Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Turning a boar's ear into silky prosciutto

Okay, that title is a bit of a stretch. I do not know that Herb Eckhouse and La Quercia actually turn pigs' ears into anything good for us to eat, but I do know they make delicious prosciutto and coppa from humanely-raised, antibiotic-free hogs. I don't know how they do it; I think magic is involved, but, boy, is it good. That's Herb and his wife and partner (partner and wife?) , Kathy, in the photo to the right.

Despite being up to his elbows in cured meats, Herb recently visited our Entrepreneurial Leadership class at Drake University and shared his thoughts on starting an entrepreneurial business later in life. Herb also wondered about the concept of teaching entrepreneurship; he suggested it is not a classroom subject, but a mindset that requires action. Notwithstanding his initial reluctance (also driven by genuine modesty) he shared his story and a number of great lessons. First, his lessons:
  • It is NEVER too late.
  • Timing is everything.
  • There is NO substitute for obsessive implementation.
Herb had been dreaming about prosciutto for a long time, after having lived in Italy for several years while working with a Pioneer Hi-Bred. When DuPont acquired Pioneer in 2000, Herb cashed in his employment chips and started working on his dream. He found a commitment to economic development in the Des Moines metro and a demand for value-added food products. Despite job offers, he spent five months studying the feasibility of his dream. Other people thought it was a cool idea; there was a growing interest in artisanal food; there was nothing like it in Iowa, or anywhere else in the U.S. for that matter, and it was an easy way to add value to a readily accessible commodity: pork. He realized he could take a highly perishable commodity and turn it into something delicious and non-perishable. He also figured that he could do that with a cut of meat the market undervalued. Seeing no "red lights" and a feasible business he founded La Quercia.

He didn't want any partners or investors, other than Kathy, because he didn't want to argue about how to fulfill his dream; he didn't want to answer to anybody about how much to invest in making the best product. Oh, and he didn't get paid for seven years. Instead he invested his own money and put his entire net worth on the line. Already motivated by his dream, he could not let the business fail.

He spent ten days with a leading Italian producer who produced a first class product in a clean facility with no dangerous waste by-products. After successfully importing prosciutto for a couple years, Herb and Kathy started making prosciutto in their home. Of course, their Italian contacts said it couldn't be done: the Appian Air was crucial, the whey the hogs ate was different; the local water was no good, and of course the hogs weren't Italian. Despite all those "hurdles", people liked the product; they REALLY liked it. Enough so that by 2003, the Eckhouses decided to buy some land and build a curing facility. They continued curing meats in their basement and further developed their relationship with Niman Ranch, an organization of family farmers who raise livestock traditionally, humanely, and sustainably. The building opened in 2005, the same year La Quercia was introduced to the Whole Foods Market juggernaut.

As Herb moved up the corporate food chain at Whole Foods, everybody loved La Quercia's products. In fact everybody really did love La Quercia's prosciutto: Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and The New York Times all raved about it; even Jeffrey Steingarten, the "grumpy old man" of food critics, said it was the best prosciutto he had ever tasted. But (there has to be a but, this is a story about hogs, right?) Whole Foods didn't seem to really get it. They had an exclusive for the only U.S. made prosciutto from humanely-raised hogs and they weren't telling anybody. Having bet big on Whole Food's commitment, La Quercia found itself between the hog and hard place. With more than his toes hanging over the brink, Herb gritted his teeth, tapped out his credit line and hung on until he finally was able to get Whole Foods to wake up and smell the curing smoke. In nine months La Quercia sold out its inventory. They were finally really in business.

As for the lessons Herb shared:

  • It's never too late. Herb was 50 when he started La Quercia. He had spent 20 years in corporate America before starting his entrepreneurial adventure and fulfilling a dream.
  • Timing is everything. People had tried to make prosciutto in the U.S. in the '80s and failed; others tried a down-market approach, and failed. A new food era arrived in the 2000s. Also, the time was right for Herb personally. He had gained start-up experience working at Pioneer, and, importantly, he could afford to put his lifestyle at risk.
  • There is no substitute for excellent performance, or as he puts it, "obsessive implementation." When he entered into the relationship with Whole Foods, he did not have a back-up plan. He had to make it work, so, he did.

I've know Herb for some time, and I had read about his business. I did not know the whole story though. I am truly impressed. He and Kathy exemplify the entrepreneurial imperative that sets us apart from the rest of the world. It is never too late to make a great product. La Quercia's products are absolutely delicious; try them. And if you ever bump into Herb, after thanking him for making such delicious treats, tell him he has a great head of hair.

Thanks for sharing your story, Herb.

Doug Mitchell reveals the SECRET

Doug Mitchell, "father of 2, husband of 1, leader of many" and a self-described geo-arbitrageur visited our Entrepreneurial Leadership class the other day with his colleague, Paul Gratton. In addition to offering up "The Secret" to the students and me, he also videoed his presentation and posted it on his website for The Mitchell Group LLC. It is also available at CreateWowMedia, Doug's newest venture. And for good measure, I've included it below.

I invited Doug to speak to our class for a couple of reasons: he is a very cool dude in a laid-back California sort of way. (except for that time he didn't recognize a newly well-rounded waitress, but that's another story). In fact, he moved to Des Moines from California, and THAT was a major reason I wanted him to speak to the students; he chose to come here, and sometimes the locals lose sight of the great lifestyle and opportunities here. Also, he is an entrepreneur trying to bring up-to-the-minute media technology to businesses. He is a great source of ideas and reactions for me; he likes cigars, and seems not to take himself too seriously. And he promised to reveal The Secret. Here goes:

Doug is a former rally car navigator and recent triathlete; before that he was an International Business Major who "fell into a sales job." It didn't take him too long to figure out that he couldn't be a "Rock star Salesman" and, more importantly, he didn't want to become one. As he put it, he asked himself "Is it worth it to try to become something you're not?" He left the world of smilin & dialin' and landed in his first virtual office with a start-up with just one month of cash. He asked for the job, and in 72 hours he and his new colleagues banged out a business plan; 46 days later they had a million dollars of financing and it was off to the races. And Doug decided he'd never get a "real" job again. They sold that company; he played a lot of golf, and then he joined another start-up.

