Bisnow Entrepreneurship Series

This morning, I woke up grumpy. Might have to do with the fact that I got home at 2:30 am, after three exhausting tradeshow days in Las Vegas and a flight that involved a very large man seated next to me (whose bulk kept overflowing in my seat) and a 2-year old across the aisle from me who had a 4 hour temper tantrum (equivalent of a lifetime dose of birth control). Oh, and the fact that I woke up at 6 am for a crazy day. When I am grumpy, only three things tend to be foolproof in helping my mood: red lipstick (check); a cute dress (check; and white in honor of the first day of summer); and inspiration from other entrepreneurs (check). I came so close to not attending the Bisnow Entrepreneur Series event this morning, for which I had a couple of weeks ago re-arranged some client meetings (which I never do), in order to sleep one additional hour. But I did go, and am so happy I did. Not only did I run into some of my favorite people in the DC entrepreneurship community, including Kate Palmer of Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship and Jeff Reid of Georgetown University, but I finally had the opportunity to hear and to meet a hero among us DC entrepreneurs (in particular among us Georgetown McDonough School of Business graduates), Michael Chasen of Blackboard. His presentation was more effective than an extra hour of sleep or four extra cups of coffee in terms of waking me up, and changing my mood.

For those of you who have met him, it will come as no surprise that I would describe him as handsome (he actually asked me put that in my blog, although I would have even if he hadn’t), charismatic, confident, funny, smart. He gave us the short story about how he started Blackboard (which today is a public company, has over $500M in revenues and over $100M in EBIDTA), and then shared some key lessons learned along the way.

Lesson #1: “Focus on the business, not on the office.” Work on the business model and forget about everything else, including a fancy corporate suite and expensive office chairs.

Lesson #2: “Networking is essential.” It’s all about who you know, who you know that knows someone who is the neighbor of the best friend of the wife of someone you really need to meet.

Lesson #3: “Constantly share your vision” (in a memorable and confident way). He told of introducing himself at a networking event (see lesson #2) as “Hi, I’m Michael, co-founder of Blackboard, an e-learning company, and we are very excited about our first deal with Microsoft.” (Their first deal being the purchase of Microsoft Office).

Lesson #4: “While you need to seek advice, you also need to recognize that you are the expert in your business.” Supplement your vision with what you learn from others. The operative word being “supplement” (ie not “replace”).

Lesson #5: “You should have a business model that makes money.” When Michael started, the trendy thing for software companies was to give their software away for free. He admitted to adding up zeros in all the columns of an Excel workbook, and concluding that it still amounted to zero.

During the Q&A session, a few additional lessons, or pieces of advice, emerged. Michael, as most successful entrepreneurs I have heard say, spoke about the need for passion for what you are doing. As entrepreneurs, we work harder and (for a long time although hopefully not forever) for less money than we would if working for someone else. Only true passion can get us through that. His is passion for education. He also talked about making mistakes everyday, and about the importance of not dwelling on these as negative experiences, but on learning from them, and most importantly, on incorporating them in your business strategy. He talked about his love of being a business based in downtown DC (I so relate to that). He talked about people who ask him “What do you do for fun” and him responding “My job is fun, my work is my hobby” (I so relate to that too).

The last audience question was something I had been wondering about since he started his presentation. How is it that he, Michael Chasen, the co-founder of Blackboard, is still the CEO? How has he been able to go from ideating the business to launching a startup to growing a small company to going through an IPO and to running a multi-hundred-million dollar business? Such a rare occurrence… With the matter-of-fact attitude he showed through the entire discussion “I’ve been successful by hitting our sales numbers every quarter.”

On that note, let me head back to the office and work on my own quarterly sales numbers. Eagerly,  effectively,  with a renewed sense of inspiration, and with no recollection whatsoever of the fat man, the screaming toddler, or my short night. Thank you Michael.