West Point graduate, Airborne Ranger, and Donald Trump apprentice Kelly Perdew chats with Ray Zinn about leadership, entrepreneurship and the blend of military and business discipline.
Kelly Perdew: Hi. My name’s Kelly Perdew. I am excited to be here on Tough Things First Podcast. I’m excited to talk to Ray today and ask him a bunch of questions about entrepreneurship, leadership, what’s happening in Silicon Valley, and anything else we can come up with. Thanks for having me here today, Ray.
Ray Zinn: Hey, it’s my pleasure. It’s been a while, Kelly. It’s been about a year since we first got together. We were trying to do a TV show together. Of course, that didn’t seem to go anywhere, but glad to have you back on the air. Kelly is a well-known individual. He was one of the winners on The Apprentice. He’s written a book. He’ll tell you a little bit about his book, and then we’re just going to get into our question and answers here.
Kelly Perdew: Absolutely. One of the interesting things that happened to me after being on that reality show and working with Donald Trump for a year was, a lot of people were interested in my military background, whether or not I thought that the military helped prepare me for business. I know one of your core principles is discipline.
I wrote a book about applying military leadership principles to business, but I would love to hear straight from you. I’ve only been at this now for a couple of decades, and I know you’ve been at it for a little longer than I have. As it relates to entrepreneurship, how does discipline fit into being an entrepreneur?
Ray Zinn: It’s interesting. You talked about your military background and the training you received there. My mother, I’m the oldest of 11 children, and my mother was quite a disciplinarian. I felt like I was in the military, even though I was in my home. I was raised in a pretty strict environment.
I remember my mother would get upset if we took an Oreo cookie and opened it up and scooped off the frosting before we ate the Oreo cookie. She was quite prompt in everything she did. The way she … She even said to chew your milk. She was really a fanatic about everybody had to be dressed at this certain time, up at a certain time, and we had chores that were listed on a chalkboard that we had to follow. It’s a little bit like that military structure, Kelly, that you probably had in the military and the training you had there.
I was raised in a similar environment. My grandfather on my mom’s side was a warrant officer, a staff sergeant or whatever, back in the first World War. That’s the way she was raised, she was raised in kind of a military-type environment. Of course, she passed that on to us children. Running a household of 11 children, you had to have a pretty disciplined organization. Everybody had to follow pretty much a predetermined scorecard. That’s kind of how I was raised. I’m not sure my brothers and sisters would say that they picked up that same skillset, but I certainly learned that discipline from my mother.
I define discipline as doing what you don’t like doing and doing it well, and certainly having to wash dishes as opposed to using a dishwasher back in the ’50s when you had 13 people that you were having to wash dishes for, you learned policies and procedures pretty carefully, and doing what you don’t like doing, and if you didn’t like doing it, then you had a pretty miserable life.
That’s the sum and total of what discipline is, is learning to love the things you hate. I know that sounds strange, but that’s … Again, you’ve been a military person, so you had to do a lot of things that you hated doing, and so that’s … If you didn’t learn to love it, you would fail.
Kelly Perdew: Being the oldest of 11 made you almost … You had to be a platoon leader early on.
Ray Zinn: I was a platoon leader, trust me.
Kelly Perdew: It’s interesting because as the oldest of five in my family, I was the first person that actually went into the military. I think my dad’s temperament sounds a lot like your mom’s in terms of there’s a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things and you do them the right way, do them the right way every time.
I don’t know if that’s what drew me to the military or was accentuated when I got into it, but going to West Point, it was just like being an entrepreneur. There is too much to do in a day, so figuring out how to prioritize, having a plan and sticking to that so that you can get the most important things accomplished is something I’ve seen at least as a critical success factor for an entrepreneur.
Ray Zinn: What I learned is that … In fact, this is something you probably learned also in the military, is that if you want to get something done, give it to a busy person. The busier you are, the more productive you are. In fact, I say in my book, Tough Things First, I tell my readers that if you will just do the tough things first, eat that ugly frog first, you’ll get 20% more done a day.
In other words, if you want to improve your efficiency, eat those ugly frogs very first thing. That’s what I did during the 37 years I ran Micrel, my [inaudible 00:06:08] company in Silicon Valley, is I made a list of all the things that I didn’t want to do that day before, of course, I got to work, and I would tackle those first. I would just get those out of the way. If I did all the tough things, all the ones I didn’t want to do first, then the rest of the day was fun and I was very productive and creative.
