"I cannot think of a better climate in the last 15 years to launch a new business than right now.”
Spoken by Drew Lipsher, partner in Greycroft venture capital firm, these words increasingly echo the thoughts of both investors and entrepreneurs alike. Buying habits have changed, rather than entirely stopped. People are ready for something innovative. Venturists and funders, in the face of failing traditional venues, are scouring around for new investments.
The huge recessional fly in this entrepreneurial ointment is that businesses must make a far stronger presentation to funding sources and potential clients than ever before. To aid them on this quest, the College of New Jersey’s Small Business Development Center offers the free course, “Starting a Small Business A to Z,” instructed by successful serial entrepreneur Jerry Rovner on Thursday, May 7, at 6 p.m. at the Ewing Library Visit www.tcnj.edu/~sbdc or call 609-771-2947.
Rovner’s entrepreneurial agility sets an ideal role model for his students. A native of Philadelphia, he has spent most of his working days in Allentown, New Jersey. Rovner attended the University of Wisconsin, earning a bachelors in history and business administration — an achievement interrupted by his “winning the Vietnam lottery in 1969” as he terms it. While in the Navy Rovner served as a deep sea diver, responsible for submarine rescue operations for six years until becoming disabled. Remaining in the service, he earned his master’s in human resource management from Pepperdine and then remained active in the naval reserves for the next three decades.
Adapting his logistical, HR, and organizational skills to the business world, Rovner worked for the Fedders Corporation as director of marketing. He then joined Intermodal Operations for Ameriport, directing that company’s rail, sea, and trucking operations. As COO of Rail Head CFS and RHP Transportation, he handled all traffic in a series of warehouses. Following 9/11, Rovner was again called up to military service and spent a year laboring at Ground Zero, organizing ground and naval operations.
In 2005 he joined Rapid Response Computer Services in Robbinsville as partner and business manager. In addition to servicing computer hardware, Rapid Response has brought new products such as “E-Manage,” a total logistical package for small businesses, as well as a new computer game soon to market. Meanwhile, he runs the Rovner Consulting Group, aiding veterans who want to maintain or launch new businesses.
“The businesses that are going to succeed will be those who are very agile, ready to change, and can get jobs accomplished with a minimum of cash,” says Rovner.
Mission migration. Almost every entrepreneur begins with a dream product. While this makes a fine first step, the trick is not to be wedded to it. Rovner insists that all good businesses undergo a constant evolution, based on customer need. What served the customer perfectly during the initial marketing surveys will almost assuredly change. Your company’s mission must migrate with it, or it will starve.
Challenge as currency. Establishing a payroll and hiring staff with benefits and offices can be an obvious fiscal crusher for the shoestring startup. “Amid this current economic downturn,” says Rovner, “it is far easier to find people of great skills whom you can pay with a percentage and a challenge that they love, rather than salary.” In seeking a sales force for Rapid Response’s newest line, Rovner scoured the well-slumped real estate industry and found several people anxious and capable of selling on straight, unemployed commission. Immigrants need work. Disabled people typically have expensive healthcare needs. Both groups provide excellent, loyal talent pools for a firm’s needs.
Similarly, in product development, there are many skilled, unemployed people who are willing to work for a piece of the action. “The key here is passion,” says Rovner. “You’ve got to find a people with a great desire for their work — and that takes a lot of scrutiny up front.”
Learn weaknesses. However fabulous an entrepreneur may be at sales or development, no one is capable of handling expertly all aspects of the business. Rovner suggests a lot of realistic self examination by each owner to find his time limits and his weak areas. Such an assessment offers a strong guide in whom one selects as partners.
Once the team is assembled the company must accurately judge its own capabilities. “I always steer startups away from government work — even on the local or county level,” says Rovner. “There is just too much paperwork, demanding too many employee hours to make the jobs profitable.”
Those who have the right product, which they are willing to tweak frequently to the right need, may very well survive. And if they trim costs and fill their roster with a diverse, passionate staff, these worst of times might just become the best of times. New businesses have thrived in a lot harsher climate than ours right now.