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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

Mar
21st
Wed
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Startups Galore at LAUNCH in San Francisco

Props to Jason Calacanis, leader and moderator at LAUNCH in San Francisco, for a high energy event that not only featured tons of startups from all over the world, but also hosted Israeli president Shimon Peres as keynote speaker. I happened by chance to be in San Francisco in time for the opening event on May 7, 2012.

The first set of presentations:

Alltuition – www.alltuition.com - One site that includes a view of all colleges, integrated and transparent view of the financial aid and loan process, plus a list of all major loan shops and their fees. Nice to see that Alltuition won as best overall 2.0 startup.

Vocre – www.vocre.com - Multilanguage conversations in real time.

Budge – www.bud.ge - Handheld program for health improvement. It even has a “Nag” mode where you can get a text or email exercise reminder (if that fails to motivate Budge will even call you at a certain time). Even better, a Budge customer, April, got up on stage with the company founder to do 10 pushups.

Hadza – www.Hadza.com - Simultaneous consumer video dashboard – one place that combines all video shot at the same time, geo-located. So if 10,000 people film the superbowl halftime show from the stadium, and another 100,000 film from bars and homes, you could aggregate to see and hear what occurred at the same point in time from multiple viewpoints.

Robin – www.magnifis.com -  Your personal assistant, ala Siri. They presented a voice control demo of navigation, traffic and parking availability. But this could apply to all kinds of things…ask Robin to find your ultimate personal match for example. A beta version is running in California now, with a live version working in Israel, where the bus company allows riders to ask questions and get insightful answers.

While I was at the event I got the chance to chat with some company founders as well:

My Toybox – Founder Florian Spathelf launched in Germany and has not yet reached 1,000 customers. But they have big ambitions. My Toybox is targeting moms with young kids, especially ages 2 to 3 years old. We talked about the challenge of his target audience aging out – and how to be more of a lifecycle service for parents, so that the company still has value as the child gets older.

Bizplay – www.bizplay.com - Founders Pascal Lindelauf and Bob Groeneveld have done something interesting – launched a service that helps retail business owners display content on screens – like a flat panel monitor in a store checkout line. Big companies and institutions like hospitals already have great solutions like Rishi Shah’s ContextMedia, which delivers content on diabetes control and treatment. The small retailer doesn’t have that. Bizplay launched in the Netherlands and are now ready to take the rest of the world by storm.

BeCouply – www.becouplydates.com - The cute couple Becky and Pius, founders of BeCouply, are the outsourced concierge for couples – a driver picks you up, takes you to dinner and a show – hires the babysitter – whatever it takes to be…couply.

RonaStar – www.ronastar.com – This cloud-based enterprise platform was launched 6 years ago by my friend Stephen Meade. What’s amazing about Steve is the range of his startups, which includes Cenoplex (former President Bill Clinton is helping in order to see adoption of audio insertion on all cell phone platforms). Another of Steve’s startups is My WetRock, a company that could help save millions of gallons of water, just by plunking one down in your toilet tank.

Pricetag – www.pricetaghq.com - Founders Arturo Sheimberg and Andres Garzon have launched a quote building application. Let’s say you have a tech team and have to build a quote with multiple deliverables, variable costs and input from various team members. Here’s the low cost SaaS solution that’s far better than a spreadsheet.

Feb
3rd
Fri
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From Home Run to Home Run: Interview with Patrick Spain, CEO of Hoover’s to founder at HighBeam

My friend Patrick Spain sat down with me to talk about the process of launching, growing and selling HighBeam to Gale/Cengage all in the span of 6 years. (Full disclosure – I was on the board of directors at HighBeam). Patrick’s first CEO job was at Hoover’s, which was a fledgling publishing company at the time he moved to Texas to join. Ten years later Patrick had grown the company to an IPO with a multi-hundred million dollar market cap. After leaving Hoover’s and moving back to Chicago, he bought the assets of Infonautics, which became the kernel from which HighBeam grew. Highbeam is one of the biggest article and research sites online.

While at HighBeam, Patrick created Newser along with Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff. In this interview Patrick shares how he ran both public companies (which he says has its downsides) and private. He also gives his thoughts on the mistakes entrepreneurs make in addition to the best quality an entrepreneur can have: patience.

