QUIRKED

The Rise and Fall of Quirky — the Start-Up That Bet Big on the Genius of Regular Folks

By

Photo: Courtesy of Quirky

One of the start-up world’s favorite words, in addition to disruptpivot, and on-demand, is community. Kickstarter identifies as “a community of people committed to bringing new things to life.” “The heart and soul of Etsy,” begins the About Etsy page, “is our global community.” Airbnb calls itself “the world’s leading community-driven hospitality company.” You’re not, in other words, just joining a platform where you can fund your screenplay, or hawk your hand-knit iPhone koozies, or rent your apartment — no, you’re belonging to something bigger than yourself.

But back in 2009, perhaps before the word had lost all meaning, a small-time-invention start-up called Quirky built a community that really acted like one. It told the first-world-problem solver in all of us — the one who thought up single-serve French-fry-makers and foldable coffee mugs and musical footballs while out walking the dog — that she no longer had to innovate in a vacuum. Anybody could join. On Quirky’s website, users would assess and workshop each other’s inventions. The most successful ideas, as determined by a vote, would be designed and built by the company. In some cases, the inventors made a lot of money. And it is for that tiny dreamer that the company’s recent death spiral feels like a true loss.

It all came to a head on what seemed like a typical Thursday evening this July, during the weekly Quirky ritual known as Eval. A studio audience of about 100 people gathered in the company’s former-rail-car-terminal headquarters in Chelsea. Lit by webcams from above and a bank of futuristic equipment behind, Quirky’s 28-year-old founder, Ben Kaufman, stood at a lectern in his usual black V-neck tee and announced a panel of product-evaluation experts by nickname: Anna “Make a Buck” Buchbauer, Justin “J-Bomb” Seidenfeld, Aaron Dignan, a.k.a. El Presidente. Ideas submitted and voted on by the Quirky community — watching the livestream from their living rooms — were presented via pitch videos and commentary from Kaufman: a voice-activated lightbulb, a paper-thin Bluetooth speaker that fits in your back pocket, an on-the-go beverage carbonator. The masterminds who won majority approval would hear the rallying mantra “Congratulations, you’re a Quirky inventor!” and have the chance to be like fellow Eval winner Garthen Leslie, a 63-year-old IT consultant from Columbia, Maryland. Leslie came up with the idea of a smart air conditioner during his morning commute, uploaded a rough diagram of the idea to the Quirky platform, and found the community waiting to help him refine it, suggesting additional features and weighing in on the sizing, specs, and the name, which would be Aros. And keeping with Quirky’s leave-the-rest-to-us business model, the company then patented, manufactured, marketed, and sold the unit into Walmart and Amazon, returning 10 percent of the profits to the inventor and those that played Watson to his Graham Bell (in this exceptional case, that’s amounted to more than $400,000 for Leslie and more than $200,000 for the community).


Quirky founder Ben Kaufman, center.

But this Thursday, July 16, it would turn out, was not an ordinary Eval. In fact, it would be the next to last one Kaufman ever did. Following the broadcast, he tacked on what he called an “after-party” — a.k.a. a crisis-management session aimed at addressing recent bad press that the company had gotten. In June, in a sweaty interview onstage at the Fortune Brainstorm conference, Kaufman admitted the company was all but “out of money,” which had once amounted to $185 million in funding from investors like Andreessen Horowitz and GE. In July came the news that nearly the entire New York City staff would be laid off. By August 1, Kaufman would officially step down from the company he started at age 22. It so happened that for every Aros-type success, the community had waved in many more duds like the Beat Booster, a wireless speaker with a built-in charging station that by one account cost the company $388,000 to develop but only sold about 30 units.

It’s not surprising that Kaufman used the word transparency no fewer than three times in the first five minutes of that after-party, the bottom line of which was that he frankly didn’t know if the company would survive — Quirky’s fate was in the investors’ hands. Because, for all the aspirational, rarefied Bushwick-bar vibes telegraphed by the Evals, Quirky was, of course, all about being real. Its cluster of a million members included folks like — to cite some of the most recent inventors featured on the website — Tony Lytle, a welder and proud grandfather from Larwill, Indiana, who’d dreamed up the Pawcett, a step-on drinking fountain for dogs; and Hadar Ferris, a licensed cosmetologist in Oceanside, California, responsible for decorative muffin-top molds called Bake Shapes; and Pennsylvania-based Navy veteran Jason Hunter, who gave birth to the Porkfolio app-enabled piggy bank. (In the age of artisanal everything, just as we want to know where our pickles were brined and our former-church-pew coffee tables were carved, here, too, was the meaningful personal backstory behind your magnetic bottle opener.)


Aros was a rare commercial success for Quirky.

A few weeks after he was ousted, Kaufman emailed with me from his first-ever personal email account: “It’s weird waking up one day and not even having an email address,” he later said on the phone. “This had been my whole life.” He was a small-time inventor himself at first, for a range of iPod accessories he started in high school that went on to become the company Mophie. At the 2007 Macworld Expo, he handed out pens and sketchpads and asked people to help design Mophie’s 2007 product line (sound familiar?) and then held a vote for the top three ideas. That same year, he sold Mophie, reappropriated the Macworld crowdsourcing schtick, and tried to launch a similar concept to Quirky. What helped Quirky finally get off the ground in 2009 was the recession-driven push for alternative incomes (no coincidence that Kickstarter as well as the entrepreneur-competition show Shark Tank, another bastion of scrappy innovation, also launched in 2009). Plus, there was more of a universal comfort with the practice of online sharing: We were now very used to telling our Facebook friends what we ate for breakfast, and by extension, we might as well tell the Quirky forum about our concept for a better egg-yolk extractor. Our notion of community, then, was evolving, and Kaufman — Mark Zuckerberg wrapped in a teddy-bear build, with the mischievous smile of your son or younger brother (depending on where you fell in Quirky’s wide-ranging age demographics) — was a relatable leader.

On the consumer end, seeing these ordinary tinkerers immortalized on the shelves of the Container Store (a big Quirky perk was that inventors’ names and faces appeared on their products’ packaging) was like watching the Spanx lady on QVC for the first time in the early aughts — a humble fax-machine salesperson from Clearwater, Florida, who just wanted to wear control-top pantyhose without the hose. Inventors were just like us! And now everybody could be the Spanx lady (albeit for only a tiny fraction of the profits), because unlike her, we didn’t have to side-hustle all alone. Next it could be my cousin in Westchester, who had four kids but no one to help her prototype her idea for a mother-baby bath towel. Next it could be my semi-retired father, who was in a private war with his never-shuts-properly pantry door and needed a constructive, supportive outlet for his aggression. Next it could be my friend Sarah, who was full of lightbulb moments — an Oreo-dunking robot claw, a universal key for all your locks — but was too stoned to sort through the mechanics by herself.

Quirky was catnip for the press: The Sundance Channel produced a short-lived reality show on the company in 2011. Kaufman appeared on Leno. This magazine featured it as a Boom Brand of 2013, noting, “It’s a pretty rare company that’s so hippieish — Let’s have everyone get a say! — yet so purely free-market.” The Times devoted several thousand words to a piece called “The Invention Mob, Brought to You by Quirky” just last February (by then its financially unsustainable business model had given way to a pivot — a smart-home subsidiary called Wink — that was too little too late).\

Another Times piece, from this past April, cited Quirky as a springboard for the realest of all Real People: older people. “There’s a boom in inventing by people over 50,” John Calvert, the executive director of the United Inventors Association, told the paper. And indeed, Quirky had plenty of them in its hive — like 59-year-old Lorin Ryle, a full-time caretaker for her dementia-stricken mother. When her clip-on baby monitor for the elderly won at Eval, she says she cried, watching from her Hutto, Texas, home. It never actually made it to development (in fact, only about half of the Eval winners ever do), but for Ryle that didn’t take away from the experience of “working with people to make something work,” she says. “I’ve made lifelong friends on there.” (Another Quirky boomer, Marc Rumaner, who came up with a nifty little wine-bottle anchor called Vine Stop, has even gone so far as to host barbecues for fellow community members in his Chicago area.)

