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How They Did It is a book of inspiration, ideas, and advice from 45 of the most successful living company founders ever to come out of the heart of America. Even more compelling is that these founders started companies around technology and innovation – not industries traditionally associated with the region.

Robert Jordan spent four years assembling and interviewing a very private, and in some cases reclusive, group of champions, who now reveal how they did it in a series of interviews and quotes. They describe their failures, the eureka! moments when things finally clicked, and the key insights and ingredients that made their companies extraordinarily successful.

Each founder started, grew, and sold a company for approximately $100 million or more, or took their company public for $300 million or more in market valuation. In total these founders created $41 billion in value from scratch.

Archive

Aug
17th
Fri
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Olympic Takeaways for Entrepreneurs

In business a lot of people can be touchy about criticism. In sports, athletes depend on it: if you want to improve your swing, your throw, or your attitude, you better be open to coaching.

The Olympics is the ultimate example, with the top athletes closely advised, cajoled and encouraged. Entrepreneurs also can learn from some good coaching, and in fact there are great lessons from recent Olympic champions, also-rans and even the DNFs (Did Not Finish).

Perfect your performance like Usain Bolt. To perfect can mean to take something to a flawless state, but I think there is a far better way to use this word for company founders: the continual process of expanding and developing skills and bettering results. Try this sentence: “She worked to perfect her startup over the course of five years and achieved $10 million revenue.” Is she done at $10 million? Of course not. Any entrepreneur worth her salt will now set a new goal. Sharpening our act – that’s something we can all do. Usain Bolt ran faster in his second Olympics, and I suspect he’s already setting even more ambitious goals for the future.

Make a comeback like Gabby Douglas. It was doubtful that Gabby Douglas would even make the US Olympic team, let alone win an individual Gold medal. Forbes contributor David DiSalvo wrote in The 10 Reasons Why We Fail that one of the reasons for failure is accepting one’s (low) station in life. But how does that explain Oscar Pistorius? How could you watch his 400 meter race and not be inspired? Comebacks are what make legends, so if you’re behind the curve right now in your business, just imagine how much more glorious it will be when you succeed.

Be remembered by your grace under pressure, just like Liu Xiang. He failed to clear the first hurdle in his race, crashed to the ground and was disqualified. He limped off, but then returned to kiss the hurdle. Competitors then helped him exit, because they knew a champion was in their midst. For Liu, the hurdle, the event, the training and the crowd were all sacred. Contrast this with an American runner, who was tripped up, fell, and immediately began to pound the track with her hands. She was not hurt, but she didn’t finish the race.

Especially with startups, none of us hits a home run every time, so the question is what to do when you crash. Anyone can look good when they win. It was fun to watch the pole vaulters – thrilling to see someone leap up to an impossible height and clear the bar. But when they failed to clear the bar, you saw them get up off the mat and applaud the crowd. It was their way to say: thank you for the opportunity to be here, and just so you know, I’m coming back, even better than before.

**Robert Jordan is a Forbes.com contributor. View the original posting of this article on Forbes.com.

May
10th
Thu
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Creating a Tech Ecosystem: Interview with Terry Howerton, Founding Chairman of ITA and TechNexus

Terry Howerton, Founding Chairman of ITA started his first company when he was 15 and knows the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur. In this video interview Terry shares how he co-founded ITA 10 years ago to create a place where people could self-identify as a tech community in Chicago.  Two years later he started a “clubhouse” for this community, TechNexus, which was just named in Forbes as one of the Top 10 Incubators in America.  While the 25,000 square foot space downtown was originally built as a collaboration center, TechNexus has morphed into an incubator where all types of people from stakeholders and investors to executives, engineers and IT buyers can gather together.

Since TechNexus opened in 2007, it has hosted 137 companies that have raised $80M and employ 450 people. Open Kernel Labs, a company that creates a virtual machine that sits inside a mobile phone, has been at TechNexus four years and has grown to one billion mobile devices worldwide. You can walk the halls and run into someone from, say, the Advanced Research Team at Motorola Mobility, or a 22 year-old hotshot building a mobile app. This is a tech ecosystem.

Recently we coached two college sophomores with a great idea, who were intent on heading home for the summer to work on product launch. My approach when starting a company is to surround myself with good people. There’s an even larger set of smart, giving, great minds who want to help. So our best piece of advice for the sophomores? Find a great incubator to take you in. It could lead to good things even if you don’t know upfront what’s possible.

