubris to say, ‘maybe we do have a chance against the big guys’.
How do you decide what to invest in?
Richard Branson, who has been a partner and mentor through my life, has always spoken in terms of being able to ‘screw business as usual’. The way I frame it is: ‘you can do well and do good’. Today, the best brands are the ones making a contribution to the community. I invest in Toms Shoes for example, which give away a pair of shoes to an impoverished child with every pair sold. [The owner is] doing well and at the same time giving back. When I look at millennials in San Francisco, New York, Toronto and the UAE, they like to be emotionally connected to the work they’re doing. Sustainable success is driven as much from the heart as it is from the head.
You’ve met and worked with many of the world’s most successful people. Who has inspired you the most?
I did a world success survey at the World Economic Forum where I interviewed various presidents about their definitions of success. One of those was Nelson Mandela. He could have come back from all those years of prison the most angry person in the world. But he said being resentful is like drinking poison and hoping it kills the other guy. He seemed to really understand that every day should be about becoming better at what you do.
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