Of course, the inmates didn’t always like running the asylum. There was much talk in the forums that the Eval system seemed too democratic. “I failed to see how any of us could know what a product scout from a company like GE or Mattel could know,” says one community member. And indeed, when you look at misfires like the Drift, a $200 wooden balance board that simulates snowboarding and surfing, or the $80 Egg Minder, an app-enabled egg tray that signals to your smartphone when you’re running low on eggs, it would appear that the company’s raison d’être was also the reason for its downfall, a colony of amateurs green-lighting unscalable solutions to nonexistent issues. Quirky brought more than 400 products to market in just six years.


Inside Quirky’s workshop.

Yet Kaufman points out that the community had much less say than all the high-pressure voting would suggest; the real decisions were made when the cameras stopped rolling and he and the actual experts did the math on a product’s marketability. (So, maybe not so much power to the people, after all.) But, he adds of Eval, “There had to be a thing to look forward to on a regular basis — otherwise how are you going to keep the community engaged?” Quirky steered the ship, you might say, but the community was still the North Star.

Steering the ship — handling all of the engineering, manufacturing, marketing, and retailing, even when you’re taking 90 percent of the subsequent profits — was ultimately too expensive of a proposition, especially in comparison to other, less-handholding-oriented start-ups. “The reason why Kickstarter makes a ton of money is they don’t have to do anything besides put up a website,” Kaufman notes. After that, the failure (and let’s face it, many Kickstarter-funded products go on to fail) is all on the individual. Which is not meant to be a dig, Kaufman clarifies. He won’t confirm his next venture but says, “I love Kickstarter.” And: “I will likely use it.”

NEW BUSINESS PROPOSAL – BRAINSTORM

Much of my morning will be spent writing up my proposal for a new business project and the functional and operational structure of the business itself. Or, to be more accurate, transcribing my formulation notes into a proper form for developing the body of the actual proposal.

Later today, in the afternoon, I’ll be devising much of the pitch, assessing the projected financials (it should be able to generate more than one income/revenue stream, and should be able to be funded in more than one way), and so forth.

By the end of the week I plan to present the idea to some potential partners and maybe even an investor or two.

I’m looking forward to this as it is an excellent idea and in a field/industry that interests me a great deal.

THE SACRIFICES – BUSINESS OF BUSINESS

I’m always thinking about Work (not just business, though that’s part of it, but all of my Work – business, careers, inventing, writing, etc. which short of God and family are my most interesting and vital concerns), and I constantly go without sleep.

The rest of these to a slightly lesser degree, but I know exactly what the man is saying and why.

5 tough sacrifices every entrepreneur must make

richard bransonDavid McNew/GettyRichard Branson.

Every entrepreneur starts out with big dreams and excitement.

As an entrepreneur, you control your own destiny, and with the right ideas, the right skillset and unflinching dedication, you can build wealth or establish an enterprise to serve as your legacy.

This is the bright side of entrepreneurship, but unfortunately, there’s also a darker side.

The rigors of entrepreneurship demand sacrifices, and if you don’t make those sacrifices you’ll never be able to succeed. Business is, at its core, a give-and-take process. The more you invest, and the more you’re willing to part with, the more you’ll reap in rewards in kind.

Related: 5 Reasons Entrepreneurs Burn Out and Quit

These are the five sacrifices that every entrepreneur needs to make:

1. Stability

You’re starting a new venture, and there’s no guarantee you’re going to succeed. The foundation of your company, even if your idea and plans are solid, is rocky at best, and there’s no telling which direction your business is headed until you’re several months, or often much longer, into running things. If you haven’t already sacrificed a comfortable, well-paying, stable job to follow this route, odds are you’ll have to sacrifice some other kind of stability before you can move forward.

Entrepreneurship is, by nature, an unstable path to follow. Don’t be surprised if you encounter multiple, unpredictable shifts in your fortune as your work progresses. It’s natural and part of the process. Eventually, if you work hard with a clear vision, things will stabilize.

2. Work/life split

When you become an entrepreneur, the lines between your working life and your personal life will blur. You’ll start thinking about business even when you’re away from the office, sometimes because you want to and sometimes because you can’t help it. You’ll also get calls and emails urgently needing your attention because you’re the boss and there’s nobody else to answer them.

Your downtime will become “light” business time, but the flip side is that your time in the office will feel more like personal time because you’ll want to be there. Remember, it’s still important for you to balance your work priorities and your personal ones — always make time for your family and your mental health — but the firm split between personal and professional time is going to go away no matter how you try to handle it.

3. Income

This goes along with the stability sacrifice, but for the first few years of your business, you’re probably not going to be making much money. In most businesses, entrepreneurs and their families end up investing heaps of their own money to get the business going. If this is the case for you, you’ll be making even more of a sacrifice since your potential safety net will be gone.

Related: Are You An Entrepreneur Or a ‘Wantrepreneur?’

Since you’ll be deciding where the money goes, you can set your own salary, but many entrepreneurs don’t even take a salary during their first several months of operations, at least not until there’s a steady line of revenue backing them up. Be prepared for this. You’ll need a strong marketing plan to overcome barriers to entry and gain a share of the market in your industry.

4. Sleep

Sleep is vitally important, but no matter how hard you try to preserve healthy sleeping habits, you’re going to sacrifice some sleep in order to run your business. In some cases, you’ll be pulling all-nighters to get that last proposal together. In other cases, you’ll be getting up super early to make a meeting or get all your tasks in order. In still other cases, you’ll be lying awake at night, restless and wondering about the future of your company.

Whatever the case may be, your sleeping habits are going to change when you become an entrepreneur, and you’ll have to make the best of them no matter how they end up.

5. Comfort

Being the boss of your own company means the buck stops with you. You’re going to have to wear dozens of hats, make decisions you’ve never made before and delve into subjects you’ve never before considered. Part of being an entrepreneur means stepping out of your comfort zone, often multiple times every day.

The most successful entrepreneurs are the ones who approach uncomfortable situations with confidence and a degree of excitement. Learn to thrive in uncomfortable environments, and you’ll find yourself much more at peace with your job.

Don’t think of these sacrifices as literal sacrifices. You’ll be giving something up, sure, but try to think of it as a type of investment. You’re giving up intangible luxuries in exchange for something better down the road. You’re paying for the opportunity to find success in your own enterprise, and your sacrifices will be rewarded many times over so long as you stay committed in your chosen path.

Remember, as an unidentified student of Warren G. Tracy said, “Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t so you can spend the rest of your life like most people cant.”

Read more: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/245203#ixzz3ZwI6twTm

UNFINISHED PROJECTS

Had a superb idea for a new on-line business venture (start-up) called Unfinished Projects. I’m going to be approaching some potential partners with the idea later this week.

At this point I am merely creating the design sketches and outline for the business, but in a relatively short period of time I could easily develop both business and operating plans.

SHEDQUARTERS

I think this is an absolutely superb idea, especially for small businesses. I wish I had thought of this product.

Introducing “Shedquarters”: The Hot New Trend Home-Based Business Owners Are Drooling Over

lighterside-staff-authorBy Lighter Side Staff  |  Read More
 

Space-efficient work spaces are becoming all the rage these days. They’re great for maintaining privacy and uninterrupted workflow, and they can also be cozy and stylish as well. Here are some examples of a growing trend of miniature studios (for offices and living structures), that are small enough to fit in someone’s back yard.

We’re fond of calling them, shedquarters. Whether you need your own getaway space, an office, an art studio, or a full on extra home, there’s something for everyone out there!

Kanga Room: Based out of Austin, Texas, Kanga Room has backyard studios in three styles: modern, country cottage, and bungalow. The basic package is an 8×8-foot shed that starts around $5,900 and you can add on a bathroom, kitchenette, and front porch for additional cost.

Via Apartment Therapy
Via Apartment Therapy

Modern Shed: This Seattle-based company was founded by husband and wife, Ryan Grey Smith and Ahna Holder. They create flat-packed prefab structures. Basic 8×10 sheds start at $6,900.

