Breakthroughs: A Symposium for Business Owners, Entrepreneurs & CEOs
Speaker: All right. Good morning. Uh, I’m going to be looking at my little cheat sheet here. Um, what I thought I’d do is kind of walk you through my life and talk about the different stages of my life and how book learning, uh, I think saved me and really helped me. Uh, I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1960 and grew up in uh Wichita, Kansas. Little city in the middle of nowhere. And when I was 8 years old I was in school. I noticed all my friends would go off for lunch and they would buy bubble gum. And they would always come back late and they would get in trouble.
And in those days the teachers actually had these little wooden paddles. And if you came late they’d hit you with them. So, being late was a big deal. So what I thought is, I had uh, asked my father if I could borrow 2 dollars so that I could go and buy gum. So he gave me 2 dollars. So I went to the candy store after school and I bought a bunch of bubble gum. They used to have these things called Bub Daddies. These long sticks of bubble gum.
So I’d take it to school and during lunch I would sell all this gum. And so I really liked kind of the feeling of being in control of my own destiny. So I was – this was 1969, I was 8 years old. And, you know, I’m making $10 a day. And that’s like $100 a day today. Uh, and I felt, felt really good. And then in 1973 uh my family moved from Kansas to Chicago. And my father, my father was a salesman at IBM and I was in junior high and so I looked around and you know, I didn’t know anybody. It was a very strange world. Uh, for me. This is the first time I ever lived outside a black neighborhood.
So we moved to Lombard, Illinois and uh, this was in 1973. I had a bomb thrown in my house. Nigger go home written on our lawn. I went to school and it was very traumatic for me. But I uh, figured you know, I’ll try this commerce thing here. So, I started to sell gum at school. And people started to like me. In fact, they liked me so much that they stopped buying ice cream from the school because they were buying all my bubble gum.
So the principal came up to me and said, “You know, you need to top selling gum.” And I said, “Why?” I, I said, “I don’t think there’s a rule against it.” He said, “Well, you know, you need to wear a hair net because you’re selling food.” I said, “No, that’s not true because it’s packaged food.” So anyway, uh, he finally cut a deal with me. I could sell my gum and I ended up selling his ice cream. So it kind of worked out. And that actually helped me get to know people. And um, [Indiscernible] [00:03:20] helped me get money. Number 2, I got to know people.
So then I went to uh, I got out of school in 1978. I wanted to get out in 1977 because I hated school so much. One of the speakers said how much he hated school. That was me. Ah, so I wanted to graduate when I was 16. My mother wouldn’t let me. So day after I was 17 I graduated and I went to school and I went to UIC. Studied in math. And then got out of there and went to IBM.
Pardon me. Um, IBM back in the, this would have been the early 80’s. Very early 80’s had this no nepotism rule. And my father was a manger at IBM. So I found out, I mean, everybody in my family, despite this no nepotism rule was working at IBM. Because my father would call his friends and say “I’ll hire your kids if you hire mine.” So, I was – it was 1981. 1981 or ’82. I can’t remember now. So I was 20 or 21 years old. Uh, working at IBM. And they give you this lesson. You go and you go to training. The first thing they tell you is if you’re not a salesman, you’re a nobody here. They didn’t quite say it like that. But they say the chairman is a salesman. Vice chairman is a salesman. President is a salesman. And anybody who’s going anywhere is a salesman in this country. In this company, pardon me.
So I was this very introverted kid who, I was good at numbers, but I hated to speak. Uh, in fact, one of the managers called my father and said, “You know your kid is really bright. But we can’t get that kid to talk.” So, so they figured they were going to stick me in something very technical. So I ended up working with the number 1 copier sales person in the country. It was really my job to make sure we didn’t lose any installs. So I ended up writing this program that would give the uh, sales people a signal for when the right time to sell a machine was – so I did that and did well and won a reward, but I just remember that feeling and so I left IBM in 1980, early 1983 to start my own company. Because they had, they had actually assigned me; I think I was the first person in Chicago to be in charge of a personal computer. They didn’t think – until like 2005, that thing was even going anywhere. So I ended up getting lucky and getting some sales.