As Doug put it, he reached his maximum potential at a start-up #2 and was tired of living on the road, so he asked himself what he wanted to do next. He decided to move away so he could have MORE
to go along with running his own business.

He had an idea for a new multimedia digital business; the software he needed didn't exist, and he didn't really know anything about multimedia gizmos. But he believed there was a real need for the service he had in mind. So he moved to Des Moines and started RentalMetrics. He plugged the gaps in his knowledge and expertise by asking Paul Gratton, another very cool dude (who studied at Drake). Here's Paul climbing on his homemade climbing wall with a couple of comments about the importance of staying on the move:

Doug and Paul asked some software developers to work with them, and they said "yes." They asked their business network if they liked the idea, and they said "yes." The market, however, said "no." But Doug and Paul had learned that they had developed something cool, so in just six months, their new business was something different and new again.

Have you noticed that Doug asked for jobs, asked for insight, and asked for help? Well, he did, and that's his SECRET. ASKING is powerful and underused tool these days, and Doug urged the students to use it.

He closed with some real life advice:

There is no job security.
Find out what you suck at.*
Give back.
Learn to deal with change--everyday.

If you want to ask Doug something you can reach him at the links above or at

Thanks Doug

*BTW, I'm pretty sure he means you not try to become a Rock Star at something you suck at.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Artistic Entrepreneur; Entrepreneurial Artist

Sixteen years ago a struggling artist and budding business woman, Sarah Grant, started Sticks, Inc. Sticks handcrafts truly distinctive furniture, accessories, and objets d'art (showin' off ma francais) at a unique studio in Des Moines, IA. Sarah was a recent visitor to our Entrepreneurial Leadership class at Drake University, and she stole the show. A vivacious former [girls] soccer mom, Sarah shared her adventurous journey from fine arts student to successful entrepreneur and independent business woman and tossed in more than a little practical real-life advice. She understands the importance of a good story, and in her excellent tale she personifies the challenges and opportunities all entrepreneurs face.

When the economy goes down, the bright and innovative rise up.
Sarah left Des Moines to ski and study art; after graduating college, and plenty of skiing and art, she earned a masters in Italo printmaking (WTH?) and an MFA in painting. She was an ARTIST. Like almost all young artists, she started out as a waitress; she moved on to ticket sales, and then adjunct teaching (I can confirm that that's a calling, not a career). She then taught, for 10 years, at a college of design. The most she ever made was $8,900 a year, and, as she was a credit hour short of fulltime , she got no benefits, but she was an ARTIST.

I don't do tchotchkes.
Pursuing her dream of sustaining herself as a painter and drawer, she told herself, "I don't do tchotchkes" (extra credit if you know what they are). Meredith Publishing, publisher of Ladies' Home Journal, approached her about building a non-country nativity set. "I don't do tchotchkes" she replied. "Well, we'll pay you $500." "I'll do tchotchkes." Neither a sculptor nor a woodcarver, Sarah was a drawer, but Meredith didn't know that. So she found an old box and used a woodburning tool to draw her design, and sold the design to Meredith. Her Mom asked her if she could make another one. From that unexpected start grew Sticks; she learned later to keep and protect her designs.

I don't do art fairs.
She had vowed to never do art fairs; but as I learned when I moved to Des Moines, one must never say never, and hit the art fair she did. Living like a carnie, Sticks consumed all her time and effort, but she was making it work. Finally tiring of life on the road, a friend at the Des Moines Art Center referred her to a big wholesale crafts trade show. Ignoring her attorney's advice to name her business "Sarah Grant Inc." on the notion that other artists wouldn't want to work for Sarah Grant, so she stuck with Sticks. She did take his advice to demand deposits and minimum orders though. Of course she was the only one out of 4,500 exhibitors to do so, and until the final 1/2 day it appeared that she may have overreached. In that last 1/2 day, however, she booked $7,500 of orders, and the new Sticks Inc. was off and running. Today, Sticks's top ten accounts come from that first batch of orders.

100% Made in the U.S.A.
Sticks has been profitable every year since then. And every product is 100% made in the U.S.A.; something more than one person told Sarah she couldn't do. Well, she learned by doing, and today, one of Sticks's key strengths is in process. Focusing on developing efficient processes, fostering creativity and preserving high quality Sarah successfully made the leap from passion to profit, while preserving her artistic roots. She also takes care of her employees, 140 strong today . Because she started out with no benefits, she is committed to putting as much money as she can into employee benefits, and strives to make Sticks a great place to work. Sticks is truly an American success story.

Challenges and Opportunities
Sarah closed with some remarks on the challenges the current economic climate presents to her and to other small businesses. She may have less money to reinvest; profits will be harder to achieve, but she emphasized that this is a fertile environment for someone seeking to start a business. Inters tingly, she also noted that while the wholesale business has declined, Sticks's gallery business has remained strong. (I suggest that the unique nature and high quality, couple with the local nature of her crafts sets her wares apart.) Many people are scared, so those who can muster the resources to start something can make a real mark. She urged the students to consider this as a real opportunity.

"The great thing about business," she said, "it always changes."

A couple days after her presentation I received an announcement that Sticks was opening a gallery shop in Kansas City for the holidays. Times may be tough, but so is Sarah, and like so many successful entrepreneurs she will make things happen, and probably break a few of her own rules in doing so.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A cuppa entrepreneurship

It was like a living jolt of good java visited our Drake University Entrepreneurial Leadership class the other day. Julie McGuire, founder and owner of Zanzibar's Coffee Adventure, 2723 Ingersoll Ave., in bustling Des Moines, IA, graced us with her thoughts and experiences on her entrepreneurial adventure.

She started off, much to the students' surprise by asking them a couple questions. First she asked them to jot down 2 characteristics essential to being an entrepreneur. Then she asked them to consider whether there is a difference between being a business woman and being an entrepreneur.

After sharing her personal background: Des Moines native; moved to California to pursue international business; took a job in a coffee shop; loved it; was good at it, but it wasn't enough. She wanted a "real career." Passed up opportunity to run a shop for somebody else, and decided to return to Des Moines where nobody was doing premium coffee yet. Why Des Moines? How could she leave Cali? As she explained, someone starting a new business is going to spend 100 hours+ a week working, so it didn't matter if it was in Des Mines or Vail. Also, she knew the "landscape." It also didn't hurt that Mom would cook for her and make sure she was getting a couple square meals regularly.