Holding over 20+ patents, I was able to start getting those creative juices flowing and get more productive work done than if I were to procrastinate and just say, “I don’t need to do that this moment, or I can put that off,” or whatever, resulted in, of course, less productivity because you’re just pushing off what you don’t want to do. That just weighs on your mind and you’re just far less productive.
Kelly Perdew: I think that completely resonates with the way I see stuff in organizations. What you said at the beginning, if you want something done, you give it to a busy person. They’re clearly attracting the requests because they get things done. They accomplish it, they’re relied upon.
When we’re going through evaluations in organizations, I always warn people that if you’re not being asked to do stuff and you don’t have people coming to you, people above you, people next to you, people below you asking for things, you better take a long, hard look at how you’re operating because you may not be around for very long.
Ray Zinn: Delegation, that’s what … You had to learn that in military, is if you didn’t delegate properly, then you weren’t running an effective platoon or organization. The same thing running a large company, like Micrel, is that you had to delegate. Delegate doesn’t mean just passing on something you don’t want to do. That’s not delegating. Delegating is assigning people tasks that need to be done that maybe you would just love to do but in order for you to train and develop your staff, you need to give them the opportunity.
Honestly, I gave most of the good things, the ones that I’d love to do, I gave those, delegated those to my people, and I took on the ones that were the hard ones, that ones that no one wanted to do. I did those. Of course, that resonated well with my staff, but it also kept me sharpened. It’s like polishing your shoes, that spit shine, as they call it, or making your bed to the point where you can drop a quarter on it and it bounces up in the air. It’s doing those things that you just detest doing.
Honestly, as I sit here with you today, Kelly, I can’t think of anything that I don’t like doing. I’ve learned to love so many things I used to hate to do that I can’t think of any right now that I really detest doing.
Kelly Perdew: That’s awesome. You just reminded me on the importance of delegation, about a lot of the questions that people would give us … Ranger school’s probably one of the hardest 67 days of no sleep, significant amounts of work, troop-leading procedures, you name it, through the swamps of Florida, the mountains in [inaudible 00:09:14] Georgia, and the deserts at proving grounds in Utah, at Dugway Proving Grounds.
People ask, “What in the world good does it do to run you to … one or two hours of sleep a night, marching 18 or 20 hours a day, to the point where you start hallucinating, you don’t eat, et cetera, et cetera. The leadership training point in a lot of that is, in a combat situation, or any situation, really, when you push yourself to the edge of exhaustion, you start to make bad decisions. If you haven’t delegated and trained the people around you enough to be able to operate, you’re going to everybody killed.
The entire precept of being able to delegate the things you’d like to do or the things that you want to do so that your team grows and you’re able to scale from a business standpoint and/or take care of your troops in the military side is dead on.
Ray Zinn: That’s that muscle memory you learned in the military. I call it mental muscle memory, so that becomes ingrained in you and you’re able to handle those tasks efficiently and effectively, whereas if you didn’t push yourself and do those things that you just detest in doing and learn to love them …Like Emerson says, “That which we persist in doing becomes easier.” Not that the nature of the task changes, but our ability to perform it becomes easier.
That’s what it takes. That’s what you learned in ranger school, is they push you to the point where you thought you couldn’t go any further. I remember some of these pioneer stories, these people pulling these hand carts and wagons, and they said that they couldn’t go any further. They said, “I can’t make it.” Then they would say, “If I can just get to that next tree or that next hill, or if I can … ” They took it and broke that challenge down to little small increments, then they accomplished it.
That’s what it takes, is that if you haven’t pushed yourself to the point of exhaustion, you haven’t learned what it means to dig deep, run on empty. That’s what it’s all about, is being able to run on empty.
Kelly Perdew: The weakest muscle, for sure, in the human body is between your ears. That’s where people gave up at ranger school. You’ve seen Navy SEAL movies and everything else, but it’s true that your body is capable of way, way more than you think it is. It’s all about mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.
Ray Zinn: Exactly. That’s the whole point. If you don’t mind it, it doesn’t matter. That’s what you learn.
