What makes for a successful entrepreneur? Some advice from those who’ve been there

What makes an entrepreneur successful? Countless books, articles, blogs, and videos have explored that question, as well as scholarly works that have identified common traits spanning time, technology, and market trends.

There’s no single answer because entrepreneurs come in distinct flavors. There are mom-and-pop small business owners, lifestyle entrepreneurs who follow a personal passion, social entrepreneurs who turn a cause into a career, and “gazelles” who launch high-growth businesses that disrupt markets with big ideas.

The economy needs them all, especially in an era when other factors — global competition, regulatory hurdles, and technology itself — are rapidly changing how businesses are created, grow, and prosper.

Two corporate leaders who made their marks in very different industries offered their views on what it takes to start and grow a business at the recent Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, an annual gathering that offers hands-on ways for young businesses to learn more.

Featured speakers included Craig Culver, who co-founded the Sauk City-based Culver’s restaurant franchising system that includes about 510 stores in 23 states, and Jack Lynch, CEO of globally recognized Renaissance Learning in Wisconsin Rapids and a veteran of several high-growth software companies.

Culver was the winner of the annual Ken Hendricks Memorial “Seize the Day” award, which goes to an entrepreneur who has persisted — usually in the face of adversity. Culver, who resisted getting into the restaurant business as a young man because he saw how hard his parents worked, eventually came “home” when the startup bug finally bit.

Culver delivered an emotional talk on the importance of being passionate about what you do, developing other people and systems along the way, and not compromising on a commitment to quality for customers.

“I believe my father was a true entrepreneur. He believed he couldn’t fail,” Culver said. “Yes, you can fail, but doggone it, when you do [fail], you get back up and go at it again.”

Culver said it’s possible to teach business mechanics to many people, but it’s much harder to instill a sense of passion or cultivate people skills. That’s the secret sauce behind the Culver’s franchising approach, which he described as: “Find other people like ourselves, sell them a franchise, and let them go at it” while developing and challenging their own teams.

In his remarks, Lynch focused on three factors that have been critical to the success of Renaissance, which began in the mid-1980s as one of the first computer-based systems for helping children who were challenged by reading. Today, Renaissance programs are used in 43,000 schools by millions of teachers across the United States and around the world. The company was acquired for $1.1 billion early this year and is the largest private employer in Wisconsin Rapids, a city long known for being a paper industry hub.



One success factor for Renaissance is a shared passion for the company’s core mission. “We’re very focused on getting kids literate by third grade,” Lynch said. “[Literacy] is a big problem for our country,” and a long-term threat to the nation’s economic and democratic underpinnings.

Another is commitment to quality through what Lynch described as “intense customer focus.” After describing what happens to users who contact a typical software company with a problem — “it’s usually a horrible customer experience” — Lynch talked about the Renaissance method.

Every call or online chat request at Renaissance is answered in seven seconds or less. That’s no small feat with 353,000 such customer contacts in the latest year. That means more customer service representatives work at Renaissance than in any other employee category.

The third factor? “The boring stuff matters most,” Lynch declared. Even larger companies must pay attention to details that allow them to “fail and learn” along the way, not unlike lean startup principles often followed by emerging companies.

Whether your company is selling burgers or bytes, the common message shared by Culver and Lynch is that passion, customer care, and innovation matter. That’s a lesson for entrepreneurs of all flavors.

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