She wrote a great business plan and went searching for financing. Two years later, 2 YEARS, she finally landed enough financial support to get started. Of course by then, two other coffee shops had opened up. But they weren't in her neighborhood, and they did not make coffee the way she knew it had to be made. BTW, one of the reasons it took so long for her to get financed was because she was a "her." Bankers and investors were not quite ready for a young, single woman who wanted to start her own specialty biz. She also bumped into the "nobody will pay that for coffee around here" mentality, and after two other shops opened , that attitude shifted to , "well, you're a little late, they've got the market covered." Julie, and those that know her are not surprised by this, persevered. And 15 years later she has a successful business that has become a part of many people's lives. Zanzibar's has become part of that landscape she knew so well.

Unlike our other presenters, she did not offer the students a neat list of key traits; instead, she continued to ask questions. How do you come up with new ideas and solutions virtually every day? How do you recruit and keep staff in a customer-service oriented retail business? Was she really an entrepreneur (I answer that resoundingly YES...15 years ago she was a leader as a young woman, in creating a neighborhood destination, or as she refers to it, a third location: home, work , Zanzibar's; there was nothing like it in Des Moines, and there still really isn't). If she was, is she still? And if she isn't, what is she?

She acknowledged that she was passionate about her dream and her business; she was very committed and was willing to make the sacrifices to make it happen. She wondered, however, if she could muster the same passion and make the same sacrifices to do it again today.

I'll offer this summary of the traits that make Julie McGuire a successful entrepreneurial leader:
find your dream
  • Be prepared to work very hard and very long
  • Stick with it; you will encounter obstacles, and you will likely encounter naysayers
  • Be prepared for challenges everyday
  • Commit to coming up with new ideas and new solutions everyday
  • Be attentive to the needs and development of associates and, especially, employees
  • Be involved in your community
  • Be passionate about what you do
Thanks Julie.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Entrepreneurship is Fat!

Or is it Phat? Anyway, Bob and Joe Riley, father and son entrepreneurs, were the most recent speakers at our Entrepreneurial Leadership class at Drake University. Bob is founder, president and CEO (why do we continue to have presidents and CEOs?) of Feed Energy Inc., a 30-year old "premier supplier of energy solutions for the livestock industry." Joe Riley is Operations Manager of FEC Solutions LLC, a "new energy company" that is developing ways to improve ethanol production and otherwise foster and enhance energy production from ag-resources. Very cool guys; I first met Bob as he walked through a gathering repeating "Cigars and port, 801 Grand; cigars and port, 801 Grand." I followed him to the steakhouse at 801 Grand where we discovered mutual interests including cigars and port and more.

Feed Energy processes fats and oils and produces highly specialized feeds; Bob used to have business cards for "Fats R Us." Under his leadership the company has grown to more than $40 million in sales and is an innovative leader in high energy feed production. FEC Solutions is a new company working to extend Feed Energy's expertise into the fast-developing alternative energy industry with a focus on improving production margins and ensuring access to safe, clean energy.

Bob claims he was forced into being an entrepreneur when he acquired acquired Feed Energy in 1986. For the first three years it was 19 hour days and a lot of OJT(on-the-job-training). Fueled by insatiable curiosity, a willingness to risk failing, and a contagious belief in success he was able to cut back to 15 hour days and build a business where quality comes first, not only in its products but also in how they treat employees and customers. Joe discussed the challenges of starting a new business based on new technology in an industry in transition. Sounds like fun!

Bob and Joe shared their thoughts and advice on what it takes to be a successful entrepreneurial leader with our class.


  • Be willing to be broke--money is only important for survival; it is not the goal
  • Focus on quality--Take any other approach and you will fail.
  • Develop a weltanshauung or world view (I had to look that one up).
  • Mange risk--t have an intimate knowledge of your costs, your market, your products.
  • Pay attention to the details...of your process and your plan.
  • Be confident--deliver value.
  • Be curious--look for better ways to make it, sell it, communicate it, improve it.
Their motto (or mantra): Profit is the byproduct of quality.

  • Stay focused--on your business and your goals; filter out the noise.
  • Get and stay organized--do the right thing, the right way, the first time.
  • Be flexible [adaptable]. Things change; you must too.
  • Follow through. Execute.
  • Be persistent. NEVER GIVE UP.

They then added some advice for approaching the future:

  • Get out of the classroom and start a business.
  • Graduate.
  • Get a job and learn the ropes on someone else's nickel.
  • Get fired from a job; experience dealing with failure.
  • Find a Baby Boomer with money, because money is hard to come by.
  • Gamble or calculate? Indian poker or blackjack? Know the difference.
  • Build your own model for developing, choosing and starting a business.
  • Save the world. Big problems need solutions from young entrepreneurs.
Bob then presented the students with a real choice:

They have found a new metal with unique properties. They have determined that it can increase ethanol production significantly. They have a client willing to use it, and they can be operational with it in less than 6 months at a cost of $50,000.


Experiments have shown that the metal also has unique properties to target and destroy cancer cells. It will take $50,000,000 to commercialize and 10 years to complete all trials and tests.

Which would you choose?

Island for sale?

For sale: Volcanic island; north Atlantic views all around. Size of Kentucky, but liquor is freely available; home to classic Nordic beauties. Great potential for geothermal heat. 320,000 literate, long-lived, previously high-income owners forced to sell. Excellent opportunity for...well, anybody who has any money left. Anybody?

Friday, October 03, 2008

It ain't pretty, but it's better n' nothin'

They were against it. Then the other guys were for it. The market crashed. The market jumped. Aw shucks, we had a debate. Then they were for it. The market yawned; maybe it's tired. Glad my money is at Wells Fargo.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Iowa Economic Development has a chance

Many thanks to Doug Lewis, head of Entrepreneurial Development for the Iowa Dep't of Economic Development. Doug is one of the rare few who can truly say "Hi, I'm from the government, and I ma here to help you." A very down-to-earth good guy, he took a different tack than our other visitors by starting out with some recommended readings: The World is Flat, by NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman, important for the world view he sets out, but lacking any prescription for what we should do; A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink who provides some guidance on what to do, namely focus more on creativity and empathy as basic analysis is best done by technology; and The Only Sustainable Edge, by John Hagel and John Seeley Brown who explore developments at the edge of business and the edges of the world. He tossed in a reference tho the best-selling Influencer The Power to Change Anything, by David Maxfield, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler.

