From the monthly archives:

April 2010

One of our assignments in Entrepreneurship class at GWSB MBA program was to conduct an interview with an entrepreneur of our choice. This was an individual project, so we had to find a worthy candidate on our own and to interview him/her. To make it easier, we were even given a set of questions which could be used to kick off the conversation. Of course, we were also free to ask our own questions as we see fit in the situation.


It would be easy for me just to talk to on my friends or acquaintaces who have or have had their own business in the past. But I opted for something off the beaten path. Here is slightly edited and abridged version of the interview I had with my entrepreneur. I think, there are some lessons to be learned for many of us from this exercise.

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On a leisurely Sunday afternoon I had a chance to interview a person who I consider one of the most remarkable entrepreneurs I have met. Even so, I know for a fact that you have not heard about this person, as her name has not hit the limelight yet. This “yet” part of her relative obscurity was very significant, because I had a unique opportunity to be the first one to take an interview with her and get some interesting insights, and some new perspective on the things I consider familiar.

Although I believe that in due time this entrepreneur’s name will hit the news headlines and receive recognition for her bold and innovative ideas, I will always keep the honor of being the first one to discover, and break her name to the general public in this interview that is offered to you now.

As we have certain level of familiarity with this person, I was able to get to the crux of the matter without too much introduction. So here are some of the answers I have received to the carefully selected in advance questions. The answers to many of the questions may seem a bit too succinct to you, but I will explain the reason for it a bit later.

I. Question: What is your definition of an entrepreneur?

Answer: Entrepreneur is a person that has his or her business. Also, it is someone who does something different.

Q: Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?

A: Yes, because I do a lot of business.

Q: What is the best thing about being an entrepreneur?

A: To do planning for your business and be in control of it.

Q: What is the worst thing about being an entrepreneur?

A: Getting the business ideas blocks. You know, like the writer’s block.

Q: What would be your advice to a potential entrepreneur?

A: You have to be always open to the possibilities. Look for the business opportunities. Also before you start any business you have to find what are the needs or wants of people. Sometimes you will find that the wants are silly. But hey, it could be your opportunity.

 II. Q: What event do you consider as a major milestone in your life as entrepreneur?

A: For me such event was when I started to receive my allowance from the parents.

Q: And how exactly did this event affect your decision to become an entrepreneur?

A: I realized that I had certain freedom now to get the things I wanted. But most of the things were out of my reach. I realized that I needed to find the way to make significantly more money to be able to afford them.

Q: Why did you decide to go into your own business instead of someone else’s?

A: I already said that I like to be in control of my own business. Besides, no one would hire me anyways…

Q: How has your education helped you in launching and growing your venture?

A: It’s ventures, not just one venture. As for education, I am still working on it. I have many more years to be a student. Also, my classmates sometimes give me ideas about what needs and wants they have and I think of the ways how I can help meet those needs.

Q: Are you enjoying what you are doing, that is, how are you having fun in your entrepreneurial activities.

A: I am having fun in everything I do. If it’s not fun, I would not do it.

Q: How do you define success in entrepreneurship?

A: I think that money is a good measure of business success.

Q: What lead to the success of your business.

A: Hard work. I also don’t have real competition.

Q: What do you see as the future of your business?

A: I am looking to expending my customer base. I also plan to have a cool website for my business, to reach more customers with more products.

III.

Q: Did you or do you have a “mentor”?

A: I have a mentor. This is my dad.

Q: What is your perception of how others see you personally and professionally?

A: Personally: Goofy. Professionally: Creative.

Q: How would you like others to see you?

A: Creative and smart.

 So, this was the recap of our conversation with the entrepreneur. It’s probably time to disclose the identity of this remarkable person. 

Actually, instead of going to one of my many acquaintances who are business owners and proven entrepreneurs,  I chose to interview my own 11-year old daughter. Some might argue that she does not really have much to share due to her young age and home-grown nature of the business she has ventured so far. I can see that point. But I believe that the things she is missing on the experience side, are well-outweighed by the natural instincts and unblocked openness of her mind and, yes, — innocence of her perceptions.

When you grow up and have your own business, you can often get blindsided by the pressures of running that enterprise. Those pressures are often mundane, like doing all the required paperwork, and staying compliant with all the regulations governing your business niche. Also, sometimes those pressures can be depressing, when you are just trying to make the ends meet and stay afloat, whether due to economic downturn or multitude of other reasons. Those pressures may eventually lead to losing the sense of the “first love” that you had when you just started on your entrepreneurial path.

