The Secret of Their Success: It’s Not About the Money

What does it take to start a successful business these days? A lot of passion, for sure, but it’s really perseverance that matters.

Bob Parsons is best known as the founder of GoDaddy, the domain registration company that grabbed attention with provocative television commercials in the early 2000s. The company quickly came to dominate the market for registering domain names.

After selling the company and amassing a net worth of $2.7 billion, he now runs various companies that include PXG, a high-end golf club manufacturer; the exclusive Scottsdale National Golf Club in Arizona; several motorcycle businesses; and a commercial real estate portfolio.

Around the time of GoDaddy’s success, David Neeleman was changing commercial air travel in the United States. In 1998, he co-founded JetBlue Airways, which he took public in 2002 and ran until 2007, when he was ousted as chief executive. But before he left, JetBlue set a new standard for customer service — and introduced live television in flight.

Mr. Neeleman has since founded two other airlines, Azul in Brazil and a yet-unnamed United States airline that is expected to begin flying next year.

Over the holidays, I sat down with both entrepreneurs in separate interviews. They have long fascinated me, as much for what they did as for what they continue to do. Both started from scratch, struggled in school and worked for decades before they earned tremendous wealth. And both have kept returning to entrepreneurial ventures to test new ideas in new markets.

I wanted to see what could be learned from them, but I also wanted to understand how their success came about. Neither of their ventures was based on creating a new industry: There were more airlines than there are today when JetBlue started, and Mr. Parsons said the domain registration market was full of registrars when he got into it.

Also, in a time when entrepreneurship feels like a college major, I wanted to talk to two people who started out working for other companies and through those jobs got the spark that fueled their creativity.

Mr. Parsons, 69, half-jokingly attributes his success to not technically passing the fifth grade. When the nuns at his Catholic school in Baltimore held him back, he skipped out of summer school and lined up with the sixth graders that fall, to the bafflement of the nuns. They let him stay.

It’s a quirk Mr. Parsons reminded his mother of when he appeared on the Forbes wealth list. “I called and said, ‘Mom, I know guys who passed the fifth grade and aren’t on the Forbes list,’” he said.

But that experience was something he said he came back to as a Marine in the Vietnam War, when he was convinced he was going to die. And when GoDaddy was slowly burning through the $34 million he got from selling his first company, Parsons Technology, which made money management software, he again recalled those nuns.

“When GoDaddy didn’t go broke, I thought of the fifth grade,” he said. “I learned then that in a hopeless situation, if you keep at it, you can keep at it.”

The turning point for GoDaddy was a racy Super Bowl advertisement in 2005 that spoofed the previous year’s Super Bowl halftime show, when the singer Janet Jackson had her famous “wardrobe malfunction.” The ad, which featured a woman in a tight GoDaddy tank top, was supposed to run twice, but Fox pulled the second airing. The ensuing controversy jolted GoDaddy into the public conversation and made it the go-to registrar for domain names.

“That whole business was about as exciting as a cup of sawdust,” Mr. Parsons said. “We made the business exciting through our commercials and made it a fun thing to be associated with.”

Mr. Neeleman, 60, who struggled with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder in school, grew up working with his siblings in their grandfather’s convenience stores in Utah. It instilled in him the value of customer service.

At his first airline, Morris Air, he bought a machine called a fog buster to lessen delays for planes in the winter, he said. “If you shot it in the air, it crystallized the fog and turned it into snow,” he said. That allowed the planes to take off.

After a brief stint at Southwest Airlines, which bought Morris Air, Mr. Neeleman began plans to start JetBlue.

“At the time JetBlue hit the market, airlines were at an all-time low for customer service,” he said. “No one believed we could buy brand-new airplanes, give people live TV, put the airline in New York City and I could blow everyone away. But the bigger the gap between what people got and what they expected — that was what created the buzz.”

Money is never the main motivation of successful entrepreneurs, said Kyle Jensen, associate dean and director of entrepreneurship at the Yale School of Management.

Mr. Parsons agreed. “You’ve got to be doing it to be exceptional,” he said. “The quirkiness of it is, once you do that, it’s what you need to make money.”

Some studies found that entrepreneurs became better at running each successive venture, but in many industries, the one who sticks it out the longest often prevails, said Professor Jensen, who has started three businesses.

“Entrepreneurs usually have some inkling about a problem they can solve,” he said. “But typically they’re not exactly right. So if you survive long enough, you pivot and pivot and pivot and find what sticks.”

That was what happened with GoDaddy, Mr. Parsons said. The company had tried various strategies before it landed on selling domain names in the hopes of driving business to the software it was developing. Instead, domain names became the core business.

With JetBlue, Mr. Neeleman credited his brief stint at Southwest for showing him how an airline could take advantage of tax laws and financing programs to buy new planes and still be profitable.

The three factors typically at play for a successful entrepreneurial venture are a demand in the marketplace, a well-developed idea and luck, said Karl T. Ulrich, vice dean for entrepreneurship and innovation at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

For existing industries, the quality of the execution becomes more important, he said, and it can translate across businesses.

“That factor should be pretty consistent for a given entrepreneur over his or her career,” Professor Ulrich said. “This would be one explanation for why some entrepreneurs — those with great skills — are consistently successful.”

Mr. Parsons said the unifying theme of his various ventures had been to create an experience. With his first software company, he offered better customer service than competitors; with GoDaddy, he built a buzz around the company’s commercials.

With his current businesses, he has focused on creating a premium experience in branding. PXG, which releases its third generation of popular and expensive irons this weekend, has carved out a niche for high-performance golf clubs that can be independently measured. But the brand also has a cultlike following among die-hard golfers.

At Scottsdale National, Mr. Parsons has limited the membership to 145 people. People interested in joining need to send in an application just to visit, which costs $30,000. If Mr. Parsons and his wife, Renee, get along with the prospective members, they can join — for a $300,000 initiation fee and annual dues of $60,000.

“I did not enter the golf club business,” Mr. Parsons said. “I entered the business of creating an experience.”

Mr. Neeleman sees Azul in Brazil as a similar customer service story to JetBlue. When he started the airline in 2008, “there was no customer service and the safety protocols were bad in Brazil,” he said. “Now, we have 1,000 flights a day and serve 114 cities.”

Successful entrepreneurs are, by design, people who see their slice of the world differently. If they didn’t want to improve their industry, they would be content working for an existing company like everyone else.

Even now, after so much success, Mr. Parsons said he was quick to quit a strategy that did not work. “I don’t dwell on things,” he said. “I think about something and I do it.”

But there is a downside. When he’s at Scottsdale National, where he and his wife also have a home, he can’t ever fully relax. “I can’t enjoy it like a member,” he said. “I’m always looking for things to improve.”

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