Business Rx: Advice from seasoned entrepreneurs

April 10, 2011

This column has introduced readers to lots of entrepreneurs over the past year. Most can attest that it takes a bit more than just a good idea to build a thriving business.

On April 1, a crowd of nearly 600 at the University of Maryland heard some of the secrets of success from three entrepreneurs who have lived it at the 2011 Entrepreneurship Invitational: Steve Case, former chairman of AOL, investor, philanthropist and chairman of the Obama administration’s entrepreneurship initiative, the Startup America Partnership; Kevin Plank, founder and chief executive of the sports apparel firm Under Armour; and Ed Snider, chairman of Comcast-Spectacor, the Philadelphia-based sports and entertainment firm that owns hockey’s Philadelphia Flyers and the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, as well as the two franchises’ downtown arena, the Wells Fargo Center.

Here are some of their insights:

•Be patient. After seven years, AOL only had 187,000 subscribers. Seven years later, the company had 20 million subscribers. What some regarded as an overnight success was really a decade in the making. “If you are trying to attack a big problem and you have a big idea — a change-the-world idea — rarely do they happen overnight,” said Case. “You have to have the perseverance to see it through the ups and downs.”

•Embrace America’s culture of entrepreneurship. “If you look at our history as a nation, starting with our founding fathers, they were basically entrepreneurs,” Case said. “They were willing to get on boats and sail across the ocean because they had an idea, and they had a passion about that particular idea. The whole growth and success of our nation over the last couple of hundred years has been a similar kind of phenomena.”

With the Startup America Partnership, he and the Obama administration are pushing this success to continue. “It’s not just about starting a business – it really is about ensuring that our nation has a great future as the innovator.”

•Trust your instincts. “The ideas that you are incubating right now — they can be great companies,” Case said. “You shouldn’t think of this as a passing fad.”

Snider echoed Case’s sentiment: “Follow your gut if you have an idea; often the reward will be worth the risk.” When the National Hockey League was expanding in 1967, Snider thought Philadelphia would be a great place for a team.

•Don’t be afraid to take risks. “If you don’t do anything, you can’t do anything wrong,” Snider said. When no one wanted to invest in his idea to bring hockey to Philly, Snider put his house up as collateral and finally convinced a few small investors. Even though the team was voted “least likely to succeed,” it won the Stanley Cup less than a decade later and cemented its place among the country’s great hockey franchises.

•Play to your strengths. “Do what you do well and grow it,” Snider said. After the success of the Flyers, Snider grew and diversified his management company to include arena, concessions and media management. Comcast-Spectacor also owns the national Comcast SportsNet television network.

•Communicate effectively. “The companies that win communicate the best,” Plank said. “The ones who make it are the ones who focus and truly commit themselves.”

•Make a great product and tell a great story. Plank strives for Under Armour to be what he considers the pinnacle in branding. “The best merchants aren’t predicting what’s cool, they are dictating what’s cool.”

•Stay true to your core business. “The worst thing you can do is focus on everything but your core business. It is easy to get caught up with other things,” Plank said.

With Under Armour’s growth and success, the company has branched out to many different products. While the company holds its high-quality performance standards to all products, at the end of the day, Plank says, he reminds himself of Under Armour’s core business: “Don’t forget to sell shirts and shoes,” he said.

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