Steve Sabol – Entrepreneur – Keynote Speaker at New California 100

There’s going to be a few posts over the next couple of days about today’s New California 100. The day started early, and ended late and in between I met lots of people who’ve started companies and built them to last. At dinner I sat next to Fred Franzia. Name doesn’t ring a bell. It should. Ever had ‘two buck chuck?’ That’s Fred. He’s not a quiet guy if you click on the article above, but he was relatively quiet at dinner.

But this post isn’t about Fred. It’s about the man who wrapped up the evening, Steve Sabol. Steve is the president of NFL Films. This company is an institution. His talk was about risks, doing something the right way and being successful.

Steve Sabol at New California 100

A few big lessons for entrepreneurs from Steve Sabol tonight:

  • A quote he has used in many interviews in the past, and tonight, is “‘Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” This is a big deal when starting a company, trying to raise money or bring on customers. Tell a story. Have a protagonist, an antagonist, conflict and a resolution.
  • Each year he gives $3,000 to the employee with the most spectacular failure. His theory is that to be successful, you have to take risks. More often than not, spectacular risk ends in spectacular failure, but when it doesn’t? Magic.
  • Don’t sell yourself short. His father was an overcoat salesman. He had a hobby of filming his son’s football games, and wanted to turn this into a career. He learned the film rights for the first NFL Championship Game (it wasn’t The Super Bowl yet) had sold for $1,500 (no, that’s not missing any zeros). He bid $3,000 to film the next one. His philosophy, “if it works, double it.” Before landing his contract with the NFL, he had filmed high school and college games. There was no reason he should go after the NFL, but he did, and forty years later, they are still filming NFL games.
  • Sometimes great success comes from huge mistakes. Just about everyone has seen “NFL Follies” or tapes of bloopers of NFL players. The first film of those follies came out of a mistake in editing for a team profile. Steve’s father thought it was funny, and found several other similarly funny scenes and edited them together. They took this to the NFL’s broadcast head for his opinion, he wasn’t amused. But then, Pete Rozelle (legendary NFL commissioner and former PR guy) walked in and said “If the players are OK with it, then so am I.” So the Sabols showed the film to the Philadelphia Eagles after a practice. After a few minutes of watching in silence, they began with small laughs and those laughs grew. The Sabols knew they had a hit, and it became the greatest selling sports video of all time. All from an editing mistake.

The only downside to the evening, he wasn’t introduced by John Facenda, who passed away in 1984. For an idea of who John Facenda is, he was often referred to as “the voice of God,” and is best known for his recitation of “The Autumn Wind,” often referred to as the quintessential NFL Film.

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