A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.
Brian Coryat, Founder and CEO of Local Market Launch and former Founder and CEO of ValueClick (NASDAQ: VCLK) recently winged his talk at UC Santa Barbara’s Distinguished Lecture Series. Despite winging it, his talk was both informative and delightful.
He shared a number of witty entrepreneurial insights, including: “Startups are like high school. Both are fun, but mostly in hindsight. Talk to a high school kid, they’re not having that much fun.” (Note: I am an investor in Brian’s current startup via Rincon Venture Partners.)
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Professional Winging It
At the outset of his talk, Brian told the audience that he intended to “wing it.” If I did not know Brian well, I would have cringed. As noted in How To Give A Horrendous Investor Pitch, lack of preparation is a great way to ensure that your talk will suck.
However, Brian is a professional “winger,” having performed extemporaneously throughout his entrepreneurial career. Thus, I knew the audience was in good hands, despite his intent to speak off the cuff. In his words, “My wife and I were talking a couple weeks ago, and I mentioned that I’m gonna be doing a guest lecture over at UCSB and she (asked me) ‘What are you gonna talk about?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know… I think I’ll just wing it’ and of course… they all looked at me horrified.
But the more I started to think about it, I said, well, why the hell not? Why not just wing it? I mean, that’s what entrepreneurs do every day. We get up in the morning, and especially in a start-up environment, an environment of this extreme uncertainty, and we wing it.
When I went into work today, I didn’t realize that Monday morning we’re going to be pitching UPS on a big contract, on a product that, guess what, it doesn’t even exist. And I’m going to wing it. But that’s what entrepreneurs do everyday. We get up in the morning and we wing it and my life has been kind of winging it from day one. So, today I’m gonna wing it.”
Talking To Yahoo’s Jerry Yang… In His Dorm
Brian began his interest in the Internet in 1994, as a means of selling his publishing company’s books. He had previously placed classified ads in newspapers and then mailed the books to purchasers. He quickly realized the power of the Internet when he came across a relatively obscure site, called Yahoo! “Back then it was really hard because the Internet didn’t make any sense, it was just this thing, you couldn’t find anything. But there was this one site that somebody told me about or maybe I read about and it was called Yahoo! and it was run by some college students up north (at) Stanford. I looked at it because it had… (a) cool site of the day (feature).
And so I said, ‘Well, how do I get at it? There’s no business category… how do I put my business on here?’ And I couldn’t figure it out, so I sent an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I got an email back and… he wanted to talk to me, so I ended up calling the dorm and… finally I get a hold of him and he was a nobody, I was a nobody, but this was Jerry Yang, the (Co-) Founder of Yahoo. He got on the phone and says, ‘Oh yeah, I like (your) catalog, I like (your) webpage, yeah, we’ll put that on Yahoo.’
The next day, I get two orders (and) I say, ‘Wow, two orders, I got two orders.’ The next day I got three orders, I said, ‘Wow, this is great.'”
Mining The Miners
Brian quickly realized that the Internet was a great distribution system for marketing his books and distributing them electronically. However, he also realized that a far bigger opportunity existed with respect to helping other businesses sell their goods and services online. According to Brian, “I started to understand how this Internet thing was evolving and I said, ‘Well I’m gonna make it my life’s mission. Every morning I gonna spend the first hours of my day… crawl(ing) the Internet and I’m gonna find places to get my website linked up. And that’s what I did. Three, four hours, five hours every day, I’d find a link here, a link there, a link somewhere else.
I was able to finally take the business completely online and stop mailing all those catalogs, stop licking all those envelopes, stop all the stamping. So, it was great and I was enjoying it and then I realized (that) if I need to get people to my website, everybody’s gonna need to get people to their website and you’ll have all these businesses coming online.
I’ve got the list. I can have my employee do it in about two hours. I pay her $15 an hour, that’s $30, so I’ll charge $89.99 and I’ll put a directory listing service on the Internet. So, I took an afternoon and that’s literally what it took to put it together… and in two weeks I had a 200 order backlog. I was horrified, because I had all these people sending me money — so I doubled the price, because I didn’t know what else to do. And I say, ‘Maybe that’ll slow it down.’ In three weeks, I have a 300-order backlog, so I doubled the price again.”
Winging It With No Backup
Brian’s penchant for winging it nearly killed ValueClick at a critical time in its maturation. During a freak Santa Barbara rainstorm, the company sole server went down because of a citywide power outage. Fortunately, Brian’s ability to improvise kept the company alive.
“(At) ValueClick, our entire business was in one machine. One morning I got up, again, winging it, and there’s this fricking storm. People literally were swimming under the freeway. (The electricity went out)… and the banners are down. And back in those days if the banner went down…the website wouldn’t load.
If the banners went down that means our publishers would hate us and they’d take off the banner. It was our biggest problem finding these publishers so we couldn’t stand to lose publishers.
So… I’m driving around town with my cell phone… looking for a generator… frantic, and finally (an employee calls and ) says, ‘I found an outlet!’ So we’re in the third floor.. (and) the outlet.. is down three stories.
So I went to the hardware store… and I bought every extension cord they had in the entire place. We ran that extension cord down three stories and across half a block and plugged it in, banners are up!”
The Core Of Entrepreneurship
Brian concluded his talk by re-visiting the concept of winging it. In doing so, he shared the vital element that must be present in order for an extemporaneous strategy to succeed. “I came in here tonight to wing it. I said okay, I’m just gonna wing it. I don’t have a PowerPoint presentation. I’m not hiding behind any slides. I’m just gonna do it, and how do I do that?
Well it all boils down to belief, you know? And everything in entrepreneurship boils down to you absolutely have to believe it, as deep as deep can get, that you can do it.
I’m able to surround myself with smart people… bring in investor capital, and… keep people motivated (because of) a deep set belief. I think that’s really at the core of entrepreneurship.”
Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I won’t tweet a photo of a killer burrito I am about to devour – just startup stuff.