A group of entrepreneurs spoke recently to students at the University of Dallas’ Satish & Yasmin Gupta College of Business. This series will highlight their best advice for those interested in starting their own businesses.
Flip Howard Founder & President Meridian Business Centers
Meridian Business Centers has been a trusted resource for office space in Dallas and Houston since 2001 by providing premier office solutions at an accessible price. Their executive office suites, virtual offices, coworking, and meeting spaces offer considerable value with very low overhead to small businesses.
While my friends were working for minimum wage, I painted addresses on curbs and made twice that much. I started my first business–a laundry service–in college. Now I own several companies, but my main focus is buying, renovating, and then leasing office space to small companies.
Most people think you need do something nobody else is doing in order to be an entrepreneur. But that’s not true–just take something someone else is doing and do it better.
Many people (especially younger ones) get caught in “analysis paralysis.” If you have an idea, just do it! I’ve talked to too many people that said they had always wanted to start something but never did.
I failed a lot, but I always learned something. Don’t be afraid to swing and miss.
Most successful people aren’t necessarily smarter or harder working; they just have confidence in themselves. They may fail, but they don’t care. They see everything that happens as an experience.
Find your parents’ five most successful friends and ask them to meet with you. Find out how they got where they are and listen to what they tell you.
Becoming an entrepreneur is a dream for many, albeit a risky one. Those who’ve taken the leap and started their own business will tell you it’s scary and rewarding all at the same time.
Three local entrepreneurs, Mark Shrayber, President and co-founder of muv, a Dallas-based events and transportation company; Sonia Kirkpatrick, founder and CEO of PediaPlex, an all-inclusive pediatric diagnostic and therapeutic clinic; and Jake Thompson, founder and Chief Encouragement Officer of Compete Every Day, a global lifestyle brand, spoke to Dr. Laura Munoz’s Global Entrepreneurship class at the University of Dallas about what it takes to start and grow a successful business.
The panelists began by answering a question about networking. Shrayber, who started his business at fresh out of college at age 22, said that a big part of networking is hustle. “I’ve worked since I was 13 so I know how to hustle,” he said. “So I talked to anyone who would listen. In order to build
your network, always have your radar on. But don’t network just for the purpose of networking. Learn to care about other people.”
Thompson agreed. “Networking is not speed dating,” he said. “The key to networking is giving more than you get. Ask other people questions like ‘What are you working on? How can I help you?’”
Kirkpatrick, already successful in business by the time she started PediPlex, relied on her contacts to help her grow her network. “I started my business as a capstone project during my MBA at the University of Dallas. Plus, I won a Texas Business Hall of Fame scholarship and I got insights from some of the top business leaders in the state,” she said. “They all agreed that you should always surround yourself with people who know more than you do.”
Although having a strong network of contacts can help entrepreneurs navigate tricky situations early in the startup process, all three panelists agreed that a little ignorance can be advantage. “At age 22, I think I was too dumb to know any better,” said Shrayber. “I tried to do everything. I was operating a limo company but I hated the headache of running the cars and drivers. Sometimes you have to decide what you are going to be great at. I realized I would be great at solving bigger problems for my clients.” Schrayber added that eventually, an entrepreneur’s confidence grows as they gain success over time. “But confidence is not the same thing as arrogance. Confidence is something you gain over time,” he said.
The panelists also discussed how to overcome the fear of failure that goes hand in hand with starting a business. Kirkpatrick said that quitting a great job was definitely scary: “About two years in, I said to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I done?’ I had a lot to lose at the time.” Although starting a business comes with risk, Thompson recommended running head-on into failure: “So what if you fail? The world’s not going to explode. Nobody really cares. The people you really care about will help you pick yourself back up and keep going,” he said.
Doubts often accompany the fear of failure during the early days of their businesses. Thompson said that sometimes he questioned if he actually had what it would take to make it work. “I would ask myself, ‘Can I really do this?’” But a friend pointed out to him that since his brand focuses on inspiring people to greatness, he really had no choice. “He said, ‘You gotta keep going, no matter how hard it gets. It’s who you are.’” Kirkpatrick said although she had doubts, one person kept her going—her husband. “He wouldn’t let me give up,” she said. Shrayber added that many entrepreneurs succumb to their doubts and give up too early instead of adapting their plans to meet the needs of their market. “Sometimes it’s just luck, he said. “But you can make your own luck by keeping your radar on and staying humble. Always be a student and willing to learn from others and from your mistakes.”
The University of Dallas Executives on Campus program was founded to further the University’s mission of providing practice-based education, by inviting successful business leaders to share their experience with graduate and undergraduate students in the classroom. Through this program, alumni, business leaders, and their companies are invited to partner with the University in our shared pursuit of management excellence. For more information click here.
Executives on Campus: Jack Gibbons, CEO, Front Burner Restaurants
Everybody loves restaurants. And we all have opinions about what makes a good one. Ask your family members, neighbors, and coworkers and they’ll surely tell you about their great—and not so great—dining experiences. Jack Gibbons (MBA, ’05) is passionate about eating out, too. But he has taken his passion and turned it into his vocation. As the CEO of Front Burner Restaurants, Gibbons lives and breathes restaurants every day. On February 23, he shared his experiences as both a restaurateur and an entrepreneur with the University of Dallas Entrepreneurship Society.
