How Ted Turner has built success by sticking to a few key principles

Create a distinctive plan

When Turner realized he would have to be the one to start 24-hour news, he made sure to think through what it would take and the possible problems.

“Let’s face it: 90 percent of all new businesses fail, so the odds are way against you to start, but that’s how you really break through,” Turner says. “You have to come through.

To really break through, you have to come up with some kind of plan that’s a little bit distinctive and hopefully a little bit different than what your competitors are doing — if there are competitors. Usually there are.”

He’s seen both — when he started Ted’s Montana Grill, there were tens of thousands of other restaurants he would be competing against but very little barriers to entry. On the other hand, with CNN, the barriers to entry for delivering 24-hour news were huge.

“They were costly, and there were limited satellite distribution capabilities at that time, and there was not very much distribution — certainly not enough,” Turner says. “There was no way CNN could be profitable with cable penetration at 14 percent, which is approximately what it was when we started.”

Instead, he recognized that it needed to be at 50 percent.

“In order to get my television channels in to people’s homes, we had to get the rest of the people in America to subscribe to cable, and cable wasn’t even in front of over half the homes,” he says.

Recognizing what he thought was the threshold for success was an important part of creating that plan.

“You make your own metrics for what success is,” Turner says. “You set up criteria and write down what you think would make you feel successful. Each person would do it differently. What success is for one person wouldn’t be success to another. If one guy said, ‘If I made $1 million, I’d be a success,’ but to another, ‘I wouldn’t be a success unless I made $1 billion.’ They’d be off by a factor of 1,000 to one.”

Sometimes you may start in with your idea and then realize you’re not going to make it unless you reach certain thresholds.

“To grow a business successfully, you have to have a successful business or have an idea of how to make the business successful if you grow it a little bit more,” Turner says. “Some businesses are a little too small and would have to reach a certain tipping point of size to where they tip in the right direction.”

When it comes down to it, you may simply not know what it will take to be successful.

“You just have to estimate it,” he says.

Turner says that comes down to judgment and using your mind.

“It’s pretty tricky, but some people know how to do it,” he says.

Turner says it’s important to stretch your mind and its capacity as much as possible.

“It helps to be born with it, I guess, because basic intelligence is inherited,” he says. “It’s an inherited trait as much as anything else, but you can develop it. Your mind is, to a large degree, a muscle like the other muscles in your body, and the more you use it, the sharper it gets, just like your body. You can take a skinny little kid and turn him into a marathon runner if they’ll train hard enough and are motivated to train hard enough, and basically my success in business and in life, it was due, to large part, I just wanted to do it and wasn’t afraid.”