Enjoying the ride: Lessons learned from the rollercoaster of entrepreneurship
Budding entrepreneurs, who tabled their startup aspirations for the past several years, may be looking at 2014 as the time to launch a new business. “This year will be the best one to run a business that we’ve seen in a long time. It’s also a very good time to start one,” Elaine Pofeldt, a respected independent journalist who specializes in writing about careers and entrepreneurship, wrote in a recent Forbes.com article.
With the future looking optimistic for new enterprise development, Bryant magazine turned to three seasoned entrepreneurs for advice on taking the leap into business ownership. Alumni Daryl Crockett ’82, Scott DePasquale ’94, and Jay Weinberg ’85 share their expertise on embracing failure, building strong networks, and finding focus—all while surviving on very little sleep.
Develop scar tissue
“You’re going to develop scar tissue that others don’t have"
“Any venture capitalist or entrepreneur will tell you they have had more failures than successes,” says Daryl Crockett ’82, CEO of Validus, who has been a serial entrepreneur since she was in her twenties. “It is a gut-wrenching rollercoaster ride, but if you don’t give up, eventually you will understand that failure is part of the process.”
Today, Crockett runs a thriving data migration and validation software company. But her first software business, launched just before 9/11, folded quickly. A chain of health clubs she owned survived the recession in the late ’80s, but ended up highly leveraged and not able to innovate and compete with the new, cash-flush competitors that sprouted.
By embracing failure and recognizing its structure, she says, you can discover what it takes to succeed. “You’re going to develop scar tissue that others don’t have,” Crockett explains. “It allows you to recognize a problem and learn how to not repeat it.”
Scott DePasquale ’94, chairman and CEO of Utilidata, Inc., and a partner at the venture capital firm Braemar Energy Ventures, says past failures are what motivate him to get up in the morning. “You won’t take risks if you are afraid of failure. You also might not achieve great things,” he says.
“Sometimes all you have is the ability to ask for help"
DePasquale has invested in 18 companies since graduating from Bryant. The number of successes? “Three,” he says. “If you’re not risk tolerant, you won’t have what it takes to move forward in the innovation economy.”
And moving forward is crucial. According to Jay Weinberg ’85, president of Chicago-based The JAY Group, “It is important to fail—and fail fast.”
“Never give up” can be a dangerous phrase for entrepreneurs, Weinberg notes. “People can spend years on some-thing that is not going to work,” he says. “To be successful, you need to recognize quickly what’s not working. Process it, learn from it, and use what you’ve learned to move on.”
Assemble a personal board of directors
Deciding when to concede and when to persevere can lead to a lot of sleepless nights. “Other than living with a newborn, it’s the least amount of sleep you’re going to get,” Crockett says.
Successful entrepreneurs develop a talent for finding a support system. “Sometimes all you have is the ability to ask for help—and to ask many times,” says DePasquale.
Soon after graduating from Bryant, he remembers trying to convince an executive at John Hancock in Boston that he was right for their company. “I got laughed out of the office,” DePasquale recalls. “But he became an advisor to me over time. You need to find people like that, people who are interested in you. Through the years, I’ve developed my own personal board of directors.”
“Focus, more than anything, is what you’ll hear in every single success story"
Crockett took a similar tack. When her health clubs failed, she knew it was time to build a knowledgeable network. “I needed an advisory team with more experience than I had,” she says. “I decided to collect successful friends. And, when I started to hear all their good advice, I thought: Wow. Can you give me more?”
Weinberg, who grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, learned early that no matter what business you’re in, it’s always about people. “It’s all about your network and how to work that network. I’ve helped a lot of people get started in business—and many people have helped me build mine.”
More tips from top entrepreneurs among the Bryant family
Much of Jay Weinberg’s network has come from relationships built while a Bryant student and later as an active alumnus. One of the many ways he stays connected to his alma mater is as a judge for Bryant’s New Venture Competition. Similar to the TV show “Shark Tank,” it challenges alumni and students to pitch business ideas with hopes of taking home the top prize: $10,000 in recent years.
“We are not an easy group to get through; we’re really critical about the pitches we hear,” Weinberg says of himself and his fellow judges, who have included DePasquale.
Weinberg notes that it’s a great learning experience for both the people who pitch their business plans and the judges. “I always take something away that I can incorporate into my business and my processes,” he says.
“It’s no-nonsense feedback for participants,” DePasquale adds. “It’s gratifying to hear that the response is appreciated.”
Find your focus
“You need the ability to push through when you’re going to do big, scary things"
In 2013, Crockett was one of those appreciative participants. She wowed the judges, including DePasquale and Weinberg; won the New Venture Competition; and walked away with additional funding for her growing company, Validus.
Several years ago, she might not have been able to enter the competition with such a successful plan. Crockett had experimented with new businesses while always maintaining a “day job” to pay the bills. It was only when she combined her talent as a data migration consultant with her passion for innovation that she gained true momentum as an entrepreneur.
“I suddenly realized I hadn’t focused my creativity on the work I did every day,” she says. “Instead of diluting my energy like a river that divides and gets weaker, I stopped splitting my time. I became focused.” Within two weeks of that realization, Crockett had a patentable idea that is the basis of her business today.
Like Crockett, Weinberg formed his customer relationship management firm 15 years ago by leveraging his technology background and passion for marketing. “Focus, more than anything, is what you’ll hear in every single success story,” Weinberg says. “Focus and tenacity.”
For DePasquale, focus and tenacity were so important among his employees when he started the energy-tech company Utilidata, he took his team through Navy Seal training. “The stresses were high and relevant for us as a company,” he says. “You need the ability to push through when you’re going to do big, scary things. In entrepreneurship, you need to bring your ‘A’ game.”