Via Apartment Therapy
Via Apartment Therapy
Via Apartment Therapy
Via Apartment Therapy

Weehouse by Alchemy Architects: The Weehouse Studio was designed by Minnesota’s Alchemy Architects. They start at 435 square feet, and include a main room and bathroom. It can be used as either a home office, guest house, or even a main residence.

Via Apartment Therapy

KitHaus: The KitHause was designed by Tom Sandonato and Martin Wehmann. It is a modular site-constructed prefab housing system. The K-Pod is the starting model and measures 117 square feet. They also have larger models.

Via Apartment Therapy
Via Apartment Therapy

Modern Spaces: “Forts for grown-ups!” Yep, that’s how they describe them. These come in four pretty boxy styles. A fully installed shed with a foundation and finished exterior starts at $6,000. On-site installation is currently only available to California residents.

Via Apartment Therapy
Via Apartment Therapy
Via Apartment Therapy

Loftcube: Werner Aisslinger designed these sheds to make the extra space on top of city skyscrapers more productive. He was able to fit a kitchen and bathroom within these 400 square foot glass-walled studios.

Via Apartment Therapy
Via Apartment Therapy
Via Apartment Therapy

Modern Cabana: The sheds from this San Francisco company start at 10×12 feet, but they have full studios with kitchens and baths. The basic model is perfect for a backyard office, with its sliding door.

Via Apartment Therapy
Via Apartment Therapy
Via Apartment Therapy

Metroshed: The MetroShed, by David Ballinger, is a prefab, flat-packed model that starts around $6,000. This a simple design is made of a cedar wood beam post frame with aluminum-frame sliding doors, and comes in 9×13 feet or larger.

Via Metro Prefab
Via Metro Prefab

Related article: ‘Pub-Sheds’ Quickly Becoming Hot Trend in Backyard Entertainment

THE 20/88 PLAN

THE 20/88 PLAN

Today is the first official day of my Spring Offensive. I had planned to begin yesterday but a back injury prevented my proceeding.

In conjunction with my Spring Offensive I have developed a new Operational Plan for further building both my Businesses (including my inventions) and Careers (as a fiction writer, songwriter, and poet).

The new plan is what I call the 20/88 Plan.

It covers most all of my efforts during my current Spring Offensive. It is very simple in construction and should be simple in execution, though it might also possibly be somewhat time-consuming in execution, at least to an extent, depending on how events actually transpire.

I developed this plan as a result of my experience as a Contacts Broker and a Consultant. Basically it says this,

“Every month I will submit to 20 potential Agents or Contacts who will be able to help me achieve my ambitions. At the same time I will seek 8 Partners to work with me on various projects.”

Since I am basically pursuing Four Basic Fields of Endeavor, or Four Separate Types of Enterprises for my Spring Offensive that will equal twenty agents, new clients, etc. in each field, and two partners for each enterprise.

Four times twenty in each Field of Endeavor equals 80, plus the overall eight partners (two in each Enterprise) equals eight, and added all together equals 88.

Therefore 20 in each Field plus 8 partners equals 88.

If in the first month I fail to secure at least one agent or client or so forth in any given Field of Endeavour or at least one partner in any given Enterprise then I will just move on to the next list of 20 or 2 that I have prepared until I secure worthwhile, productive, and profitable agents or partners.

These are the actual details of my Current 20/88 Plan.

General Fields of Endeavor:

20 Agents Contacted (for my Writings)

20 Publishers Contacted (for my Poetry, Songs, and Writings)

20 New Clients Contacted (for my Business Enterprises and for Open Door)

20 Capital Partners and Investors Contacted (for my Business Enterprises, my Crowdfunding Projects, and my Design and Inventions Laboratory)

Enterprise Partners:

2 Songwriting Partners (composers primarily, since I am primarily a lyricist)

2 Publishing Partners (for my books and writings)

2 Business Partners

2 Major Capital or Investment Partners

LESSONS LEARNED

Traditional Intellectual Property Lessons Learned

Over the past few months, we have been talking to many entrepreneurs about their knowledge-gap around intellectual property (IP) and other important startup matters that actually impact IP or intangibles (and therefore valuation and ultimately their success). This is the first in a three part series detailing the lessons learned by these early stage companies.

First, what do I mean by traditional IP? I often joke that if I had a dollar for every person who told me they didn’t have any IP in their business, and a second dollar for those who think IP is only patents, I would be rich. Traditional IP to me is the patent or trademark protection. That is not to say that copyrights, trade secrets, and so on are not IP—far from it—but the most common IP is patents and trademarks. Unfortunately there remain some big misconceptions around protecting traditional IP.

A few brave entrepreneurs have shared their stories to help others learn about the importance of IP identification early and often.

Timing is everything

Phillip Felice, Founder of Bridge Optix, described his recent brush with IP horror in a single sentence: “I realized I have underestimated intellectual property timing importance.” Phillip was weeks away from a public release of his product when he was grilled on his company’s IP protection and strategy. He realized that his patents needed to be filed before his public product release.

We have heard other horror stories where companies have spent thousands on branding for websites, signage, or product packaging without first securing rights to a name, including trademarks. Register and secure rights before spending too much of your limited startup capital.

Location, location, location

Patents filed with the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) only cover the US. The same goes for trademarks and copyrights filed with the US Copyright office.

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ENTREPRENEURIAL CREDIBILITY

How to Build Credibility as a Young Entrepreneur
Selena Rezvani , Contributor

Any entrepreneur will tell you that startup life is not for the easily daunted. Rejection, product failures, and isolation are just a few of the tests that many entrepreneurs are put through on a routine basis. Add youth and inexperience to the list of things working against you—and you can see how a startup can seem like nothing but a harsh, uphill endeavor. Luckily, entrepreneurs tend to be more optimistic than other workers, a factor that keeps them pitching to prospects and looking for ways to prove their value.

As I gather my thoughts for a panel tomorrow on how to build credibility as a young entrepreneur, I’ve been reflecting on what has helped my partners and clients say “Yes” to the diversity consulting and training pitches I’ve put in front of them over the last five years. Mind you, even if it’s not your age that presents a credibility issue, some other factor (industry experience, knowledge of a certain product type, geographic reach) may put you or your business in an ‘underdog’ position.

Here are my top strategies for proving your worth, regardless of your age, experience level or other factors you’re being judged on:

Identify What’s Sacred To Your Customer: What quickens the pulse of the group you’re pitching to? What most excites them or eludes them regardless of their efforts? In my case, a focus on amassing lots of cutting-edge inclusion best practices and focusing on Gen X and Y women helped turn pitch meetings into signed contracts. Additionally, tying innovation payoffs to diversity efforts more often than not grabbed clients’ interest. Still, what ‘did the trick’ last year for many entrepreneurs won’t necessarily pay off now. Who can inform you about what this group cares about most now? What groups and discussions are they participating in on LinkedIn? What types of events or publications do they promote and with what angle?

Don’t Wait To Go After Whales: As a new entrepreneur, I pitched to top business programs around the nation to train their students on the lessons in my first book, The Next Generation of Women Leaders. Plenty of deans and career offices didn’t respond. But thanks to casting a big net, plenty of people said “Yes.” To my sheer delight—and admittedly, terror—the first client to invite me to speak was Harvard University. That wonderful opportunity served as an instrumental “door opener” for future pitches, helping me get into Princeton, London Business School, Duke and inside many large organizations. As a new entity, many people will advise you to start small or go after the “low hanging fruit.” Don’t. Aim high.

Borrow Credibility Where Needed: Many a deal has been closed thanks to a warm introduction being made early on. When a trusted professional enthusiastically introduces you to a corporate insider, you’re getting an endorsement, and therefore a chance, that others won’t. Even if you don’t have deep relationships inside the company, go through the exercise of asking yourself who in your network could act as a strategic partner or co-creator of a compelling pitch. Your partner may have age and experience you don’t, a value added service, a Fortune 500 company on their resume, or experience in a key area that you lack. I have personally benefitted from partnership and found repeatedly that two minds were better than one, especially in client meetings.