Started my company. I was 22 or 23. Did well enough to kind of take care of myself, but like a lot of people that age, I thought I knew more than I actually did. Uh, so uh, I ended up doing okay. And then I took this little passion I had which I was really into cars. And I had a plan to, by 22 I was going to buy a Porsche. And so I saved all my money and ended up buying a Porsche when I was 22 years old. And I said that w as a lucky lesson for me in my life because I just knew once I got this car my life was going to change. All the girls were going to like me. I just envisioned myself going up to the Academy Awards and, uh, I’d say I learned a good life lesson there. It was actually the most miserable time in my life.
And so I would say this period of my life which was, I would say, all 8 to 28, was what I would call the talent phase of my life. I was pretty good at numbers. I mean, everything in my brain is kind of numbers. I’m fairly good at numbers. Um, that’s why I studied math. In fact I was a – in 1984, it was 1985, I decided that I wanted to be a uh, trader because I had moved to L.A. And I ended up writing some programs for a commodity trading fund. So I was studying trading. And I was writing programs for this commodity trading fund. And I think this guy was the first Bernie Madoff.
So he took all the good trades and stuck ‘em in his account and spread out all the bad trades. So I didn’t think I would look good in an orange jump suit so I decided I was going to come back to Chicago. And I told a uh, friend of mine who I knew was a trader, I said, “Hey, listen. I will work for you for 6 months for free if you let me get on the floor.” So for 6 months I worked for free as an arbitrage clerk.
And so I’d get up early in the morning. I’d study trading and I’d go down to the Merck and I’d work there until 2:00 o’clock and then go to the library and then come home until midnight when I forced myself to go to sleep. So this is why I’m saying, this period of my life from 8 to 28 was really just about me kind of leveraging my talents. Uh, but it was mostly about me working for and by myself. Uh, at 28, I remember I was 28, somehow I ran into this book called Think and Grow Rich. Somebody told me about it and I read the book and I would say it really opened my eyes. That was one of the best things that ever happened to me was reading that book. Um, and I would say some of the, the big things that I got out of that book was to have a specific plan. A definite goal. And have this burning desire to succeed and have faith that you would do it if you did the right kind of things.
Um, and also to do more than you get paid for. And I think that is – a lot of people don’t do that. They, they really expect somebody else to take care of them. To tell other people their problems and I think during this period I learned, people don’t care about your problems. They care about their problems. So you as a business person get paid to solve their problems. And I say, a lot of people will go and they go into business and they’re thinking about themselves as opposed to thinking about other people. So, I would say at 29, I really started what I call my personal development phase.
So, I ended up having to develop myself. So reading this book was really helpful. And then, you know, getting these skills in trading and other things which I think really helped me. And then in – it was 1990 – 1989, I actually funded a company. I gave $40,000 to a friend of mine’s brother-in-law to start a company. Uh, it was the last time I’d ever given family members kind of money. Uh, but – so I had given him this money and I recommended people. And he totally screwed up everything. So I had to stop being a trader, which I really liked. Uh, to go and help, and clean up the mess this guy had done. And in, a thing that I learned there that my father told me: “In life the only thing you really have is your reputation.”
And in that case, so I stopped something that I really loved that I was doing really good at just so that I could protect my reputation. At the end I think it was a good lesson for me. That’s also something I got out of the book. Uh, so, I would say the other thing that I did was, in my own personal development, was to read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Which I think is another great book. And I would say some key learnings that I really use today is, one is begin with the end in mind. I always try to do that today. Is try to envision where this thing is going to end up and then work backwards from there?
I do that in all our businesses now. And that has actually helped me quite a bit to think win-win. To think about the other people first. Because I think in business any deal that’s not a win-win ends up being a lose-lose. I think that is an absolute truth that I learned out of the book. Uh, this is something where I would say I still am not world class at. Which is, uh, seek first to understand then to be understood. Usually, if you’re a sales person, a lot of times you have the answer in your head. And when people are talking you’re really thinking about a response. You’re not really listening to them.
And whether your realize it or not that comes through. So whenever you’re a problem solver, you can be listening to people and not really listening. You’re really just trying to figure out how you’re going to convince them as opposed to really trying to understand what they’re looking for. That is something that uh, periodically I have to remind myself of. Uh, this last thing. I think I’ve got about six minutes left. Um, I want to talk about now what I would call from age 34 to 49. Is what I call the building the enterprise phase of my life.