Gibbons began his career in the restaurant industry as a waiter with the Pappas family of restaurants, a favorite in the Dallas area. He worked his way into management and eventually became brand manager for the group. While employed by Pappas, Gibbons came to UD’s Satish and Yasmin Gupta College of Business.
Gibbons said that obtaining his MBA from the University of Dallas helped him become a better businessman. “I would hear things in class—like what the great business minds have to say about something—and I would realize that it could help me solve problems I was dealing with in the restaurants,” he said.
Gibbons eventually realized that what he really wanted to do was take a risk and follow his own vision of what makes a great restaurant. He and partner, Randy DeWitt, created Front Burner Restaurants in hopes of addressing consumers’ unmet needs in a creative way. And they have been wildly successful.
According to Gibbons, putting together a strong team has been integral to the success of Front Burner. “I have surrounded myself with people who are smarter than me,” he said. “My team helps me create the unique brand for each individual restaurant.”
That uniqueness is important to Gibbons, so when he is cultivating a vision for a restaurant, he draws inspiration from a variety of areas. “I love to travel and experience new adventures in food. I study restaurants from around the country and decide what I like and what I don’t like about them,” he said. Gibbons takes what he’s learned through his research back to his team, and together they mold his vision into the DNA of the brand—what he defines as its “differences, nuances, and attitudes.”
Front Burner Restaurants certainly have attitude. A prime example is Whiskey Cake, located in Plano. Gibbons chose the area because he felt the DFW suburbs were missing out on unique dining opportunities. And despite the restaurant’s conservative surroundings, “counterculture” best describes the restaurant’s vibe. “We wanted the staff to really fit the ethos of the brand,” Gibbons said, “So our servers have dyed hair, tattoos, and piercings.” A farm to fork menu and a commitment to freshness and sustainability (they press their own juices and even recycle rainwater) have resulted in Whiskey Cake’s becoming the top-rated restaurant in DFW on the popular user-review app, Yelp.
Gibbons and his team are working on several exciting dining and entertainment projects that will take advantage of the phenomenal growth of the DFW area and its reputation as a testing ground for new restaurant concepts. With these new projects, Front Burner will continue to attract top chefs and culinary trendsetters. Anyone who likes a good meal will be looking forward to that.
For more information about the University of Dallas Entrepreneurship Society, click here.
So you’ve got a great idea for a product, business or app. Social media marketing guru Ali Mirza (MBA ‘12) says that the old way of launching–build, launch, market–doesn’t properly leverage the power of social media to bring ideas to fruition. According to Mirza, entrepreneurs must first test their ideas using a variety of offline and social media channels to validate that needs exist–and that their ideas can fulfil those needs. “Before you build a product, you have to know what people want,” he said. “You have to identify their pain points so that you can properly address them.”
How do you go about validating your idea? Mirza says that the first thing you must do is build an MVP–a minimum viable product. If your idea is for a website or app, build a landing page that includes a logo and briefly describes the product. Then use that landing page to capture the email addresses of interested users. Once you have an MVP, the real work begins. Mirza details five ways to drive users to your landing page, which–if your idea is a good one–will create buzz for your product and build your list of customers.
Mirza says that Meetups (meetup.com), local affinity groups focused around hundreds of different hobbies and interests, are a great way to meet like-minded people. “You could find a Meetup for foodies, for yoga, for just about anything,” he said. And look for other events that align with your idea, like workshops or vendor fairs. Make sure to bring your business cards with your landing page address, because networking with potential users in person can start the buzz and help you identify whether your product will take off.
Startup and Pitch Competitions
Mirza, whose FiveOH restaurant and food app won Google’s Startup Weekend competition, says that these types of competitions are about more than winning–they can validate your idea and help you find partners, like designers or programmers. “My app is designed to help college students find cheap food,” he said. “So I knew that I could talk to a lot of college students at the competition. I didn’t expect to win.” Check out startup weekend.org for more information.
Researching what others are doing is another way to analyze your market. Mirza suggests browsing startup communities like Hacker News (news.ycombinator.com) and Betalist (betalist.com), which give makers an outlet to showcase their ideas and get early feedback. A Q&A website like Quora can also help you look for questions and answers associated with your idea.
“The people who will use your product are on social media,” Mirza says. “If you want to connect with people, you have to commit to having a social media presence.” In the initial idea-building phase, Mirza suggests using social media as a tool to drive people to your landing page. “Choose one or two social media platforms and post consistently,” he says.
Ali Mirza is the founder of iSocialYou, a business dedicated to helping businesses create engaging social brands and generate leads. He spoke on April 20 to a meeting of the University of Dallas’ Entrepreneurship Society.
