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What America Can Learn from Joan Rivers

What was it about Joan Rivers that caused the news media and our conversations online and offline to pause and take notice this past week? Sure, lots of celebrities and business leaders have led extraordinary lives, but their passing doesn’t rank high on social conversations beyond a few minutes or one press cycle.

My take is that America really respected Joan Rivers as a determined game-changer not just the celebrity Joan Rivers.  Rivers had substance.  She wasn’t another vapid celebrity who survived on selfies and Twitter posts.  She had more to say and more to do.  At age 81, she hadn’t at all retired to the safe road.  She was still testing, creating, talking, joking, and innovating at a very high level.  Plus, we all admired how hard she worked at getting better.  There was nothing stale about Rivers which is why we never grew tired of her. 

I found myself saying to one disheartened entrepreneur this weekend, “You can learn a lot from Joan Rivers.” Here is what I emphasized.

1.   Find the right business partners.  Entrepreneurs know what it is like to present an idea to a group of naysayers who can’t quite see how a new product, service or technology will work in a commercially successful way.  Rivers, with her daughter Melissa by her side, pioneered the concept of creating television programming around red carpet events.  Her approach was entertaining, widely watched and proved to be a must-be-there vehicle for top beauty, fashion and consumer product advertisers.  Few entrepreneurs can accurately say that they opened up a new commercial market, but Rivers did. 

So, how did she do it? She chose her first business partner well.  Rivers’ red carpet coverage started with the E! Entertainment Television, which then was a startup cable channel that was eager to build an audience.  The nature of every new business initiative involves risk, so innovators have to choose partners that can accept a higher level of risk and a long timeline for new concepts to take hold in the marketplace.  E! was that perfect partner for Rivers. 

Apparently, not all of River’s business partners throughout her career were prosperous relationships.  Good business partners have to be trustworthy.  You can’t just assume that your business partners are honest and capable; you have to ensure that they are throughout the business partnership.  Again, choose business partners wisely.

2.   Creativity defeats failure.  Rivers talked about the importance of humor to help persevere through devastating personal and professional setbacks.  I think there is something more to River’s ability to overcome adversity that can benefit entrepreneurs and innovators in any profession. 

In order to move forward, you have to know where you want to go to next.  Forward moving people are forward-thinking people.  After a business loss of any sort, you have to be willing to be creative and, equally important, test that creativity again. 

Not all entrepreneurial ideas will ever work in the marketplace, just as every set of jokes will certainly contain a bomb or two.  I bet Rivers would have agreed that it is the satisfying process of being creative, and laughing about the hits and misses of innovative thinking, that gave her the extra adrenaline to move forward. 

To me, Rivers’ trademark resilience was a reflection of her incredible faith in her ability to create something meaningful and lucrative again.  When entrepreneurs don’t spend any more time creating in a purposeful way, they are no longer entrepreneurs.

3.   Face your audience without fear.  When Rivers needed work most, she would go to where the work was.  Actually, it seemed from the documentary “A Piece of Work” that Rivers would travel to wherever work was even after her career rebounded.  This attitude kept Rivers’ work relevant and fresh. 

Unfortunately, too many entrepreneurs I coach these days struggle because they are not willing to do the tougher work of getting out there in front of customers and investors—the two sources of life-sustaining cash for any business.  They sit comfortably behind their computers and wait for their audience to come to them. 

Success comes to entrepreneurs who face their customers without fear, even when they make a mistake in customer service or quality.  Not every prospective customer has to like what you are doing, but you can learn from their comments in order to advance your business interests.  And advance is what Rivers did over and over again.

We’ll miss you Joan.

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