Jan
12th
Thu
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2011 Great Lakes Entrepreneurial Bash Panel

On November 17, 2011, business leaders and entrepreneurs from around the heartland of America attended the Great Lakes Entrepreneurial Bash, a featured event of the Kauffman Foundation’s Global Entrepreneurship Week.  The Bash featured a panel of world class company founders who started from scratch and blazed a trail to success at $250 million and more.  The founders,  Mike Domek (TicketsNow), Ron Galowich (Initiate Systems Inc. & First Health Group Corp.), Jim Gray (optionsXpress), and Dane Miller (Biomet), shared key insights and ingredients that made their companies extraordinarily successful – as well as the challenges they faced along the way. Over 30 co-hosting organizations, including ACG Chicago, Built In Chicago, Tech America, MIT Enterprise Forum Chicago, TiE Midwest, and many more, came together in the spirit of entrepreneurship to help make the Great Lakes Entrepreneurial Bash a success. With the help of all of the co-hosts, over 250 entrepreneurs, company owners and executives attended.

Throughout the panel discussion, many attendees tweeted comments and quotes from the panel. “‘Don’t listen to most of the stereotypes…Make mistakes and learn from them’ –Mike Domek |#entrepbash #startup #entrepreneurship,” tweeted @rrpichardo, Richard Pichardo.  Following the panel, hundreds attended a reception where they could network and meet the panel. Denise Siegel, President of deniseSiegelbronze, attended the event saying “[I] really enjoyed the panel, and came away with a couple thoughts that I’ll carry with me, probably always… These were cool guys and SO interesting and I could have listened to them for a lot longer.”  The Great Lakes Entrepreneurial Bash will be back in 2012 during Global Entrepreneurship Week. For more information or to stay up-to-date on the latest news from the Great Lakes Entrepreneurial Bash 2012 visit www.EntrepBash.com

Watch the 2011 Great Lakes Entrepreneurial Bash panel here.

Dec
29th
Thu
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Um…Memorize that Speech, Or Not?

Many of us are called on to make speeches. What I struggle with is whether I should read from a prepared text (or memorize); or just extemporize? If I write it all out, and maybe even memorize it, I will sound flawless and impressive. But if I could just wing it, say with an outline, it would take much less time to prepare, and I’d sound more thoughtful and present with the audience. The problem with that approach is that it’s far more likely I’ll make a mistake.

It turns out, according to Dr. Duane Watson’s research at University of Illinois, that an occasional mistake, like an “um” or “uh” is not so bad. Duane’s research showed that some disfluencies can actually help your audience understand what you are trying to say. What he found is that listeners “remembered more of the story’s key points when there were ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’ present than when the story was produced without any fillers.” In addition, the study looked at other kinds of mistakes, like coughing. Swapping in a cough at the exact time/duration of an “um” didn’t work so well. It’s not just a question of having a little gap or pause in speech. A speaker’s small disfluency could be a cue for listeners to work a little harder to understand, and a signal that the speaker has thought more about the point at hand.

So the next time you have to give a speech, take heart, you don’t have to deliver perfectly, and your small imperfections in speech could actually help you and your audience. Kind of a relief, huh?

Dec
27th
Tue
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Entrepreneurs: The Five Tests for Choosing Partners and Shareholders

Why is the average income of an “entrepreneur” in the US so low? Because most solo business owners are just that – solo – and they seemingly can’t get out of that solo box.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from interviewing champion entrepreneurs in How They Did It: Billion Dollar Insights from the Heart of America is that none of us do it alone, at least, not at the level of champions who start from scratch and make it to $100 million+. You have to form strong partnerships and develop a serious management team if you want big-time success.

This is the supreme test: can you scale beyond yourself? And even if you are truly open to it, how would you know who you should put at an equal level? And by equal I mean sharing ownership.

There are two usual routes to partnership in startups. The natural one and the serendipitous one. There’s the natural route —  for example college roommates getting to know each other over the years. They later go on to rule the world after graduation or after dropping out. Think of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. Then there is the serendipitous route: the chance circumstances where you happen to meet someone and somehow figure you’d be good in business together. I interviewed Phil Soran, founder of Compellent and Xiotech, whose co-founders included a neighbor and a mutual friend. Their threesome made for an incredible team, creating billions of dollars in value from scratch. That’s serendipity.

So what happens when you find a standout performer amongst your team – a rookie or previous unknown who could be as good as you, the irreplaceable brilliant founder and CEO? Here are five tests for partnership and sharing equity ownership.

