During a visit from Dean Thomas A. Turk, Ph.D. and Director of the Leatherby Center for Entrepreneurship Mario Leone, Rob Ryan agreed to provide his book to Argyros School students free of charge. Mr. Ryan is looking for feedback in terms of comments and questions to incorporate into a new forthcoming book. . Read his book from the Leatherby Center webpage and leave a comment below with your thoughts.
ASBE Professor Jake Aguas incorporated the book into his courses in the Spring 2019 semester and had students submit questions to Mr. Ryan. During a conference call between Leatherby Center staff and Mr. Ryan, many of the questions were answered by Mr. Ryan. Readers are invited to view the Q&A below to get further insight from Mr. Ryan.
Submit any additional questions below in the comments for a follow-up Q&A to come at a later date.
- If you had a chance to reset your business journey, what are some things you would do differently?
My business journey was not like many others as I planned my journey very early to be in computer networking. I wanted to do network design and planning. If I had one thing looking back that would have helped it would be to, add a degree in computer science in my university education.
- How did you develop that entrepreneurial mindset?
The essence of being a great entrepreneur is to have an innovation mindset. The art of developing and articulating good questions and creating an environment where people around you do the same is paramount to success as an entrepreneur.
- How would you change the contents of this book to fit the current business environment in 2019?
I wouldn’t change any of the basic principles in the book as they are applicable universally but I would add sections on 1) the art of how do you develop good question techniques? Segmentation of good questions from bad ones? Good questions from toxic questions? 2) Utilizing other fields of study to shore up issues that emerge in different fields. 3) Core Values and how to sacrifice your interest for your employees.
- Is speed of being able to adapt or develop core competencies more important for the core competencies?
Speed is a tricky thing as people don’t know what your competencies are in many situations. Uber and Lyft are examples of companies with no obvious profit models and in my opinion are less credible. It is important as an entrepreneur to make a company which is both transformative in nature and has a profit goal. Lyft and Uber are not that as they are only transformative at their core. Amazon on the other hand has both transformative and profit (long term) goals.
- What habits helped keep you successful?
The most important habit is always questioning and asking in particular big questions. At Ascend when we realized we had a solution for the foundational properties of internet infrastructure we focused on how to capture an expanding market. Asking the big questions and then building a team of people that have the same qualities is the ingredient to success.
- If you could give your 22-year-old self business advice, what would it be?
My advice would be that the track you are on is the right track but invest even more heavily on the technical know-how by gaining more advanced programming skills to shore up that weakness in my personal tool box.
- Based on your experience, how did you keep on pursuing your business idea when those around you seemed to dislike the idea?
Courage is the most important thing for an entrepreneur, use your courage to keep the business plan moving and encourage team members to either get on the boat or get off the boat. At Ascend, the people who stayed and weathered the storm of building our unique values were the believers. At times the same conviction is necessary with the company board. We faced this at Ascend and challenged them too trust our team or direction or fire me. The moral of the story is do not be a puppet. Display the qualities of leadership at the most difficult of times.
- Why do you think people think they are prepared for a start-up when in reality they tend to be months away from starting?
People tend to underestimate the sales and marketing challenges in a business development. They seldom speak to customers face to face. The goal with customers is not to sell them anything but rather try to understand the issues they face, problems they are trying to solve and what the competition is failing at. By talking to your customer, you are establishing partners and a network to test and develop new ideas. Another issue is how to get funding and if you’re even able to make money.
- Do you have any recommendations on how to write a good marketing prospectus or have they become an unnecessary evil?
Go out and talk to the customers! An example is a recent Silicon Valley company I was mentoring. They came to me for venture capital investment and I asked for the customer list. I proceeded to call the customers asking them about their thoughts on the product.
- After successfully launching a business, do you have advice for keeping a company growing?
Do your homework with great detail around your business plan and model the different business scenario s you envision for growth. Then each year, target the launch of another product or functionality into the market to keep yourself relevant in the market. Put a strategy together that includes milestones which incorporate new competencies you are developing as you grow. Amazon is a perfect example of this.
- When working as the CEO of Ascend Communications, how did you keep your employee turnover rate low and a good company culture?
Constant interaction with the employees and sharing of information with the employees and the goals which we had for the company. We told them that you will never work for a company like Ascend and they agreed. the employees were excited to work at the company.
- What were the major factors that influenced you to sell your company?
Basically, wait until there is an offer you can’t refuse since it is above average. Another factor is if the company needs more and particular resources that you cannot provide or strategic help for continued growth is necessary.
