Are you looking for some enjoyable summer reading with a bonus business lesson? If so, pick up A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley, by Neal Thompson. Whether or not you grew up reading Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” cartoons in the Sunday newspapers, like I did, you’re bound to be inspired by this (literally) rags-to-riches tale.
Robert LeRoy Ripley was a friendless, awkward boy, so poor he made himself shoes out of newspaper and painted them black (no one was fooled). He had jagged buckteeth so extreme he couldn’t close his mouth all the way and struggled to talk. He did poorly in school, daydreaming and drawing cartoons in class. So how did this shy, penniless boy become a millionaire in the midst of the Great Depression? His story is full of takeaways for today's modern entrepreneur—here are 12.
Turn your weaknesses into strengths. Ripley wasn’t a scholar, but he loved to draw and pursued his passion. He overcompensated for what he couldn’t change (his teeth) by making the most of what he could (he worked out obsessively). In later life, he managed to succeed on radio and TV because his awkwardness and odd appearance made others feel at ease.
Find your champions. Throughout his life, Ripley found supporters who encouraged his dream, from teachers who praised his drawing to successful cartoonists like Rube Goldberg who helped him get jobs.
Spot opportunity. In the pre-Internet, pre-TV days, the public got most of its information from newspapers. Papers were fiercely competitive, and cartoons helped them attract readers; as a result, cartoonists were highly paid. Even as a teen, Ripley saw the potential for his passion to make him money.
Learn from your failures. Ripley had never taken a drawing lesson when he got his first job as a newspaper cartoonist. Within months, he was fired because his self-taught cartoons weren’t professional enough. He never let that happen again.
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Do the work. After landing his second job, at the San Francisco Chronicle, Ripley signed up for art classes five mornings a week. After class, he reported to work, where he’d stay long after the rest of the staff had left for the day, then go home to sleep and be in class again by 8:30.
Take risks. By the end of his life, Ripley had circled the globe multiple times, climbed mountains and dined with cannibals, but he still maintained that the biggest risk he ever took was moving to New York in 1912 without a job. (Thanks to those champions I mentioned earlier, he quickly found one.)
Give the people what they want. Ripley started out as a sports cartoonist and the first “Believe It or Not” cartoon, originally called “Champs and Chumps,” first appeared in 1919 as a tribute to people who set athletic records (champs) or achieved odd feats like walking backward across the country or hopping the hundred-yard dash on one leg (chumps). But in the post-WWI era, tabloid culture began taking off and Ripley soon realized people were less interested in the champs than in the chumps—the oddballs, misfits and wackos who did things like eat glass, grow their toenails 10 feet long and hammer nails into their heads.
Hire the right people. Ripley’s secret weapon was Norbert Pearlroth, a “walking encyclopedia” who had memorized an endless supply of obscure facts and happily spent hours on end in the library digging up esoteric fodder for Ripley’s columns. (Best of all for Ripley, he was happy to do it for a fraction of what Ripley made.)
Make the right deals. Ripley hit pay dirt when William Randolph Hearst hired him to work for King Features Syndicate. While his base salary of $60,000 was huge for 1929, the real secret to Ripley’s exponentially increasing wealth was that Hearst also gave him a percentage of the sales of his cartoons to non-Hearst papers. Estimates put his income at the height of the Great Depression at $500,000 ($9 million in today’s dollars). By 1936, he was one of the highest-paid people in America.
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Diversify. The success of “Believe It or Not” led to a wildly successful book, speaking tours, radio programs, movie shorts and “The Odditorium”—a traveling freak show of souvenirs from his world travels, like shrunken heads, and human oddities like the Mule-Faced Lady and the Crocodile Man.
Always innovate. As Ripley’s success grew, so did the number of copycats. Never resting on his laurels, he constantly looked for new ways to give his audiences something they couldn’t get anywhere else. His radio show featured groundbreaking stunts like diving in a shark tank, milking rattlesnakes and transmitting live during a parachute jump.
Take care of yourself. A fitness nut in his youth (he avowed that handball was the solution to stress), Ripley was also a heavy drinker and, as his business empire grew, he stopped making time to exercise. In 1949, at just 59 years old, he collapsed during the filming of his last venture, a TV show, and died of a fatal heart attack.
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Photos: Getty Images