1.      Leadership. It is not enough for a trusted lieutenant to just be a lieutenant. The test of equity is – can this person lead? Does anyone follow them? Are they acting independently and with confidence?
2.      Integrity. We give lip service to higher qualities, but does your potential partner live it? Here’s the hard case: when he or she screws up, and invariably in leadership we all do things at times we’d rather do over - does he own up to the mistake, no excuses?
3.      Strategy. When you give out equity you are getting married. Does your partner think globally – about the entire range of business, and beyond that, about various opportunities and threats? Is their view commanding, like the general surveying the whole field? Or is their view local - a soldier in the trenches? You need to have both qualities, but if strategic, that means your partner can have a massive multiplier effect on your thinking and business.
4.      Action. This kind of goes without saying, because any founder worth his salt won’t put up with inaction. The test of partnership is someone who is pushing as hard as you to accomplish great results.
5.      Results. Your partner has to move the meter, and I don’t just mean revenue. Yes, ultimately it’s about the money, but does all of this add up to something wonderful? Is your partner creating new product/services/processes? There’s a great story about one of Google’s engineers who tested bold face type in search results in response to a search term query. His one little test lifted ad response results 400%, ultimately increasing Google’s valuation by many billions of dollars.

When you see a great potential partner you should be able to calculate in your head what the impact is of her decisions and actions. If the resulting number is in the millions of dollars, start talking equity.

Dec
22nd
Thu
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3 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Starting My Career

I was recently asked by a university career planning center director: what do you wish you had known early in your career?

I could ask myself more easily, what was I thinking?! But in an effort to frame this in a way that would help someone just starting a career, I began to think about things that have helped me along the way and that would have been beneficial much earlier on. There are things I discovered only after years that have had a huge impact on my decisions, successes and how I’ve approached setbacks. Here are three things that have mattered for me:

(1)             Join a Mastermind Group. I would have harnessed the power of the collective genius – and nurturing – that was around me and joined a mastermind group earlier on. I have lots of good friends and colleagues who did wonderful things for me, and I for them. But that’s not the same thing as a dedicated mastermind group. If you form or join a mastermind group, you significantly increase your chances for success, no matter your industry or profession. Napoleon Hill is the modern day discoverer of the power of mastermind groups, which he labeled when he saw the power that came from titans like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison coming together to help each other succeed. While a mastermind can apply to any area of your life, in a business context, a mastermind consists of no more than 6 to 8 professionals who come together in a spirit of harmony and meet regularly to present their goals, challenges and progress. Each member is held accountable, which is key!

(2)             Create a List. If the Power of Focus was written back at the start of my career I would have formed a list early on of everything I wanted to accomplish in life. I wish I would have set out a master list at age 22, no matter how outrageous. Language creates reality and by committing to life goals in writing at an early age, you get further on your path faster.

(3)             Tune in to People’s Feelings. I wish earlier on I would have had more intuition of how people were feeling, not just what they were saying. It took me 20 years to develop good antennae. Maybe this is more common for guys - I trusted interpretation of everyone else’s feelings to my girlfriend, my sister, other folks who I knew to be intuitive. It was as if a foreign language were being spoken while I was in the room, and I’d turn to my girlfriend and ask, “what’d he mean?” I heard the words but not the feelings. Now? I listen very closely, and not just for words, but also for meaning and context; the spirit behind the talk.

Dec
20th
Tue
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The Five Best Mark Twain Insults: On Entrepreneurs, Techies, Lawyers, Landlords and Editors

It’s been 100 years since Mark Twain’s passing and The Mark Twain Foundation was finally able to publish his autobiography. He insisted on a 100 year delay so that neither friends, their children or grandchildren could take offense. There isn’t a ton of new groundbreaking material here, so I’m not telling you to go out and read the massive book. I think what Mark Twain really wanted to say, he said and wrote during his lifetime. My two cents - these are leftovers. But what I was impressed by were Twain’s zingers – his brilliant, clever insults. I’m giving you five of the best here:

Twain warmed me up by calling someone a “shining ass” and then really had me when he called someone else a “smooth tongued liar and moral coward.” By the time he started describing an infamous entrepreneur he had invested in, I couldn’t help but think about some of the entrepreneurs I’ve heard pitch over the years. These are folks who did not qualify for How They Did It: Billion Dollar Insights from the Heart of America.  See if you think Mark Twain could have written these items today about lawyers, editors, landlords, techies and entrepreneurs and been just as current:

1.     On lawyers. Twain’s lawyer advised him when he invested $170,000 in a startup ($4.4 million in current dollars).Keep in mind this is his lawyer, not opposing counsel:

He is a great fat good-natured, kind-hearted, chicken-livered slave; with no more pride than a tramp, no more sand than a rabbit, no more moral sense than a wax figure, and no more sex than a tapeworm. He sincerely thinks that he is honest; he sincerely thinks that he is honorable. It is my daily prayer to God that he be permitted to live and die in those superstitions.

