We enjoyed one ‘last blast’ at the University of Pittsburgh’s Blast Furnace student accelerator Speaker Series. The subject was extremely important for the ‘about to graduate’ Blast Furnace participants: the good, the bad and the ugly of being an entrepreneur. In the Furnace we had two veterans: Larry Shoup and Marc Malandro.

Some background: Larry currently leads Silver Tree Solutions as its founder, CEO and President. Previously, Larry was CEO and cofounder of Janus Technologies, which, during its growth phase, was honored as the fastest growing technology company in Pittsburgh. Larry was named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for Western Pennsylvania.

Marc Malandro serves as the Founding Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Innovation Institute. Prior to joining the University, Dr. Malandro co-founded Sagres Discovery, a systems biology company focused on understanding the molecular basis of cancer. At Sagres, Marc served as Vice President of Technology and Strategic Alliances and was involved in all aspects of intellectual property, licensing and alliance management.

Larry

Larry started off by sharing that his experience as an entrepreneur could be summarized by the image of putting your head in a vise and slowly turning it each day. That’s quite a visual! Despite that ‘pain’ Larry has had very satisfying experiences starting and running companies. His takeaways on the ‘good, the bad and the ugly’?

  • The truth always wins out. Larry emphasized that the market will tell you the truth, and so will your people, so don’t hide from it, or shy away from it. The truth wins out, so confront the issues you have head on, even if the truth is ugly. He gave an example of the early adopter who doesn’t like your product and doesn’t feel its worth a lot of money. Deal with it; don’t avoid it.
  • Disagree with me, please. You need team members and employees that aren’t ’yes men’. They need to push back, respectfully, when they have a different opinion. At the same time, after the discussion, the team needs to get on the same page, and move forward in the same direction, regardless of earlier opinions. This is a good working style in a startup, since much is unknown and the team is more important.
  • Survive.  Whenever bad things happen to you and to your business, your job is to figure out how to survive and sustain your business. Larry shared how many times his business couldn’t make payroll, or the product failed with a customer, or the competition beat him. Some folks might give up thinking they could win. But Larry emphasized the importance of staying calm and focusing on surviving to fight another day. In today’s world we call that ‘pivoting’; Larry was doing it 30 years ago!

Next up was Marc Malandro. Marc has been an entrepreneur and now finds himself as an “intrapreneur”, creating new programs and initiatives inside of a University structure. Marc shared some terrific insights, based on his experience with Sagres. This was the first time he has told this story at Pitt:

  • What the hell? It is important to take risks, particularly when you are young and able to do so. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You learn. And that’s good.
  • Keep building. Marc emphasized that growth requires trying new things. His business didn’t stop with their first idea. As they were building the company, the team had to pursue new ideas. Like Larry’s message, pivoting and learning from your customers, is good.
  • Partnerships are important. When Sagres ran out of cash, the founders mortgaged their homes to keep the company going. They did not want to lose the people critical to moving forward (Can you say ‘survive’?). Just as important as cash were the company’s partners. Having partners that can not only help take you to market, but which can be strategic investors, are key to survival and to your ‘go to market’ strategy. Start those relationships early. That would be good, so it doesn’t get ugly.
  • Take advice. Finally, Marc emphasized that no one has the corner on knowledge. We all need advice and input. Stating a company can be a lonely job. You may feel alone or that you are the first person to face a situation that arises. Create a network of advisors and keep them active and involved. Having advisors help you is key to making good decisions.

And that wrapped up on Blast Furnace speakers for Cohort #1. What a great set of entrepreneurs and business leaders we have enjoyed hearing from. We thank all of them: Randy Eager, Andy Hannah, Bob Delach, Beth Slagle, Dani Garcia, Gaby Isturiz, Mark Visco, Sean Sebastian, Frank Demmler, Henry Wilde, Al Himler, Meghan Skiff, Scott Morley, Larry Shoup and Marc Malandro.

Until the next time – have a Blast!