Kelly Perdew: Ray, I got an interesting question for you, and I get asked it a lot when I’m speaking to people and talking about stuff. A lot of people who think that they want to be entrepreneurs but are holding themselves back and/or concerned about what they’re calling, and I’m making air quotation marks for everybody on the podcast right now, risk, “I’ve got a mortgage, I’ve got kids that are going to go to school and got to take care of everything. I think it’s too much of a risk for me to follow my passion and/or go after a dream and build my own company.” How do you define risk, or what would you say to somebody who asked you that type of a question?
Ray Zinn: That’s a very good point, Kelly. I’ve been asked … Long before I wrote my book, we’re talking 20 years before I wrote my book, people would say, “How’d you do it? How did you stomach taking all you had … ” See, at one point I had personally guaranteed loans that were 25 to 30% more than my total assets were. I also had to agree that if the bank had to close on that loan that I would then pay back a certain amount of my salary for the next 10 years.
Not only did I risk all of my assets, but also because of the fact that their guarantees were greater than my assets that I would then future pay back on that loan if, in fact, they had to foreclose. You talk about putting yourself at risk, I did. In fact, the bank, seven or eight years after I started Micrel, came to me and said, “Hey, it’s very expensive for us to keep you on this guarantee. You’re doing well enough now. Why don’t we just pull you off the guarantee?” I said, “I want to think about that.”
You should’ve seen … Their eyes shot above their forehead, “What? You want to stay on the guarantee?” I said, “Let me think about that.” I explained to them that having that guarantee also kept my people on their toes because they knew that all my assets and my future income was at risk if we failed as a company, and so they didn’t want me to fail. They knew that I had …
Listen, I was all in, and you’ve heard that term before in the military, “Are you all in?” I was all in. They knew it, and so if I took myself off that guarantee, then they’ll say, “Now it’s easy going for Ray. There’s no risk involved now.” I didn’t want that. It took me a while. It took me a few weeks to finally come to grips with the fact, because it was costing the bank 60 to $80,000 a year just to perfect that guarantee. Most people went, “How come that cost the bank to do it?” Because they have to go and validate all these assets that I had that the bank was using as collateral.
Finally, after much pressure that they put on me, I finally said, “Okay, I’ll take myself off the guarantee, but I don’t want to [inaudible 00:15:08] the covenants.” In other words, I still told the bank that I wanted to adhere to the covenants of the bank, even though I was off the guarantee. But I was worried. I was worried that if I did not have that guarantee that my people would then slack on me and say, “He’s not really got much at risk.”
If you’re risk-adverse, don’t do it. What makes an entrepreneur, I think, a real entrepreneur, is if he can stand the risk. Like ranger school, how many people … or Navy SEALs. How many people can really stomach the rigors of ranger school or what the SEALs go through. I think very few. I happen to personally know people that have gone through ranger school and SEAL school. One that I know made it, and the others failed. They flunked out.
Kelly Perdew: I wouldn’t call them easy, and certainly risk can have a lot of different definitions. For me and what I tell wannabe entrepreneurs, I think their perspective is a little skewed, thinking that because they’re at a large company that they’re safe from that, what they’re describing, risk. Look at a Lehman Brothers.
Look at very, very large organizations where you’re a number of a cog, if you will, inside that organization. As an entrepreneur, you have amazing amount of transparency and clarity into cash flow, and that’s what you’re talking about in terms of sweating it or making payroll, or signing a personal guarantee that could potentially put you into bankruptcy if things aren’t successful, that type of pressure. But you have clarity.
It gives you a specific amount of focus that you can exert and look at and understand, and you know how important it is to go get that client, or keep that existing client, or add that employee to be able to successfully deliver that service or product. Whereas at a large company where you’re making a salary and you think you’re safe, you’re also just a number on a paper to some people significantly higher up that could, for changes in business, changes in strategy, things you have no control of, potentially, you could be out of a job the next day with no knowledge or that light at the end of the tunnel, and you don’t even see it coming.
Ray Zinn: I know the people who work for the government love it because the fact that they don’t worry about their job. They think they have tenure. Anyway, before we close off, because I very seldom have somebody of your stature who’s actually worked with the president of the United States before, what was it like working for Donald Trump when you were on that TV program, Apprentice?
Kelly Perdew: The show, we filmed in about six weeks. I won season two and moved to New York and worked with him and his family. Ivana and Don Jr. were both a part of the organization at that time. I spent 14 months working with him in the 5th Avenue tower. Saw him on at least a weekly basis, sometimes couple times a week. His office had the same level of activity that it does now.