Doug then went on to provide his advice on how to prepare for entrepreneurial leadership:
  1. Work and get training in order to really know how to execute a plan or strategy.
  2. Find a mentor. This is a recurring theme among our presenters.
  3. Be willing to fail; most successful entrepreneurs do not succeed until their third attempt. Another recurring theme.
  4. Start now. This is one of the major themes of our class. Entrepreneurial leaders make things happen.
He emphasized that entrepreneurial success requires tenacity and devotion. He also suggested that there are opportunities in and around clusters of economic development, analogizing to Hollywood, where it takes more than actors and directors to make it all work.

Iowa has identified three major areas of opportunity:
  1. Biosciences
  2. Advanced manufacturing
  3. Information Technology
And while I have suggested to Doug that three may be too big and broad for little ol' Iowa, I am confident that Iowans will find innovative solutions within those broad categories. And when they do, Doug will be there to help them capitalize on them.
Thanks, Doug.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Entrepreneurship =Hip..yeah baby

What do The Flaming Lips, the Roots, martinis, Des Moines, IA , and entrepreneurship have in common? The quietly cool Amedeo Rossi. Amedeo owns and operates The Lift, a cool martini bar, and The Vaudeville Mews, a happening live music space, both in Des Moines; yeah, that's right Des Moines, IOWA. AND, together with the Des Moines Music Coalition, he successfully organized and promoted this past summer's terrific 80/35 Music Festival (I-80 and I-35 intersect at Des Moines, where we elect presidents).

Amedeo visited my Entrepreneurial Leadership class at Drake University Tuesday and shared his experiences and advice. He worked for 12 years in HR for several large corporations and developed an understanding for basic management and accounting, so that when approached by a friend about opening a new bar/meeting place in Des Moines, he was ready. Like many entrepreneurs, he kept his day job while starting up The Lift, a smooth no-smoking, no TV hang- out near Court Avenue in Des Moines. They opened The Lift in the spring of 2001 and just barely hung on through the quiet aftermath of 9/11 where people didn't go out much. The Lift was no-smoking before it was the law because Amedeo believed it was simply wrong to subject his employees to the hazards of second hand smoke.

Recognizing that there were virtually no venues for local music acts to perform, he and his partner opened The Vaudeville Mews a few doors down from The Lift. VM offers an awesome selection of local and visiting talent in an inviting and accessible space.

Along his small business way Amedeo also hooked-up with the Greater Des Moines Music Coalition and the vision-thing started happening. He and his colleagues starting dreaming and visualizing and jonesing about making Des Moines a center for progressive music--not just in Iowa but for the whole damn country. And they are doing it. The first 80/35 Festival was a solid hit: great space, great bands, great crowds, even with some hard rock competition down the road a bit.

I could go on; I love this guy and what he is trying to do and doing. But duty calls. Here are some tidbits for entrepreneurs from his presentation:
+Get some experience. His 12 years a job...have come in handy, and his day job enabled him to pursue a new dream.

+Your dream will cost more and take longer to achieve than you expect (they all do).
+Cash is king; you gotta pay your bills, so you have to sell something and get paid.
+Adapt. Stuff happens; times and tastes change, so you must also.
+Successfully managing his new ventures has been like piloting a battleship. That is, when he recognized change was on the way or was unavoidable he reacted carefully and smoothly. He was committed to a course, but altered his path when necessary and did so deliberately.

That last one is unique so far among our guest entrepreneurs,a t least in so far as Amedeo specifically articulated his deliberate approach to adaptability. As we have discussed in class, entrepreneurs take calculated risk; they are NOT big risk takers; in fact, they are often risk avers.

Amedeo is doing great things. Many thanks and best wishes for continued success to him.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Are we purged yet? from 85 b,b,billion to 700 BILLION!?

85 BILLION DOLLARS. YES I AM SHOUTING. Had the feds acted two days earlier they could have acquired AIG for a mere $25 billion. How would you explaoin that little differnece to your boss? Those of you who believe more governement and more regulation will save us from ourselves can pick up the difference. Some commentators smarter than me have suggsted that if the SEC had simply reinstated the long-standing but recently abandoned short trade rules the runs on some of these companies may have been averted. I know, I know, we all pay for the correction of market excesses, but I'd rather pay directly than through the inefficient regurgitative process of big government.

When I asked my students the other day if they felt more insecure than they did last week, they all shrugged. When I asked if they felt more insecure and anxious about their futures today than they did a year ago, most still shrugged. One international student said he was more worried because of the perceived failure of AIG because he wants to go into the insurance biz. Setting aside the wisdom of his career choice, I asked him to consider whether the failure of one of the largest players could not be viewed as an opportunity for smaller or regional firms.

Monday, September 15, 2008

High time for a high colonic

Yes, Erin Burnett, the hot biz news talking head on CNBC (also known as Warren Buffett's number one groupie) referred to today's market gyrations as a colonic. Great image, but methinks we may need to shove another finger down our throats. We will feel better. Even the mighty can choke on indigestible gristle.

Who'd have thought "moral hazard" and "too-big-to-fail" would enter the vernacular?

And don't forget, this great country came into being as a debtor nation.

Let's get the politicians out of the banking business; require transparent disclosure; make 'em mark everything to the market and if they can't value something, make 'em mark it to ZERO.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Words you can't say in the newspaper

So...I'm trying to get some traction with this blogging concept; so I volunteered to blog about small biz ventures, entrepreneurship and the like for the Des Moines Register. Lynn Hicks , the Executive Business Editor, is a cool guy, and he is all for it. So I say, "hey Lynn, I'll write about the class I'm teaching and get students to read and comment." "Cool" he says (or words to that effect). So I do that. Today I wrote about the second guest entrepreneur to visit. He mentioned how he remembers me as the guy who swore at a business gathering his firm sponsored. Specifically, I said "we need more bullshit around here" in commenting on the state of the deal environment in Des Moines. Well, the Register's blog system kicked back the post and told me to revise the word "bullshit." So, I changed it to "Bulls**t." So I guess it's now safe for the kids to read. George Carlin, forgive me.

