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Bootstrap To Billions


Craig Swanson: Definity Health

Starting with mowing lawns in fifth grade, Swanson graduated to painting houses in junior high, aspiring to paint them like a professional. From there he graduated to full-time construction work in the summer and college at the University of Vermont during the school year.

With a degree in economics and political science, he joined the management group of Meredith & Grew, an old-line real estate company in Boston.

Soon, he moved to TCF Bank in Minneapolis during the S&L crisis, before joining the MBA program at the University of Minnesota. After graduation, he became a consultant with Deloitte & Touche, where he spotted an opportunity in health care payment. Read more

Lloyd Sigel: Lloyd’s Barbeque

Lloyd Sigel started his business career selling roofing and siding with his dad, whom he calls “one of the best salesmen he has ever seen – one who could overcome any objection and get the sale”. This was at the age of 13.

From there he moved on to painting houses while in high school and selling advertising while in college. When he finished college he took his first professional job with a reduction in pay because he could not find a job that paid him a comparable amount.

His first job happened to be in the food industry where Sigel quickly made his mark as a superb salesman. This caught the eye of a food industry entrepreneur who hired Sigel and then made him a partner. This partnership became very productive and Sigel soon found himself buying a nearly bankrupt food company to pursue his passion – to sell pre-cooked ribs to restaurants and food stores. He bought the assets by assuming the liabilities, which is a great way to get into your own business especially if you do not want to invest a lot of cash and you know how to turn the business around. Read more

Brett Shockley: Spanlink Communications

Brett Shockley’s parents were entrepreneurs. His mother taught dance and baton twirling. His father owned a foreign car and repair shop and Shockley started working on car engines at the age of 10.

It was only natural for Brett to create products and services, and sell them, and he got into entrepreneurial activities in junior high school. That is when he learned to ride unicycles in gym class – in fact he became so focused on learning to ride that he skipped other classes to learn and then built his own unicycle because he couldn’t afford to buy one.

When he was 16 he dropped out of high school and started at the University of Minnesota on an early entrance program where he got his B.S. degree in mechanical engineering, and his MBA. He joined ADC Telecommunications following graduate school and he got an introduction to the fast-changing telecommunications industry. Read more

Stephen G. Shank: Capella Education Company

When Steve Shank was an undergraduate, he wanted to go to law school. But since he was awarded a fellowship, he used it to get a Masters in International Relations and Law. Then he was drafted and joined the military.

After his stint in the military, Shank got his degree from Harvard Law School. When he graduated, he and his wife had two kids, and he wanted to avoid the hassle of the East Coast (the final straw was when he had to stand in line at a grocery store at midnight) and moved back to the Midwest where he grew up.

He joined Dorsey & Whitney, one of the premier law firms in Minneapolis. But he found out that he was one of the oldest associates, so when he got the offer to become corporate counsel to a major toy manufacturer called Tonka Toys, he grabbed the opportunity.

This soon led to him becoming CEO of Tonka at the age of 34. After an ill-timed acquisition, Tonka was sold and Shank had time on his hands.

That is when he saw giant waves converge and came up with the concept of an online university for graduate education. This vision has now grown to a $260 million (sales) company with market valuation of about $1 billion.

This is how he did it.

This introduction is excerpted from Bootstrap to Billions: Proven Rules from Entrepreneurs who Built Great Companies from Scratch by Dr. Dileep Rao. Copying or reproduction in any format or medium without the prior express, written consent of the author is strictly prohibited.

Richard Schulze: Best Buy Co. Inc.

At the age of 11, Dick Schulze started delivering newspapers in St. Paul, Minn. Using tips from his newspaper route, he bought the first car any sophomore student had at his high school and paid for his own insurance, while paying his dad a small amount as his share of the expenses.

His dad was teaching him accountability (and, as a father, maybe trying to get a teenager to postpone the start of his driving). After graduating from high school, he joined the Air National Guard.

After his full-time training, Schulze became a sales representative for consumer-electronics companies, including Sony, Sherwood and others. As a representative for these companies, Schulze helped retailers to market their products and learned first-hand how to sell consumer electronics – on someone else’s dime. Read more

Guy Schoenecker: BI

Guy Schoenecker was raised in the small town of Eden Valley, Minn. His parents were in the plumbing, heating, and wiring business. After World War II, they had to be creative to survive in a small community, so they expanded their services by studying mortuary science and eventually opened and operated three funeral homes.

As a teenager, Schoenecker helped his parents with their businesses and grew and sold vegetables on the side. He learned the importance of customer service in that small town, where “everyone knows everyone.”

After high school, he enrolled at, and duly graduated from, the College of St. Thomas and went on to receive his law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School. To pay his way through school, Schoenecker built a thriving business selling diamonds and furniture to veterans returning to campus after World War II. Read more

Joel Ronning: Digital River Inc.

When Joel Ronning was at the University of Minnesota, he joined the sailing team and became its president. He found that he enjoyed organizing people so much that he started his first venture – a newsletter to connect buyers and sellers of Mercedes-Benz cars in the United States and Canada.

In succession, he started a venture to sell personal computer peripherals for the Apple computer, a consulting firm in the software industry and another company to sell computer peripherals for the Apple computer.

This taught him that it was more efficient to sell software over the Internet than by including them in disk drives or disks and sending them physically to buyers. From that insight, Ronning has built a company with annual sales of around $400 million and a market cap of nearly $1.3 billion. Read more

Harold Roitenberg: Modern Merchandising

After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in journalism, Harold Roitenberg started his business career working in the advertising department of Northwestern Auto Parts in Minneapolis.

He found the job boring, so he left and joined Minnesota Wholesalers, which his father-in-law owned. He stayed there for 10 years. When he joined the business, the product line was focused on horse supplies and related hardware. Due to his initiatives, when he left it 10 years later in 1960, the business was a thriving catalog showroom selling name-brand small appliances, housewares, electronics, and jewelry. Read more

Eric Paulson: Navarre Corporation

Eric Paulson was a football star at his Catholic high school in South Bend, Indiana. His father played football for Knute Rockne and after graduating from college, he became a pro wrestler called Horrible Howard.

So it was only natural that Paulson would take up football. Paulson followed in his father’s footsteps and started playing competitive football in the fifth grade.

To earn extra money, he started selling shoes and became very good at it. After high school, he kept trying to excel at college football, but injuries soon put an end to those hopes. He started selling tires, and his sales skill so impressed one of his customers that he referred Paulson to a friend who was starting a company to distribute a new way of listening to music: 8-track tapes. Read more

Don Kotula: Northern Tool & Equipment

What do you do for a career if your dad owns a salvage yard in Hibbing, Minn., (former home of Bob Dylan) and does not believe in sales or marketing, but you happen to like machines, tools, and selling to customers to make them happy? You build an $800 million (sales) giant in the tool and equipment industry.

Leonard Kotula, Don’s dad, owned a small salvage yard in Hibbing. Leonard Kotula’s philosophy was that if you could walk, you could work. Don Kotula started working in the family business “since he was born.”

They would buy cars and equipment from a variety of sources, including area mines that were changing from mining iron ore in underground mines to open-pit taconite mines, and resell them as parts or steel. Read more

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