Former CEO and chair of Nextel Morgan O’Brien visited St. Mary’s to talk about his experiences in building a business. The Economics Club hosted the event on Wednesday, April 10 in Schaefer Hall. A wireless innovator, O’Brien, who co-founded Nextel with Brian McAuley, helped create the first all-digital nationwide wireless network.
O’Brien began his career as a lawyer, but eventually changed his career choice. He described careers like skyscrapers, saying,”When my law skyscraper was halfway built, I chose to do something else.” A fan of using metaphors when describing the experience of changing careers, O’Brien said, “I’ve never been a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, but I imagine it’s very painful,” and described changing from a lawyer to an entrepreneur as incredibly painful.
He decided to change careers in 1987, when he was 43 years old. Working at one of the largest law firms in the world, he described himself as “happy but not satisfied.” He also said, “This must be what it’s like to consider a sex change operation, I was uncomfortable in a lawyer’s body.”
He described making an informal business plan with Mark Warner, currently a United States Senator from Virginia, where they would buy many of a particular type of FCC businesses, an then consolidate them. O’Brien explained that today, this type of action is called rollup.
Although O’Brien said, “We succeeded beyond our wildest expectations,” his story didn’t end here. The cellular industry tried, and almost succeeded in sabotaging the company. He said, “The cellular industry hated us. It was exactly as if you had gone in and held a gun to their heads.” O’Brien attributed the the ultimate success of the company to the help and investment of Craig McCaw.
O’Brien spent a lot of his time explaining the lessons from his career he thought the audience would find useful, saying, “I just want my experience to be helpful.” He also asked rhetorically, “How did someone like me, who flunked general science, become a high-tech guru?” His main advice was that people should become, “Subject matter experts.”
He meant taking one particular subject, for him wireless communication, and learn everything there is to know about it. O’Brien said that the information might be, “thorny, unpleasant, complicated stuff, but you can for through it.” Sophomore Kate Brennan responded to this part of the talk, saying, “I found the advice about specialization on a certain subject or field helpful.”
For those considering becoming entrepreneurs, he asked that they consider doing a self assessment. One thing he said entrepreneurs needed was a, “tolerance for ambiguity.” He said, “You have no idea if what you’re worried about today is what you should be worried about tomorrow… you have to shift and reorder priorities almost daily, and that’s painful.”
He also gave advice about working in groups, saying, “There is a mistaken notion about the important of consensus.” People may begin to think that “the most important thing is to get out of the meeting.” Because of these dynamics, he said, “It can be a physically painful process to get a group to think critically.” However, it was necessary in order to have a productive meeting.
In terms of choosing a career, O’Brien said that it is important to ask, “What are the elements of a day that make me happy?” He also said, “We are in a battle to admit to ourselves what we really love.” In terms of what makes him happy, O’Brien said, “It certainly isn’t how much money I make.”
Students seemed pleased with the talk, Brennan said, “It was definitely very interesting, his struggle to become successful was obviously very difficult.” Sophomore and Vice President of the Economics Club, Erik Fisher, was very excited about the talk. He said, “It braced me, no one ever talks about the human aspect.” He continued, saying, “Economics isn’t considered by the rest of the campus as a very fun major… It’s talks like this that put a real edge to Econ that I think the rest of the campus should know.” Although finished for the year, Fisher and others in the club expressed excitement to plan more similar events in the future.