Every entrepreneur wants to be the next big thing, so that was a natural title for the academic year’s final Leaders and Innovators breakfast, organized by WWJ Newsradio 950 and Lawrence Technological University: “Are You The Next Big Thing?”
The Thursday event featured four entrepreneurs who have had success – but, they stressed, it never came easy, and there were plenty of bumps, bruises and brushes with abject failure along the way.
First of all, panelists said, be willing to act on your ideas. Jason Murphy, owner of the Russell Street Deli in Detroit’s Eastern Market, said it took him years to add soup to the regular menu – but now, they’re not only supplying soup to their hungry patrons, but to 70 Whole Foods stores in the Midwest.
Panelist Zak Pashak, founder of Detroit Bikes, issued tried-and-true advice – get a good lawyer and a good accountant to watch for legal and financial issues.
Panelist Alan Sussman, president of the marketing and advertising firm The Sussman Agency, joked that he wasn’t much on either of those professions – “I’d suggest two attorneys, one to look over the other,” he said, along with “I’m not much on accountants either. All they do is count your money, which I’ve always found irritating.” But then he got serious and said something other panelists agreed with – “every successful person I’ve ever met has one thing – undying passion. You get up in the morning and you go after new business and you believe in your dream and you make it happen. No. Matter. What.”
And perhaps not surprisingly, given his business, Sussman said sales is the key to it all: “What you’re in business to do is get new customers. You may build great bikes, but if you don’t get five new people to buy them today, you won’t for long… Getting new business is the same as dating – you have to ask somebody to dance.”
And entrepreneurs need perseverance in the face of people who dismiss your ideas. Earlier in her career, Carolyn Cassin, president and CEO of the Michigan Women’s Foundation, was an executive in hospice organizations. And she reminded the crowd that the whole idea of hospice initially faced huge opposition from the medical establishment. She said: “Doctors hated it. You’re going to hire someone to help people die? What are you talking about?”
Cassin also said the venture capital situation for area entrepreneurs has improved markedly in recent years, with increasing numbers of angel investors being willing to finance business ideas.
And, Sussman said, “the real game changer is crowdfunding. It’s probably the largest game changer we’ve ever had in this country.”
Pashak also recommended that new entrepreneurs attend trade shows in their industry: “That’s actually where we have found most of our business. You don’t need to spend a ton of money on a booth, you just have to be there. The big businesses actually do send buyers to trade shows.”
Pashak’s Detroit Bikes opened a 50,000-square-foot factory on the city’s west side in 2012 to manufacture frames and wheels, hoping to capitalize on the increasing popularity of bikes for urban transportation. Its bikes sell for $699.
And Murphy recommended that everyone in attendance listen to entrepreneur and radio journalist Alex Blumberg’s podcast, simply called StartUp. “It’s something that my business partner and I sat down and listened to with a whiteboard so we could find out what we were missing,” he said. “It’s extremely helpful.”
And, Sussman said, whatever happens, realize that there will be ups and downs to owning a business, and giving up is not an option: “We have a name for it – the panic-euphoria continuum. When you think you really have it going on, your house is going to burn down or your dog will go missing. And just when you think you’ll never have a decent day again, you trip over a bag of money.”
Sussman said he writes something on the back of his business card to would-be entrepreneurs: “’Stay.’ If you’re gonna quit, don’t start. Go get a job. Go to an established business, you’ll be fine.” But he said real entrepreneurs must “start and stay. Don’t give up.”
WWJ Newsradio 950’s Leaders & Innovators, presented by Flagstar Bank, is a series on business issues produced in partnership with Lawrence Technological University. WWJ morning news anchor Roberta Jasina moderated the event.
To listen to a podcast of the event, visit https://detroit.cbslocal.com/.