Jason Feifer: Tapping into the entrepreneurial mindset
Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur magazine, podcast host and self-proclaimed “non-stop optimism machine” Jason Feifer talks to Lysanne Currie about ideas, change and how CAs can fuel innovation
We’re just a few minutes into our conversation and Jason Feifer, Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur magazine, is already enthusing about a recent eye-catching initiative. “The live streaming of the lettuce brought me great joy,” he says of the Daily Star’s Lettuce vs Liz Truss prank as her premiership fell apart back in September. Feifer loves and celebrates great ideas, whether they be live-streamed salad from the UK or a space start-up in his native US. He lives and breathes innovation, both in his day job with the dynamic business magazine, and its associated media channels, and as author of top podcast and bestselling book, Build for Tomorrow.
Feifer speaks to founders and leaders of businesses of all sizes in all sectors. From SME to global behemoth, “they all have one thing in common – they are good at change,” he says. He believes an entrepreneurial mindset is an essential survival tool. “Warp-speed innovations are changing how we work, shop and socialise,” he says. That conviction is there in his book’s introduction: “Millions of people are rethinking their careers, businesses are scrambling to meet people’s expectations. Your life exactly as you know it now will not exist in a few years.”
He talks about how human beings go through four distinct phases when faced with a crisis – panic, adaptation, new normal, “wouldn’t go back” – and how, even when we complete the cycle, a sudden change could send us back to panic, starting a whole new cycle.
“Our goal should be to continually move towards ‘wouldn’t go back’ because that is where we can start recognising and collaborating on the opportunities of tomorrow and stop wasting energy trying to recreate the past,” he says. “We can’t slow or stop change but we can participate in it and benefit from it.”
The entrepreneurial mindset can help us all develop this attitude towards change, he believes – it’s a trait he has noticed in those he has interviewed for the magazine since taking the helm in 2016. “Entrepreneurs are adaptable in a way I didn’t think possible,” he says. “They have an intuitive understanding of what is important and worth protecting and what can be discarded into the ocean like a rocket ship’s booster. We can’t anticipate tomorrow’s needs but we can anticipate that tomorrow will have needs and they will be different from today. We must start to see instability as a form of opportunity.”
Seizing the moment
Feifer started his career as a community newspaper reporter before moving into magazines – Men’s Health, then Fast Company, before being approached by Entrepreneur. “It was an interesting niche brand,” he says. “They were looking to make some big changes and that presented a really interesting opportunity.”
The timing was serendipitous as, he explains, “people had started to use the word entrepreneur as an identity. The question the brand was asking was, how do we step up to this moment and be relevant to everybody who calls themselves an entrepreneur.”
Today, Feifer is not only Editor in Chief of the magazine, which boasts a print readership of 2.6 million and monthly website views of 20 million, but also presides over its many creative outlets which include a podcast, TV show and creative consultancy. Feifer’s stewardship of Entrepreneur has coincided with one of the most interesting times in business history. The pandemic led to a boom in new businesses, with company formations at certain points up 82% year on year in the US and 30% in the UK. Feifer has seen entrepreneurs emerging from all demographics. “It’s ‘third act-ors’ [people over 50] wanting to fulfil their dream or idea, but it’s also young people aspiring to start something new,” he says.
“In the US, the pandemic triggered a massive spike in start-ups. I think people saw that nobody was going to care for them as well as they could care for themselves. If you want to feel like you have some control over your destiny, the best way to do that is to figure out how to either build something yourself, or at least understand how to develop a self-fulfilling mindset.”
And it’s never been easier to start a business. “Thirty years ago, it was much harder,” Feifer says. “You had to build every part of it from scratch. Now you don’t even need to know [how to] code to get an app. You don’t need to build your own fulfilment system – there’s services to do that. Basically, every part of a business is taken care of, outside the hustle and the vision. And that’s what entrepreneurs are so good at.
“Not everyone will identify with the word ‘entrepreneur’, but I define it as someone who makes things happen for themself. You can use the entrepreneurial mindset, no matter what you do. I have spent many years now talking to entrepreneurs – by doing so, I have absorbed a way of thinking. I like to think of it as calibrating my brain to the way they think. There’s incredible value to that. It’s about focusing on the new opportunity ahead, rather than being protective of what’s been lost. Keep asking yourself, ‘What do people need now?’ rather than, ‘How do I keep doing the thing that I’ve already been doing?’ It’s a very powerful way of thinking. The winners, in our ever-rolling series of crises, will be the people who are able to think like that and stay focused on what’s next.”
