In almost any conversation with entrepreneurs, the passion for what they do and the energy and vision that propel them readily comes across. But it takes more than that to be successful in the face of competition from not only large, long-established companies with more resources but also hundreds of other creative, nimble entrepreneurs and startups. The annual Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year program reveals some key success strategies used by the world’s top entrepreneurs.
Central themes in their strategies are the sources of advice for their decisions and the teams they build around them.
Tarkan Maner, president and CEO of Wyse Technology (recently acquired by Dell), is the award winner in the Technology category in this year’s Entrepreneur of the Year program for the northern California region. When asked what traits he considers most valuable in making wise decisions, he said he focuses on “operational perfection, customer/partner intimacy, and IP innovation.” He adds that the key to innovation is having a “very passionate team, which we build with great detail.”
How to turn great ideas into a successful business
Ernie Cortes, audit partner in Ernst & Young’s San Jose, Calif. Office, who has served as director of the E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year program in the northern California region since 2009, says the winning entrepreneurs share a key characteristic of taking quick action and not being afraid to fail.
“They’re risk-takers who learn from their mistakes and get up and keep trying until somebody forces them to stop,” says Cortes. “But the most successful entrepreneurs also are very good at identifying what they’re not good at and know how to attract the right people to complement and build out their team.”
He points out that that the ability to attract the right people is something that less-successful entrepreneurs “struggle with mightily.” Never short on ideas for solving the world’s problems, Cortes says some entrepreneurs keep running with their ideas and fail multiple times because they don’t have the right advisors.
“Entrepreneurs are usually well rounded, so they’re great idea people. But taking a great idea to the next level, getting it into the right channels and growing the business requires advisors to guide the entrepreneur on putting the right team in place so the company can take advantage of great ideas,” says Cortes. He says most of the great innovators and leaders in the world supplemented their ideas somewhere along the line with advice from individuals who are more business focused.
Burton Goldfield, CEO of HR services provider TriNet, is a finalist in the Technology Services category in the northern California region in the 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year program. With more than 25 years of experience in technology management positions, his advice to young entrepreneurs is to get a mentor.
“Droves of business leaders in the Silicon Valley area have ‘been there, done that,” and many successful CEOs are more than happy to help young entrepreneurs build great companies,” Goldfield says. “Tap your extended network to identify possible mentors and ask for introductions. Build an ongoing and mutually beneficial relationship with your mentor rather than just tapping him or her during times of crisis.”
Michael Skok, a general partner at North Bridge Venture Partners, has been a software entrepreneur and CEO for 21 years and a venture capitalist for 10 years. He recently conducted a Startup Secrets workshop series at the Harvard iLab. He believes the biggest challenge many entrepreneurs face is managing the balance between execution and vision. “My advice for avoiding this pitfall is to find a very narrow segment on which to base initial execution and build on success there rather than starting too broad and having to cut back,” he says.
Skok says the best young entrepreneurs try to get tools rather than just answers for their challenges. Like the proverbial situation of teaching a man to fish rather than giving him a fish, Skok provides workshop attendees with tools in the form of frameworks.
“These frameworks empower entrepreneurs to be successful in making decisions,” he says. “The frameworks recognize various ways to deal with many issues that entrepreneurs have to face in building a company — things that they have never done before.” An example of a framework for hiring “A” people would involve three A’s – ability, aptitude and attitude. This framework helps entrepreneurs identify people who are willing to adapt to change, a crucial trait for employees in startups.
But not all advisory sources for successful entrepreneurs are business leaders. Tarkan Maner says his mother was his role model for all of his business and personal life. “My mom taught me about all values; she taught me about passion, love, objectivity, hard work and humility.”
Finally, in the levers to pull when building a successful business, Goldfield advises entrepreneurs not to forget that employees are one of the best marketing assets. They interact with customers, talk to their family about work and spread the word among their personal and professional networks.
“Employees are brand ambassadors. But don’t take it for granted that each employee understands your company’s value proposition,” he warns. “Ask each staff member to give the company’s ‘elevator pitch.’ How similar are their responses? Having everyone aligned in terms of the company’s message is crucial for building the framework of a solid brand.”