Forecast Future Success: Even if the vision for Year 3 of your business depends heavily on performance in Year 1 and 2, have a clear path forward to share with your clients. The fact that you may be adjusting your plans minute to minute is not going to be compelling to decision makers. In a large bid that a partner and I made and won, one of the last questions we were grilled on was, “Where do you see yourself making an impact in 3-4 years?” We had a ready answer about an exciting area of research we wanted to spearhead and how we’d devise services around our learning. How can you look ahead and create a vision for the future? Your prospect may not be looking for total certainty, but they need to know you have a strategy with future mile markers of value.

More than anything, if you want to get hired, you need to promote trust. Are you creating certainty that you’ll deliver ably on what you’re selling? Even more important, are you demonstrating to prospects that if you take a wrong step or a crisis erupts on their end, that you’ll have the kind of smarts and agility to correct your course of action or manage the change?

What has worked for you to build credibility? Would do you think that young entrepreneurs need to know most?

Selena Rezvani is a women’s leadership speaker, workplace consultant, and author of Pushback: How Smart Women Ask–and Stand Up–for What They Want. Connect with her at nextgenwomen.com and @SelenaRezvani on Twitter.

6 ESSENTIAL THINGS

6 Things That Aspiring Entrepreneurs Must Consider and Do

Peter S. Cohan
December 17, 2014

This week I gave a final exam to 29 undergraduates in my “Foundations of Entrepreneurial Management” class at Babson College.

But a final exam is not the true test of what they need to know. They need to learn how to think and act to find and capture opportunities to make the world a better place.

This may sound overly rosy, but in my experience startups must make the world better in order to survive. To succeed at that, entrepreneurs must consider and do the following six things:

1. Find customers and feel their pain.

A passionate founder is often so determined to realize a vision that he or she can lose sight of other perspectives. Before going too far with plans, an entrepreneur should think about how the outside world would view the new product.

What are the different groups of people it could help or hurt? Which group of potential customers might it make better off?

Which talented people could the vision inspire? Which partners would want to work with the venture? Which investors would want to bet on it?

In a recent interview, Nutanix CEO Dheeraj Pandey tells me that empathy is the one word he invokes in almost all interactions with customers, employees and partners of his San Jose, Calif.-based company that combines the functions of servers, storage and networking.

“By empathizing with our employees, customers and partners we believe we can build a company that will create value for our investors because we solve their problems instead of dictating to them what we think they ought to have the way our competitors do,” he says.

2. Imagine and build a prototype.

Find an inexpensive way to build a model of a product.

Let’s say an entrepreneur has the idea to build an app that will make it easier for college friends to arrange an evening out on the town. A prototype might be as simple as a series of drawings of the app’s screens. If the drawings are clear, save the time and money of hiring someone to write code until after the next step in the process.

An example of this can be found in Ben Kaplan’s development of the Who is Going Out (or WiGo) app. As the former student at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., tells me, “I was on campus my freshman year and trying to make social plans — figure out who else was going out at night, where and what time.”

But there were no easy way to do it, he says. “You could text other people or put a post on Facebook but you often wouldn’t get an answer.”

So he came up with the idea for WiGo and mocked up some screen shots on paper for how the mobile app would work. He found a systems developer who built the app in the fall of 2013 for his new company.

3. Receive feedback to adapt the product.

Next imagine the characteristics of the individuals who might eventually buy the startup’s product. Based on that, find individuals who fit that description. Show them the prototype and inquire whether they would buy it. If so, how much would they pay? If not, ask them to say what’s wrong with it or missing and what they would they change.

Repeat this process until a majority of potential customers say they are eager to use the product and want to know how long it will be until it’s delivered.

WiGo is an example of a product that launched in January got good feedback almost from the start, founder Ben Kaplan asserts, saying, “It became very popular within three weeks. Many of the people using it were friends on sports teams at Holy Cross.” Adds Kapan, “I started getting emails and Facebook messages from people at other schools like University of Florida and University of Southern California where I had friends who wanted to use it.”

If consumers say the product looks interesting but it’s not good enough or solves the wrong problem, change the vision or find customers who need the product now — or give up.

4. Build a team of people.

After receiving a positive reaction from from potential customers, think about the skills required to turn a prototype into a product with the benefits expected by customers. What type of sales, engineering, operations and service people are needed to operate the business well?

Figure out values to unite the team and use them to screen candidates and create an interview process and compensation package to hire the best people for these key jobs.

Kaplan, a visionary and salesperson, lacks programming skills. But he was able to use his skills to secure the ones he lacked. For example, he met with Jim Giza, executive in residence at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Giza introduced Kaplan to Kayak co-founder Paul English, who was opening the Blade startup incubator in Boston. “I gave him a demo of WiGo and he immediately got it,” Kaplan says, adding that he now has three or four employees and three to four Blade employees dedicated to WiGo.

English also led to Kaplan’s enlisting programmer and MIT grad Giuliano Giacaglia to be a WiGo co-founder.

5. Raise capital to achieve goals.

To accomplish all the preceding steps, a startup needs money. Give thought to the ways the startup capital could be used and how potential investors will receive a return on the investment. Then find people who will understand the venture and have the capital to invest in it.

The process of raising funds becomes more time-consuming and difficult as capital requirements increase. Bring in investors who will help the company achieve its vision rather than fighting to take control.

WiGo raised capital by bringing in investors who understood its market and could help attract others. The company brought in “about $700,000 from the founders of Kayak, Rue La La, and Tinder, and from professional athletes, including Vince Wilfork of the New England Patriots,” The Boston Globe reported.

6. Perceive and adapt to change.

Monitor all the changes to the startup’s environment. The entrepreneur must distinguish between signal and noise when it comes to considering new technologies, customer needs and upstart competitors.

The founder must decide how to respond — whether to alter the existing product line, add new items, change the organization’s structure, bring in managers or create more formal systems to manage people and finances.

Adobe Systems is an example of a company that has adapted to change. Since 2011, its CEO has led its transition from selling packaged software (to its 12.8 million users of Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign) to providing software as a service, whereby customers pay a monthly fee and get the latest version from the cloud.

Adobe decided to sell Creative Cloud, a monthly, cloud-based subscription service. On Dec. 11, Adobe reported far more subscribers to its Creative Cloud than Wall Street expected and its shares gained nearly 10 percent on a day when the Dow plummeted.

Thinking and acting in these six ways can make the difference between startup success and failure.

THE NOVEL START UP

He’s absolutely right. You shouldn’t just market and “get on people’s radar” after you fund and start operations, you should do that to get funded and to start operations. As a matter of fact you should market continuously and at all times.

Richard Branson on How to Raise Money When You’re Just Starting Out

December 15, 2014

Editor’s Note: Entrepreneur Richard Branson regularly shares his business experience and advice with readers. Ask him a question and your query might be the inspiration for a future column.

Q.: G’day Richard. I am a young engineering student with little to no practical experience as an entrepreneur. I think I’ve got a great idea, a ready and capable team, but have little money to pursue commercializing my novel product. I fear that potential investors will not take me seriously because of my age (21) and inexperience. How can I convince seasoned investors to believe in my team and invest in my idea? — Jordan Gruber, Australia

My friends and I came up with the name “Virgin” one day when we were 15 years old, sitting around in a basement. I was keen on the name “Slipped Disc” for our new music venture, but then one of my friends pointed out that when it came to business, “we’re all virgins; why don’t we call it that?” In our case, inexperience proved to be a huge asset — if we’d gone with the safer option, I’m not sure that many people would be working out at Slipped Disc Health Clubs or banking at Slipped Disc Money!

Innovation and entrepreneurship thrive on the energy of people who are dipping their toes into the water for the first time. Budding entrepreneurs with fresh outlooks have the freedom to think quite differently, which is tremendously exciting to potential collaborators. However, as you’re finding out, Jordan, translating a new concept into a product can be very daunting.

While you might not yet have the right connections or an “in” with major investors, other people out there do — experienced businesspeople, in your sector or in others, who were once in your shoes and went on to be successful. These people are potential mentors who can help you on your way.

Mentoring is a subject that is very close to our hearts at Virgin; I myself have benefited from many mentors throughout my life. However, don’t consider mentoring as a quick way to gain useful contacts. A good mentoring relationship is based on more than that — it’s a way to learn valuable lessons from the mistakes someone else has made.