Apr
30th
Mon
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How to Pitch Motorola VC

Motorola started a venture capital program in 1999 and since has invested over $500 Million in 175 different companies. As one of the most active investors out there, Motorola Solutions Venture Capital Group has had companies in its portfolio with resulting IPOS and even acquisitions. Some recent investments include Cleversafe, ViVOtech and Canvas. Surprisingly, out of the 175 companies invested in, Motorola has only acquired four.

In this interview with Reese Schroeder, Managing Director of Motorola Solutions Venture Capital, Reese shares Motorola Solutions’ thesis on investing. It’s not a try before you buy model, but rather looking for companies with a strategic fit. With a constant pipeline (the team is currently looking at around 1,000 opportunities), hear what Motorola Solutions is looking for. Reese spells out exactly how he wants to be pitched and shares where he sees entrepreneurs mess up when they walk in his door.

(Recorded in the Fall of 2011)

Apr
25th
Wed
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When Was Your First Entrepreneurial Epiphany?

My first inkling that I was an entrepreneur was at about age six. I loved sawing wood and hammering nails. I found some boards in a shed and went to work. As other kids came over, I assigned them tasks – I think we were trying to build a go-cart. As they were all sawing and hammering away, I thought – they’re working for me.

And then there’s Caine’s Arcade. Have you seen the Caine’s Arcade video yet? Here’s a nine year old who loves arcade games, has a skill with cardboard, a very loving dad and a lot of creativity. Caine turned his Dad’s auto parts store into Caine’s Arcade, outfitted with a variety of homemade cardboard games.  Despite having no customer, Caine worked at it every chance he got and waited for someone to walk in the door. Then one day filmmaker Nirvan Mullick happened upon Caine’s Arcade and became its first customer. More importantly, Nirvan decided to create a wonderful film, and both the arcade and film have gone viral.

Since then, the Caine’s Arcade Foundation has raised over $170,000 to help foster entrepreneurship and creativity in children.

So much good stuff came out of this. Caine’s Arcade even has a theme song: http://cainesarcade.bandcamp.com/

If a 9 year old kid can be that inspired, how powerful can we be?

Apr
18th
Wed
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7 Years for Success? Disruptive Innovation Takes Time

Steve Shank founded Capella Education, one of the first online universities, in 1992 when the Internet was not yet well-understood or widely embraced. With traditional educators questioning the entire concept of online teaching, Capella had a lot to prove. In this interview, Steve talks about bootstrapping the company to build a disruptive innovation, which he defines as a fundamental change in the marketplace. Patience was key for his success as it took seven years to demonstrate viability in the market. Today Capella has 34,000 students from across the US and 53 countries.

Steve Shank is one of the ten founders featured in the Nightingale Conant audio program How They Did It: Real World Advice From Today’s Most Successful Entrepreneurs.Listen to audio samples at here or order the program for a 20% discounted price for friends of Bob

Apr
11th
Wed
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Wanna Exit? Here’s How, to the Tune of $115 Million: Interview with Michael Alter, SurePayroll CEO

Michael Alter, CEO of SurePayroll, shares three crucial lessons in this video interview on the sale of his company to Paychex for $115 million.  Here are the highlights:

Your Company Is the Product

As managers, leaders and owners of companies, we spend all our time producing and selling things: products, services, processes. We think about how to create, position, price, brand and sell. But what happens when we try to sell the whole enchilada? It turns out the best process is the same, on a larger scale – the company becomes the product, and the same sales and marketing elements apply.

A radical example – recall the sale of ICQ’s Instant Messenger to AOL way back. The owners of ICQ proudly told the world that prior to selling to AOL for $425 million they had not taken in one dollar in revenue.

Make Sure Your Product (The Company) Is Fully Baked

Michael is brilliant on this point – because price isn’t the whole story. It’s easy to say you should sell when it’ll get the highest valuation. But what does that mean? Any smart buyer has a plan for making your maximized outcome her bargain price, from which she can later brag about what a steal she got when she underpaid for you. Michael said that for his 12-year-old venture, the decision to sell was not about flipping the company for a quick profit. With 30,000 customers and 160 employees, much was at stake. Even in the face of selling the company and turning the keys over to someone new, Michael said you have to ask, where do you want the company to go from here?

Go In With a Bigger Plan

This doesn’t just mean a plan to sell. Michael said that seven years ago SurePayroll got an offer but declined. The decision to wait proved to be the right choice. A sale process acquires momentum and picks up speed as you go along. It gets hard to change course. Your plan has to remain global and future-oriented even while you are packaging your company up with a pretty little bow on top. Michael  took a global look at SurePayroll and saw that with big differences in client base, SurePayroll would not go through significant change following the purchase. Paychex had a strong presence with traditional payroll customers, while SurePayroll catered to online use by small businesses. He accomplished the shareholders’ goals for sale while taking care to insure SurePayroll’s ongoing viability.

