What I Learned at P
Who says big companies have nothing to teach an entrepreneur?
FOUNDER: Michael Miller, 37
COMPANY: Hound Dog Products Inc., a lawn-and-garden-tools manufacturer in Edina, Minn.
FAMILY: Married, two children
EDUCATION: Graduated from Southern Methodist University with a bachelor's degree in business administration (major: marketing) in 1985
HBO & Co., Sales
"My stepfather, Hank, always told me to get as much experience as I could in my twenties, then to do my own thing in my thirties," says Miller. At this job, though, the experience lasted only 10 months. "I didn't feel I was getting good training," Miller says. Thus began his pattern of seeking situations that would teach him something new -- and then bailing out unapologetically when the lessons were over.
Procter & Gamble, Sales
Why sales? "It's what gets the phone ringing." Why P& G? Its reputation as a training ground. "They almost have a military style," says Miller, who spent 18 months at the company. "I learned how to use time wisely, how to be very organized." Required: 10 to 12 face-to-face sales calls a day, pitching grocers on Tide, Cheer, Bold, and Ivory. Epiphany: the time one grocer, tired of Miller's verbal onslaught, grabbed Miller's laundry detergent box mock-up and hit him over the head with it. "He had been trying to tell me no, and I wasn't listening," recalls Miller.
The Pillsbury Co., Operations
Miller learned about production, inventory management, and logistics while helping coordinate the shipping schedules for potatoes. But again he reached his limit after 18 months. "I was turning into too much of a specialist," he says. Also, corporate bureaucracy began to take a toll. "It took too long to get anything done," he says. "I started to wonder if I could ever stand the corporate life."
University of Minnesota, M.B.A. program
"I didn't know about finance, I didn't know about marketing, and I didn't have a general overview of business," Miller says. So in 1990 he left his job and went back to school full-time for a yearlong program. There, he notes, his marketing classes drew heavily on case studies from the consumer goods industry, a tip-off to Miller that if he wanted "classical training in marketing," he'd be wise to find a job in that industry.
Michael Foods Inc., Marketing
Here, Miller learned about the symbiotic relationship between sales and marketing. "If we didn't listen to our sales reps, we'd come out with a product that no one would buy," he says.
ConAgra Inc., Marketing
Miller then moved to "the big time" at ConAgra in Omaha, where he spent a year marketing Healthy Choice brands.
The Pillsbury Co., Marketing
Returning to Pillsbury for an 18-month stint, Miller "felt like I spent more time talking about what I was doing than actually doing it. I was always pacifying executives." Or infuriating them. At Pillsbury he ignored the chain of command, butted heads with bosses, and neglected paperwork. In other words, he behaved like a guy who ought to stop being a corporate malcontent and begin thinking about starting his own company.
Hound Dog Products Inc., Founder
With stepfather Hank as partner, Miller placed a newspaper ad soliciting business opportunities and discovered an enthusiastic gardener with back problems who had invented a weed puller that one could use standing up. "My eyes bugged out," recalls Miller, a Sunday gardener. "I was willing to bet my life on it." So after working out a licensing deal with the inventor, he quit his job on a Friday and started his company the following Monday. Last year Hound Dog Products, profitable since its fourth year, posted $5 million in sales.
DONNA FENN is the author of Upstarts! How Gen-Y Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.
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