25 Connections and building on

Adam Steen visited my Drake University Entrepreneurial Leadership class this morning and hit one out of the park. I'm 2-for-2 in signing up all-star guest speakers (IMHO...god, I can't believe I just used that IM lingo).

Adam is the type of enterprising young person (i.e., younger than me) that Central Iowa, Des Moines in particular, strives to attract. He grew up here; went off to college; played a little baseball in the Phillies system, got cut, parlayed a contact into a job selling insurance in Minneapolis (yuck); got fired (yahoo!), and badgered his way into a spot with a new private investment banking firm with his dad (who refused to hire him at first). Now he has his own business, 25Connections (25 players on a major league roster), a unique take on marketing and networking for success.

Tenacious? You bet. Obnoxious? No way. He is so damn nice and enthusiastic I wasn't sure I could like him. He connected with me after I suggested that we needed a little more bullshit and deal commotion in Des Moines. Geez, you'da thought he'd never heard the word uttered in public before. But I now consider him a mentor to me; he brings me fresh insight and a completely different perspective to looking at deals and networking.

"Enthusiastic?" you ask? "Prove it" you say. Well watch the video where he tries his hand at bull riding:

Ya gotta love it when he demands a do-over. Way to go Adam.

Here are the Five Steps* to becoming an effective entrepreneurial leader he shared with us:

+Learn how to fail.
We all get cut from the team now and then.
One must accept the inevitable defeats, build on them, and then accept success.

+Be an Active Thinker.
Think critically.

+Be Curious
Read everything you can.
You never know where you might find the next opportunity.

+Be skeptical.
Don't believe everything you read.
Question assumptions

+Have no fear.
Ride the bull.
Get in the game.

Adam's mission is to create success for others. He's on his way.

*I added the links to jazz things up a bit and to expand the network. I'm sure Adam won't mind.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Party Bus Driver

Wow. I'm "teaching" Entrepreneurial Leadership at Drake University in Des Moines. I put "teaching" in quotes because it feels more like I am guiding students to discover on their own what makes and what it takes to be lead an entrepreneurial venture.

Anyway, why the "Wow!" Well, yesterday, my first guest presenter, Alexander Grgurich, provided a terrific guide to how to drive an entrepreneurial venture. While an undergrad, Alexander bootstrapped some $, bought a bus and turned it into a party bus. Half a dozen buses and a couple of acquisitions later he has built a solid little company, all at the ripe old age of 22, and is looking for new opportunities. Also while an undergrad, he ran for mayor of Norwalk, a small town near Des Moines, and came within 6 votes of winning the election; he turned that bump in the road into a successful run for Norwalk's city council. (hmmm, do I see a trend of small town politics
leading to bigger and better things? I did not ask him if he can field dress a moose, but I'd bet he could learn if he had to).

Alexander and I share an interest in co-working; we also believe in giving back to the community. I thought he'd bring a unique perspective to the 40 students in my class, and he graciously agreed to talk to them early yesterday morning. Here are some highlights from his excellent presentation:

+You never really know where the next big thing* will come from, but you must keep an eye on what is going on in the world. Alexander recommends Springwise, a very cool business trends site.

Tom Davenport discusses this in his blog at Harvard Business Publishing. Thanks to CrowdSourcing Directory for the eye image.

+Entrepreneurial Leadership involves innovation, risk and persistence.

Without innovation progress will grind to a halt.
It doesn't require a new product or gizmo;
it can be a new, better way of doing something
Life is hard; it involves risks.
The key is to protect your downside; try not to lose if all if you fail
If you fail, try again, and again, and again.
He was elected only after 2 failed tries.

+He closed with 3 tips; I'll call them Grgurich's Guide to Successful Entrepreneurship:

1. Understand who you are
Put aside all distractions and identify your strengths and weaknesses (he drew pictures).

2. Admit you don't know everything, and ask for help when you need it.
3. Find mentors.

Great stuff. Keep an eye on this guy.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

My Entrepreneurial Philosophy

I love Wordle. Here is what I got when I plugged a statement of my entrepreneurial philosophy into this little word cloud generator. Pretty cool; but I realize that I need to emphasize other words and concepts to really drive home my belief that entrepreneurs make things happen.

I think this one by Jackson Miller is a better image of what the author was trying to say (and what entrepreneurship involves):

I am going to have my Drake University Entrepreneurial Leadership class use this delightful tool to develop their own views of what it takes and what it means to lead an entrepreneurial venture. Kudos to Mike Sansone for introducing me to Wordle.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Adam Steen Gets It

Had a couple cups o' joe with young Adam Steen, founder and principal of 25Connections yesterday. 25C is "a highly networked business development firm that matches the right resource at the right time..." Adam is all about collaborating; his effort is founded on the concept that the right connections can and will improve anyone's business. I refer to him as younger because he insists on referring to me as an experienced executive; true enough, but I like to think that I've got the energy and juice of somebody like him. But I wanted to get with him because I need the fresh eyes and insights he can bring to the deal business. Some, like Andy Headworth at Sirona Consulting, call it reverse mentoring; whatever it is, I value his input and his listening. And not only has he realized the power of the network, he has figured out how to make networking mutually lucrative for him and his clients by helping them make the right connections. Iowa should hire him as the poster "child" for recruiting young professionals.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

American Food Venture Forum Gets It Too

Des Moines will be host to a new forum in October: The American Food Venture Forum. The brainchild of Jude Conway and Hopewell Ventures, a venture fund focused on innovative mid-west companies, the Forum will bring together innovative food and ag-tech companies, venture funds, investment bankers, like yours truly, and other parties interested in emerging food tech opportunities. It is not limited to Midwest companies or investors. IT IS NOT LIMITED TO MIDWEST COMPANIES OR INVESTORS. Did you hear me? That is key. There are only 3 million people in Iowa. A significant number of them work for the State; another big chunk work on the farm, and many still live and work in small towns. Iowa may lack the critical mass to support the Forum on its own, BUT it is in the perfect place in time and geography to host such a gathering. AND instead of trying to go it alone, Jude and his colleagues have coordinated their kick-off to lead into the $1 million World Food Prize festivities. That's collaboration.
That's what I'm talkin' about.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Smarty Pig Gets It

Just a quick follow-up to my prior post with Business Edge.

