The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Editor’s note: The man with a plan…to be an author

It’s one of the occupational hazards of being a business editor at a place like The Washington Post that you get pitched on a lot of books, especially the self-help variety. You know the type: How to be a successful entrepreneur. The essential guide to launching a new venture. Twenty-five habits of people who work four-day workweeks.

Search for “start a business” on Amazon and you’ll be served up nearly 16,000 titles. There are literally 1,252 books on writing a business plan alone.

Which made me curious why Hal Shelton felt the world needed one more. Shelton, 73, a veteran business executive and venture investor from North Bethesda, is a mentor to countless entrepreneurs in the Washington area.

Surely, he’s steered a more than a few away from trying to compete in a crowded space.

Shelton chuckles.

“I asked myself that.”

So he did the same analysis he asks his erstwhile entrepreneurs to undertake. His conclusion: Too many books offered a one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter approach. Too many promised big results with little evidence. And perhaps the biggest weakness: The vast majority of people who write such books seems to have another agenda. Maybe they want to use their prose to snag a speaking gig, win a consulting engagement, or brand themselves.

He thought he could do better by taking a more interactive, workbook approach, helping entrepreneurs think through the essentials of their business to see if the results would add up to what they intended.

Shelton is no newcomer to the subject. Born in New York, he grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey and went to Carnegie Mellon to pursue an engineering degree. While there, he took some business courses and realized that, while he liked the discipline of engineering, he was more interested in the totality of how a business works.

After Carnegie Mellon, he obtained his MBA from the University of Chicago and landed at the what was then known as the Sun Oil Co., in a finance job. At the time, the industry was beginning to look around for ways to diversify beyond oil and Shelton ended up overseeing many of the new subsidiaries.

He was no desk jockey. He spent a fair amount of time in the field, seeing the work for himself, even if it meant traveling to an oil rig in the middle of the ocean.

After 27 years, he decided he was ready for a change. He came to Washington courtesy of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, where in the fine print lawmakers gave the green light for privatizing a part of the Energy Department that provided enriched uranium to nuclear power plant operators.

The next five years proved to be a hectic time, as Shelton, serving as chief financial officer, pursued a dual strategy of seeking a private buyer for the unit or creating a stand-alone company through an initial public offering of stock.

“As CFO, I quarterbacked the whole process,” Shelton said.

Eventually, the IPO route proved to be the most lucrative option for the federal government and the United States Enrichment Corp. formally became a private company in 1998. Shelton was on hand to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

“It was the largest-ever privatization of a government entity, bigger than Conrail,” he recalled.

Shelton stayed another five years to stand up the company, before finally deciding he was ready to retire.

“I never worked so hard in my life,” he said.

The lesson he took from his career at Sun Oil and USEC was that plans matter.

“I have done a lot of planning through my career. Business plans. Strategic plans, Budgets. Proposals. I observed that the better the plan, the better the results tended to be,” he said.

That’s a lesson he now delivers regularly as a volunteer counselor at the D.C. chapter of SCORE, an association once known by its more formal name, the Service Corps of Retired Executives. In that role, he advises small business people on starting and growing their enterprises.

It’s much the same role he plays as an angel investor, outside of SCORE, quizzing entrepreneurs on the plans for their businesses.

At SCORE alone, Shelton said he has probably worked with about 1,000 entrepreneurs since retiring, a great many bursting with enthusiasm who nonetheless had given less thought to the strategy and tactics they would need to obtain their goals.

He wondered how he could reach even more people.

“I can talk to folks at SCORE one at a time. I can talk to people though my angel investing, one at a time. But I started thinking ‘how can I extend my reach?’ “

With the nudging of friends and colleagues, he decided a book might provide him a larger megaphone.

“So I followed my own advice and created a business plan,” Shelton said.

He defined his audience and figured they prefered to get their information online. So he decided to sell through Amazon. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post). He thought the cover should be colorful to stand out among all the offerings

A work of art it ain’t and the prose is hardly Shakespeare, but the results to date have not been too shabby. In three years, he’s sold 11,000 copies, already showing he can reach more people than he could doing one-on-one counseling. His 214-page tome is currently sitting No. 50 in its category, with a 4.7 out of 5 score from reviewers.

Just as importantly, as a self-published author, he’s made his money back.

“The margins are really small,” Shelton said.

He’s not done yet. He’s formulating a plan to market his book to college professors, offering to teach a class for free if they spread the gospel of good business planning. A few, at schools like Berkeley, Iowa and Purdue have already taken him up on his offer.

He’s encouraged enough by the response so far to start writing a second edition. He’s got some more wisdom to pass on.