Additionally, I noticed in your message an emphasis on convincing “seasoned investors” to back your idea. While securing huge sums of money from major business figures might seem like the ideal way to propel a business forward, the reality is that very few ventures win this kind of funding. A better alternative might be an online crowdfunding platform. Websites such as Indiegogo not only have the potential to fund the creation of a prototype to get your business up and running, but they also can result in significant publicity.

Another option is taking out a small business loan. In the U.K. we launched Virgin StartUp, a program that provides loans of up to 25,000 pounds to companies trying to get their ideas off the ground. It is well worth your time to look into similar initiatives in your area, and decide whether a loan is the right step for you. As an added benefit, both crowdfunding and small business loans will mean that you can retain full ownership of your business — you won’t have to give any equity away to investors.

Here are three steps that can help you discover which approach is best for you:

1. EVALUATE AND RESEARCH.

Always be honest with yourself about your abilities, the work you’ll have to put in to get your company up and running, and the amount of money you’re hoping to raise. Research all the options that are available, and evaluate how they would affect your end goal.

Ask yourself: Is your crowdfunding target realistic? How much of a stake in your business are you willing to give to potential investors?

And if you want to find a mentor who can help give you direction and guidance, make sure you find a suitable one. Find out what they do, whether they’ve mentored others before and which sectors they are interested in.

2. GET ON PEOPLE’S RADAR.

Attend industry events such as seminars and conferences. Talk to as many people as possible, and do not immediately launch into a pitch of your product. Be sure to listen and learn from what people have to say.

Networking doesn’t stop at face-to-face contact, either; interact on social media, join LinkedIn groups and keep the relationships going online. When you do approach potential mentors or investors, or if you launch a crowdfunding campaign, you’ll have a degree of visibility.

In fact, the more proactive you are in building your profile, the more likely it is that potential investors will feel confident enough to put their faith in you — and their money in your company. Remember that the more relationships you build, the better the chances that your network will put you in touch with the people who can help your business.

3. KEEP AN OPEN MIND.

Remember to be flexible. While winning investment might look like the best option now, don’t discount any other opportunities that come your way. For example, crowdfunding might not have the prestige of an investment from a big-time entrepreneur, but it will connect you directly with future customers, and you will have more control over the process.

Keeping an open mind is especially important when it comes to mentoring. Don’t see mentorship as a quick fix for problems, and do not brush off advice. Consider your connection with a mentor as a long-lasting business relationship that can teach you lessons and reduce the potential for failure. But also remember that, as with anything else, you’ll get out of mentoring what you put in.

Making sure that your potential business is a success is not contingent upon gaining a large investment. Many successful companies — including Virgin — started with modest funds. Right now, investors might seem like they are the gatekeepers between you and your dream, but the one person who can make your business succeed is not an investor, or even a mentor. It is you.

Good luck!
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Isuama Kennedy
Isuama Kennedy from Facebook8 hours ago

the one person who will make your business to succeed is not an investor or your mentor but YOU
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Meg Columbia Walsh
Meg Columbia Walsh from Facebook9 hours ago

Great Mr. Branson, then tell me a time to pitch my business that is doing well!!! Woman and gay owned…
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Silvia Khouzame
Silvia Khouzame from Facebook12 hours ago

Natalie Khouzame
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Samantha Binetter
Samantha Binetter from Facebook17 hours ago

Robbie Binetter
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Chandé Dusina
Chandé Dusina from Facebook20 hours ago

Nick Timmer
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Maria Petromanolakis
Maria Petromanolakis21 hours ago

Thank you very much Sir Branson!
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Alexandra Ferrer
Alexandra Ferrer from Facebook2 days ago

Thomas Caldwell
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Ryan Poh
Ryan Poh from Facebook2 days ago

Nitin Ahuja
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Duc Hoang
Duc Hoang from Facebook2 days ago

one story for strategy 😀
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Peachy Keen
Peachy Keen from Facebook2 days ago

Wont work in the south. These old geezers aren’t giving up their money unless its for an oil well!
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Kiều Công Bình
Kiều Công Bình from Facebook2 days ago

Duc Hoang Nguyễn Trung Kiên 😀
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Jason Lobo Sedillo
Jason Lobo Sedillo from Facebook2 days ago

Great insight
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stephen hardacre
stephen hardacre 2 days ago

O.K. THE RICHSTER DID YOU EVER WATCH JERRY MCGUIRE WELL RUMOUR HAS IT THAT IT WAS FICTIONAL CERTAIN GUYS ARE SAYING THAT IT IS ABOUT THEM BUT WHAT I AM ABOUT TO ACHIEVE IS REAL TIME AND WHILE I AM AT IT THE PLAN IS TO BRING THE CRIME RATE DOWN IN MY ALREADY ROUGH AS TOAST AREA YOU SEE IT IS NOT BRAINS I NEED IT IS BRAWN AND A FIGHTING HEART BASICALLY I WONT THE KIDS WHO THE TEACHERS SAY HAVE NO HOPE AND I WAS AND LIVE IN THE COMMUNITY ALL MY LIFE I KNOW THE KIDS THAT ARE DESTINED FOR A LIFE OF CRIME AS I WAS BROUGHT UP WITH THEIR PARENTS THE ONLY REASON THEY GO TO CRIME IS BECAUSE THEY ARE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL JUST BECAUSE THEIR PARENTS ARE A WEE TAD ROTTEN BUT THAT COMES HAND IN HAND WITH BEING POOR IT DOES NOT MEAN WE HAVE TO STEER CLEAR OF THESE FUTURE CRIMINALS AND THATS THE WAY IT IS I HAVE NOT “THROWN A BEVVY ON IT ” THAT IS HOW IT IS THE PLAN IS TO PAY THEM WHAT I CALL A ” WOW WAGE ” BEYOND THEIR WILDEST DREAMS AND HOPEFULLY THEY CAN LOOK AFTER THERE WAYWARD PARENTS AND HOPEFULLY THEY CAN CHANNEL THEIR KNOWLEDGE FOR ME THIS IS WHERE THE DIAMONDS ARE IN THE DIRT PEOPLE SAY I AM CRAZY BUT AS IT SO HAPPENS IT WOULD BE A SIN NOT TO PUSH FOR IT WITH THE FORWARD MOMENTUM I FEEL AROUND ME last but not least i must say it when i was a kid”I USED TO WANT TO BE YOU BUT I DON’T NO MORE I WANNA BE ME “IF YOU GET TO THIS WEE MESSAGE THINK OF US AND YOU WILL GET INTO HEAVEN THANKS

THE GAMECHANGER
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JDGO
JDGO 2 days ago

Great advise sir,
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RadoslavVujaklija
RadoslavVujaklija 2 days ago

Yeah kick it sir Branson!!!
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SCOUTING THE BRAVE

He’s absolutely right. Too many Chiefs, not enough Braves. But you can’t win a war with only the Chiefs fighting, too few of them to matter, and most aren’t good fighters anyway… the Braves win the war. Or not.

How To Hire When Everyone Wants To Found Their Own Startup

Back before founding a company was cool, it was a lot easier to get a lot of smart people in a room. Rock stars were hireable because they weren’t forging their own paths. That led to powerhouse teams like the “PayPal Mafia” seen below.

Alongside the future founders of LinkedIn, YouTube and Yelp at PayPal was Keith Rabois, now of Khosla Ventures. Today at the Postseed Conference in SF, Rabois explained how PayPal was lucky to start at the right stage of the talent dilution cycle.

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According to Rabois, during down times when there’s not a lot of funding or fever to start companies, it’s easy to hire great talent. With enough intelligence centralized on a few startups, they grow. With time and success, hype builds around the idea of entrepreneurship and being a founder becomes a full-blown fetish.

Eager to coin on the success of the ecosystem, funding becomes plentiful and smart people found their own companies rather than join others. It becomes tougher to get a critical mass of talent on the same team. These companies raise money but don’t have the skills to win big and deliver returns. The bubble deflates, hype around startups cools off, and it becomes easier to hire strong people again.

