Like millions of Americans, I am addicted to the hit TV show Mad Men. For the uninitiated, Mad Men is the tale of an advertising agency set in the early 1960s. The time period is fascinating to watch, as it was a time of massive societal change, some of which is reflected in something as simple as the way the female characters wear their hair.
But in this week’s season finale, the show proved a little ahead of its time. Sterling Cooper, the fictional agency where the characters work, is set to be sold to a much larger corporate ad agency. Don Draper, the star employee at Sterling Cooper (and the show’s “hero”) doesn’t want to become a little fish in a much bigger pond, and he tries to convince his bosses, Mr. Sterling and Mr. Cooper, to start a new agency together. “I want to build something on my own!” he pleads. At first he meets with resistance, as Cooper says, “Young men love risks because they can’t imagine consequences.” But finally Draper is able to appeal to the dormant entrepreneurial spirit buried within the man, reminding him of the risk he took many years ago by starting his own agency to begin with.
And because things are much simpler in TV land, after cherry-picking some key employees and clients and setting up office space in a hotel room, corporate appendage Sterling Cooper morphs into the entrepreneurial new firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
How many of you can identify with Don Draper? I sure did, and while in Palm Springs, Calif. to attend Ernst & Young’s Strategic Growth Forum, an annual gathering of entrepreneurs, I was reminded of why I originally went into business for myself. This event opened with a speech from Steve Howe, E&Y’s Americas Managing Partner, in which he told us that half of all Fortune 500 companies were founded during an economic downturn. More important, he said, “Entrepreneurs are the best hope for the global economic recovery.”
This message was reinforced during a Charlie Rose-moderated panel where corporate leaders from SAP, 1-800-Flowers.com, Kohler, and Manpower encouraged us entrepreneurs with their tales from the trenches. All are cautiously optimistic about the economic recovery.
But this wasn’t just a pep talk; the panel shared some great advice. Here are some highlights:
On Surviving the Economy
Jeffrey Joerres, chairman and CEO, Manpower, Inc.:
“If you’ve been the leader of a business for the last 18 months, it’s been all about the tradeoffs. What can we do? What can’t we do?”
“It’s a great time to find good talent.”
Rob Enslin, president of SAP, North America:
“It’s a great time to grow. We gained market share [during the recession] by changing our business model. ”
“[Businesses] need to react quickly in the marketplace and be bold about it.”
“Find out what your customers want and package it for them. Provide digestible solutions.”
“You have to solve customer problems or you won’t be in business.”
Jim McCann, founder and CEO, 1-800-Flowers.com: “Know your customer and serve them accordingly.”
Joerres: It’s all about “flexibility and agility.”
Herb Kohler, chairman of the board and CEO, Kohler Company: Kohler, who works with a lot of factories in China, advises you to always initially meet people “eyeball to eyeball.” Then you can teleconference, but you “should always have follow up, face-to-face meetings.”
McCann: “Invest in the future. Embrace new technology.” Taking advantage of that technology, McCann now has thousands of employees working out of their homes.
On the Entrepreneurial Culture
McCann: “It’s easy to create. No staff. No budget. [Thinking] we’ll change all the rules. But we can’t control the culture. We can influence it by whom we hire, whom we fire, how you reward your employees, and how you celebrate.”
Joerres: “Kill the organization chart mentality. There needs to be collaboration throughout your company. Of course, you still need a framework and guidelines. Without that, it’s a cowboy mentality.”
On Speaking the Truth
Over the years, Jim McCann has uttered some of my favorite quotes about entrepreneurship. He didn’t disappoint at the Strategic Growth Forum when he noted the shift in power over the last two years: “There’s been a ‘sucking up’ reversal of fortune. Two years ago banks were sucking up to us. Now I am sucking up to them.”
It’s important for all of us to get out of the office and attend events and conferences like E&Y’s Strategic Growth Forum. They’re not only great places to meet other entrepreneurs and learn from the truly successful, but being at a conference is a great way (short of Don Draper yelling at you) to shift from worrying about surviving to worrying about thriving and to your entrepreneurial juices flowing again.
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