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Michael Bervell

Interview

Can you name a company that’s worth at least a billion dollars? Of course you can. In fact, you can probably name quite a few. There are the obvious ones who have been around for what seems like forever, such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. And then there are those that have become household names in the last decade, like DoorDash, Postmates, and Lyft. 

Now, answer me this. Can you name a company that’s worth at least a billion dollars that was founded in Africa? Or South Korea? Or Japan? Anywhere that wasn’t the United States? If you can’t, don’t worry. Michael Bervell, equipped with his debut book, Unlocking Unicorns, is not only going to name some for you, but he’s also going to share some of the stories, habits, and lessons he uncovered about the founders of those companies. 

 

Billion Dollar Startup Ideas

Michael drew his inspiration for Unlocking Unicorns from many different sources, one of which was his blog, Billion Dollar Startup Ideas. For more than 650 days straight, Michael and his team have sent their subscribers daily business ideas, and in that time they have grown their fanbase to more than 10,000 subscribers on his blog and on TikTok with more than 750,000 readers last year. 

Q: Were there any books that you’ve read over the years that contributed to the inspiration? 

A: “I studied Philosophy at Harvard, and a heavy component of my education was reading old texts from cultures around the world and identifying where they were wrong. When I wasn’t trying to mentally tear apart those old texts, I liked to read books about business, and what I noticed while reading those books was that they were all about American and Canadian companies and founders. When I went online to watch interviews with CEOs and entrepreneurs, they were almost all about Americans and Canadians. 

I started to research companies and underrepresented founders in other parts of the world. During the initial stages of my research when I was looking at internet usage market trends, I found that there are more internet users in China than there are people in the United States, and the numbers weren’t too dissimilar in countries like India, either. With those trends in mind, thinking about where innovation is likely to come from in the future, I decided that it would likely come from outside the United States.” 

Learning about business through textbooks, researching companies and founders online, identifying underrepresented markets, and starting a successful blog about entrepreneurship were all important sources of inspiration for Unlocking Unicorns, but the final piece of the puzzle was when Michael had the opportunity to meet Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, at the World Internet Conference in 2017. 

“It was the first significant exposure I had to a company outside the United States, and it was incredible getting to listen to Jack Ma in person and hear him talk about his life story.” 

Q: What was your research process like for Unlocking Unicorns? 

A: “I tried to set up virtual interviews with the founders of the companies that I wanted to talk about in the book, but what I discovered was that when I did get the chance to speak with someone – which didn’t happen very often – the amount of information I was able to absorb in that 1-2 hour interview was very limited. So I relied heavily on online research, instead. I spent hundreds of hours watching and rewatching, reading and rereading, listening and relistening to every interview I could find. I took extremely detailed and extensive notes and turned those into the foundation of Unlocking Unicorns. 

The great thing is that now that the book is essentially complete and it has financial backing, that gives it some credibility, so when I reached back out to the founders that I tried to get interviews with originally to see if they’d like to add some commentary to the pages I wrote about them, I’m actually seeing a larger wave of responses than before.” 

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Q: What kind of information were you looking for in your research? 

A: “There were two core questions that I wanted to know about each company. How did the founder get the idea for the business? What were the moments that inspired them? I then took those answers and tried to identify if there was a specific type of person or environment that was best suited for breeding billion-dollar founders and ideas. The attributes and principles that I uncovered trying to answer that overarching question while learning about the stories behind these international companies are how the book’s chapters are organized.” 

Q: Did any company stand out as having the most interesting story? 

A: “Every company had an incredible story, but the one that comes to mind is Careem, which is a ride sharing and food delivery service in the Middle East who has helped create more gender equity for men and women. 

There was a time in Saudi when women weren’t allowed to legally drive and were dependent on their male relatives if they wanted to go anywhere. Post-2019, the laws changed, empowering women to take greater control of their lives. Committed to always doing the right thing, following these changes, Careem invested heavily in training their captains (drivers) to be comfortable driving women in close proximity – something they weren’t used to doing unless they were family – and once the driving laws changed to include women, Careem set a goal of having at least 20,000 female captains by 2020.”

Q: This is your first time writing and publishing a book. What was your experience like? 

A: “I started this book as a COVID project born from my curiosity about billion dollar companies and founders that weren’t American or Canadian. When I eventually realized that I had a novel’s worth of notes, I decided I might as well turn it into an educational book. I registered for a writing class at Georgetown, and the final project was to complete and then publish a book. The professor had a partnership with New Degree Press, so when the class was over the book was complete, New Degree Press reviewed my writing and took me on as a client. They’re a hybrid publisher, so they do all the editing and I do all the marketing. They suggested that I advertise the book on Indiegogo to generate some buzz while the book was being finalized, and it was a great idea because I’ve already exceeded my goal of $5,000 and am tracking to hopefully have close to $8,000 in presale revenue.” 

Q: What message do you hope to convey with Unlocking Unicorns? 

A: “I believe that the lessons discussed in the book can be applied to companies of all sizes, anywhere in the world. Ultimately, I hope to show that entrepreneurs can come from anywhere. I would love for this book to help an entrepreneur grow their business into a successful size.”