Jon Gaskell (former local publishing gadfly) and Michael Ferrari, founders of SmartyPig get the collaboration concept. Their innovative on-line savings/social media site is all about collaborating; check out Erica Adams's blog and see for yourself. Moreover, they tapped their extensive local contacts to get this very cool site going. AND, they are getting national exposure. Anya Kamenetz features SmartyPig in her article on innovative banking programs in the September issue of Fast Company, one of my favorite biz mags.

We need more of this kind of stuff around here. Way to go fellas!

Can you teach it?

Starting next week I will be "teaching" entrepreneurial leadership at Drake University in Des Moines, IA. I first taught entrepreneurial management at a local community college 7 or 8 years ago. Before that I would have argued you can't teach it and it didn't belong in a college curriculum. Although I have yet to research the question, my personal experience made me a convert. Most of my students were really interested in starting their own businesses, and a surprising number did so. Although not all those students were traditional college age, the ones that started businesses were young. Their ventures included buying a bar (no mean feat for two guys under 21), opening a photography studio, sewing custom clothing, and starting an event planning business.

Just as importantly, all the students were required to think critically about the potential of small businesses and to do some self-analysis. It was challenging and fun for all of us, and at a minimum, after examining numerous real life successes and failures, the students came away with a greater appreciation for what is involved in starting a new business and succeeding with it.

Many schools around the U.S. have entrepreneurship programs today. It still is not clear if graduates of those programs start more businesses or are more successful. As Carl Schramm, President of the Kauffman Foundation, eloquently argues in his book, The Entrepreneurial Imperative, however, "Our colleges should be at the very heart of entrepreneurial capitalism..." The Foundation has recently published a report, Entrepreneurship in American Higher Education, arguing that entrepreneurship, as a "dominant force in contemporary America", is properly incorporated into the undergraduate curriculum.

On the other hand, as one of my favorite entrepreneurship bloggers, Kelly Spors who blogs for the Wall Street Journal, recently reported, entrepreneurship programs may not lead directly to local economic development. On the other hand, Dr. Jeffrey Cornwall, of Belmont University in Tennessee, argues they can and do lead to new businesses and new jobs.

I believe they are a good starting point, and they can't hurt (provided students "continue" to learn to read, and write and think. But that's another story...

What do you think?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Creative Commotion

I've just agreed to incorporate regular blog posts about entrepreneurship and start-ups into the Des Moines Register's business blogs. I'll be collaborating with a couple of other experienced (old) business guys, Terry Myers and Barry Pace and one marketing whiz, Adam Steen (young). The Register's format and protocol are not the greatest, but I believe it is important to get more people and other bloggers involved. My first post, with a tip o' the hat to Guy Kawasaki, a start-up guru(at left), and Mike Sansone, blogmeister extraordianire (at right), follows:

I am an investment banker, reformed lawyer, adjunct professor, investor, father, husband, golfer, hunter. And, oh yeah, I'm from New Jersey; I don't remember which exit, but you wouldn't know it anyway. My goal is to stir up the pot of deals, entrepreneurs and prospective entrepreneurs, first in Des Moines and, then, spreading out from there. I want the pot to be bigger, and it needs more than corn and pork.

We need more deals here; we need more people trying to do deals, looking at deals, talking about deals, investing in deals. We need much more collaboration. In more than 20 years as an investment banker for small companies, I have never completed a deal (and I have been involved in raising millions of dollars for dozens of companies) without collaborating with other highly motivated people: entrepreneurs, investors, venture capitalists, and investment bankers, as well as the occasional kook or crook.

If we were in Los Angeles everybody and his uncle would be pushing a script. If we were in New York, every person we met would have a deal and a business plan. Here, in the middle of the country, the place where we elect the President, the crossroads of America, the home of the most fertile soil in the WORLD, nobody talks about deals. There is lot of money here, especially in the midst of the ethanol boom, and a lot of talent. But almost nobody wants to share their business dreams. We need more commotion, more conversations, more arguments. It is as if most of us are too shy or too embarrassed or just too damn humble to promote our version of the new next best thing.

It is time for that to change. It is time for us to change the world.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Still new to blogging, I have not shared any lists of my own, but Wendy Bounds provides a great starting point for entrepreneurs and budding entrepreneurs in her Wall Street Journal column of June 13, 15 Entrepreneur Blogs Worth Reading. Drew McClellan's The Marketing Minute, a quick and easy blog on marketing tips, gets a nice nod in Wendy's article. Of course, my favorite go to blog is Guy Kawasaki's How to Change the World. I am going to use Kawasaki's book, The Art of the Start in an entrepreneurial leadership class I am teaching this fall at Drake University in Des Moines; I am also using Carl Schramm's The Entrepreneurial Imperative. Schramm is president of the Kauffman Foundation which promotes entrepreneurship and training for entrepreneurs, and he argues compellingly that America's entrepreneurship is an economic miracle that will change the world. I like the the concurrent themes in Kawasaki and Schramm of changing the world.

As I continue to wrestle with the loss of local serial entrepreneur and all-around good guy, Jim Goodman, I constantly take heart in his unwavering belief that he could change the world and make it better right here in Des Moines, Iowa. As Jim liked to say "I don't what tomorrow may bring, but I am looking forward to it." He made things happen, and I believe that characteristic is what sets successful entrepreneurs apart form the rest. They make things happen. Another local example of this is Amadeo Rossi and his colleagues at the Des Moines Music Coalition. They have set their sights on making Des Moines a center for alternative music like Austin, TX. And after just a couple of years of blood, sweat and tears, they
have pulled together an amazing music festival with The Flaming Lips headlining the first day and The Roots out front the second day. Driven by passion and a real desire to make Des Moines a better place, they are off to a great start. I was really impressed by Amadeo and I hope to get to know him better (and maybe write about him; he has agreed to be guest in my class this fall).

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


As I continue to struggle with the recent death of my friend Jim Goodman, I return over and over to the notion of perspective. Sometimes I feel like an early artist: everything I see at this moment is big and dominates the foreground; everything else, if it is even included, is small and in the background. Put differently, I could get somewhere in the forest of life if it weren't for the damned trees.

In speaking with another accomplished friend and entrepreneur yesterday, we discussed perspective in two contexts: the economy and our children.

