David McCourt stands in front of a Venice Beach mural creatd by a local artist inspired by McCourt’s “rethink” philosophy.
The world is rapidly changing. Business. Media. Politics. Technology. Environment. Demographics. All aspects of our lives—personal and professional—are shifting. According to Irish-American entrepreneur David McCourt, to succeed in these times, you need to rethink everything. Gone are the days when incremental steps forward were enough to be successful. To overcome the oncoming challenges and to take advantage of opportunities that are emerging, you need to think like a revolutionary.
Currently the Chairman and founder of Granahan McCourt Capital, McCourt was an early contributor to the development of transatlantic fiber networks and has founded or bought over 20 companies in nine countries. Described by The Economist as a “telecom revolutionary,” McCourt is the author of Total Rethink: Why Entrepreneurs Should Act Like Revolutionaries. I recently had the opportunity to interview him about what it will take to succeed in a world that is rapidly evolving.
Chaka Booker: In your book, you quote a lesson from your mother who said, “It’s all about attitude, gratitude and acceptance.” How are those important for an entrepreneur?
David McCourt: My mother was a remarkable woman. A real force. I mean, she renewed her license at a hundred years of age. Her theory was you have to avoid, alter or accept everything. Those are your choices. Navigating life and business is tough. There is always someone who’s worse off than you. Be grateful and work with what you have. Accept what won’t change, but don’t quit, instead rethink what you need to do. That’s why attitude matters, because if there are things you have to accept, your attitude will determine whether you succeed. Acceptance forces you to rethink what you do next, and that will lead to your success.
Booker: Speaking of lessons, if you were to teach entrepreneurship, what would you want people to learn?
McCourt: Number one, you have to learn that your Plan B by definition might be better than your Plan A. That’s important because mathematically, you are going to fail. But by failing, you’ve reduced the odds of failure the second time around because you know what you did wrong. Number two, identify your strengths and work on those. Most people will tell you to work on your weakness. But there’s empirical data that says you can improve your strengths almost infinitely and do little to improve your weaknesses. Third, learn how to tell your story, because if you have a great idea but you can’t explain it, you’re not going anywhere. And fourth, going back to my mother’s advice, the ability to rethink. You have to be able to look at something and say, “I’m not going to try to change that. I’m going to totally rethink that.” Look at it from a different angle. Instead of battling an existing construct, learn to rethink it from scratch.
Booker: You’ve mentioned organizations like Google and Facebook were once revolutionary, but now may be too unwieldy. Is it possible for large organizations to keep reinventing themselves?
McCourt: Almost impossible. There are a few exceptions, Steve Jobs and Apple, Reed Hastings and Netflix. Netflix originally had a plan to compete against Blockbuster because they pissed everyone off with late fees. That was plan A. Then plan B was a monthly subscription that was cheaper than your cable bill, but it wasn’t great content. Now the third plan is really bespoke, special content. He keeps rethinking. Steve Jobs was the same way. A computer company that reinvented the music business and then reinvented the phone business. Very few have done it. That’s why the little guy, the entrepreneur, has an advantage.
Booker: Where do you currently see opportunities?
McCourt: I’m a big believer in David versus Goliath. If you take on the big guy, the world will reward you. Think of the big global problems right now, the costs of healthcare, education and housing are all rising faster than wages. And we have environmental problems. Those four problems all need to be rethought. There’s an old Irish expression, “Where there’s muck, there’s brass.” It means in hard work, you’ll make money. In problems, there’s reward. Identify businesses that provide solutions in those four areas and you can live a life where you’re doing good, and you can make a lot of money.
Booker: If you were in your twenties or thirties today, what types of ideas would you be pursuing?
McCourt: Anything that cuts out the middleman. Anything that’s infinitely scalable. Anything around the internet of things, artificial intelligence, or bringing connectivity to the underserved. I’d be thinking about one of the big societal problems we have such as there is the equivalent of seven New York Cities a year moving into urban environments. In Africa, Asia and the Western world. It’s a global phenomenon. The problem is the rural environment is being left behind. They don’t have the jobs in the rural environment. We have to figure out how to get connectivity to the rural environment. Educate, train and deliver jobs to people all through connectivity. I would be rethinking the rural environment because there is opportunity there.
Booker: What’s an example of how to run a business doing that?
McCourt: I used to own call centers. Each center had about 2,000 people. Working the night shift at a call center isn’t a great job. You’re getting yelled at for eight hours straight by people with problems, and you’re away from home all night. As soon as you can get a better job, you take it. But what happens if you could do that job from home? What if we find ambitious people, but they have to stay home because they have a special needs child? Or a parent they’re caring for? Or they’re disabled? There are a million reasons why someone might want to work at home and work off-hours. To give them work, you need connectivity, they need to be properly trained, and you need to know they’re doing accurate work. But those things can be fixed with technology. That can revitalize the rural parts of not only the US, but all over the world. Call centers are just an example, but rethink what else could be done in that way and you’ll find opportunity.
Booker: You are a person with a lot of ideas. How do you decide which ones to pursue?
McCourt: If you follow trends, you’ll find success. If you follow fads, you’ll get screwed. I look for trends. I ask different people the same questions over and over. I look for a theme and over time that creates a little red thread you can follow. That allows you to differentiate between a trend and a fad. Sometimes it’s hard to know if something is a trend or a fad. A way to tell them apart is that a trend usually isn’t confusing, there is a pattern. But a fad can confuse you. You might miss some trends, because you didn’t understand them and thought they were a fad. But that’s okay because at least you won’t mistake a fad for a trend and pursue something where you get screwed.
Booker: Your book is for people who are trying to gain success. What’s some advice for organizations that are already successful?
McCourt: The divide between the haves and have-nots is bigger than it’s ever been. The left blames big business. The right blames bad government. We have to stop pointing at each other. The problem is we, in industry, are taking too much out of our communities, and we’re not giving back enough. For example, healthcare. My daughter stands in the rain, raising money for cancer research. Meanwhile, there are companies making astronomical profit margins from the business of curing cancer. You can’t make abnormally high profits when you’re telling people you’re providing healthcare. Insulin was invented in the 1920s. A month’s supply is $43 in most parts of the world. In America, it’s $450. You can’t have products that have been around since the 1920s going up in price when we’re supposed to be using technology to drive the price down. If we don’t fix that, then we should expect government to intervene and chances are they’ll do a lousy job because they don’t understand the industry. Those of us who are successful have to say, “We’re not doing enough for these local communities, and if we don’t, the government’s going to regulate us, and that’ll screw up everything.” When it happens, big business will complain, and say the government is ruining the competitiveness of America. But it’ll be their fault, because they got greedy. That’s what I’d tell them to do. Look in the mirror and start coming up with solutions. We can’t keep attacking each other. We have to rethink what we are doing as leaders and give back to the local communities we’ve been taking from.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.