Last year, Entrepreneur University 2004 provided my first glimpse into the world of entrepreneuria. I wasn't sure I was going to attend again this year, since I know so much more about that world now [I note, somewhat sarcastically]. But I'm glad I went to EU 2005, as I learned many new things, relearned some old things (from my new, slightly more experienced perspective), and, as at every NWEN event, connected with some wonderful, interesting and helpful people. The recurring themes that I noticed most often throughout the presentations and discussions was passion, endurance and speed.
Dan Brettler, founder and CEO of Car Toys (and, I discovered in Googling around, Chairman of the United Way "Out of the Rain" initiative to end homelessness), gave an opening keynote presentation on "As the Customer Turns", emphasizing the importance of being able to adapt to changes along four dimensions (which he called "the four C's"): climate, customer, competition and company, and highlighted the endurance of Car Toys as it adapted to each of these factors throughout its various stages of growth since 1987. Dan also talked about Car Toys' aggressive marketing ("advertising by torture") and their success in ensuring that members of their target demographic group (young to middle-aged males) hear /see one of their commercials 4 times per week. [I suspect I may have been one of the only members of the audience to not have ever heard the Car Toys jingle ... in fact, I didnt even know they had one.]
Scott Svenson, Managing Partner of The Sienna Group, gave what I found to be the most personally inspiring presentation. Scott talked about the passion he and his wife had for good coffee and the cafe experience in Seattle, and how much they missed that when they moved to UK. Despite having no experience in retail or the coffee trade, they decided to form Seattle Coffee Company and open up a cafe in London. Everyone told them it would never work, and yet they grew from 1 to 65 stores in three years, and eventually sold the business to Starbucks. Scott offered 5 recommendations for building a successful company:
- Build a business like you never plan to sell it. This is in stark contrast to the focus on "exit strategies" I often hear and read about so often from most other businessfolk (e.g., The New Road to Riches), and much more congruent with my own view of entrepreneurship as akin to parenthood (it's our baby). Interestingly, Scott's curent passion is helping build and grow emerging companies, and when The Sienna Group considers buying emerging companies, he is not interested in any companies that are looking for buyers, only those that the owners don't want to sell ... reminding me of the notion (myth?) that married people are more attractive to people seeking new relationships.
- Bring as much passion and commitment as you can. Scott and Ally didn't start Seattle Coffee Company to make money, they started it to pursue their passion, and from the outset, they determined that failure is not an option. He noted that passion and commitment is contagious and aligning for the team.
- Define a clear and inspiring purpose. It's important for the whole team to feel they are part of something special, something bigger than themselves, that transcends any economic considerations. For Seattle Coffee Company, their goal was to change the way people socialized (offering new places, cafe's) and to help people enjoy life's journey.
- It's all about the people. Scott referred to Jim Collins, and his book "Good to Great", emphasizing that it is important to get the right people on the bus -- and get the wrong people off the bus -- early on, and highlighted Jack Welsh's claim that his biggest mistakes were all people mistakes, and usually having to do with a lack of speed (in promoting or firing employees).
- Cash is king. [So, I guess it's not all about the people.] Because Scott looks at companies as long term investments, he doesn't calculate valuations based on how much he thinks he can sell a company for (and when); he looks at the company's cash flow, for valuation and, ultimately, decisions on whether to buy.
In the Q&A period after his presentation, Scott talked about how he and his wife brought complementary skills and perspectives to the business (reminding me of Tom Eckmann's observation at an earlier NWEN event that "the biggest challenge faced by an entrepreneur is convincing your spouse that it's a good idea"). He also noted that one of their greatest strengths was what they didn't know (e.g., they didn't realize that opening 8 stores in 12 days was something that not even Starbucks would have attempted) ... and I found myself wondering whether NWEN and other organizations are [therefore] helping or hindering aspiring entrepreneurs ...
Glenn Kelman, Co-founder of Plumtree Software and currently leading operations at Redfin, presented a primer on "Building a Company in Ten Easy Steps" -- he had the best slides, and most [contagiously] enthusiastic delivery, of all the presentations I saw at EU (
if I can get a copy, and his permission, I'll post the slides online [Update: I've received Glenn's permission to post the slides here]). There were many gems in what Glenn shared; I'll just summarize a few of the highlights:
- aim high (it's easier to recruit others with a big vision),
- start early (there will always be more things to figure out)
- recruit smart and passionate people (passion being more important than brains)
- work hard and fast ("speed kills")
- keep it simple
- focus on the customer (don't worry about the competition)
- be open and honest and respectful (shoot straight down the middle)
- share the wealth (more satisfying than hording it)
- get plenty of sleep
Mike O'Donnell, President of StartUpBiz.com, presented some of the most controversial and perhaps contrarian views of the day on "building an external team". While nearly everyone else I heard was emphasizing the strategic value of recruiting passionate and committed employees, Mike emphasized the risks of what he calls a "W2 culture" (echoing some issues I've heard discussed regarding an "entitlement society") and made a case for using contractors wherever possible: "don't hire people, hire solutions." Mike argued that contractors can be just as passionate and committed as W2 employees ... and if/when that passion or commitment fades, it is much easier to terminate their relationship with the company. I admire the way that Mike has been so successful in applying this to his businesses (e.g., iCopyright), and yet I have reservations about the commitment issue, which I see as a two-way street. It was good to have the opportunity to consider alternative perspectives, and Mike certainly provided food for thought (and, fittingly, right before lunch).
After lunch, Sunny Kobe Cook, founder of Sleep Country, USA, (another company with a well-known jingle that I also have never heard) gave a keynote in which she emphasized the importance of recognizing that every employee is a paid spokesperson for your company. She referred to a recent Gallup poll that revealed a majority of employees being "disengaged" as a result of not receiving sufficient recognition, opportunities to make significant contributions, and/or not having a sense of belonging in their workplaces. A story about an assistant driver for Sleep Country, USA, who described himself as "Sunny's Goodwill Ambassador" provided an example of how she had created a culture of engagement in the company she founded.
Michael Pickett, CEO of Onvia.com, and John Holt, President and CEO of Cobalt Group, gave a joint, closing keynote presentation, on their experiences in endurance, steering their companies through hard times, and rising to meet the challenges. Interestingly, though hardly surprisingly, when each was asked whether, given all they've been through, they both responded affirmatively (and enthusiastically). John said that entrepreneurship has taught him more about himself than anything he has ever done. This enhanced (and sometimes painful) self-knowledge is one of the benefits I derive from parenthood ... and, I suppose, shows yet another dimension in which growing a company, and guiding it through challenging times, is closely aligned to nurturing the development of a child. Fortunately, the mortality rate for children is nowhere near as high as for new companies.