Keith Rabois

 

But what should startups do if they’re unlucky enough to be getting off the ground when there’s a ton of recruiting competition and everyone wants to start their own company? You know, like now?

Rabois laid out four strategies for founders facing a tough hiring climate:

  • Sell The Mission – Founders must learn to convince potential recruits that their company will do good for the world, not just make a lot of money. Sure, they could go start their own company and potentially get rich, but joining this one will let them have a real impact. Founders have to sell both this macro mission, but also the micro mission of why the recruit’s contribution will be critical to making people’s lives better
  • Recruit Outside Of Central Casting – Rather than just trying to hire seasoned technologists or entrepreneurs, Rabois suggests sidestepping that scene and looking for people beyond the startup sphere. That could include prodigy college kids or geniuses from other industries, who haven’t seduced themselves into founding a company.
  • Create A Founder Culture – People often become founders because they can’t or think they can’t submit to being managed by someone else. To hire these types, companies have to build a culture where free-thinking self-starters can flourish. Rather than process-driven bureaucracy and hierarchy, founders must empower employees to make and execute decisions so they feel self-actualized while still having a boss.
  • Mentorship – Create a culture of learning, not just doing. When founder types know they can get an education that could help them start a company later, they’ll be more willing to join one now. If they only stay two years before fleeing, that’s still two years of valuable talent, and it’s on the founders to make the company interesting enough that employees want to stick around.

The tactics might seem time-consuming, but early hires set the tone for the company, and mediocre recruits can be toxic. It’s worth the effort for founders to enlist lieutenants they can trust to inspire the rest of the troops.

REAL WORK

Being my own boss and working for myself from my home office is by far the hardest, most laborious, and most time consuming Work I’ve ever done. It is also, by far, the most enjoyable, lasting, meaningful, and profitable Work I’ve ever done. It is, in either case, Real Work, and a lot of it.

You should carefully plan for and prepare for all of the challenges expressed in the post below, and for many other difficulties not listed, such as the hiring of employees, and agents, growth and capitalization, emergency financing, supply and logistics, regulation, taxes, profit development and taking, investment, savings, wealth generation, etc, etc.

The author of this post is also very, very right about the dangers of becoming physically sedentary, weak, out of shape, and fat. Because of the immense work load and time demands of being self-employed your entire day might easily disappear without any thought of exercise or care for your physical body. You have to guard against that with a good exercise program of your own and you have to incorporate that exercise program into your daily work schedule in the same way you would make time for marketing.

5 Critical Things No One Tells You about Working from Home

Working from home seems like one of those magical jobs we picture ourselves doing as children – you sit around the house, get some work done, take as many breaks as you want, save money on transport, you don’t have to stress out about clean shirts or being late, etc. This is true to some extent and being your own boss can be a very enjoyable experience, but working from home is far from the idealized fantasy most people picture in their mind. Not having any direct supervision carries its unique set of problems that you will need to be prepared for. Some of these things don’t get mentioned very often, and although they are not necessarily deal breakers or meant to dissuade people from considering a career in freelancing, it is important to understand what you are getting into. Here are the five biggest points you’ll need to take into account.

You’ll need to have some money in the bank before starting a freelance career

Being a freelancer isn’t exactly a sure thing, nor can you expect to start making some serious money straight away. It takes time to set up accounts, look for clients, hone your skills and build up a reputation for yourself. Networking is also a big part of the picture. The point here is that it can take several months to start getting clients regularly, establish a decent reputation and earn enough money on a monthly basis to get by. It may even take a year to get to where you can pay the bills, feed your family and still have some money left over for a bit of luxury, all on your freelance wages. This is why it is important to treat the whole thing like a startup, rather than a career change or a nine to five job. Having enough start-up capital will enable you to support your family during the initial stages and invest in things like premium accounts and connections on major online freelance platforms.

It’s very easy to get lazy and out of shape

Not having to commute has its benefits like saving money on transportation and food and wasting less time on getting ready and traveling to and from the office. The negative side of it is that you won’t have any real need to leave the house much, if at all. Because you will be working and relaxing at the computer, you are at great risk of becoming a lazy couch potato. Once ordering takeout, walking around in your pajamas, beers during work hours and spending several hours at a time in a chair become a regular thing you can kiss your health and fitness goodbye. The only way to avoid becoming out of shape and having aching joints is to schedule regular workouts throughout the week, set up alarms to remind you to get up and stretch out every hour or so and to be very careful about what you eat. It’s incredibly easy to trick yourself into believing that you don’t rally eat that much, so having a salad or some fruit instead of a sugary snack or pack of potato chips and looking at a few nutritional labels here and there is very important.

You need to set up an effective work environment

If you just put your laptop on the table in front of the couch and call it your work station, you will soon lose all focus. You need a professional work environment, a home office that you can step into and clearly separate your work hours from leisure time. It doesn’t have to be much – a functional desk with a few drawers, a few notebooks and pens lying around, your computer and printer set up comfortably, a sturdy and ergonomic office chair and a lamp are enough. You can set up in a corner of a room, preferably near a window for some natural light, and add some decoration, perhaps a plant, so that it feels like an office desk, rather than a teenage gamer’s desk with a few work-related notes scattered around.

Being your own boss means constantly finding ways of staying productive and motivated

Even if you take all the precautions and create a truly professional-looking work environment, there will still be plenty of distractions – the internet you are using to look for new clients or do research being one of the biggest. You’re never more than one click away from Procrastination City, and you’ll need to work hard to stay motivated and keep your mind focused on the task at hand. Taking regular breaks to clear your head can help, and so can making coffee and remembering to eat regularly. Plastering reminders and motivational posters around your home office is another viable tactic, but ultimately, you will have to learn how to deal with distractions and have a short and stern talk with yourself at least 3-4 times a day in order to stay on track.

Getting organized and managing your projects efficiently is the key to success

Getting distracted, forgetting about a deadline, mixing up clients and miscommunication can all happen to any one of us, but when you’re working at home it’s much easier to get sidetracked or let your schedule become a chaotic mess. Start with the room you work in – keep it clean, spotless even, and make sure that everything has its place. Next, make sure that your desk and immediate work area are organized and that you know where to find everything, the most important things being within reach and easily accessible. Then get your work schedule in order. Get a big calendar, a whiteboard and sticky notes and make sure you have all the essential information about your current projects clear in sight when you sit at the desk, making sure to mark deadlines and have reminders and alerts. Being able to stay organized and juggle different projects effectively is the key to success for anyone working at home.

Working at home isn’t a walk in the park like some would imagine, and neither is it a one way ticket to a land of procrastination and broken dreams – you can earn a good living without ever living your house, but you’ll need to stay focused and deal with a few issues before you can become successful.

THE ADVOCATE OF ADVERSITY

Indeed. And I completely agree.

Malcolm Gladwell on Why You Need Adversity to Succeed

The best-selling author explains why coping with tough challenges as you start up will make you a much more successful entrepreneur.

Learning disabilities like dyslexia aren’t typically regarded as advantages, but for some entrepreneurs, being dyslexic has been a key part of why they succeeded.

That’s according to New Yorker writer and bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, who, while researching his last book, David and Goliath, spoke to roughly two dozen dyslexic entrepreneurs.

“Their stories are all the same,” Gladwell says. “They don’t think they succeeded in spite of their disability. They think they succeeded because of it.”

While learning disabilities present unique challenges for individuals from an early age, they can also serve as what Gladwell refers to as “desirable difficulties,” or challenges that force people to learn new skills that prove extremely helpful later in life.

“They’re learning delegation, how to communicate with other people [and] motivate other people,” Gladwell says.

Successful dyslexic entrepreneurs that Gladwell points to include Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, JetBlue founder David Neeleman, and longtime movie producer Brian Grazer, whose dyslexia forced him to learn how to negotiate his way to getting better grades in school, according to Gladwell.

“By the time he hits college he’s brilliant at it, and then what does he do? He becomes a Hollywood producer, [which is] about negotiation, among other things, and he’s been practicing his entire life,” Gladwell says.

“In order to learn the things that really need to be learned we require a certain level of adversity.”

To hear more from the conversation, watch the video below.