So in uh, 1992, my father retired from IBM. We took this little company that I had and we’d actually – I’d built a lot of financial modeling systems for Sears and Abbot Labs and Mellon Bank. I took again this talent that I had which is numbers and turned it into a business. And then I ended up hiring some people. Uh, when my father retried from IBM, we took this little company, started Blackwell Consulting together. And this is where I had to learn how to build an enterprise. I had to learn how to work with a lot of different types of people and not just really just be billable myself and have a couple of people that worked for me but think about how to really have an enterprise.
So during this phase, I uh, read a book called The Discipline of Market Leaders. And I think that is one of the great books in business. And what this says is you have to think about, uh, your business and your, what do you call it? The value proposition or value discipline. And there’s 3. There’s a customer excellence. Now excuse me. Operational excellence model, which is McDonald’s. Which is all about flipping a burger in 15 seconds or whatever it is. There’s product innovation, which Sony and Apple. And then there’s a customer intimacy model. Which I say is our model. Which is you really go to a customer. Try to figure out where his unique needs are and how that fits your capability.
You’re focusing really on customers. Uh, IBM was really great at that. So I would say in our businesses we are really a customer intimate. We have a customer intimacy model. Um, the other book, um, I would say that really helped me was Good to Great. I think it’s another fabulous book. Um, and this is a lesson I would learn. I tell you in our 2 different companies. When I stated EKI, Electronic Knowledge Interchange, in 1998, uh, I was 37 years old and I was fortunate enough to be – to not have too much money so I actually had to really pay attention. So I crated a financial model. I knew what our [Inaudible] [00:14:23] was going to be. So the company grew really fast and I was – it did really well.
Um, in 2000, I was looking at – our business had never done any business in the public sector before. So in 2000, Chicago had this thing called the Ping Pong Festival. So I said we’re going to sponsor this. We took a $100,000 and we became a sponsor. And we – whenever there was tables out, there was just lots of people. The lines of people to play. So I did some research on the sport. There’s 300,000,000 people around the world that play table tennis. Everybody knows what table tennis is and has experienced, but nobody can name the name of a brand.
So, I said I’m going to start a table tennis company. So in 2002 I started Keller Spin. Turned out it was the 30 year anniversary of ping pong diplomacy. So I’m thinking: We’ll, we’ll do this. We can leverage our business in China. We’ll become the brand of the U.S. We’re going to start with content. To make a long story short, it’s, it’s been successful, but in that I started with what as opposed to the who. With EKI I started with the who before the what.
And actually Killer Spin would have been much farther ahead if I would have hired the right people sooner than I did. That’s a big lesson. Um. Now, I would say is I turned 50 this year. I’m going to say now I’m into the re-inventing and uh, leading leaders phase. Right now when you’re building – when you’re an entrepreneur, a lot of times you take on everything yourself. And then as your business starts to grow, things start to drop off. You hire people to run certain things. And I would say the uh, previous people said about hiring people. I am the world’s worst hire and I’m the world’s worst manager.
So I have to hire people who tell me what to do. As opposed to vice versa. Um, there’s – now another good book that I’ve read is called Blue Ocean Strategy, which really tells you to really think differently about your business and not just get into this downward spiral of competition in an already saturated market. Um, lastly, in my last minute, I tell you, I’ve got this Ipad here and I uh, an Ipod touch. I’ve got 150 books and about 500 podcasts. I spend about an hour every day trying to educate myself. Trying to really – and when you’re reading books, what you’re really trying to do is learn from other people’s mistakes. And I tend to read broadly. I read economics and history and business and marketing and all kinds of things.
And what I’m really trying to do is really to learn from other people’s mistakes and learn where other people have been successful. Jack Welch’s Winning is a great book. So I think as an entrepreneur, yeah, I think it’s the bets thing you can be. Because like the previous speaker said, it really give you an opportunity to one: Control your own destiny and two: Can create value of other people.
We’ve taken people who were ex-felons and they’ve gone, and now they’ve got great lives. People who made $10 an hour 6 years ago now make $100,000. So, now as I think as I’m getting older, I want to focus on leaving a legacy. So, I got 30 seconds.
Thank you very much.