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A Serial Entrepreneur's 4 Keys to Success

This serial entrepreneur has the experience to give some sound advice to any rookie founder.
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Since I began researching for my book, Hungry Start-up Strategy, two years ago, I’ve interviewed over 200 entrepreneurs. Bill Seibel is one of the few against whom I would not bet.

He started three companies: the first was a financial failure; the second was a financial success; and the third is a work in progress. But before his first start-up, he demonstrated traits that make him unstoppable in my opinion.

And the four keys to Seibel’s success could help you in your entrepreneurial journey as well.

1. Not born with a silver spoon in your mouth? Use it to your advantage.

Not everyone is born to wealth and privilege. But starting modestly does not doom you to a modest existence. Especially in America, people with talent and a need to prove their worth to the more privileged can achieve great things.

Seibel is a Pittsburgh native who earned a BS from Penn State and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon. He worked with MIT-founded start-ups early in his career and when I talked with him recently he hinted that he used the feeling of being from a less affluent background to push himself forward in tough situations.

For example, Cambridge Technology Partners (CATP), a client-server systems consulting firm, put him in charge of building its European presence.

As he explained, “We had a joint venture with Getronics -- based in the Netherlands. I was in Europe and had to make the JV work. So I started cold calling and making pitches in what was a foreign language to those prospects.”

But things worked out well. According to Seibel, “We ended up with outposts in nine countries, generating $100 million in revenue and a 16 percent EBITDA margin. Then I came back to the U.S. and became COO -- running nine of 12 business units.”

Let the need to prove yourself drive you to great results.

2. Failure can happen, despite your best efforts. Accept it and move on.

Sometimes failures can happen on a big scale due to factors that are beyond entrepreneurs’ control. In Seibel’s case, the failure was to build a successful Internet consulting firm only to lose it in the collapse of the dot-com bubble.

At CATP, Seibel saw corporate computing’s shift from client-server architectures to Internet-based ones. So he raised $100 million in venture capital and built Zefer into a blue-chip customer heavy Internet consulting powerhouse with $132 million in revenue in 18 months. “It was fireworks on a foggy night. We priced our IPO the day before the NASDAQ crashed [in March 2000]. Of 68 Internet consulting firms -- only two survived. We were bought by NEC,” explained Seibel.

But Seibel did not let this discourage him for too long. He started forecasting software provider, Demantra -- built it to 140 customers and sold it for $41 million in 2006 to Oracle.

Don’t let failure get you down.

3. Pick the opportunity where your skills and customers’ future needs intersect.

It’s a cliché that you should skate to where the puck is heading. But you won’t be able to get there if your rivals are stronger skaters.

Seibel’s current venture mobile business strategy consultant, Mobiquity, builds on his skills and his vision of the future of corporate computing. With Cambridge Technology Partners and Zefer, he had previously built similar companies around client-server and Internet technologies and he concluded that mobile was the next wave.

And Mobiqity has been growing fast. According to Seibel, “We have 150 clients and have boosted revenues. Revenues have grown from $5 million in 2011 to $24 million through mid-July 2013.”

Mobiquity has assembled a strong team tapping a growing opportunity. “Mobile is expected to reach 35 percent of IT budgets by 2015,” he explained.

Pursue a growing market that needs what you’re good at doing.

4. Be true to your vision and values.

Reputation is very hard to build and quick to immolate. If you have a choice between taking a quick-buck contract but doing lousy work and preserving your reputation for excellence, pick the latter. If you keep your reputation, you can always bid for better jobs.

Mobiquity started with a few talented people and an opportunity to bid for a huge consulting project with a huge bank. Seibel explained, “A project manager at a large bank in New York was looking for help on a huge project. She was determined to talk to each of 35 vendors.”

Seibel got Mobiquity into the bidding and ultimately won. ”I met with her to describe our value proposition -- to help companies think of mobile as part of their overall business strategy, rather than an add-on,” said Seibel. “Six weeks later, we were one of seven finalists. After the final round, she told us we had won a $6 million contract that started the next day.”

But at this point, the Mobiquity story took a surprising twist. “She told us we won because we had the best people and the best value proposition. But I told her to find another firm because the job was too big for us to do well. Most of my team resigned but I raised money and built the company,” Seibel said.

Seibel was true to his vision and values. Use that and his other keys to achieve start-up success.

Last updated: Jul 23, 2013

PETER COHAN

Strategy consultant, startup investor, teacher, corporate speaker, pundit, and author of 11 books, Peter Cohan has invested in six startups, three of which were sold for a total of $2 billion. Before founding Peter S. Cohan & Associates in 1994, he worked with HBS strategy guru Michael E. Porter.




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