Part of this week’s local networking orgy brought me to the 9th annual Five Ventures Business Plan Competition and Conference at the brand spanking new campus of UNC Charlotte. I originally balked when the director of the program, Ken Paulus, asked me to coach two of the entrepreneur teams. But a combination of his hypnotic radio voice and the enthusiasm of the founders of the fledgling crowd sourcing companies (www.whinot.com and www.groupereye.com) convinced me to get involved. Once I got used to the constant reminder that bright eyed MBA students inadvertently gave me that I am an old fart (I hit forty in two months) it turned out to be well worth my time.
Since we are in the heart of NASCAR country, the keynote speaker for the event was Richard Childress, former race car driver turned business magnate. He began his talk with the requisite over-the-top marketing video presentation that probably shattered the ear drums of everyone within 5 tables of the podium, but after that he settled into an intriguing and informative Horatio Alger story of how he bought a 1954 Plymouth for $20 and turned that into Richard Childress Racing. Interspersed with (mostly hilarious) anecdotes he outlined some basic principles that all early stage company leaders should follow. I realized that for the most part, these themes were almost identical to the advice that I had been dispensing based on my experience with Jigsaw. Here are the dictums that Mr. Childress (I’m still getting used to calling people – and being addressed - by last names) outlined, and my take on them.
Vision. Mr. Childress insists that in order to be successful in business you always have to remember where you want to go ultimately - not just the next step. Sounds simple, but it’s true. Running a business isn’t as clear as climbing a mountain, where everyone can see where the top is. Fowler provides the vision for Jigsaw. I would add as a subset to this idea focus – you can’t get where you are going in business trying to be all things to all people. My favorite advice that I give- I can’t even remember where I first heard it - is that “running a successful business is boring- doing the same thing over and over until you’ve grooved out all the inefficiencies and you do it better than anyone else.”
Quality. No matter what, put out the best product you possibly can. This isn’t anything new, but in a world market with the attention span of a Tasmanian Devil on crystal meth, it’s easy to skimp on quality. Jigsaw is doing so well because we created a whole new level in the correctness and completeness of our business contact records. We never gave in to the temptation to grow the database faster than we could keep a steady quality index.
Loyalty. Mr. Childress was a lifelong friend and business partner of Dale Earnhardt. He tells this fantastic story of how they were hunting shortly before Earnhardt’s death at Daytona in 2001 and Childress falls off the side of mountain path on a horse. He got out with scrapes and bruises, but that night they made a pact that if something happened to either one of them, the other would keep racing. Being in a Silicon Valley VC backed company has sometimes made it very difficult to be as loyal as one could be in a sole proprietorship or LLC. I hope to be able to run a company of that type next.
Nobody Wins Alone. Even in a sport that makes heroes out of individuals, Mr. Childress insists up and down that every link in his 500 person organization is critical to the success of the company. I attempt to infuse that message into everyone that works at Jigsaw and to all of our members. We literally have nothing without the community, and every engineer and customer support intern is just as valuable to the success of our company as the two braying jackasses that founded Jigsaw.
The one overriding message that Mr. Childress, the Five Ventures and UNC Charlotte leaders, all the successful entrepreneurs that volunteered, and I all agree on: There is no magical or unattainable quality that all people that have founded companies possess. All you need is persistence in the face of inevitable challenges and the guts to make the initial leap. Like my favorite South Park character, Cartman, says:
"Follow your dreams. You can meet your goals. I
am living proof. Beefcake! BEEFCAKE!!!"
--Eric Cartman (Weight Gainer 4000)