- The idea of ethics, morality, and corporate social responsibility are becoming increasingly important in our business world. How can we maintain, or perhaps create, a positive relationship between commerce and social responsibility?
A Golden rule: You could be in any one of the employee’s positions so treat them the way you’d like to be treated. Put yourself in their shoes. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them but you should understand them.
- Do you think people are born with skills to be an entrepreneur or can they acquire them?
No, I do not think people are born with entrepreneurial skills however you can acquire certain skills such as disciplined project development, the art of questioning, work ethic, etc. Qualities that are important for any entrepreneur: gritty, technical skills, workaholic, integrity, energy, strength in marketing, and emotional IQ. However, there are other values which cannot be learned such as courage passion and respect There are certain people who are willing to sell out and abandon their values and morals for money and those people will never be truly good entrepreneur.
- What do you believe sets you apart from other entrepreneurs?
A questioning mind, setting big goals, adherence to values and encouraging it in the company setting. Working to avoid surprises, and having humility. Entrepreneurs who are not impressive to me are seduced or corrupted with money. Don’t fall into this category. Some more positive qualifiers are for people to be witty, workaholics, have integrity, strength in marketing, emotional intelligence, and be a great people person.
- Was there any start up you helped which came out of the ranch and failed miserably or any business groups you invested time with that do not meet their or your expectations?
There was one company from the Midwest which was not successful because of flaws in their value system and ethical decisions which poisoned the company. The walk was not the talk and vice versa. The customers were lied to and the company tried to sell to pass off the issue to others. This was a disappointing event and what I found when I looked back was the issue was not the business concept but that I had not done a good enough job of vetting the character of the leadership team.
- What advice do you have for someone who is still trying to figure out their career?
Don’t be fearful, get as much education in different fields as your possibly can. When you learn more about different areas, you can use a broader tool box to solve problems in other areas. Take advantage of your opportunities, you should be in school to learn, so learn!
- How do you go about selecting companies and people to work with?
I look for transformative companies which are going to change the industry. Some of the questions I ask are is it going to last? Who are the early customers and do they agree with the company? What are the values and ethics of the person? What is the staying power of the business concept?
- How does a startup capture such big business aside from having a great product? It seems easy to say it’s important to get these sales, but how does one go about doing that?
It’s a very collaborative thing. You need to decide what resources are to be spent in the company at what time. You need to get collaborating customers and try to get conditional purchase orders for any number of items. You work with the customer to make the perfect product for their needs.
- After a business has secured some type of financial investment, what are ways to ensure it does not become complacent and maintains healthy creativity, innovation, and motivation?
Keep launching new product lines every year (between 12-18 months), this keeps the company running on new developments. Also leverage core competencies; furthermore, you must earn everything, nothing will just be given to you.
- How did you take complex business concepts and reduce them to such simple formats in your book?
“Simplicity is on the far side of complexity.” It’s a skill to take complex things and break them down into simple pieces. Just practicing; repetition of dealing with difficult situations helps make things simpler.
- How did you decide that the value matrix were the ultimate factors deciding one’s value and money and time were two of the more critical values?
The culture I established at Ascend was Just go do it. By saying you can’t do it unless I have more resources (money and people) is often an excuse. I would tell my teams, that they are quitting. As a reward for getting it done, I would give someone who went after the goal some workers because they had proven to me that you can actually do it.
- How did you just know that Silicon Valley wasn’t “authentic” when it’s the place everyone says to go to for starting a company? What made you rebel against the norm?
Courage. You cannot be fearful that the person will quit or leave them. Very few quit when I challenged them. When you show the courage, people will respect you. I wanted to create my own cultural, not the culture of Silicon Valley. I gave everyone a voice and that helped promote alignment in the company and make them feel wanted and respected in the company.
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Spending time in Montana and Hawaii. Still married to Terry for 55 years. Doing films for critical thinking for middle school kids that are at risk of being gang recruits. Helping kids at an early age become thinkers and use their brains to solve issues. I’d like to get Sunflower Model completely out there for everyone to enjoy and learn from.
- Mr. Ryan has earned his well deserved reputation as an entrepreneur largely in the field of technology however The Sunflower Model seems to cross over many business areas. Based on your experience through the years of evaluating both tech and non tech business are there fundamental/basic concepts that apply to all start ups?
- One of the most impactful concepts in new product development in the past decade has been “Design Thinking”. Books like Value Proposition Design (from Strategyzer) provide a good overview of the concept. It looks like Rob’s Sunflower approach takes “Design Thinking” to the next level. How do you think it “pushes the envelope”?