2.     On editors. After Twain had been writing for 35 years he was a part of the American fabric. Apparently he didn’t have much experience with anyone attempting to alter his words, so it came as a shock when an impertinent editor decided to fix Twain’s language:

This long-eared animal, this literary kangaroo, this bastard of the muse, this illiterate skull full of axle grease…

3.     On landlords. Ever rented a vacation home? Here is Twain’s experience with an American turned Italian countess renting her home to his family:

I should wish the countess to move out of Italy, out of Europe, out of the planet. I should want her bonded to retire to her place in the next world, and inform me which of the two it was so that I could arrange for my own hereafter. She is excitable, malicious, malignant, vengeful, unforgiving, selfish, stingy, avaricious, coarse, vulgar, profane, obscene. A furious blusterer on the outside, and at heart a coward. Her lips are as familiar with lies, deceptions, swindles and treacheries as are her nostrils with breath. She has not a single friend in Florence. She is not received in any house. I think she is the best hated person I have ever known and the most liberally despised. She is an oppressor by nature and a taker of mean advantages. She is hated by every peasant and every person on the estate and in the neighborhood of it, with the single exception of her paramour, the steward.

4.     On Techies. I took liberties with a new label. Twain was talking about physicians, but this so much sounded like the ultimate techie:

He had the special characteristic of every limited practiced physician whom I’d ever known. He was tedious, witless, commonplace, loved to hear himself talk, and was a spirit-rotting bore.

5.     On entrepreneurs. On my favorite subject, our own tribe of entrepreneurs, Twain reports on his $170k investment in entrepreneur James Paige’s company. Paige was founder of a typesetting company and had invented a typesetting machine that was faster than any other system then available. Unfortunately it just took a little longer, and then a little longer, than necessary. And cost a lot more than anyone could foresee:

James W. Paige, the little bright-eyed, alert, smartly dressed inventor of the machine, is a most extraordinary compound of business thrift and commercial insanity; of cold calculation and jejune sentimentality; of veracity and falsehood; of fidelity and treachery; of nobility and baseness; of pluck and cowardice; of wasteful liberality and pitiful stinginess; of solid sense and weltering moonshine; of towering genius and trivial ambitions; of merciful bowels and a petrified heart; of colossal vanity and – but there the opposites stop. His vanity stands alone, sky-piercing, as sharp of outline as an Egyptian monolith. It is the only unpleasant feature in him that is not modified, softened, compensated by some converse characteristic. There is another point or two worth mentioning: he can persuade anybody; he can convince nobody. He has a crystal-clear mind, as regards to the grasping and concreting of an idea which has been lost and smothered under a chaos of baffling legal language; and yet it can always be depended upon to take the simplest half dozen facts and draw from them a conclusion that will astonish the idiots in the asylum. It is because he is a dreamer, a visionary. His imagination runs utterly away with him. He is a poet; a most great and genuine poet, whose sublime creations are written in steel. He is the Shakespeare of mechanical invention. In all the ages he has no peer. Indeed, there is none that even approaches him. Whoever is qualified to fully comprehend his marvelous machine will grant that its place is upon the loftiest summit of human invention, with no kindred between it and the far foothills below.

So there you have it – elegant insults, far above the common stuff hurled around these days. Now if I promise to safekeep your best material for 100 years, what have you got? Feel free to email me with your best.

Dec
15th
Thu
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Jim Dolan, Founder, The Dolan Company: Give Your Kid Entrepreneurs an Early Start!

Jim Dolan, founder and CEO of The Dolan Company, started his entrepreneurial life early, having had an epiphany as a young lad. He had bought firecrackers for 25 cents in the summer and had some leftovers come Christmas time. He was about to do the normal thing boys do and set them off, when a friend said he’d pay $1. With a 300% profit locked in, an entrepreneur was born.

Other founders had similar experiences growing up. Howard Tullman was a professional magician by age 8. One of the Groupon co-founders set up a company to sell rugs while in college.