There would be eight or nine people waiting to get in to see him. He’s got three secretaries, all of them working the phones. He’ll have two different business deals in the room at the same time. He’ll make decisions on the cusp, on the spur of the moment. At the time, it was primarily real estate deals, an area in which he does have significant amount of experience and expertise.
At the same time that was happening, there’d be a Dominoes Pizza commercial waiting to film. There’d be the next board room for one of The Apprentice seasons filming, also, and a non-ending list of requests for his appearances, whether it was charities, or speaking engagements, or whatever it might be. The level of activity and deal-flow that was going on from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. every day, every day of the week in his office was absolutely astronomical. It was one of the most amazing things that I’d ever seen.
Also, I would say his, even at that time, mastery of the media and ability to manipulate things to the way that he wanted to from the media side is something I’ve spoken about and written about. Watching, and learning, and seeing how he did that was pretty amazing.
Ray Zinn: What were the lessons you learned from him? Can you give me four or five lessons you learned?
Kelly Perdew: The media piece was a huge one. If you’re in business and you’re not utilizing the media to your benefit, you’re in trouble, because one or more of your competitors are going to be doing that and [inaudible 00:19:55]. Second, and this has resonated as I’ve gone from an individual angel investor to a syndicate investor over the last three years, to last month, doing our first close on a $40 million committed venture fund, is to think big, and then step back and think bigger, and then step back and think bigger, especially as an entrepreneur.
If you’re going to go solve a problem, it needs to be one that’s significant. You’re going to put something you can’t get back, your lifetime and your life energy, into it, so it needs to be big. And if it’s big or bigger, it’s much easier to get people’s attention, and that includes investors. That includes other people to come work with you. That includes clients. It’s just as easy or just as hard to raise half a million dollars as it is to raise $5 million. Sometimes it’s easier to raise the $5 million. That was something that he articulated very well and often for me when I was there.
Probably, the third thing, that I disagreed with at the time, and watching and thinking about how I’d operated as an entrepreneur up until then, but I’d asked him, “What’s the most important characteristic of somebody who you want to work with you?” His answer was, and having watched the turn style over the last months, it might sound funny, but his answer was loyalty. I said, “What about capability, or intelligence, or work ethic, or whatever?” He said, “Nope, I’ll take loyalty over any of those things all day.”
Ray Zinn: That’s taking a bullet. That’s willing to take that bullet.
Kelly Perdew: Yeah, he operated with that, too. I had the choice of working on a west side project, Trump Place, so it’s five buildings along the Hudson that are a couple billion dollar project, or being responsible for the Trump Tower Hotel and Resort, not casino, in Vegas that went up. I selected New York. I wanted to be in and around him in New York City for that year that I was working with him.
The person he put in charge of the hotel and resort in Vegas was his bodyguard of 18 years. Not a master real estate developer or somebody who’s very familiar with Vegas or anything like that, but somebody he knew he could trust with his life.
Ray Zinn: That’s good.
Kelly Perdew: I thought that was pretty fascinating.
Ray Zinn: That’s an awesome lesson. I agree. Loyalty plays an extremely important part in running a successful business. When you pick your partner, make sure he or she is a loyal person.
Again, thanks for joining us today, Kelly. It’s really nice to have somebody who’s actually had the experience of working with the current president and hearing the lessons learned from him. Your book is called what?
Kelly Perdew: It’s called Take Command.
Ray Zinn: Take Command.
Kelly Perdew: Yeah, 10 Leadership Principles I Learned in the Military and Put to Work for Donald Trump. Really short [inaudible 00:23:03] there.
Ray Zinn: Where can they buy it?
Kelly Perdew: You can either get the hardcover book or Audible on Amazon.
Ray Zinn: Okay, great. We’d like to invite our listeners to continue to follow us on Tough Things First Podcast. Go to our website, toughthingsfirst.com.
Hey, listen, great stuff, Kelly. It’s been a year since I’ve talked to you, but I’m so appreciative of you joining with me today and doing this wonderful podcast. A little longer than we like to have them, but hopefully our listeners will still want to listen to the whole thing.
Kelly Perdew: Maybe they were doing a long workout today.
Ray Zinn: There you go, a very long workout.