It’s always emotional when exiting a VC-backed company. Investors don’t go in without eventually wanting a way out (sorry Warren B., I love Berkshire Hathaway but VC aren’t built for forever as a holding period). Great founders don’t flip and don’t treat their creations lightly. But sale is a common outcome.

Apr
5th
Thu
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Make Your Time in the Car Much More Productive: New HTDI Audio Program Gives Best Business Advice

I am excited to announce a new audio program with Nightingale Conant called How They Did It: Real World Advice From Today’s Most Successful Entrepreneurs. Over the past year I had the honor of traveling around the heartland to conduct 10 in depth interviews with company founders for this new multi-disk audio program. I think the outcome was amazing and I hope listeners enjoy the stories from these entrepreneurs, each of whom fought through huge challenges, took great risks, experienced breakthroughs, and accomplished amazing feats. Special thanks to Raj Soin, Steve Shank, Dave Becker, Dane Miller, Bonnie Baskin, Brian Sullivan, Joe Mansueto, Mark Tebbe, Howard Tullman, and Jim Dolan for sharing their expertise with me and entrepreneurs everywhere.

Listen to audio samples at here or order the program for a 20% discounted price for friends of Bob.

Apr
3rd
Tue
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Prototype Your Idea and Get Paid Fast: Interview with Ara Bagdasarian, Co-Founder, Omnilert

When we visited University of Maryland at College Park for the Entrepreneurial Bash, I met up with Ara Bagdasarian , Co-Founder of Omnilert, a mass notification system widely used on college campuses. Ara started Omnilert after his first idea to develop a real estate texting service failed. Inspired by an article about a student murdered in her dorm room, he saw a burning problem: a need to communicate safety information to students. At the time most people were not using text messaging. Despite that, Ara created a prototype for messaging students and set out to see if his idea could pass the critical test of any new business: will a customer pay for it? The answer was yes, but even after securing his first customer the road was not easy. In this interview hear how Omnilert created a superb reputation and how they continue to stay ahead of competition. Ara has great advice for entrepreneurs and lives by the belief that “our customers are our investors”.

Mar
30th
Fri
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Entrepreneurs, Be Happy: Angels Up 40%!

Thanks to the Angel Resource Institute and CB Insight and sponsor Silicon Valley Bank for the new “Halo Report” of angel investment in the US.

While California is #1 at angel investing, more interesting is that 79% of angel funding occurs elsewhere. And the median size angel round is $700k, up from $500k a year before. That’s great news for entrepreneurs. Unlike past tech booms, where you’d scratch for nickels and dimes from friends and family early on, the number of angels today has increased and they have major firepower. Combine that with the fact that costs have gone down dramatically (at least with Internet startups), and launching a company becomes much more of a real possibility for many entrepreneurs.

Healthcare and Internet deals are the lion’s share, 60%+ in most US regions. When angels co-invest, they participate in rounds of median size $1.5 million. Two-thirds of the time, there’s a co-investor, meaning another angel outside their group, or a strategic investor or venture fund. This is also good news, because it means everyone is playing together nicely. In past times of less abundance, investors tended to hoard deals. That’s not usually good for the founder. More sharing can mean more funding.

All good news for entrepreneurs.





Mar
26th
Mon
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Non-Profit Entrepreneurship At Its Finest

Healthcare Marketing Expert Peter Cunningham and his wife suffered the tragic loss of their young daughter, CeCe, due to sudden unexplained death by epilepsy. Peter could have retreated, mourned, and just attempted to survive. But he didn’t do that. He and Sarah decided to create the CeCe Cares Pediatric Epilepsy Foundation, a national organization dedicated to reducing the emotional trauma and financial burden associated with pediatric epilepsy.

I realize we all know caring and committed individuals who form nonprofits. Peter’s next decision is the amazing part. He created the CeCe Bear, a stuffed teddy bear for kids. In its first year, the Foundation donated 2,000 CeCe bears to 10 of the leading pediatric epilepsy centers in the US, while providing grants to six families in need. This year his goal is to distribute teddy bears to children in 25 hospitals and provide financial grants to 20 families. To kick things off they are launching the inaugural Bear Bash on Saturday, May 12th in Chicago featuring an 80’s tribute band… the Spazmatics. You can donate or learn more at www.cececares.org.

Since launching How They Did It, we’ve met many wonderful entrepreneurs determined to change the world, sometimes with non-profit work. Take a lesson from Pete – and figure out your teddy bear – the thing that will inspire the world to take action.