The late Steve Jobs is famous for many things, large and small, including this statement: “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”
My guest for episode eight of the Disrupt Yourself Podcast, Bernie Swain, exemplifies this as well as anyone I’ve ever met. Bernie is the Founder and Chairman of Washington Speakers Bureau and few, if any, are more influential in the lecture industry than he is. In his 35+ year career he has represented several U.S. Presidents and the last four Prime Ministers of Great Britain as well as numerous luminaries in business, media, sports, and politics. But his profession has required great discretion and confidentiality; Bernie’s impact transcends his fame. As the podcast demonstrates, Bernie has been a closet entrepreneur—in more ways than one.
Well on his way to a successful career as a university athletic director (what he thought was his dream job), but still dissatisfied, Bernie blazed an unlikely path to create Washington Speakers Bureau in partnership with his wife, Paula, and Harry Rhoads, a colleague and friend. Operating with inadequate information and some flawed assumptions the entire enterprise could have been a disaster and almost was.
Accustomed as I am to the great tool that is the modern internet, and how much it simplifies and augments my efforts to do business, this claim was startling to me. But Bernie’s reasoning is that the information available on the internet would have persuaded them that they couldn’t succeed. The playing field was too crowded; the process too complex. Because they didn’t know that they couldn’t succeed they kept trying and ultimately out-lasted all the forces that might have led to their demise.
I won’t reveal how long the three of them conducted their business out of a closet—a modestly sized walk-in, not a broom closet—but still, boot-strapping is a barely adequate word to describe the beginnings of what is now, and has for a long time been, the king-pin business of the lecture industry. It is perseverance—optimistic, patient and nearly heroic perseverance—that prevailed over these early obstacles. “I’ve had a lot of people ask me how I felt,” Bernie relates.
Bernie could retire, not only because he’s financially successful but also because he’s at an age when people are typically retiring. Instead he is, for the first time, on the speaking circuit himself. Surprisingly, he confides that this activity he has long been associated with is quite uncomfortable for him. But he recognizes that the values that elevated him to the pinnacle of his profession are not always understood, much less honored, in the world of business today.
He’s recently published a book, What Made Me Who I Am, to share not only some insider stories on the staggering roll call of clients that he has represented over three and a half decades, but also to impart a few words of wisdom on the virtue of perseverance and some other character qualities that he admires and has exemplified to good effect over his long career. “I think honesty above all is the most important thing….The advantage of not knowing what you’re doing is that you think things through and you try to do it the right way. As opposed to, when you’re in an industry that maybe you feel you can get away with things, you cut corners because you know you can cut corners….I always figured that if I did things the right way that good things would happen.”
An interesting facet of old-fashioned ideas is that they eventually sound fresh again. Once counted among Bernie’s many clients was Alex Haley, the author of Roots, who liked to say, “When an old person dies it’s like a library burning.” With the new book and the speaking engagements, Bernie is determined that his personal and remarkable library of experience will not be consumed by his eventual—not imminent—passing. He advocates a well-intentioned life, one that doesn’t leave the important things to chance. “Rather than looking back on it, and looking at a life well-spent, looking at it early and creating a life that’s well-lived.”
My interview with this disruptive, entrepreneurial and wise man can be heard here or by listening below:
By Whitney Johnson