That’s why I think that some of the insights, even though they do not seem to be profoundly revolutionary, give you a reminder and a good re-fresher on some intrinsic values of being entrepreneur.

I would like to emphasize just a few personal takeaways from this conversation too. These are just highlights of what is important for entrepreneurs regardless of age:

  • The need for freedom of self-expression and self-reliance. This was related in the answer to a question what is the best thing about being an entrepreneur: “Plan and be in control of it.”
  • Importance of enjoying what you are doing. Having fun in the process. This will definitely keep your creative juices flowing.
  • Finding out the needs and wants of potential customers and meeting those needs, instead of just having some grandiose idea that does not solve anyone’s problem, or meets anyone’s desires.
  • And yes, entrepreneurship is about doing business, so making money in the process still seems like a reasonable measure of entrepreneurial success.

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This was the interview I submitted, and as I mentioned, some of the ideas may seem too simple. However, I received a validation for the approach I chose very quickly. We had to turn in this interview before the class when we had a panel with four entrepreneurs at GWSB MBA. I had a post about it -Meet Serial Entrepreneurs just recently. If you watch the video, you will find at least some answers from the seasoned entrepreneurs that echo, even if a bit differently worded, my daughter’s responses. So don’t despise the small beginnings and look for the opportunity to learn something new from less expected sources. And this is the lesson our business school professor tried to bring home to us from the first lecture – Entrepreneurship is Everywhere.

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I already had a post about the making of the Elevator Pitch by our team in Entrepreneurship class. But I wanted to give a bit broader review of that particular class and talk in general terms about the cases that were presented by various groups.

I really found that exercise quite stimulating. It also provided the opportunity to learn both from the strengths and the weaknesses of various elevator pitches.


There were total 9 teams presenting their elevator pitches at the class. Each team had 3 minutes for the pitch, and then had to answer questions from other students in the class. Some teams had really vested themselves into this project. I saw them having meetings after class for two weeks, and I have no doubt, judging by the level of their performance, that they had some out of class meetings too.

The projects presented were in a very wide range in every aspect:

  • from non-profit student organization (actually doing the work already) to hi-tech pets gadgets
  • from quite plausible, to so complicated, that its practical execution is highly unlikely
  • from meeting reasonably conceivable needs to frivolously outlandish
  • from requiring hardly any investment, rather just “sweat equity”, to initial funding in hundreds of thousands of dollars

The same variety goes for the presentation modes. Two teams had just one person doing the presentation, one team had the whole group covering various aspects of the business venture, and everything in between. A couple of presentation were very well rehearsed quite entertaining mini-shows (incidentally, both of them were around food establishments)  and some were just rather unexciting recitals. Some were very clear in both mission statement and covering its basic implementation, and some were not much more than wishful thinking.

I personally thought from the start that the presented project should be feasible, not just cute or utterly made up with no realistic way of implementing it.  Overall, as I said before, I found the great value of this exercise in the very broad scope of these presentations. A few lessons I took from it:

  • Make the mission statement clear and understandable
  • Identify some real need that may have the market beyond meeting your own whimsical imagination
  • Think through the implementation stages in realistic terms, not just wishful thinking
  • Don’t be afraid to inject a healthy dose of performance art as appropriate
  • Show your passion about the venture

Where most of these elements were missing in elevator pitches, it was quite obvious. And these pitches would not make me open my wallet, should I be an angel investor or investment banker. And you need to be pretty much well-rounded in the above mentioned elements, otherwise even a worthy idea could go unappreciated.

These ideas resonate quite well with what our professor told us later in class: Investors would rather invest in passionate person with average idea, than in brilliant idea with average person. Or, paraphrased, investors give money to people, not to ideas.

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In one of our classes on Human Capital Management we were discussing employees’ compensation. Obviously, among other things we were touching on all hot topics related to the issue: executive compensation, fair pay, incentives, indirect compensation, etc. Our professor gave us an in-class exercise: we had to get into four groups and come up with as many as possible examples of indirect compensation, aka benefits, in five minutes.


There was quite a wide range of number of benefits the groups were able to come up with  in that short time: from 29 to 63. Once we all reported how many items each group had on their list, the group with the largest number of perks read their list to the whole class. Our group did not get 63, however quite a few of the benefits were overlapping. I found this exercise not just hilariously entertaining, but also quite helpful for two reasons. First, it gave us a chance to shift the focus from the $$$ signs to some other things that might be meaningful and effective in employees’ motivation. Second, we got an opportunity to run our imagination wild.

