Three principles for success in starting a business

[Story and photo by Mike Foley: Originally published online in the BYU-Hawaii Newsroom, August 2008]

An entrepreneurship professor at the BYU Marriott School of Management told BYU-Hawaii business students they don’t necessarily need a lot of experience, exceptional training or even much money to start a successful business.

Gary Williams [pictured at right], a successful entrepreneur in Utah before joining the BYU business school faculty three years ago, shared three principles on Sept. 23 with the BYU-Hawaii students that could help them “evolve into entrepreneurs.”

Number one: “Don’t kill yourself trying to change the world.”

“Some of the best companies out there didn’t change the world,” said Williams, who encouraged budding BYU-Hawaii entrepreneurs to “search for the not so elusive angle, or new twists on something that already exists.”

“Where do these ideas come from?” he asked. “Only 4% come from research, 5% from the personal computer revolution, 20% are discovered serendipitously, but 71% come from replicating or modifying an idea encountered in previous employment.”

Williams, who comes to Laie several times each year to meet with business students and participate in the annual Entrepreneurship Conference, which this school year will be on January 29-30, 2004, shared the example of BYU student who started up a business selling carnivorous plants that his father grows. The twist? He has positioned the plants as “pets” and sells them in pet stores with their own clever “pet supplies” and food.

Williams said other applications of this principle could include using old products in a new way, putting something new in a product, or importing product ideas from overseas.

Number two: “Is it faster, better or cheaper?”

Williams explained any one of these three characteristics, or a combination of them, can lead to a successful business start-up, especially where customers don’t really know what they want. “For example, many people buy the same brand of toothpaste year after year, so you don’t want to be in that market unless it’s as a price competitor.”

Rather, Williams showed an advertisement of a man repeatedly jumping up and down on a Mity-Lite folding table, which is much more durable, lighter and cheaper than old-fashioned folding tables.

“Mity-Lite is very solid now and is a $100 million publicly traded company. The tables are in all the LDS chapels, and Mity-Lite is a pretty big brand in the market place,” Williams said.

In another example, Williams said the winner of the 1995 student business plan competition bought an 800 number — 1-800-CONTACTS — “where you could buy contacts lenses a little cheaper by phone. Today, this company has a market value of a little over a quarter-billion dollars. He figured out a faster and cheaper way to get contact lenses.”

Number three: “Be the first to develop a new category.”

When Williams asked who was the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean, quite a few in the audience knew Charles Lindberg was the correct answer; but no one — including Williams, who had forgotten — knew who the second pilot to do so was. However, a few correctly guessed Amelia Earhart was the third successful pilot — and the first woman to do it.

“The minute she flew across, she created a new category,” Williams said. “Narrowing your focus produces a winner. Specialists always beat generalists.”

Williams shared the example of a current BYU business student who created DearElder.com, which made communicating with missionaries through the official pouch system easier. After the Church authorized the use of e-mail, however, Williams noted the student “came up with a whole new e-mail portal strategy where mission presidents open and close the e-mail portal on P-Day.”

“I think 40 or 50 missions around the world are using that portal,” Williams said, pointing out subscribers pay for the service. The student has also extended the business by enabling subscribers to order cookies and other goodies online for the missionaries. “It’s nothing revolutionary, but very evolutionary,” he said.

Asked by a student at what point should an entrepreneur go forward with an idea, Williams replied, “Don’t listen to your professors,” and admitted he has tried to discourage at least one successful venture in the past.

“In the business world, we don’t have exact information. Often we have to deal with the best information we can find,” Williams continued. “When you think you’re right, network. The most successful people are also the most successful at networking.”

Ron Lindorff, a visiting “entrepreneur in residence,” added, “If you can’t sleep for two weeks for thinking about [your idea], you ought to do it.”

Another student asked what are the next steps after getting positive response to a business idea. “We talk a lot about idea vs. opportunity,” Williams responded. “You have to ask the hard questions: Will people pay the price? Do I have the talent to do it? As you start to get the answers to those questions, now it’s a business and you’re ready to move on to the next steps.”

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