4 Founder Lessons From Colonel Sanders

Ask any startup founder which company founder they most admire, who do you guess they’d say? Steve Jobs? Mark Zuckerberg? Bill Gates?

How about Harland David Sanders? It’s a shame that more tech founders don’t know the story of Colonel Sanders, his life and the founding of the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant chain. While his life lessons can’t tell you how to create the next Facebook or build the next Instagram, the Colonel does teach us a great deal about being a great company founder.

1. Failure is temporary

For much of his long life, Harland Sanders was a failure. He was fired from most of the jobs he held in his 20s and 30s. He didn’t even start his first business until he was 39, an age that’s considered over-the-hill for many tech founders. His first restaurant, started out of the back of a gas station, eventually failed and left him broke at 65.

Even with no money, the Colonel knew what to do in the face of failure: to press on. He raised some seed funding — his social security check — and drove around Kentucky, sleeping in his car, franchising his chicken recipe. Less than ten years later, at the age of 74, he sold the company for 2 million dollars.

2. Don’t forget the secret sauce

The Colonel’s secret blend of 11 herbs and spices certainly wasn’t the first secret sauce: before him there was Coca-Cola’s “Merchandise 7X”, the original Worcestershire sauce, and 130 herbs used to make Chartreuse liquor that is supposedly only known to two monks.

When building your company, having a secret sauce is important. There’s something about your company that’s unique and only you can do. It can be patents, or partnerships. It can be your design or the way you treat customers. Don’t keep it in a vault: add it to your pitch. Your secret sauce is why people should care about you and not your competitor.

3. Create a personal brand

Steve Jobs had his black turtleneck. Mark Zuckerberg has his hoodie. Colonel Sanders bested them both with his white suit.

Sanders knew the importance of his personal brand which he started developing in 1950.  He personified his company’s brand in his own persona, as the friendly, downhome Southern gentleman who was “mighty proud” for you to try his “finger lickin’ good” fried chicken. In the last 20 years of his life, he was never seen in public without his trademark white suit and black western tie. When he died in 1980, he was buried in the suit.

When you get up in the morning, remember that what you choose to wear says a lot about who you are and what type of company you want to create. The Colonel knew this better than anyone.

4. Become an icon

Today, a majority of Americans 18 to 25 don’t know Colonel Sanders was a real person. Some didn’t even know his name when shown the logo of the company now known as “KFC.” But Harland Sanders wasn’t a made-up icon, he was a real person. He was an actual Kentucky colonel. He spent his life failing, trying again, and failing again, to finally succeed when most of us would have given up long before. He built a personal brand that lives to this day. Even in the high tech world of tech startups, there’s a lot to admire about the Colonel.

When you can rock a white suit next to Alice Cooper, you’ve got it made.


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