I asked the guy from the winning group to copy their list. So the list presented here is not my personal invention, but rather a compilation of that list and some other ideas that were floating in the discussion. I just put it out here in a raw form, without much editing, so you can get a jump start for your own wild ideas. The original list dwindled from 63 to 55 because some ideas were repeated twice, and some - I just could not read from the handwriting.

Why the list matters?  Simply, you could take this to your boss (OK, may be not the whole list :-) ) and ask for introduction of some of those perks or their derivatives into your company. I know it’s a risky business to ask for perks in this economy, but many of those things are actually implemented in some companies. Admittedly, higher levels in organizational hierarchy get juicier pieces of that benefits pie. But hey, it’s worth trying to push some of them down the “food chain” for the benefit of more people in organization. Because, as we know from theory and reality of life, satisfied happy employees usually make better employees, which is ultimately good for the company’s bottom line too.

If you are the boss, you could think of some less trivial (=$$) ways to motivate and retain your best employees. Many of those could be written off as an expense too, instead of paying all kinds of taxes on the base salary.

I also found this book at my local library. Granted, the author had more than just five minutes to come up with creative ideas. Actually it was part of his doctoral thesis, and he has lots of real companies examples in rewarding their employees. If you are a manager looking to motivate your people, this book will be a good source of inspiration and practical ideas, many of which you could put to work in no time.

Anyways, here is the list. Take it or leave it. I realize that it’s a mix of “perks” and “real” benefits, but this only makes it more fun :-) 

  1. Parking space
  2. Private jet
  3. Car
  4. Child care
  5. Exercise
  6. Education
  7. Elderly care
  8. Pension
  9. Expense Account
  10. Cell phone
  11. Computer
  12. Moving Expenses
  13. Children Schooling
  14. Home purchase program
  15. Team outings
  16. Dry cleaning
  17. Security
  18. Travel agent
  19. Food
  20. Employee discount
  21. Personal assistant
  22. Pre-paid legal services
  23. Air card (?)
  24. Pager
  25. Transportation subsidy
  26. Driver
  27. Protection (Executive)
  28. Stock options
  29. Restricted stock
  30. On-site cafeteria
  31. Training
  32. Coffee
  33. Happy hour
  34. Free drinks
  35. Clothes
  36. Ergonomic furnitute
  37. Massage
  38. Recreation
  39. Energy room
  40. Sanitizer
  41. Newspapers
  42. Floating day off
  43. Cross training
  44. Swimming pool
  45. Swimming lessons
  46. Bank on-site
  47. Tickets
  48. Country club membership
  49. Shoe shine
  50. Food delivery
  51. Make up artist/facials treatment
  52. Taxi service
  53. Tax preparation help
  54. Storage
  55. Shipping

 Additional ideas made in class by other groups:

  • Sabbatical
  • Creativity day
  • Nap time
  • Meditation classes/time
  • ATM in office
  • Office parties
  • Telecommuting
  • Health benefits
  • 401K matching
  • Fully paid vacation trips
  • Flexible schedule
  • Valet parking
  • Employee of the month/quarter/year recognition
  • Volunteering opportunities
  • Dance classes
  • Yoga classes
  • Adoption assistance

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This last class our professor in Entrepreneurship had another very special treat for us. This time he had invited to our class the co-founders of PointAbout – Washington, DC-based mobile applications start up - for a panel discussion on entrepreneurship, what else? I really enjoyed the meeting and the four guys were just fascinating. As the professor introduced them – they were “serial” entrepreneurs.

Really, it was a very stimulating and enlightening discussion. The four co-founders (Scott Suhy, Daniel R. Odio, Sean Shadmand, Isaac Mosquera) seem to have great synergy as a team, and lots of energy individually. First they introduced themselves, their company, and gave a short retrospect on how they started together their company. They believe they are on the verge of something big in the mobile applications market, the magnitude of YouTube. And they have something to show for that too, if you checkout their website. 

There were a lot of precious tidbits for budding entrepreneurs scattered all over through that introduction time and the whole meeting.


Daniel, who seems to be the most aggressive of the team in the area of marketing and sales, threw us a challenge off the bat: “Raise your hands who want to be an entrepreneur?” May be a quarter of the audience raised their hands. “Now let’s see how serious you are about becoming an entrepreneur. There is a site coupons.com where you can buy gift certificates to the area restaurants at a discount. For example, you can get a $50 certificate for just $25. Go online tonight, order a certificate and then go and try peddle that certificate to the people in front of the restaurant for whatever profit you can. Who is willing to do that?” Only two or three hands out of some sixty people in the auditorium went up this time.

