Entrepreneur, VC offers shortcuts to help startups be more successful

December 10, 2012

Image courtesy of Mark Hopkins.

Suggesting there are shortcuts entrepreneurs can take to improve their chances of success would appear to refute Malcolm Gladwell’s popular “10,000 hours” theory.

But instead of picking a fight with the “Outliers” author, entrepreneur and fund manager Mark Hopkins is just trying to be provocative to get people to pick up his own book: “Shortcut to Prosperity: 10 Entrepreneurial Habits and a Roadmap For An Exceptional Career”.

“I’m not at all refuting Gladwell’s 10,000 hours,” confessed Hopkins, 53, who actually references Gladwell in the book. “The shortcut is really a way to get people to pick up the book and for me to say: ’If you do these things then you have a good shot at it, but it’s going to be a lot of work.’”

As far as the 10,000 hours goes, Hopkins has put in his time as an entrepreneur. After a career with Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), Hopkins started his own medical device manufacturing company – Peak Industries – in 1996 and sold it nearly a decade later in 2004 for $44 million to Delphi (NYSE:DPH).

After that success, Hopkins, who describes himself as an “operations guy,” was looking to share his knowledge with other entrepreneurs and started up his own Denver, Colorado-based private equity firm – Crescendo Capital Partners.

“The motivation there was to continue to be involved in small businesses that we thought we could help,” said Hopkins, who targets companies with market capitalizations of $20 million or less in the health services industry.

Since starting the firm five years ago, Hopkins has switched from early-stage companies to more mature businesses: “We’re taking larger positions in small, boring, mature companies that we think we can help grow and operate better.”

He said one of the most important things successful companies share is what he refers to as “creative tension,” which emanates from founders who have a clear vision about where they are and where you want to be.

“Any entity that doesn’t have that clearly in mind is going to be wandering in the wilderness.”

The following is an abridged version of the conversation between Hopkins and Reuters Small Business:

What are some key takeaways for entrepreneurs from your experience and from your book?

The most fundamental thing about successful startups has to do with people. Startups only survive if they do something better, faster and cheaper than the other guys that are out there. The best indicator of whether you are able to do that or not, is the strength of the people you’re able to hire and how well they work together as a team. Do what you have to do to get the best people on the team and then use trust to cement their relationship. Teams that trust each other way outperform teams that don’t.

Every startup has a core group of leaders who are going to make great sacrifice and spend an inordinate amount of time with each other to make an organization a success. Choose them wisely. A good partner means someone who shares your values, balances your strengths, will work as hard as you do and is fun to be around. If you can do those things, you’ve got a wonderful opportunity to be successful.

Where do you see private equity right now and where it’s heading?

I see two different worlds in private equity. I see the really large private equity entities in the world – the multi-billion-dollar companies that are doing multi-billion-dollar deals – and that’s all about asset utilization and somebody having a better way to utilize assets that are captured in a big company. That’s not the world I play in. I play in the world that makes much smaller investments in arenas that we’re familiar with where it’s pretty clear to us how to operate those companies better.

I’m pretty bullish about private equity, because I always think there will be companies that are under-utilizing their assets. The amounts of leverage you’ll be able to attract through debt is going to be a lot different going forward than it has in the past, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It puts more of a premium on operating, which is more fundamentally helpful to the company.

A lot of private equity firms have been pretty outspoken about where they sit on the whole fiscal cliff debate. What’s your take on it?

I have a pretty moderate take on it. We’ve got spending problems that we fundamentally have to understand and begin to take actions to address. On the other hand we are historically gathering revenues that are under what it takes as a percentage of GDP to run our country the way we want to run it. We need both parties to come together. Somebody, or some group of people, has got to stand up. I listened to Erskine Bowles (Democratic co-chair of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform with Republican Senator Alan Simpson) on a call the other day and was super impressed – he’s a Democrat I could believe in. I’ve heard Senator Simpson talk and I can say the same thing about him. If somebody would embrace the recommendations from a balanced set of knowledgeable guys like that, I think we can get this thing done.

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