Why Obstacles Can Improve Results

Certain obstacles that seem undesirable at first may ultimately help you get ahead.

THE WAY OF SUCCESS

Here Are The Epiphanies That Made Panera A $4.5 Billion Restaurant Chain

In 1980, Ron Shaich was just a 20-something kid looking for a way to draw customers into his single cookie store in downtown Boston.

Today, he is the founder and CEO of Panera Bread Co., which has nearly 2,000 locations in the US and Canada, 80,000 employees, and a market capitalization of $4.5 billion.

Through a series of ah-ha moments and happy accidents, Shaich took a simple idea — sandwiches, soups, and salads that people feel good about eating — and built it into a dominant American brand.

It wasn’t always easy. The company started as Au Bon Pain, and Panera was just one of its divisions. In 1998, Shaich made the difficult decision to sell off most of the business and bet on the little-sister brand Panera. He also stepped back from his role as CEO four years ago. The time away made him realize all the ways the company was vulnerable, and he wrote a 20-page memo about how he would destroy Panera if he was a competitor.

Shaich sat down with Business Insider to talk about how he got here, the single most important strategy in Panera’s success, and what’s next for the business.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Business Insider: When did you first want to be an entrepreneur? 

Ron Shaich: In college, I was the treasurer of the student body and came up with the idea of launching our own nonprofit convenience store. We ended up building it, and for a kid who couldn’t dance or sing, I found the creation of this store the most creative thing I ever did in my entire life. I loved it. I began to realize that business was creative and a way to make a difference in the world.

BI: How did Panera get its start?

RS: I went to business school. I tried to figure out my life. I ended up in D.C., running a chain of cookie stores for a large company. I established that this is the food I want to eat and created a single cookie store in downtown Boston in 1980. By late ’80, I had 50,000 people a day coming in, but no one bought cookies before noon. So I decided to put in French baked goods, and I became a licensee of a classic French bakery called Au Bon Pain.

They were the most screwed up vendor I ever dealt with — sometimes they delivered, sometimes they didn’t. I went to them with a proposal to merge the businesses. In February of ’81, I took on their debt, their three stores, and my one. And, after a number of iterations, that became Panera today.

BI: What was the moment when everything clicked for Panera?

RS: In 1984 I had an epiphany. I’d been working in the bakery, and people would walk in and say, “I want that baguette. Slice it from top to bottom.” So I do and hand them the loaf, and they pulled out a bag of deli meat and some cheese and made a sandwich out of it. You didn’t have to be a marketing whiz to recognize it was an opportunity in sandwiches.

panera bread tomato soupPanera Bread In the early ’90s, Shaich decided to shift to serving soup, salad, and sandwiches.

We said, “Let’s be the platform to sell soup, salad, and sandwiches.” It took off from Day 1. In 1991, we took it public, and by 1996, we had evolved to a thesis that I call “decomodification,” today called “fast casual.” Then, the contemporary paradigm of fast food was a lot of food for not a lot of money. We recognized that there was a large niche, say 30% to 40% of the market, that wanted something more special. It was not simply how much food they got for the money, but the quality of the food and how they felt about themselves eating there.

Then I had another epiphany. I was sitting on the beach in 1999 and thought, “Wow, for every 100 guys who talk about having a dominant brand, one makes it. Maybe one out of 1,000.” It’s so hard. Panera was one of four divisions. Somebody said to me: “What would you do if Panera owned Au Bon Pain and not the other way around?” I said, “This thing is a gem. If I had any guts, I’d take myself and the very best people we had, and I’d let it fulfill its destiny.” So I did it.

BI: Just like that? How did it feel to say goodbye to most of what you’d built? 

RS: The next few years of selling everything else off but Panera were the most horrible years of my life. Au Bon Pain was my first child. It’s only in retrospect that these decisions feel OK. When you’re going through them, if you’re honest, they’re horrible and difficult. Bottom line, I did it. We made the bet on Panera.

BI: If you could pinpoint one strategy, what do you think made Panera so successful? 

RS: What sustains a company over the long term is how it thinks, not what it does. Because what is does is a byproduct of how it thinks. Panera in its core comes from a view that competitive advantage is everything. If we don’t have a reason for people to walk past competitors and come to Panera, then we don’t exist. Losing competitive advantage is the greatest risk in business, and that’s where our focus is.

Ron Shaich servingPanera/David ElmesRon Shaich serves a customer in a Panera Cares cafe, the nonprofit arm of Panera offering pay-what-you-can prices.

BI: How do you stay ahead of the curve?

RS: I view my role as CEO as protecting those that discover ways to build competitive advantage. Often, when businesses first start up, they’re driven by people who discover new ways of doing things. They’re able to best the competition because they’re clearly disruptive and better. Then they get larger, and behind Discovery People come Delivery People, and they speak a different language.

Discovery is the language of what could be, of where the world is going. Delivery is the language of what happened yesterday, of limited risk. And in most companies that scale, you eventually wake up and realize you have tremendous delivery muscle and no discovery muscle, no ability to regenerate competitive advantage.

Our job as leadership is to protect and enable leaps of faith, making sure the company is there when the future arrives.

BI: After being CEO for decades, you stepped down from the role about four years ago. Why did you come back?

panera bread customers Reuters“Competitive advantage is everything,” Shaich says.

RS: I didn’t step down; I stepped back. I became executive chairman. Instead of six days a week, I spent three days a week on Panera.

My mind started racing one weekend, and I sat down at the typewriter and wrote a 20-page memo about how I would compete with Panera if I weren’t Panera. I undertook this vision and, after a year, found myself working 60 to 70 hours per week on it!

Panera has 80,000 employees and serves 10 million people a week. I’m back as CEO because I ultimately concluded it’s the most powerful platform I have to make a difference in the world.

BI: A lot of leaders talk about the need to carve out time to think about the big picture. How do you do it?

RS: I go to the beach every Christmas, and every year I write down initiatives for myself, my family, my health, my work, and my God — all the things that I think matter. I write where I’m trying to get to and how I’m going to get there.

BI: What’s an example of one?

RS: In my 50s, having never really exercised, I realized if I don’t do it now, I never will. I committed to it and hired a trainer to help me. I’ve been at it for over eight years, and I’m in better shape today than I was 20 years ago.

BI: Is that how you approach business strategy? You have annual think sessions?

RS: That’s exactly how it works! We sit down every year and try to figure out where we want to be in five years. How do we stay competitive? What do we have to do to ensure we feed the growth monster that goes with being a public company? And then we literally draft on paper what we want to achieve in the next 12 months.

Ron Shaich 2Panera/David Elmes“Our job as leadership is to protect and enable leaps of faith,” says Shaich.

Good strategy is continually changing. Strategy begins with where we think the world is going. Innovation begins with understanding what job you’re trying to complete for whom, and then determining what matters to that audience, looking for patterns, and trying to understand it. That’s hard work; that’s in the details.

BI: Tell me about the Panera 2.0 initiative.

RS: We’ve been working on it for four years. It brings together a range of technologies, and it’s meant to change the guest experience. If you’re coming to eat in, you simply walk in, sit down at a table, and use your phone to place an order. That order goes up into the cloud and comes back down to our kitchen, goes to our production systems, and the food is delivered directly to you.

Alternatively, if you want the order to go, you can place it from your office, from a kiosk in the café — anywhere you like — you just walk in and that food is waiting for you at a designated time. We’ve made this major commitment to technology.

BI: Panera was among the first retailers to integrate Apple Pay into stores. Why did you decide this was something you wanted to be a part of?

RS: Anything that offers convenience to our guests would only be good. We already have a very significant digital presence, and we’re moving aggressively in that direction.

BI: Is this something your customers have shown an interest in?

apple payJustin Sullivan/Getty ImagesPanera is aggressively incorporating new technologies into its service.

RS: What customers want are things that add joy and value to their lives. They don’t want another app; they don’t want more technology. What they want are things that make their lives easier.

Apple Pay offers the potential to be significantly easier for those carrying their iPhone 6s. All you have to do is tap it and you’ve paid. It also offers a very high level of security, since there is no transfer of the credit card number. On both of those fronts, it offers the potential for ease and joy and a reduction of friction, and those are positives for the guests. 