Daniel has the authority to make that kind of challenge, as he himself has been doing this kind of  “guerilla marketing & sales” all throughout his entrepreneurial career. Check out his blog on entrepreneurship  (http://www.danielodio.com)  to learn about his “guerilla” way of getting press in WSJ, or read this article from WSJ about his      non-conformist approach to real estate sales . I spent a few hours after the meeting just reading his blog, and watching some videos, and going on the links. If you are serious about entrepreneurship, you probably will do the same once you get there.

Sean and Isaac are more on the technical side of their start-up. However, they have been successful entrepreneurs in their careers too. They have co-created/co-founded one of the largest food-oriented social networking sites FamilyOven.com which grew to 380,000 membership and became profitable within first six months of operation. For me it was very impressive.

Scott, the CEO of the company, is the only one who has not had entrepreneurial experience before this company. He came from regional General Manager position with Microsoft and there had a great deal of experience in sales. His driving mantra: “Everything is about partnerships and relationships”. The other guys also referred to him as “deal closer”.

As I alluded earlier, this meeting was a mother lode of entrepreneurial motivation and inspiration for me. Here just a few very short remarks from the meeting:

  • Make something different
  • Solve the customers’ pain
  • If you want to have a restaurant start from selling food from your kitchen. Test the market, see if people even like your food. See if you can sell it.
  • Stay “relentlessly resourceful”
  • Don’t try to make $10 Mil from the start. Make first $5K.
  • It’s not the idea, it’s the people.
  • Entrepreneurship is emotional rollercoaster.
  • Listen to the customer, and you are not the customer.
  • Ideas are overrated. It’s all in execution.
  • Raw idea is less than 5% of the company’s value.
  • Everything is about partnership and relationships.- Scott
  • Know your core competence, and stay focused on it. Outsource the rest. – Sean
  • Pain points – business opportunity
  • Y Combinator – technology startup mentorship program. Operating principle: Little money, lots of mentoring.
  • Paul Graham – founder of Y Combinator

 And here are some of the online resources that were mentioned during the panel:

www.ted.com , http://mobiready.com , http://dc.tie.org/ -Entrepreneurs network, http://www.familyoven.com – co-founded by Sean and Isaac, http://appmakr.com/ – company’s site for their application, http://ycombinator.com/

Added April 24, 2010. Daniel Odio uploaded the video of the meeting on his blog, so if you have about 70 minutes to spare you can get the full report of the meeting:

PointAbout Founders Speak at George Washington University MBA Lecture Series from Daniel R. Odio on Vimeo.

Added April 16, 2010. Also, on Daniel’s blog there is a video of an interview of the guys taken by GWU students earlier this year. I watched it after writing this post. I think they were more relaxed and much more engaging at our meeting on Tuesday though (actually they unwinded a bit towards the end of the video). Still, if you have another 55 minutes, you will pick up some more interesting nuggets on entrepreneurship in general and what they are doing in their market niche in particular.

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GMAT Prep Scholarship Competition from Beatthegmat

April 11, 2010

For those of my readers who are still in the planning phase of their MBA journey it will be very beneficial to learn about the GMAT Scholarship offered by Beatthegmat.com. Beat the GMAT (BTG) is one of the few internet sites that provide a unique community platform not only for those who are yet aspiring to embark […]

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Elevator Pitch – the Empowering MBA Experience

April 7, 2010

Continued from Executive Summary – Brewing Disaster. What started and promised to stay as just another lackluster group assignment, turned into probably one of the most empowering experinces in my MBA endevour so far (Ok, getting an A in Microeconomics comes as second close :-) ). When I showed up for class a bit earlier than usually, […]

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Executive Summary – the Brewing Disaster

April 6, 2010

On the first day of classes our professor in Entrepreneurship prompted us to form study teams to work on a few group assignments throughout the course. Namely, we were expected to work in groups on the Executive Summary and Elevator Pitch for some business start up. I joined a group of classmates I knew from my […]

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Data Analysis Mid-Term Exam

April 5, 2010

Nothing too exciting happenned at the exam. The format was open book, open notes. Needless to say that even with this format I felt a brain-freeze, as oftentimes the case in my quantitative classes. Will see how I fared on the forced grading curve. The stuff covered in the exam was all the material we have […]

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