Maybe there is something here? The summer job mowing lawns or the early lemonade stand by the side of the road may be a stepping stone to greatness. It led to big things for Jim, and in this video interview, he makes some great points:

  • It may appear that public companies can at times rest on their laurels, but Jim is adamant that is false. You have to keep growing. It is a never-ending process.
  • Jim’s company is an expression of who he is – it is a calling, not a temporary thing where he has an exit point. He specifically acknowledges that he has different goals from his investors. Before taking someone’s money, he is upfront that he’s in it for the long haul, because he knows investors always have a time horizon, a due date when they want to sell and move on.
  • The quality of great entrepreneurs is restless curiosity, and its opposite is not cynicism. Cynics have filters, and Jim doesn’t discount both qualities playing together simultaneously.

Enjoy!

Dec
13th
Tue
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How to Hit a Viral Home Run

Newsweek called Grand Rapids, Michigan, a dying town. Rob Bliss, local entrepreneur and event planner, was not pleased. Nor was the town of Grand Rapids. What he did in response went viral and was far more powerful than Newsweek's criticism. Rob led production of this 10 minute video, done in one take, thanks to the whole town of Grand Rapids. Yep, the whole town!

What can entrepreneurs learn from Rob’s daring, ambitious video response to Newsweek?

1. Get in the Game. Get active, get mad, whatever it takes, but get going. That’s what Rob did. Rob wasn’t afraid of failing – and that’s how he launched a massive project.

2. Tell Your Friends. Rob had the support and creativity of his partners, and that led to 3,000 volunteers ready to help out. Tell other people your idea, enlist their help, and be willing to share credit.

3. Delegate. You cannot do it all yourself. Rob was not the athletic cameraman who did the Grand Rapids shoot in ONE take! You have to see the camerawork to believe it, from standing on a rolling platform to trotting in front of a moving crowd to a smooth transition to a helicopter liftoff at the end. Likewise in business, the biggest mistake rookie entrepreneurs make is attempting to do it all alone, being that lone cowboy or cowgirl out on the range, handling all problems, stoic to the end.

4. Choose Your Ground. Rob couldn’t dispute Michigan’s high unemployment. He didn’t engage in an academic debate. He focused on Grand Rapids taking action and creating a powerful emotional response that is meant to move people to further action.

5. Use the Tools at Hand. Rob did not start a magazine to take on Newsweek, he didn’t write a letter to the editor, and he certainly didn’t do what most of us do, which is to uselessly bitch and complain about how unfair things are. He got on YouTube, and look at the results! 4.3 million views so far.

Did Rob’s effort really change anything? I don’t know. But now I know who he is – and so do you. Next up comes…you! Show us the parade you are going to lead.

Dec
8th
Thu
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One Thing Done Right: PRICELESS

Visiting New York City recently, I stopped into Rice to Riches. If you’re hungry for the best rice pudding on the planet, you’re at the right place. If you’re looking for anything else, like burgers - you’re out of luck.

The metallic exterior of the building was sleek and trendy, seamlessly fitting into its SoHo neighborhood. Meantime, the interior was inviting, like my outstanding Hazelnut Chocolate Bear Hug rice pudding.

I could have had Fluent in French Toast, Almond Shmalmond, or Sex Drugs and Rocky Road, because transforming rice pudding is what they do.

So good at it that they can have a sign out front that says “Dozens of Delicious Flavors and 3 Shitty Ones.” Not something IBM would do.

One of the company founders I interviewed in my book, How They Did It: Billion Dollar Insights from the Heart of America was Mike Domek, founder of TicketsNow, an online service connecting buyers and sellers of event tickets. Mike did one thing very well and it paid off. The entertainment business was a passion Mike had since childhood when he was inspired by Wrigley Field in Chicago, walking in and looking out over the perfect green field awaiting. That inspiration ultimately led to the creation of a company that hit $300 million in gross ticket sales by the time Mike sold to Ticketmaster in 2008.

Also in New York with me for the Entrepreneurial Bash, my colleague Olivia popped into another specialty shop called Pommes Frites. Customer can order fries, fries, or more fries along with loads of dipping sauces including flavors like sweet chili, curry ketchup, and roasted garlic mayo.  Olivia tried six of the sauces, and gives the place two thumbs up.

It’s easy to think specialization dead-ends you, but I think it’s actually the opposite. Look at Twitter that only tweets and Groupon that only offers daily deals. Zero in, focus – and see how your market actually expands.