BI: What advice would you give to others who want to follow in your footsteps?

RS: If you can do something to get somebody excited — not everybody — but if you can be the best for somebody, then you can win. What it’s all about is figuring out what you can do for somebody that nobody else can do better.

THE HABITS OF SUCCESS

Indeed. You begin when you need to begin, not when you or anyone else is ready…

Successful People Start Before They Feel Ready

In 1966, a dyslexic sixteen-year-old boy dropped out of school. With the help of a friend, he started a magazine for students and made money by selling advertisements to local businesses. With only a little bit of money to get started, he ran the operation out of the crypt inside a local church.

Four years later, he was looking for ways to grow his small magazine and started selling mail order records to the students who bought the magazine. The records sold well enough that he built his first record store the next year. After two years of selling records, he decided to open his own record label and recording studio.

He rented the recording studio out to local artists, including one named Mike Oldfield. In that small recording studio, Oldfield created his hit song, Tubular Bells, which became the record label’s first release. The song went on to sell over 5 million copies.

Over the next decade, the young boy grew his record label by adding bands like the Sex Pistols, Culture Club, and the Rolling Stones. Along the way, he continued starting companies: an airline business, then trains, then mobile phones, and on and on. Almost 50 years later, there were over 400 companies under his direction.

Today, that young boy who dropped out of school and kept starting things despite his inexperience and lack of knowledge is a billionaire. His name is Sir Richard Branson.

How I Met Sir Richard Branson

Two weeks ago, I walked into a conference room in Moscow, Russia and sat down ten feet from Branson. There were 100 other people around us, but it felt like we were having a conversation in my living room. He was smiling and laughing. His answers seemed unrehearsed and genuine.

At one point, he told the story of how he started Virgin Airlines, a tale that seems to capture his entire approach to business and life. Here’s the version he told us, as best I can remember it:

I was in my late twenties, so I had a business, but nobody knew who I was at the time. I was headed to the Virgin Islands and I had a very pretty girl waiting for me, so I was, umm, determined to get there on time.
At the airport, my final flight to the Virgin Islands was cancelled because of maintenance or something. It was the last flight out that night. I thought this was ridiculous, so I went and chartered a private airplane to take me to the Virgin Islands, which I did not have the money to do.
Then, I picked up a small blackboard, wrote “Virgin Airlines. $29.” on it, and went over to the group of people who had been on the flight that was cancelled. I sold tickets for the rest of the seats on the plane, used their money to pay for the chartered plane, and we all went to the Virgin Islands that night.
—Richard Branson

I took this photo right after he told that story. A few moments later I stood shoulder–to–shoulder with him (he’s about six feet tall) and thanked him for sharing some time with us.

Richard Branson talking on a panel in Moscow, Russia.
Richard Branson talking on a panel in Moscow, Russia.

THE NEW START UP CLUB

  The $5 Billion Startup Club: The 9 Highest Valued Startups That You Should Definitely Keep An Eye On

dollar billsMark Wilson/Getty ImagesBillions of dollars are flowing into these startups.

There used to be a time when a $1 billion valuation was considered a massive success for tech startups.

But in recent years, there’s been so many of them that billion-dollar valuations are almost starting to feel routine in tech.

So we’ve raised the bar and narrowed down WSJ’s “The Billion-Dollar Startup Club” list to companies that are valued at more than $5 billion.

These startups are transforming our lives and they’re definitely worth keeping an eye on moving forward.

THE REINVENTION OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP

An excellent business lecture on Entrepreneurship, Start-Ups, Financing, Marketing, and general principles of Innovation.

I recommend it.

 

PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT AND WORTH

An excellent article on product development and building trust with your client and customer base. Well worth a read.

However building trust in fields involving security risks takes a lot of vetting and qualification.

This Is How You Get People to Trust Your Product

Most new tech companies simply would not work without consumer trust. People wouldn’t get into an Uber, list their home on Airbnb, or even buy shoes on Zappos if they didn’t trust those companies to deliver a high quality, secure service. UrbanSitter sets the bar even higher: It connects families with babysitters on the Internet. There are few things that require more faith.

“In many ways, we’re tackling the service that requires the most trust in someone’s life,” says UrbanSitter CEO Lynn Perkins. “If companies can replicate what we’ve done in other sectors, they’ll knock it out of the park.”

So how did UrbanSitter pull this off? How did they build a product that convinces parents that strangers can safely watch their children? Perkins has become an expert in this area, pointing to a combination of product features, logistics, and customer service efforts that have allowed them to become a reliable solution for hundreds of thousands of households nationwide. In this exclusive interview, she shares how UrbanSitter has approached trust-building and how other companies can do the same to grow fast…

QUO VADIS?

A well-written and insightful article by my friend Steve Roller with some excellent points for both start-up efforts and more established business people who wish to expand their business enterprises.

Actually I think you should build the structure (and incomes) of both your client base, and your own ventures, but I understand exactly what Steve is saying, why he is saying it, and how he is sculpting his advice.

Yes I’ve written for clients and continue to do so, but eventually you need (especially if you have larger ideas) to strike out on your own if you wish to achieve and obtain your larger goals and objectives.

You need to take ownership of your own efforts, endeavours, enterprises, and ventures.

Eventually you must employ your own talents for your own ends. It is part of the reason you exist in this world.

Read Steve’s article, think about the point(s) he is making, and then decide upon a course of action. Make a Plan and execute it.

Godspeed friends, and have a great, productive, and very profitable day.

 

Are you a freelance writer or a business builder?

3.hard-at-work

That may sound like an odd question, since most of us would consider ourselves freelancers, right?

 

I would maintain that not only can you be both, you may actually want to move away from the idea of being a “freelance writer” or “freelance copywriter.” It’s a matter of language, yes, but more than that a matter of mindset and positioning. In the long run, it will also make a substantial difference to your net worth.

 

Let me explain…

 

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THE OTHER ROADS TO SUCCESS

I happen to completely agree with him. I am in no way against education and learning, and as a matter of fact I think education and learning should continue until one hits the grave. However far too much of modern “higher education” is restrictive and self-limiting indoctrination, not innovative discovery and brilliant invention, so I entirely understand his point(s).

 

However I am also of the opinion that efforts such as this should hardly be limited to those under 20 years old. After all who has their very best ideas in life when under 20, or even in their 20s? Not many people.

 

Young people may be filled with passion (and have some ability to focus without the distraction of family and other obligations) but they are also usually naive and inexperienced about/with how the world actually operates, and they lack the motivations of family and children as an impetus to achievement,  and those are big disadvantages in regards to real drives and motives for long term business and creative success.

 

RISK TRAJECTORY

How Richard Branson made his first million. The concept to me is rather simple to me, wherever you start or whatever you do use it as a springboard to other things. Risk should be a personal habit and a consistent career trajectory rather than an occasional or one time occurrence.

 

How I Made My First Million: Richard Branson

The tycoon’s journey to a million started from an unlikely source: The Exorcist

British business tycoon Richard Branson is living proof that with enough money, the sky’s the limit. And sometimes not even the sky: his Virgin Group launched a business called Virgin Galactic, which plans to carry wealthy “space tourists” all the way into orbit.

Worth an estimated $5 billion, Branson has used his fortune not just to indulge in expensive hobbies but also to fund a host of humanitarian initiatives.

So how did he make his first million way back when? Believe it or not, there’s a connection to the 1973 horror film The Exorcist.

THE SILK ROAD TO ELSEWHERE

Where is this going?
Offshore apparently…

bitcoins-660x439

“The nearly 30,000 bitcoins auctioned off by the U.S. Marshals Service last week will be put to use building digital currency businesses outside of the United States.

The bitcoins are part of a massive cache of digital currency seized by the feds in connection with last year’s bust of the Silk Road online drug marketplace. In a first, they were auctioned by the Marshals Service last Friday, but until today, nobody knew who’d purchased them. It turns out that the auction’s winner was venture capitalist Tim Draper, and he’s going to store them with a company he has invested in called Vaurum. The startup sells software and services to international companies that want to set up their own bitcoin exchanges…”

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