First, he is convinced that the U.S. economy is going to hell in a hand basket.

While these are trying times and while we are looking at a potentially unique combination of rising fuel and food costs and declining home prices, something he distinguishes from stagflation by calling it "deinflation", I suggested we should keep in mind how today's economy compares to history. Unemployment remains low, interest rates remain very low, prices of certain commodities: gold, oil, corn, are high, they are not at all time highs (adjusted for inflation), the U. S. economy continues to grow, and, (and this a a big AND), the global economy is unlike any ever seen. Can things get worse? Yes. Will they? I do not know, but I expect them to. China is on a collision course with Adam Smith's invisible hand. Worldwide terrorism remains a potential major disruptor. BUT, I believe innovation and opportunity will win out. Change is in the air in the U.S. and that ought to be good. BTW, my friend is from Canada.

Second, he mentioned a recent trip with his daughter to visit U.S. colleges. He describes their migration and the big business of U.S. universities. Apparently there are more than 2,500 colleges and universities in the U.S. versus a grand total of about 35 in Canada. Canada is about one-tenth the size of the U.S. , so this ratio appears to be out of whack. (Set aside the price comparison of all Canadian universities are public versus the incredible cost of private universities in the States where value does not appear to be represented in the pricing). Again, I suggest, it is us, the children and grandchildren of the Greatest generation, who have lost perspective. Do we need so many universities? Probably not, and the market will take care of that. Are we getting our money's worth in tuition? Often not, but that is our fault. Do we value education properly? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If so, do we compensate our teachers properly? Some of them, but more than compensation, I think we can do a better job of recognizing the good ones. Again I am not confident of the answers, but: the U.S. continues to lead the world in innovation. While many students may be behind international counterparts, everyone wants to come here or at least do business with us. As my friend Kevin, WarriorBard, puts it: you don't see anyone swimming to Cuba. Don't get me wrong; there is much that needs fixin'. I just believe we will fix it, and that my children will have great, different, but still great, opportunities to live their dreams.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

An empty day

Here is another version of my thoughts on the death of Jim Goodman. I used Wordle to create this. Thanks to Mike Sansone at ConverStations for the link. I am still haunted by the emptiness of Jim's passing. Perhaps others would like to help fill the void by creating a Wordle tribute to him. It's fast and easy. One hint: the more times you include a word the bigger it will appear in relation to the other words in your list.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A good man gone

James Goodman
A good man can be a good friend, a successful businessman, a good father, a good husband, an entrepreneur, a leader, active in his community, innovative, and committed.
Jim Goodman was all these things. He made things happen.
He died this morning while participating in the Hy-Vee Triathlon in West Des Moines, IA.
He is survived by his wife Lisa and three children; all of whom he loved and lived to be with.
Countless others will miss him.
Des Moines will not be the same without him.
I miss him.

Friday, May 09, 2008


Last Friday I made a pilgrimage to see and hear Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha in person. Despite the derisory comments of my dear wife:

Ooh, maybe you can touch the hem of his robe. Maybe you can wash his feet. I mean, c’mon, what’s the big deal; you can read all his comments afterward and watch it on YouTube too. It’s just like the time you interrupted Pat Riley at that bar on the Upper East Side,[1]

I made the 130 mile trip in about two hours.[2] Although the whole Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A: $127,200) thing was a little cultish, it was a great experience. For anyone in the finance business or interested in the stock market, it is a must. 31,000 happy (except for a few members of the Klamath tribe[3]) Berkshire Hathaway investors crammed the Qwest Center in Omaha to listen to Buffett and Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman hold forth. Heck, 60,000 people crowded into Yankee Stadium to see the Pope , and he’s only been on the job a few years. The two senior execs (and I mean senior; Buffett is 77 and Munger is 84!) respectfully responded to unscripted, unfiltered audience questions. Questioners included a 9 year old and a 12 year old, a community college teacher who got the biggest laugh of the day, a group of Chinese CEOs, a lot of Germans, a housewife, finance students, and at least one devout Christian. There were no hotel vacancies within 60 miles of the Qwest Center. I came away from the whole event with an optimistic outlook for my future and the future of my children.

I was the guest of my good friend from Birmingham, Alabama, John T. Bird, author of a biography of Twin Killing: The Bill Mazeroski Story and a new book titled Fuchsia Shock[4], a guide to 151 commonly misspelled words and how to remember to spell them correctly. He first became a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder some years back when he accepted a share of BRK stock in lieu of a cash payment for editing the first edition of Of Permanent Value: The Story of Warren Buffett. He later secured financing for the Mazeroski book with that one share, started his own publishing company, Esmerelda Press, and today is the happy owner of a BRK B share. Small world.

Now, I have attended plenty of annual meetings, and read about many more. None celebrated, and most failed to acknowledge, the shareholders as Berkshire does. Remember Robert Nardelli, former CEO of Home Depot and former candidate for GE CEO? He simply refused to take shareholder questions at his last Home Depot (HD: $29.72) Annual Meeting and many members of HD’s Board of Directors chose to stay home and avoid all contact with owners of their company. Granted, Buffett and his sidekick, Munger, fielded mostly softball questions and rarely missed a chance to promote Sees candy, Wrigley gum and Coke as the keys to longevity. The entire Board was in attendance[5], though, as were many of the managers of BRK’s portfolio companies. And Buffett responded to every question; although Charlie often stuck to his trademark line of “I have nothing to add.” When Munger did have something to add, however, he pulled no punches. Buffett was generally optimistic about opportunities for Berkshire and for the country; Munger was less sanguine and clearly frustrated by some of the “stupidest” things he has ever encountered: the ethanol craze and the subprime mortgage debacle which he described as “sweeping bums off Skid Row and giving them mortgages.”

Buffett looked a little frail when he walked by in the Exhibition hall where about a dozen of BRK’s portfolio companies exhibited their wares. He was hale and hearty on stage though, and neither he nor Munger missed a beat during their 6+ hours’ of interaction with investors. One must wonder how long they will be around: in fact, the first question centered on succession plans. Without offering details Buffett repeated prior statements that they have identified a number of able successors and indicated that the company would like break down the functions he serves into a t least two or three distinct positions. But for now, Buffett and Munger are clearly in control.