Executives on Campus: Flip Howard, Founder, Meridian Business Centers
According to Flip Howard, you don’t need a revolutionary idea to become a successful entrepreneur. Taking an existing idea and executing it better than anybody else works, too. “Ninety percent of business owners are terrible at what they’re doing,” he said. “You can do it better with hard work.” Howard, founder and president of Meridian Business Centers, recently hosted students from the University of Dallas’ Entrepreneurship Society at one of his Dallas-area centers on March 23.
Meridian operates 15 locations in DFW and Houston in which small businesses can lease individual offices that share common areas like conference rooms, work rooms, and kitchens. “This set up is perfect for firms with one to four employees, like lawyers, stock brokers, or small tech companies,” he said. “Although they may pay more per square foot than leasing an office directly from a landlord, our tenants pay only for the office space they actually need. And because the spaces are turnkey, there is no need to spend time or money setting up utilities like phone or Internet.”
Howard explained that because Meridian leases–rather than owns–the spaces they operate, they keep zero debt. “This means that we can weather economic downturns better than some of the larger real estate companies,” Howard said. “Our ups and downs are smoothed out.” One of the most lucrative areas for Meridian is virtual offices, in which individuals or companies can pay for using Meridian’s physical address on their business cards, phone-answering service, and even the use of the conference room. “Most of our virtual tenants travel or just work from home,” he said. “But they might need to meet with clients occasionally, or have a FedEx package delivered. So we’ve adapted our services to the needs of the market.”
Howard’s career as an entrepreneur began in his teens when he and his current business partner painted addresses on curbs to make money. “I could make $250 in the same amount of time that my friends working in fast food were making $20,” he said. “After that, I knew I’d never have a ‘real job.’”
Soon after college graduation, Howard and his business partner started University Laundry, a laundry pickup and delivery service for college students. Working about a hundred hours per week while building the business taught him a lot about management and finance. “You can’t learn how to manage people from reading a book,” he said. “You have to get out there and do it to learn what works and what doesn’t.”
Howard told the group that one of the most valuable lessons he has learned as an entrepreneur is that success is all about staffing. “I’m always looking for people that have a positive, unselfish attitude,” he said. “Everyone occasionally makes bad hires. But you need to be able to let go of the ones who just don’t fit.”
Howard also counseled the group not to be overly cautious when analyzing opportunities. “I work a lot with Young Catholic Professionals,” he said. “And one thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of people in the 24-30 age range tend to over-analyze problems. They can be too timid. Successful entrepreneurs are the ones who get things done. So just get out there and do something.”
Howard also told the group to hold themselves to a high standard. “Whether it’s morally or in the business world, so many people set a low bar and have low expectations for themselves,” he said. “You need to be different. Set the bar higher for yourself and you will stand out.”
For more information on the University of Dallas Entrepreneurship Society, click here.
Jake Thompson (MBA ’08) calls himself the President and Chief Encouragement Officer of Compete Every Day. He spoke on October 14, 2014 to Dr. Greg Bell’s Entrepreneurship class. The idea for the lifestyle apparel company Thompson started in 2010 came when he asked himself: “What would it look like to compete for every day of your life?” Finding inspiration in the question, he used money saved for a trip to New Zealand to buy t-shirts emblazoned with the new company name, selling them out of his trunk. Active in the CrossFit community, Thompson knew that this group of avid exercisers had not only a commitment to an active lifestyle, but also sufficient disposable income to be a viable target audience for his product. After success with this group, he has since expanded the reach of the company to include anyone that finds inspiration from competing every day to achieve his or her best life. “I wanted Compete Every Day to be about more than a catchy phrase on a t-shirt,” Thompson said. To that end, the company’s website contains inspirational videos, quotes, and stories about everyday people achieving great things.
Thompson turned to a grass-roots style of funding to grow his business, using his own savings and a line of credit from his hometown bank to finance operations. This has allowed Thompson to maintain 100% control of the company and its direction. He uses a grassroots approach to marketing as well by relying on social media to generate excitement and word-of-mouth about the Compete Every Day brand. “We post three to four days per week on our blog, two to three times per week on Facebook, and nearly every day on Twitter and Instagram,” said Thompson. The company also has an app which gives users updates on new products, access to exclusive offers and even inspirational quotes. “This kind of social media presence makes the community your microphone and megaphone,” he said. Thompson added that grass-roots marketing isn’t a quick fix. “This is a powerful way to grow a business, but it takes time.” Part of this approach includes establishing a physical presence at lifestyle events like marathons and CrossFit competitions in order to increase brand awareness among the company’s target groups.
Thompson relies on his own ideas and those of a few graphic designers to produce unique shirts available on the company’s website for only 72 hours, creating scarcity that drives customers back to the website in anticipation of new designs. Thompson’s marketing plan is working: after reaching six figures during the 2012 fiscal year, Compete Every Day’s sales have doubled two years in a row and are on track to increase another 1.5 times by the end of the company’s current fiscal year. But revenue isn’t the Thompson’s only goal. “The most important thing you can do is tell a powerful story about your company,” he said, “and Compete Every Day’s story is that you have a life worth competing for.”
Jake Thompson graduated in 2008 from the University of Dallas’ Satish and Yasmin Gupta College of Business with a Masters of Business Administration.