Skip to main content

Learning from past failures, Dave Anderson becomes a business success

  • Author:
  • Updated:

EDINA, Minn. - Dave Anderson could have had plenty of excuses for not succeeding in his business or his life. In fact, the Ojibway-Choctaw man counts two bankrupt businesses among his past career experiences.

But it's how Anderson counts those "failures" that has developed him into the prosperous owner of a multi-million-dollar business with 41 company-owned restaurants and 34 franchise operations in 20 states and a NASDAQ stock listing of DAVE.

Simply put, Anderson counts failures as some of the best chances for growth.

"We have to give up those excuses," he said. "Failure is only a learning tool. The only thing that's holding you back is the size of your dreams."

In 2002 especially, the size of Anderson's successes may have exceeded even his dreams. Besides a thriving year for his Famous Dave's restaurants, he recieved national recognition with a $25,000 grant from Oprah's Angel Network (yes, that Oprah) for the LifeSkills Center for Leadership he created for Indian youth, received the Odyssey Award from Big Brothers Big Sisters for his work with young people, was appointed by President George W. Bush to the President's Advisory Council on Tribal Colleges and Universities and started the year by being one of the torch carriers opening the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.

"I believed in myself," Anderson said of his accomplishments, "but also having faith from a higher power is critical. I want to make sure that I always give credit to my God. I believe that He always had His hand over my life during my failures. I think that it is important to acknowledge that."

Anderson grew up in Chicago with regular trips to Hayward, Wis., and the Lac Courte Oreille Ojibway Band where he is enrolled. He is also of the Choctaw heritage out of Idabel, Okla.

His first business enterprise, which he started at age 19, was as a wholesale florist serving such clients as Sears Roebuck Co. He grew so fast, he put himself out of business, overextending what he could manage financially. One of the things he learned in that setback was not to try to do everything by himself and to seek advice from others with more experience. He also learned that giving up should not be an option.

"You have to know your strengths and your weaknesses, and you have to be willing to know what you can and can't do," he said.

Anderson also worked for a time for the Lac Courte Oreille (LCO) tribe, an opportunity that opened doors but that also made him appreciate the flexibility and prospects of private business.

The restaurants that turned plain Dave Anderson into Famous Dave started in 1994 as a small barbecue joint on Round Lake near Hayward. That restaurant is still owned by the company and has never been placed out as a franchise operation. After the Hayward restaurant flourished, Dave opened one in Minneapolis and within five years was franchising his restaurants and promoting the famous sauces of Famous Dave's of America.

During his travels, Anderson sampled and discovered many kinds of barbecue sauces, eventually tinkering to perfection his own secret blend. He still travels and samples and tinkers, traveling almost 200,000 miles each year for work and his other causes. Now living near Minnesota's Twin Cities, he still returns almost every week to LCO and remains an honorary board member for the LCO Boys and Girls Club.

Anderson admits he loves making food, and that's one reason he believes Famous Dave's has worked so well. He found something that he loves doing and made that into his career.

Anderson's career has brought recognition, and more opportunity, to him. He earned a master's degree in Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and serves on the university's Native American Advisory Council. "It was an exciting and humbling experience," Anderson said of his studies at Harvard. "It was the culmination of a life dream to be able to receive that degree."

He also helped to found another flourishing restaurant chain, the Rainforest Cafe.

One of Anderson's more recent accomplishments, and one that he especially enjoys, was creation of the LifeSkills Center for Leadership, headquartered in Minneapolis. He invested more than a million dollars in 2000 to start the program, originally conceived to help at-risk Native American youth but has now expanded to teach adults leadership skills, too.

"We are making people develop from the inside out," said Mike Goze, executive director of the LifeSkills Center. "It's really for young and old. Ideally, when we first started, we were going to have it specifically for youth, but we found out that the kids would come home and the parents were so intrigued, they wanted to learn themselves."

Program workshops and activities, based on the motivational and inspirational influences in Anderson's life, are meant to give young people the confidence to face anything in pursuit of their goals. Not always easy, some sessions test and challenge participants, confronting their communication and leadership skills while honing those same skills.

Anderson has often touted his car as a "university on wheels" because it gives him the chance to listen to motivational cassette tapes. Taking what he's learned from them and his own experiences, Anderson and the center "tweak it a little bit to make it make sense to Native people," Goze said. "We've taken it across Indian country."

The keys to success are simple for Anderson. Do what you love to do. Continue to learn always by reading and listening. Develop the self-discipline to focus and control.

"If you can't keep yourself sober and you can't save your money and you can't discipline yourself to keep developing your skills, you'll never succeed in business."

"David is a tremendous visionary," Goze says of working with the center's founder. "He comes up with a lot of good ideas of how to make things happen, how to make things work. 'Can't' just doesn't seem to be in his vocabulary."

Sometimes, Anderson said, you've got to believe in yourself and your goals even when the "can't" seems too powerful. "Faith is all about believing in something that you can't see or explain," he said. "Success is the same."

Success for Anderson not only means a profitable business, it also means sharing what he's learned on the road (literally if you count those motivational tapes) to that success.

The LifeSkills Center program gives Anderson, a strong supporter of education, a place to teach the extra skills that he believes lead to true achievement of goals.

"It's one thing for a school to teach finance and marketing skills," he said, "but if they're not teaching success skills and how to think positively, how to build a spirit of never giving up, then I think that they are missing the boat. Finance and marketing are only technical skills, which are good tools to have, but generally not the tools that you need to succeed.