Following are excerpts from the Q&A session.


Berkshire will not be able to sustain the double digit returns it has generated to date; the universe of potential deals for them is just too small (because of the size needed to move the needle).

The country will be better for our children and grandchildren.

If you could buy 10% of one person, who would you buy? Surround yourself with that kind of person.

Nobody has proposed a windfall profits tax on corn or soy beans.

All 3 presidential candidates are good; the country will prevail.

If someone walked into this arena weighing 300-350 lbs, I’d know he was fat…we’re looking for fat companies; that is, companies fat with potential.[6] We stick to what we understand…I’ve never done a deal where after the fact more due diligence would have helped avoid a loss, but it might have cost us a few winners.

We need a strong head of regulation, not more agencies or a more complex regulatory structure.

Suppose your dad told you could have any car you want, but it would be the only car you ever got. You’d take care of that car. You only get one body and one mind; take care of it (as he snacks on Sees chocolate and Coke).

A brand is a promise. (Hard not to be impressed at the selection of brand names present in the exhibition hall: Fruit of the Loom, Dairy Queen, Justin Boots, Acme Brick, Ginsu Knives, Geico, Sees Chocolate, Mars/Wrigley = a real slice of Americana).

They are going to Europe: Germany, U.K and a couple others to get the word out that BRK is interested in buying family owned businesses with strong management. “We are the best place for those companies to go.”

At the average age of 80, we're (Buffett and Munger) aging at the average rate of only 1 1/4% per year. That's a lot better than younger people.


Use up coal first; oil and gas have other and more important uses.

Ethanol is one of the stupidest things he’s seen; not quite as bad as sweeping bums of Skid Row and giving them mortgages, but close.

In the end we will be left with only the sun; we should be developing ways to tap into it.

“Assets beyond reach” Munger used this phrase to describe the derivative securities many financial institutions carry on their balance sheets. They are only good until reached for, then they recede just beyond the grasp of the institution.

I do not think we'd have this mess if women were running all the financial institutions[7].

CEOS have a moral duty to be underpaid; they should refuse to accept disproportionate compensation.

I have nothing more to add.

[1] Okay, giving props to Riley was a little weird, but She happily waited on the Mall in D.C. to watch the Pope drive by; She didn’t complain the only time I cut class in law school to buy Bruce Springsteen tickets. She gets all googly when she sees big name in horse showing (actually the Boss hangs out at those too).

[2] Just in time to hit the middle of Omaha’s short, but intense Friday evening rush hour. Where were all those people going in such a hurry? Nothing is more than 15 minutes away in Omaha.

[3] They were protesting a hydro power facility; Dave Sokol, CEO of MidAmerican Energy handled their questions with dignity and aplomb. He’s on the short list to succeed Buffett.

[4] I bet you did not know how to spell “fuchsia” which is derived from the name of the scientist Fuchs.

[5] Including Bill Gates, 2nd richest man in the world, made me wonder momentarily about the low level of security.

[6] Referring to BRK’s PetroChina trade, Buffett explained that after reading the annual report and based on his knowledge of the oil & gas business, he concluded that PetroChina was worth about $100 BB, but the market cap was only $35 BB. BRK invested $500MM and cashed out for $4 BB four tears later. It didn’t matter if the real value was $95BB or $105BB; just like it doesn’t matter if the guy weighs 300 or 350 pounds; PetroChina was fat with potential and skinny on risk.

[7] He actually said this at the Wesco Annual meeting the Wednesday after the BRK meeting, but it illustrates his frustration with the mismanagement he sees as the root cause of the mortgage mess.

Friday, April 18, 2008


A recent NY Times article covered a new venture in New York City, In Good Company, a work space and consulting practice set up by two enterprising women: Amy Abrams and Adelaide Fives. Coffee shops in Des Moines have been packed lately; I had to wait for a parking space to open up the other day at Caribou Coffee, and they are not conducive to getting much work done; great for 1st meetings and catching up, but tricky for discussing proprietary stuff or focused conversation. IGC offers a better approach: rent some space and they'll give you the coffee. Instead of lattes and chai by the cup, IGC offers Internet access, phone service, and copier by the work space, with conference and meeting rooms available a la carte or on a subscription base. It's like a health-club membership for solo-preneurs, home-office escapees, and workers on the run who crave some adult interaction and an address away from home, but do not need a $600-$800 monthly nut. Amy and Adelaide designed a terrific space; they offer networking events, AND they provide consulting to their tenants, who are really more like members. Their deal is women-only. I really like the concept and think it will work here in Des Moines on a co-ed basis. I've scouted out a great space downtown. Is anybody interested? Annual memberships will be around $250-$300; monthly deals will be available ($300-$350 per with bundled access to work space and conference/meeting rooms); first come -first served and reserved space available for reasonable fees for other members. Mail drop-off and delivery; 24/7 secure access; kitchen/lounge; good coffee from a local shop; wi-fi; copier/fax; lots of energy. AND, small business consulting advice and coaching from me and a partner or two.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Kissin' frogs

If you are going to network, and who doesn't these days, you better keep your stuff up to date. I was just about to sit down to lunch with Rotary colleagues (yes, Rotary, an organization of people who make things happen)when a long time friend asked what I was up to. When I told him he mentioned an opportunity that had opened up at his organization and encouraged me to get a proposal, in IMMEDIATELY. Well, I keep a couple versions of my c.v. and business description handy, but I had not looked at them months. As a result, I spent a hectic Thursday afternoon updating them, and an even more hectic Friday morning playing catcht up.

Now, the opportunity arose someplace I should have been watching, but that's okay; networking lead me to it anyway, but I was not ready to pounce (like those AT&T commercials, my moment might have come...and gone to somebody else). Too often small businesses prepare one pitch, practice one approach, and then whiff when a chance comes in from left field. Consider modularizing your marketing materials; keep several c.v.s, each tailored for a different audience, up to date; have your advisors review them (you must have some advisors), and maintain a ready short list of references. Update everything regularly; add new deals; refer to new publications or white papers; drop old or irrelevant items.

This is not rocket science, but how many of you are ready? I tell clients that they will kiss a lot of frogs before they find their prince. To borrow from the Boss, you better put your makeup on and fix your hair up never know when your prince might come and take you to Atlantic City.