I’m Danny Boice, CEO of Trustify. A while back I sat down with Edward Norton to talk about “Making It” as an entrepreneur.
For Edward Norton, being restless has proven a life-long boon.
"I've never really made up my mind about what I want to do in life," Norton says, "and my unwillingness to make a choice has given me an opportunity to get involved in a variety of things.”
Most know Norton best for his success in film, as an actor, screenwriter, director and producer. He first gained notice for his work in his debut film, 1996's Primal Fear, for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Norton went on to notable lead roles in such films as American History X (for which he garnered another Academy nomination, this time for best actor), Fight Club, and The Incredible Hulk, one of several films on which he also worked as an uncredited screenwriter.
Edward Norton on his rise to success from humble beginnings.
Currently at work prepping his second feature as a director, Motherless Brooklyn, Norton has nevertheless found himself drawn to an increasingly broad range of endeavors outside the world of film.
Norton has long been deeply immersed in social entrepreneurship and activism, and he is a far cry from those celebrities who take on a smattering of PR-tested involvement in trendy business interests and social causes with a keen eye on furthering their personal brand.
Indeed, Norton was knee-deep in finance and urban planning while still treading the boards off-off-Broadway as an unknown actor, spending his days working with an innovative foundation that raised equity finance and invested in affordable housing projects.
"Weirdly, in my first day job when I got out of school, I was working at an organization creating innovative finance mechanisms for a social need…housing. It was a very different side of my brain from my creative interests," says Norton. “Then I circled back around to those interests later on in my life."
Norton came upon his early interest in urban planning honestly: his maternal grandfather was James Rouse, a real estate developer who was one of the mid-20th Century's foremost voices in urban planning. Warning against the coming "suburban sprawl" of the postwar period, Rouse dedicated himself to making sure that suburban as well as urban environments felt like cohesive communities. Rouse pioneered the enclosed "shopping mall" center, envisioning it as an American update on the town squares of European villages. Rouse and his firm Rouse Company went onto great success revitalizing urban centers with what he called "the festival marketplace," with Boston's Fanueil Hall Market as the prototype, followed by developments ranging from Portland, Oregon's Pioneer Square to the Riverwalk Marketplace in New Orleans.
"My grandfather was a great American entrepreneurial story," says Norton. "He came from a very lower-middle class background, he was orphaned when he was fifteen, and he literally paid for his education by hustling pool in Baltimore during the Depression."
Even as he saw his star rise in the world of film, Norton's interest in "the real world" did not wane. In 2009, along with Shauna Robertson (now his wife and mother to his six-year-old son) and Moosejaw's Robert and Jeffro Wolfe, he cofounded Crowdrise, a crowdfunding platform that helps people build innovative campaigns and raise financial support for charities, non-profits or people in need. In less than three years CrowdRise has exploded into one of the largest fundraising sites for charity in the world, now raising over $100 million per year for over 15,000 charities and partnered with some of the largest companies and foundations in the space. In April, Crowdrise closed a $23 million financing round led by USV and including co-investors such as VC firms Spark Capital and Index Ventures.
Considering his involvement with Crowdrise along with his own role as an angel investor in tech, it's no shock that Norton feels a natural affinity for entrepreneurs.
“The idea of starting things…and the people who have the courage to dive in and start something….both have always been very exciting to me," says Norton. "The early phase of organizations and ideas seems to me to be where the most interesting challenges and the most fun can be found.”
So what does it take to make it as an entrepreneur? According to Norton: "In the dreams that we have of ourselves, we're not working for somebody else...we would all rather be working for ourselves, we would all rather be risking and succeeding. I think the part that comes between the idea and the execution is the tolerance for risk...A comfort with the prospect of failure is intrinsically essential to being an entrepreneur. It's almost like poker, you cant get a big payoff from a pot unless you make a big bet."