By Tom Still
MADISON – What makes an entrepreneur successful? Countless
books, articles, blogs and videos have explored that question, as well as
scholarly works that have identified common traits spanning time, technology
and market trends.
There’s no single answer because entrepreneurs come in
distinct flavors. There are mom-and-pop small business owners, lifestyle
entrepreneurs who follow a personal passion, social entrepreneurs who turn a
cause into a career, and “gazelles” who launch high-growth businesses that
disrupt markets with big ideas.
The economy needs them all, especially in an era when other
factors – global competition, regulatory hurdles and technology itself – are
rapidly changing how businesses are created, grow and prosper.
Read this column in the Wisconsin State Journal here.
Two corporate leaders who made their marks in very different
industries offered their views on what it takes to start and grow a business at
the recent Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, an annual gathering that offers
hands-on ways for young businesses to learn more.
Featured speakers included Craig Culver, who co-founded the
Sauk City-based Culver’s restaurant franchising system that includes about 510
stores in 23 states, and Jack Lynch, CEO of globally recognized Renaissance
Learning in Wisconsin Rapids and a veteran of several high-growth software
Culver was the winner of the annual Ken Hendricks Memorial
“Seize the Day” award, which goes to an entrepreneur who has persisted –
usually in the face of adversity. Culver, who resisted getting into the
restaurant business as a young man because he saw how hard his parents worked,
eventually came “home” when the startup bug finally bit.
Culver delivered an emotional talk on the importance of
being passionate about what you do, developing other people and systems along
the way, and not compromising on a commitment to quality for customers.
“I believe my father was a true entrepreneur. He believed he
couldn’t fail,” Culver said. “Yes, you can fail, but doggone it, when you do
(fail), you get back up and go at it again.”
Culver said it’s possible to teach business mechanics to
many people, but it’s much harder to instill a sense of passion or cultivate
people skills. That’s the secret sauce behind the Culver’s franchising
approach, which he described as: “Find other people like ourselves, sell them a
franchise and let them go at it” while developing and challenging their own
In his remarks, Lynch focused on three factors that have
been critical to the success of Renaissance, which began in the mid-1980s as
one of the first computer-based systems for helping children who were
challenged by reading. Today, Renaissance programs are used in 43,000 schools
by millions of teachers across the United States and around the world. The
company was acquired for $1.1 billion early this year and is the largest
private employer in Wisconsin Rapids, a city long known for being a paper
One success factor for Renaissance is a shared passion for
the company’s core mission. “We’re very focused on getting kids literate by
third grade,” Lynch said. “(Literacy) is a big problem for our country,” and a
long-term threat to the nation’s economic and democratic underpinnings.
Another is commitment to quality through what Lynch
described as “intense customer focus.” After describing what happens to users
who contact a typical software company with a problem – “it’s usually a
horrible customer experience” – Lynch talked about the Renaissance method.
Every call or online chat request at Renaissance is answered
in seven seconds or less. That’s no small feat with 353,000 such customer
contacts in the latest year. That means more customer service representatives
work at Renaissance than in any other employee category.
The third factor? “The boring stuff matters most,” Lynch
declared. Even larger companies must pay attention to details that allow them
to “fail and learn” along the way, not unlike lean startup principles often
followed by emerging companies.
Whether your company is selling burgers or bytes, the common
message shared by Culver and Lynch is that passion, customer care and
innovation matter. That’s a lesson for entrepreneurs of all flavors.