Think Bigger

Think Bigger: You’re Never Too Smart (or Too Old) for a Mentor [Book Excerpt]

The following is excerpted with permission of the publisher, Bloomberg Press, a Wiley imprint, from “Think Bigger: And 39 Other Winning Strategies from Successful Entrepreneurs” by Michael W. Sonnenfeldt. Copyright (c) 2017 by Michael W. Sonnenfeldt. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold.

Line up any group of people from least to most successful, and you are likely to find that the ones in the more successful half of the line have had deep experiences with mentors. That’s especially the case with entrepreneurs. The other half of the line will have lots of excuses why they never were able to find the right person to be their mentor. “It saves a lot of time, frustration, and mistakes if you have someone who knows what he’s doing giving you advice,” says John Bridge from Chicago, who has depended on mentors while starting four different businesses.

I have benefited from multiple mentors, beginning with the president of the company I worked for in my first full-time job at 17, through every stage of my career. Mentors have helped me become a better entrepreneur, investor, manager, citizen, and, I like to think, person. By definition, a mentor is an experienced guide. The term derives from the character Mentor in the Odyssey, whom Odysseus put in charge of his household and only son Telemachus before he set off for the Trojan War.

Mentors can play any number of roles, depending on your needs:

  • Wise veteran—Willing to give a younger person the benefit of her experience and success.
  • Eager teacher—Willing to pass on specific knowledge and skills to newcomers, peers, or, in the case of new technologies, superiors.
  • Generous peer—Willing to help colleagues or friends learn skills, gain information, network new business contacts, and avoid mistakes the mentor has made in the past.
  • Life coach—Willing (or trained) to advise others about personal goals, career opportunities, and family issues related to a career, business, and retirement.
  • Good listener—Sometimes the most important thing a person dealing with challenging issues needs is a trusted mentor to listen to them explain the issues and explore solutions. The simple act of discussing your deepest concerns or quandaries with someone you trust often allows you to explore options and solutions that might never have emerged in solitude. There is a reason why psychoanalysis is so powerful even when so much of the time the patient is talking and the analyst is merely listening.

When I was cooking up my first real estate development venture in the early 1980s, all I knew was that I needed help. Desperately.

I had finished college and had a few years of work under my belt, but I had never developed anything in my life, let alone a building that had been the largest building in the world when it was built in 1929 (the Pentagon unseated it in 1943). The building was the Harborside Terminal, the intermodal freight and warehousing facility built by the Pennsylvania Railroad as its northeastern United States distribution center, which could serve four ships, 78 railcars and 128 trucks simultaneously, sometimes around the clock. When I was first introduced to Harborside, it was right out of Marlon Brando’s famous movie “On the Waterfront,” which took place about a mile north along the Hudson River in Hoboken, the northern neighbor to Jersey City, New Jersey.

Among the skeptics was my father-in-law, who co-owned the property at the time with his brother. They were very major owner-operators of a real estate empire that controlled properties all over the New York metropolitan area. While Harborside was a monster of a building in its own right, it was just one of many industrial buildings they owned. Harborside was both a landlord to many different types of industrial tenants and a warehousing company in its own right, which stored all sorts of things—industrial goods like printing presses, consumer goods ranging from motorcycles to calculators, and such commodities as coffee, spices, and cocoa beans. My father-in-law and his brother had a strategy to let tired industrial buildings in tough neighborhoods pay for themselves as working warehouses until the neighborhood changed—sometimes decades later. They knew how to hold on to properties for the long term, but they were not developers. They let the developers buy their appreciated properties at prices that dwarfed what they had paid for them.

When they looked at my vision for Harborside, all they could see was the downside of getting into the development-construction business, which would require a more complex organization in which extremely important decisions would have to be delegated to employees (perhaps to me). That wasn’t their style, and it represented risks they were uncomfortable with.

Related: How Business Mentors Can Benefit Your Startup

I was eager to prove them and all the other skeptics wrong. And, as I like to joke, it was the last time I could really afford to lose everything I had.

How to proceed, however, was a mystery. I had taken the idea as far as I could. I needed a partner who could attract the level of financing necessary to acquire the terminal and begin developing it. But how does a 24-year-old find such a partner? I had no idea.