Feifer works on many levels. Build for Tomorrow is not your standard business manual. Part history, part psychology, part practical help, it’s a deeply researched book that not only deals with evolution at a business level but also looks at historical cycles of change. While he steps back to see the big pictures, however, he also captures the vignettes of innovation and imagination. He cites Joelle Mertzel, inventor of one-piece butter dish Butterie, who in her early days needed market research to identify the colours that consumers wanted, but lacked the $10,000 to pay for it. “She was at an airport, waiting for her flight and trying to figure out what to do,” says Feifer. “She looked around and realised the airport was full of people with nothing better to do than answer questions about butter dishes. That’s how she did her research.
“I have told that story on stages across the country, to audiences of everyone from natural gas executives to party planners. When anyone hears it, they start to think about their own challenges and how they could be more resourceful.”
Resourcefulness and resilience seem key in this time of “permacrisis”. Feifer, though, questions whether our times really are a-changing faster than in previous centuries, or whether we have always had this reaction to change.
“I spend a lot of time studying the history of innovation and I see a recurring pattern: people are often deeply uncomfortable with new shifts in their world,” he says. “It leads to anxiety. But, despite their best efforts to try to stop it, change happens anyway. And the result is that they live in a more connected, more prosperous world. You can take some of the scepticism about Facebook and rewind and find the same anxiety when Samuel Morris created the first commercially viable telegraph.”
Feifer encourages a change in mindset to one of less suspicion, more hope: “We often evaluate new things by asking, ‘Is this perfect?’ The problem is it’s never perfect. If we always focus on what’s perfect then we discard anything with potential. The better question is, ‘Is our new problem better than our old problem?’ Because when you ask that, you acknowledge that problems are simply part of the process, and you start to track progress through the problems that you tackle.
“It isn’t that we don’t have problems – we have plenty – but, I think, we have better problems than before. The same is going to be true for a lot of people’s own personal experiences and businesses. We will all face challenges but let’s not forget that there were many challenges before and that, by grappling with them, you will ultimately end up in a place where the problem you’re trying to grapple with is better than the previous one.”
Feifer knows that it’s not just hustle, a growth mindset and new ideas that bring success. He believes in the power of the support system – and urges all entrepreneurs to value the role accountants can play in helping to make their ideas a reality.
“Every entrepreneur learns that as their business scales, systems are liberating,” he says. “Many founders like to think of themselves as the pirate captain of a scrappy start-up. They hate the idea of applying systems to what they do – they think it would limit their creativity. They want their business to be a free-wheeling space full of ideas with no limits. What they ultimately discover is that systems liberate them – when they build them into their business, they focus their energy on producing ideas, which is way more powerful.”
Even that seemingly endless entrepreneurial energy doesn’t offer complete protection from the mental health struggles many are facing, however. Asana revealed in its recent Anatomy of Work report that seven in 10 executives say burnout has affected their ability to make decisions.
Feifer believes we’ll continue to see more innovation in how we manage our mental health and productivity. “Many people think you either work incredibly hard and get a lot done, or you value your mental health and you get less done,” he says. “I don’t think that that’s the case. What I think we will find is that there are just simply different ways to get a lot of things done.”
By way of example, he cites his friend Kim Kaupe, who runs a consultancy. “She stopped checking her email every day, instead she checked it every other day. She let her clients know that if they need her urgently, to contact her assistant or text her.
“She was finding she was so anchored to her email, that she was not actually able to get big projects done, she didn’t have the time for the deep work she was being hired to do. She was worried that, of course, this was going to create all sorts of problems. But what ultimately happened was that people either handled them themselves or waited to talk to her later. What she discovered was that, by checking her email all the time, she was just training people that she was available all the time.
“People might say Kim is prioritising her own mental health over the needs of her clients. But that’s not true – what she is doing instead is shifting the way she works towards a better system so that she can deliver more value to her clients. It’s a good lesson. Just because we did something one way does not mean it’s the only way. There are infinite ways to do things. Change is exciting, it’s progress.”
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