March 10, 2021 8 min read
This story appears in the March 2021 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »
Chip Gaines loves people who say yes. “People who say yes to life, yes to hard work, and yes to risk, but who aren’t yes-people,” he writes in his new memoir, called No Pain, No Gaines. But he also knows how to say no, to great effect. He and his wife, Joanna, once ran a sometimes-struggling real estate company in Waco, Texas, and then transformed into the stars of HGTV’s reality show Fixer Upper — until they burned out and declined to continue. Instead, they shifted focus onto building their network — in many senses of the word — with the aim of creating jobs and opportunity in Waco. Under the brand name Magnolia, they’ve built a shopping district, a regional real estate company, vacation rentals, product partnerships with Target and others, and debuting later in 2021, an actual TV network called Magnolia Network (a joint venture with Discovery that rebrands its DIY Network).
Related: Building the Right Network for Your Business
In this conversation, Chip explains how he built his personal network — and how it became a guiding force as he evolved as an entrepreneur.
Image Credit: James Devaney | Getty Images
In your book, you describe building a network as “lots of very hard work,” which is a useful way of thinking about it. Great networks don’t just happen — they require work! What does that mean for you?
I hope I don’t get emotional or too philosophical here, but my life’s most complicated struggle has been summarized by the thought that if you don’t sweat, if you don’t physically feel exhausted, it’s not work. Because I am a tradesman. When I worked hard, I toiled literally in the dirt, and I had a very hard time producing enough income to support my family. Then when this television show occurred, and other opportunities that exceeded my wildest expectations by a thousand, I would go home and have a real identity crisis. I was like, Why are my hands not blistered? Why am I not bleeding? Why is my back not aching? I didn’t even work today. So literally, at 9 o’clock at night, I’d do some random chore with farm animals. And I found myself in this real odd place, getting less and less sleep, overwhelmed by the reality that I’ve got a full-time job that doesn’t require a whole lot of quote-unquote sweat equity.
Related: Take Care of Your Network – So It Will Take Care of You
Now I’m 46. I feel like I’m in the prime of my life, though I also felt like I was a late bloomer. I thought I would have felt this type of success in my mid-20s, early 30s. But the same amount of sweat equity I built before — the fact that I could outwork the next guy or the next girl — I now feel equally confident about putting into my network. I wouldn’t be where I am, or who I am, had it not been for the countless hours I spent… not networking in the traditional sense of the word but more “I do this for you, and you do this for me.”
That’s a real crossroads — you have to be open to redefining your idea of work, and what your value is to others. How did you make that transition?
I still have not resolved that puzzle. I feel unfulfilled when I’m not physically doing backbreaking manual labor. And I will say, I’ve got a weird fear of failure mixed into the equation. I keep thinking that the world is going to find us out any minute, and then it’s over. So I work to build up walls and ammunition to defend ourselves against that.
But I will say, building the network always felt like valuable work. Really what I mean is a network of support — a network of camaraderie, where you think about locking elbows with somebody and it’s like “Red rover, red rover, send the guy over.” And you’re not going to break through my line.
You just talked about feeling a kind of impostor syndrome. In your book, you write about struggling to fit in as a kid and trying on a lot of different identities. Back then, that didn’t sound constructive — but I wonder if now you see impostor syndrome as a kind of asset. After all, it clearly keeps pushing you to stay ahead.
Absolutely, 100 percent! I look back and have a lot of regrets. I was trying to be all things for all people. I didn’t want to disappoint anybody. But fast-forward and I am a man of faith — we’re a family of faith — and I have inadvertently developed empathy for lots and lots of categories of people. Even when I can’t say literally that I’ve walked a mile in their shoes, I have the ability to reach across a desk and try to relate to somebody under different circumstances than me.
Because you tried on so many different identities before?
Yeah. And I’ve landed confidently in this place.
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I think many people can relate to the evolution you’ve described: An insecure kid expected success early, didn’t get it, and is now a 46-year-old self-described “late bloomer.” Looking back on it, are you happy that success came later?
Absolutely. I would have been a terrible, terrible human if this had happened early. Instead, when it happened, humility had entered the equation. I’ve never filed for bankruptcy, technically, but we’d been on the absolute verge of that multiple times in our careers. I had been through the wringer.
Wherever we’re heading to, we now know it’s not about the money. My goal isn’t to have a billion or a hundred million or 20 million — it’s just like, listen, man, we want to do the most good. We’ve got a poverty rate in Waco, Texas, that is disproportionate to the rest of the country. That isn’t going to stand on our watch, and I don’t care what that means as it relates to me being on the Forbes 100 list or something.
Most people were like, “We want you to do a show, and we’re going to pay you an exorbitant amount of money. Yes or no?” And then we would tell the people — bless their hearts, they didn’t mean anything by it — but it’s not about the money. And they would laugh and say, “Yeah, they all say that.” And then they’d send us a contract two weeks later with an even bigger amount of money than the previous enormous amount of money. And we’re like, “It’s not about the money.”
Not caring about money turns out to be a pretty good negotiating tactic.
That is a fact! The downside is that once you’ve played that bluff, it’s hard to back out.
But for us, it’s about the business. We want to have a network that means something not only to us and our family but to this community. And then, hopefully, this community impacts the world at large.
Related: How the Stars of ‘Fixer Upper’ Transformed a Town in Texas
I just hope that we all take a minute to really evaluate what it is that we’re here on planet Earth to accomplish. If you’re accomplishing that in your 9-to-5 job, great. Then you’re in your perfect place. You’re doing the perfect thing for you and your family and your life.
But if you’re there because somebody told you that was the thing to do, and you never questioned that source of information, and now you’re like, Oh crap, what have I done with myself?, then don’t stay there a minute longer than you have to. There’s a whole world out there that is unencumbered by all those strings and all those requirements.