Startup State of Mind

Gregg Fairbrothers distills entrepreneurship advice into an easy-to-read guide.

Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share via Email Share

Question: What do these ideas have in common: virtual-patient software for training medical school students; an in-ear noise-reduction system for pilots in the military; and a board game where players build words using string, glass beads, and colored cubes?

Answer: Each is the basis of a successful company founded with the advice and consultation of the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network (DEN). In the order in which they appear: iInTime, Sound Innovations, and Morphology.

Gregg Fairbrothers D’76, an adjunct professor of business administration at Tuck, is the founding director of DEN, which has worked with more than 300 people in the Dartmouth community to turn innovative ideas into real products and companies. At Tuck, he teaches the popular Introduction to Entrepreneurship course, which anyone with a Dartmouth or Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center email address can audit. He also teaches entrepreneurship courses to second-year Tuck students and students at Dartmouth Medical School (DMS).

Now Fairbrothers and co-author Tessa Winter D’09 have taken everything from those experiences and courses and put it in one book: “From Idea to Success: The Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network Guide For Startups.” It’s divided into three sections: The Framework, Building Your Idea, and Managing the Company, and the authors cover everything from the broad themes of entrepreneurial qualities to financing, law, social entrepreneurship, and sales. Sprinkled throughout the chapters are vignettes—“What I Know Now That I Wish I Had Known Then”—by founders of successful companies advised by DEN.

Fairbrothers has been thinking like an entrepreneur ever since he was a Dartmouth undergraduate. All he wanted then was to buy a farm near Hanover and live the rural life. But he needed startup money for that venture, so he decided to capitalize on his aptitude for natural science by joining Texaco as a geologist. He left after a few years and joined a much smaller oil and gas exploration firm, now called Samson Resources Company, which he helped grow into a large multinational business, opening new subsidiaries in Canada, Russia, Australia, and Venezuela.

Fairbrothers bought his farm in 1983—a hilltop place five miles from Hanover—and moved there after he retired, in 1999. It wasn’t long before he realized that Dartmouth, Tuck, DMS, and Thayer were fertile ground for innovation and entrepreneurs, so Fairbrothers approached former Dartmouth president James Wright and current Tuck School dean Paul Danos about starting DEN. “I said, ‘You need a resource at this college to be your interface to commercialism and entrepreneurial education,’” he explains. “This wave is coming.” He started DEN in 2001 and, three years later, founded the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center (DRTC), an independent not-for-profit incubator for startup companies that need office and laboratory space to get up and running. Together, DEN and DRTC offer something rare yet valuable: a seamless link between advising and company formation services, and physical space for ideas to be honed and tested.

“From Idea to Success” adds yet another resource to the mix, but Fairbrothers cautions that a book can only take one so far. “Learning how to be entrepreneurial is very experiential,” he says. “It’s not like some academic subject where there’s a canon of information.”

We sat down with Fairbrothers to learn more about what it takes to add social value to a crowded marketplace.

How do you define “entrepreneur?”

Right off the bat, you’re thinking of it as a noun. I think the focus should be on the adjective— “entrepreneurial.” The former is binary: are you an entrepreneur or not? That’s a false dichotomy. The latter is a set of characteristics and a way of doing things and a way of thinking. It’s taking nothing and turning it into something. It’s looking for opportunities and being willing to take risks. That’s a life skill, not a profession, and it can be used in all professions. I want the reader to learn to be entrepreneurial and go out and apply that wherever they end up.

In the introduction, you say that entrepreneurs are vital to the success of the U.S. economy. Why is that?

Growth comes from opportunity. Growth doesn’t come from doing more of the same thing. Innovation is how things get better. The book is not about just making money. It’s about adding social value, and the theory is if you add social value and do it intelligently as a businessperson, you ought to be able to make really good money. That’s the business execution side of it. But there are a lot of things you can do entrepreneurially that add a lot of value but are not-for-profit businesses, and the book talks about them too. The same principles apply, the same practices work.

What is it about this economic climate that makes entrepreneurs especially important?

Innovation is a function of politics, culture, science and technology, and initiative. Politically speaking, you’ve got to have a system that allows for this to happen. There’s a reason why in societies without a rule of law, without protection of private property, it’s hard to innovate. There’s also got to be a culture that embraces change and thinks new stuff is exciting. We understand where science and technology come in. Then there’s initiative: somebody’s actually got to do something, otherwise this is all just dry tinder sitting around. Change is the match that lights the tinder. Change is the condition that allows for opportunities to flourish. In static environments, it’s very hard to do new things. Today, between the cultural and technological shifts we’ve experienced, and now this massive economic shift, all of these create change, which opens the door for people to be innovative. That’s why the entrepreneur is the only hope for adding social value: all the other forces are trying to preserve the status quo.

In the book, you make a point to say that being entrepreneurial involves being careful with what you think you know versus what you only suppose. Why is that so important to being entrepreneurial?

I’ll go back to the definition of business: a human activity in which judgments are made based on messy, incomplete, and incoherent data. So you have two problems with the data: validity and relevance. That’s why you need to be so careful about what you think you know and what you don’t. If you take all data as equal, you’re going to be wrong, because some of it isn’t relevant and a good share of it is bad. That’s the average day for a businessperson.

You take some time in the book to explain the elevator pitch. What is it and why is it so hard to do right?

Almost all ideas have some kind of value. Most of the business execution plans are plausible. By comparison, the number of people who can talk about their idea in a way that a listener can hear it, understand it, and repeat it a week later without assistance to a third party—we’re in single digits, percentage wise. If you can’t get attention and buy-in at a conceptual level, you’re never going the rest of the way.

Where do most promising entrepreneurs stumble or fail?

There are several pitfalls. First, they start with the wrong definition of what they’re trying to do. Second, they often fail to talk to the customer and really focus on how is this valuable enough to be self-sustaining. There’s a fundamental confusion of the value of an idea and the value of execution; it’s all about the execution. Finally, there’s an incredible insensitivity to how important the team is. People don’t spend enough time thinking about who is on the team, what are their skills, and how they might work together.