December 5, 2023

The Next Level: Introducing The Next Level: Can You Teach Entrepreneurship?

The Next Level

Avoiding the pitfalls of fast growth.

Talk about needing an exit strategy. I needed one from the humidity, heat and mosquitoes of the Okefenokee Swamp. But how does one go from Swamp Road in Waycross, Ga., to running a global company? I’m sure there are other routes, but for me the fastest roads out were entrepreneurship and education.

I am passionate about both because neither cares where you come from, what your last name is or how well known you are when you start. Entrepreneurship is still what America does better than anyone else in the world. We may outsource jobs overseas but people who want to get ahead come here to pursue big ideas. We have earned our place as the start-up capital of the world.

But something happens to a large majority of those start-ups. Of all the start-ups that get past $1 million in revenue, only about one in 25 reaches $10 million. (Those numbers come from Doug Tatum, founder of Tatum L.L.C., an executive services consulting firm, and author of “No Man’s Land: Where Growing Companies Fail.”) Why do so many companies crash and burn after roaring starts? Because growth is hard, and because growth companies face many hurdles as they deal with expansion and complexity. The mission of my blogging here will be to show that combining entrepreneurship and education can help growing companies clear many of those hurdles.

I started in management at United Parcel Service when I was 21 – about the time U.P.S. began a transformation from a paper-driven trucking company to a technology powerhouse. During that company revolution, U.P.S. did me two great favors, promoting me to district manager at age 23 and investing time, money and resources in my development. I believe that investment paid off when I initiated and executed a technologically advanced help-desk system that saved the company more than $250 million a year. In return, the company sent me to get an M.B.A.

That education helped me create my own business, an information technology company, STI Knowledge, in 1995. We eventually opened offices in the United States, Britain, South Africa, India, Hong Kong and the Philippines, and beginning in 2000, we made the Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America three years in a row.

In my writing for this blog, I hope to dispel the myth that entrepreneurs are born with gut instincts that can’t be taught. I believe you can teach entrepreneurship. I wish somebody had taught me how to hire people before I tried to build a national sales team. I wish somebody had told me not to turn my first successful salesperson into the default sales manager. I wish somebody had told me not to hire C-suite executives from mega-corporations. Often, it seemed as if my gut instincts were working against me.

It was only after I sold my company that I realized that when it came to major decisions, we made two or three good calls and a whole series of bad ones that led to major setbacks. It feels better to know that Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, has said that if his team made five decisions, it hoped two were correct. Most of us don’t even do that well. I sometimes wonder how any start-ups manage to survive. There has to be a better way than learning through trial and error — time, money and patience are all likely to run out before the entrepreneur figures it all out.

After selling STI, I endowed the Emory Executive M.B.A. Program for Entrepreneurship which gave me an inside look at how entrepreneurship and academia mix. I have come to believe that the right combination is probably about 10 percent academia and 90 percent hard knocks. More recently, I have started an organization called the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. Basically our mission is to help the owners of fast-growing companies avoid some of those knocks — so that we can decrease the rate of failure and increase the speed of success. That’s what I hope to do here, on this blog, as well.

Of course, there are many paths to success. Debate and disagreement are tremendous learning and communication tools for entrepreneurs. I look forward to hearing from you.

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You’re the Boss: What Do You Owe Your Employees When You Sell?

Paul Spiegelman: Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York TimesPaul Spiegelman: “I began to get nervous.”
Today's Questions

In a small-business conversation we’ve just published, Paul Spiegelman talks about how he came very close to selling a controlling interest in his company, Beryl, an unusual call center based near Dallas. “I began to get nervous,” Mr. Spiegelman told Darren Dahl. “I felt like if we went down this road, it would have an irreversible negative impact on Beryl’s culture.”

So, here’s the question: When business owners contemplate selling all or part of their companies, what responsibility do they owe their employees? How do you balance finding an exit strategy with assuring a positive work environment will be maintained after the sale?

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App City: Commuter Reports From, Well, Commuters


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Among smartphone apps for New Yorkers, the most longed for remains one that will get you to work on time. So it’s probably not surprising that the city is experiencing a boom in transit apps, with dozens of options including beginner-level offerings that give basic directions and more advanced ones, like Exit Strategy, which counsels riders on which subway car will get them closest to the most convenient exit. The city government and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority are encouraging this trend by providing public data and running app contests.

Roadify, which aims to use the wisdom of the crowd to inform drivers and transit riders, recently won the grand prize in the city’s Big Apps 2.0 competition. It was originally a text-messaging group that let drivers in Park Slope, Brooklyn, announce when they were leaving a parking spot. Last year, several developers expanded on that idea, creating an app to swap information about driving and public transportation. Roadify also includes subway and bus timetables and scheduled service changes, and the developers are gradually adding more ways for users to share information about their commutes. An Android version is in the works.

It is easy to see how Roadify could be useful. But it is the kind of service that gets better as more people sign up, and it has not reached critical mass. It is not uncommon to click on, say, the E train at Queens Plaza, only to find an update saying the station is crowded — from six hours earlier. There is also some development work to be done: More than 20 bus lines have yet to be entered into the database, meaning that if you live in many parts of Queens, you’re out of luck. And the subway information is arranged by line, not by station. Trying to decide which train to take from Times Square? You have to check each line individually. Roadify is also largely nonfunctional underground, a serious shortcoming for something you want to use on the subway.

In the future, there may be a way for New Yorkers to exchange useful information about their commutes in real time. Roadify may even end up being that app. But not yet. JOSHUA BRUSTEIN

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