Then I got lucky. My wife and I were having our first business dinner (ever) with a real estate guru who had been a consultant on a project in California that I had worked on at Goldman Sachs. I had called him in California and told him about my idea, and as luck would have it, he was coming to New York. The next day after our dinner, he happened to be meeting with an old friend of his, David Fromer, who had just returned to the U.S. with his family after a decade working abroad. The consultant told David about “a kid with a big idea you should pursue.” Two days later, David walked into my office, and I gave him my pitch—the complete presentation that I had slaved over for a year. The issue that concerned everyone else about my project—how big it was—seemed to excite David. After discussing the details for a couple of hours, he said, “Let’s do it.” And just like that, I had a partner.

We were definitely an odd couple. I had spent a year at Goldman Sachs, only part of it in the real estate department. David had spent 30 years developing real estate in Los Angeles, London and Saudi Arabia. The Vietnam War had ended while I was still in high school; David had seen plenty of action in Europe in World War II, winning three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for bravery in combat.

But I was thrilled. Here was this guy who had worked on real estate all over the world and he bought my vision. We went to work, experiencing many downs as well as ups. After 18 months and a couple of false starts, we finally put together the $25 million in financing needed to acquire the Harborside Terminal (as 50/50 partners), which quickly became America’s largest commercial renovation project.

Today, looking west from downtown Manhattan across the Hudson River, you see endless high-rises sprouting up virtually everywhere, but when we started Harborside’s transformation in 1982 there wasn’t a single commercial high-rise under construction on the Jersey side of the Hudson River for as far as the eye could see.

When we sold the Harborside Financial Center, having completed the first million square feet of conversions, the Governor’s Waterfront Development Office told the New York Times that our project “helped to spur interest in all waterfront development” on the Hudson River coastline stretching from Jersey City north, past the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee.

Thanks to David’s qualities as a mentor, I learned much about real estate development, wheeling and dealing in New Jersey politics, and life in general that I might have never figured out over an entire career.

David had a pithy way of framing his insights. For example: There is no such thing as good and bad real estate, just good and bad deals. No matter how objectively terrible a piece of real estate may be, if you can buy it cheaply enough, it can still be a very good deal. Conversely (and perhaps far more important), no matter how impressive a piece of real estate might be, if you pay too much for it, you reduce your safety margin, perhaps to the point of ensuring a bad deal. Simple strategies like not overpaying are, in my experience, much underappreciated.

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After we sold Harborside, David and I pursued our own independent businesses, but we often invested in each other’s business activities. For the next 25 years, until he died in 2010 at age 86, David remained my best friend, a father figure (even though I had a father), a brother figure (even though I had a brother), and my most significant mentor. Most important of all, he was a great guy with the kind of humility and empathy that is too often missing among the business class. Every time I called David with a problem I was confronting he would say, “How can I help?” Knowing he was on my side was endlessly comforting.

As I recall David’s wise advice and my long and productive relationship with him, another definition for mentor occurs to me: Someone whose favorite words of wisdom echo in your head long after he is gone. I am still quoting one insight or another that David drilled into me over those 30 years. My experience with David and a number of other mentors I’ve had has convinced me that having a veteran advisor in your corner in your first job (and subsequent gigs too) is even more important to the success of your career than a big salary or title. The money will be spent and long forgotten, but your mentor’s words, if you are lucky, will echo in your head for a lifetime.

How do you find a mentor? There are endless ways, but just as a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, the first step toward finding a mentor is to be on the lookout for one. As the famous parable suggests: when the student is ready, the teacher will arrive.

“Think Bigger” is available now at fine booksellers and can be purchased via

Reviews of “Think Bigger”

“Starting a business is extremely difficult. Succeeding is even harder. And while there are no substitutes for hard work and good luck, there is a lot that entrepreneurs can learn from people—like Michael Sonnenfeldt—who have known both success and failure. ‘Think Bigger’ offers a wealth of wisdom.”
—Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies

“Whether you are a successful entrepreneur or just starting out, Michael Sonnenfeldt’s book, ‘Think Bigger,’ shines a light on the often misunderstood challenges and lessons every businessperson should know. Wherever you are in your journey, read this book closely, and you will be on the road to understanding what it takes to start a business, to compete, and to win.”
—Tony Robbins

“In ‘Think Bigger,’ Michael Sonnenfeldt offers sage advice, drawing not only on his own extraordinary entrepreneurial journey, but also on the collective wisdom of the membership of Tiger 21, a group of ultra-successful entrepreneurs from every industry who gather monthly to share investment strategies and personal insights. Sonnenfeldt’s frank and practical guidance will be appreciated not only by up-and-coming entrepreneurs, but also by prosperous serial entrepreneurs who remain curious about how others do it.”
—Kerry Healey, president, Babson College

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