You know the meme where a dog sits in a cafe that’s totally ablaze, enjoying a coffee and thinking, “This is fine?” That’s the mindset of a true entrepreneur: chaos is just a part of the day.

“You need to be tolerant of ambiguity,” Dave Zilko told students at the first Innovate State Speaker Series event of 2019 last month. “If you’re going to start a business, know going in that 95 of 100 businesses fail … so it’s not a rational thing to do,”  he said, likening it to walking into a dark room.

“It’s scary being in a dark room. And it’s scary [starting] a business when you have a 95 percent failure rate. The rational person walks away. The irrational person will say, all right, I’ll give this a try,” Zilko said. The door closes behind you and you’re in a completely dark space, completely devoid of light and it’s not fun. It’s scary. It really is.

Dave Zilko (right) at Innovate State. Photo by Omar Sofradzija.

Dave Zilko (right) at Innovate State. Photo by Omar Sofradzija.

“You search around and you look for sources of light and eventually you light the room and figure it out … it’s a very ambiguous thing to do,” he said.

Zilko should know. The 1985 Finance alum from the Eli Broad College of Business was vice chairman of Fresh Gourmet, where he helped increase sales more than twentyfold before engineering the company’s sale to Campbell’s Soup Company for nearly a quarter billion dollars.

Zilko, now CEO of FUEL Leadership, compiled his thoughts on entrepreneurship in a book titled, “Irrational Persistence: Seven Secrets That Turned a Bankrupt Startup Into a $231,000,000 Business.”

At the Innovate State event, he shared many of those lessons, including an acceptance of the role luck plays in entrepreneurial success.

“If you don’t attribute a lot of it to sheer good fortune, I don’t think you’re being honest with yourself. I really don’t … there’s a lot of good fortune involved. We work hard, but a lot of people work hard” and don’t necessarily succeed, he said.

Zilko also advised budding entrepreneurs to “find an emerging market, one that’s not yet saturated” with competitors.

Zilko has an “idyllic” childhood growing up in the Detroit suburb of Warren, but “growing up in Warren really had no influence on me being an entrepreneur.” Neither his parents nor his siblings pursued entrepreneurial career paths.

“Are you born being an entrepreneur, or can you make yourself an entrepreneur? I really think I was just born with a certain mindset,” Zilko said.

“I wanted to live my life at a different level,” than the one in which he grew up. “To do that, it took money … I thought that the way to close that gap was by being an entrepreneur and creating value, so it would allow me to live the life that I envisioned. It was as simple as that,” he said.

And that’s his definition of success: “get to the level of life that you aspire to.”

The Innovate State Speaker Series, sponsored by the MSU Innovation Center, is a collaborative program designed to connect forward-thinking speakers with students and professionals interested in innovation and entrepreneurship. Topics include startups, new business creation, leadership and team-building, customer acquisition, fundraising and other special topics.

For a full set of upcoming speakers and dates, please visit the Innovate State Web page.