Making an impact while young
Cortes observes that this year’s mix of entrepreneur nominees includes a demographic change. “They are making greater impact at younger ages,” he says. Most of the 2012 finalists are under the age of 30 or were under the age of 30 when they had their big break. Examples include:
- Larry Augustin, CEO of SugarCRM, founded VA Linux Systems while he was a 30-year-old PhD student at Stanford
- Matt Monahan and Brian Monahan of Inflection are brothers aged 28 and 25. Brian left a full ride at Harvard at 19 to build the big data platform that would become Inflection. Matt started an eBook company while at USC, then sold the company and dropped out to join his brother in founding Inflection. They just sold part of Inflection to Ancestry.com for $100 million.
- Matt Mullenweg, founder of Automattic, is 28. He dropped out of school and created WordPress.com, which became part of Automattic.
- David Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, founded Launch Media at 26 and led the company through an acquisition by Yahoo! by the time he was 30.
- Hubert Thielbot, founder and CEO of online gaming company Curse.com, which recently raised $11 million, is only 27 and this is his first job.
Entrepreneurs “give back”
Successful entrepreneurs also focus beyond their own success and “give back” by mentoring the next generation of entrepreneurs. For example, Tarkan Maner was a key participant in the NASSCOM Product Conclave 2011 in India, a must-attend event for software product startup companies. And Matthew and Brian Monahan frequently blog about entrepreneurship and plan to write books after their next big business success.
From regional to World Entrepreneur of the Year
Ernst & Young founded the Entrepreneur of the Year program 26 years ago in Milwaukee to honor people making a difference in the city because of the jobs they created by forming businesses there. The program quickly expanded to 26 cities and regions throughout the United States. The regional winners then compete later for the U.S. Entrepreneur of the Year award, and the recipient of the U.S. award will then compete in Monte Carlo against representatives from more than 50 countries to be named the World Entrepreneur of the Year.
Last year the northern California region had a national winner in LinkedIn, who will compete as the U.S. representative this month in the world competition.
2012 Entrepreneur of the Year Finalists and Winners (Northern California region)
About the 2012 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Program
The judges evaluated information on 130 nominees this year. The 2012 nominees had an average (mean) year-over-year (2010-2011) headcount growth rate of 36 percent, with an average (mean) headcount of 236 employees. Awards are given to finalists who demonstrate extraordinary success in the areas of innovation, financial performance, and personal commitment to their businesses and communities. Winners were honored at a gala on June 2 at The Fairmont San Francisco and will compete in the national awards in November. The overall national U.S. winner then moves on to compete for the World Entrepreneur of the Year title.
Nominee criteria include having had responsibility for the financial performance of the company for at least two years prior to nomination. An independent panel of judges (comprised of CEOs and board members of various companies, former award recipients, service providers and private equity venture capitalists) determined finalists and award recipients.
The program is produced by Ernst & Young and nationally sponsored in the United States by SAP America and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Sponsors of the Northern California region award program include ADP, The Big Picture Film & Video Arts Inc., Manpower Group, Smart Business, Orrick, RoseRyan, SAP and Scherzer International.
Tarkan Maner has been president and CEO at Wyse Technology, recently acquired by Dell, since 2007 and also serves as chief customer advocate. Prior to joining Wyse, he led marketing, product management, business development and strategic business alliance initiatives at Computer Associates, where he was instrumental in developing its corporate vision, strategy and brand. Earlier, at IBM, he led global product marketing for its Internet Security, Network Computing and eCommerce divisions.
Burton Goldfield is CEO at TriNet. He has more than 25 years of experience in sales, operational leadership and technology management positions and has a reputation as an accomplished, goal-driven leader. He is known for driving product innovation and has impacted the TriNet client experience with the addition of 22 new products and services. Since his arrival, Burton has more than doubled TriNet’s revenue and has grown TriNet’s client base from 2,000 to 5,000.
Ernie Cortes is audit partner at Ernst & Young and has been director of the Entrepreneur of the Year program in Northern California since 2009. He has over 25 years of experience in Silicon Valley, serving a wide variety of technology clients from startups to development-stage enterprises to leading international organizations. He has consulted in over 40 public stock offerings, numerous private placements, and mergers and acquisitions.
Michael Skok joined North Bridge Venture Partners in 2002 and has been a software entrepreneur and CEO for 21 years. He founded, led and attracted over $100M in private equity to investments in several successful software companies and built a significant multiple of that in value for investors as a VC. Michael created the first industry-wide open source survey. He led CIO forums as early as 2003, culminating in his work at www.futurecloudcomputing.net with the first multi-vendor industry-wide survey and collaboration on the Future of Cloud Computing.