Very few Americans can imagine building a $200 million fortune in a former communist country where English isn’t the primary language. Paul Oberschneider defied all odds and built a highly profitable real estate business before he branched out to other sectors like banking, hospitality, and retail.
He presciently sold all his assets just before the global financial crisis hit and then decided to devote his time to building businesses in the U.K. and mentoring startup entrepreneurs. How did he go from $400 and zero contacts to a multi-million dollar exit?
In his words, “if you’re willing to put in the work and show up you can achieve anything. There are no magic beans.”
Here are a few lessons I got from our discussion.
Just Show Up
Oberschneider went to Estonia for a three-week vacation to explore the country and learn about his family’s history. His $400 allowance was only expected to last long enough till he could catch his return flight. A random meeting in the square in downtown Tallin, Estonia with a Russian stranger named Sergei changed his life.
Sergei, in his broken English, asked Paul to write a business plan in English so he could apply for a business loan at the local bank. Oberschneider wrote the business plan, and to their mutual surprise, the bank approved the loan.
Word quickly spread about the American who could help you get money from the bank, and by the end of the summer, Paul had amassed over $100,000 in cash.
Looking back on the sequence of events, Oberschneider notes that if he had not kept an open mind about every experience during his vacation, he probably wouldn’t have made the seed capital that formed the basis of his fortune. You can’t plan every detail of your life out. You have to be willing to put yourself in the position where opportunity can find you.
Ignore Your Weaknesses and Play on Your Strengths
Many entrepreneurs are fond of advocating that you should fix your weaknesses and become well rounded. However, Oberschneider did the exact opposite. He focused on his strengths, hired people who had complementary skills and gave them the authority to make decisions.
That singular act empowered his employees and made them feel that they had a vested interest in the success of the company. Job satisfaction and profits soared up until he sold his businesses to a private equity group.
Entrepreneurs are prone to do it all by themselves. This attitude is the reason why many entrepreneurs start several projects but never seem to finish anything. To be productive as an entrepreneur, you need to learn how to hire the right people and delegate responsibility and authority so that they can do their jobs.
Be Open to Serendipity
As the global economy was reaching a feverish pitch in 2006, Oberschneider started selling off his investments. By 2008, he had just about sold his last asset when the global financial crisis hit. While many saw their fortunes evaporate, he was sitting on a nice pile of cash.
It all started when Oberschneider got a call from a Nordic private equity group about buying his businesses. The call triggered the memory of a conversation he had with another mysterious stranger named “Elvis” many years prior.
Not one to ignore sound advice, he took a gamble by selling his assets, and it paid off in a big way. As an entrepreneur, you’ve got to be willing to talk to people who know more than you do and file their advice away.
You never know how useful a sliver of information can be until the situation presents itself.
Be Bold and Seize Opportunities
Eastern Europe in the nineties was the wild East, and things were pretty crazy. Oberschneider noted that on a hot summer afternoon, a couple of Russian gangsters with guns barged into his office and demanded protection money from his business.
He didn’t try to take them on because he’s not Superman or Batman. Moreover, he knew that if he caved into their demands, he would be under their thumb forever.
So he pulled a wild stunt. He got angry with the guys and started throwing things around and destroying the furniture in his office. The Russian gangsters were shocked and thought he was psychotic, so they ran off and never returned.
Boldness in the face of uncertainty and danger is one of the most valuable assets an entrepreneur possesses. People are automatically attracted to individuals who exhibit a can-do attitude. Sometimes even when you’re in a disadvantaged situation, act like you know what you’re doing.
Your boldness will buy you time and help establish your reputation. The key is to act boldly and not recklessly.
As the “Startup-CEO,” Oberschneider mentors young entrepreneurs around the world who are interested in building great companies. His first advice to young entrepreneurs is to be disciplined in their life and know when to stop.
Speaking from experience, he told me that as a high-flying Wall Street trader he partied at all the best clubs in NYC with famous people. The only rule at work was that as long as you’re able to perform all day, you can do whatever you want all night.
This freewheeling approach to life led him down the path of alcohol addiction. He subsequently lost his job, money, expensive toys and personal possessions.
He had to check himself into a rehab facility to get sober and has never forgotten those lessons.
Life doesn’t come with a manual. You discover things about yourself through experimentation and observation. The key to success is to be disciplined enough to control your excesses and know when to stop if necessary.
Keep your eyes on the prize and do your work with excellence. Distractions come in different forms, but ultimately you have to know your “why” and be true to yourself.
Sell Tacos in Africa
Entrepreneurship isn’t always about creating the next Facebook or Google. Sometimes it could be as simple as a making a name for yourself in a small niche and expanding your influence.
Writing business plans for money in Estonia was not a side-hustle he had planned. He just happened to be the one guy who spoke English and had seen a few business plans in New York.
If he had tried to sell the service in the U.S., he probably wouldn’t have made $400. The competition from Ivy League business school graduates would have crushed him. However, in Estonia, he was the King.
Opportunities are everywhere. The best opportunities are in uncontested markets. Bill Gates wouldn’t have been “Bill Gates” if he wasn’t the one guy who was interested in computers and was lucky enough to be in the one school that had access to a computer early.
Sometimes you have to find uncontested markets and blaze a trail.
Oberschneider says that these days the last remaining uncontested markets are in Africa, in places like Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, and Kenya. In these markets, you can niche down and become a market leader in a short time.
To be successful in 2021, you have got to disrupt some things or create something new. If you are willing to work hard, show up and “Forrest Gump” your way through it all, you too can make a fortune. You just have to believe in yourself.
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