When we become stuck on the path to success (whether going from £0 to our first £1m, or from £10m to £100m) Eric Holtzclaw is a man we can turn to. A serial entrepreneur, and founder of over a dozen successful startups. Eric is an unconventional thinker with 20+ years of experience in the world of entrepreneurship and business building.
A prolific author and award-winning speaker on consumer behaviour and entrepreneurship, Eric is an expert in creating opportunity by identifying and capitalising on emerging trends and disruption opportunities to current business models. Using his wealth of experience, Eric helps lean start-ups, entrepreneurs and blue chip companies identify what’s holding them back, and then helps them grow to the next level.
We caught up with Eric to explore the important patterns he has discovered in business, and discuss the best ways to identify a market, test a concept, and think differently. We also to learn how to define our own personal unique entrepreneurial style, as individuals.
Read the magazine interview below, and listen to the full podcast episode here.
Getting to know Eric
Would you say you have you always been an entrepreneur?
I’ve always been either an entrepreneur, or an intrapreneur. It began after I joined IBM aged 18, and found I didn’t like the restrictive nature of large Fortune 500 organisations. After moving to a 40 person startup formed of ex-IBMers, I never really looked back. I enjoy the control and flexibility you have in smaller spaces.
I believe large companies should increasingly use an intrapreneurial approach to be more agile and try something new, without eroding their main business. For example, I’ve done a couple of deals where a large organisation would set up a separate entity (say, testing a new technology), and if we did well, the main organisation would ‘acquire’ us. Intrapreneurship is also a great way for aspiring entrepreneurs to test, experiment, innovate and learn how to start a business, but with the financial backing of a larger organisation.
“I believe large companies should increasingly use an intrapreneurial approach to be more agile and try something new, without eroding their main business.”
What would you say makes a good entrepreneur?
I think a combination of nature and nurture. Often people who have already faced challenge; who like to break rules, or prove somebody wrong make great entrepreneurs.
“Often people who have already faced challenge; who like to break rules, or prove somebody wrong make great entrepreneurs.”
While I was doing my podcast, for about 3-4 years, I was trying to uncover the patterns that define entrepreneurs, and found they fall into two categories; they either Rectify (try to prove somebody wrong) or Magnify (expand something that works well). Identifying which category you fit, as an entrepreneur, is hard. But thinking loosely, consider; do you live life in a way that tries to prove something? Or do you focus more on giving back to the world?
“I was trying to uncover the patterns that define entrepreneurs, and found they fall into two categories; they either Rectify, or Magnify.”
You’ve started over a dozen different companies over your career so far, but your current business, Laddering Works exists to help start-ups. Can you give an overview of what Laddering Works does, and how it came to be?
I owned a research company from 2001-2012 which worked with Fortune 500 and Global 2000 organisations whose products and services weren’t working; and it was my job to find out why.
I left that company to continue working with organisations in a more in-depth fashion. It’s my role to go in and assess core business problems; identifying what’s not working well and what must be done for that business to grow. Oftentimes these organisations are run by someone who lacks knowledge in a specific area – say an engineer who doesn’t understand marketing – and I’ll work on a consultancy basis as a part time CMO or CEO to get the business to the next level.
Over the last 5-10 years, what are the biggest shifts in the way you, and the businesses you work with, communicate to the world?
The financial and technological changes of the late 2000’s had a lot to do with it. In 2006 – 2008, we suddenly gained access to iPhones, social media, and moved into a world where brands and the individuals behind them were suddenly accessible.
At this point I was still at the research firm. Business had stalled, so I hired a PR company to review what we could improve and they told me I needed to be more accessible. I needed to be out there, getting up on stages, telling the story as the face of the business. Around that time I happened to have a very fortunate lunch with the editor of Inc. Magazine, who asked if I’d like to write a weekly column. That’s where it began, though it was scary. As a ‘recovering technologist’ and computer geek, you tend to believe that you can’t write. But now I love the writing process.
“We almost always know who’s running brands now. We want that experienced based knowledge behind that product. It’s always surprising to me when entrepreneurs don’t want to be on social media or speak about their brand. It’s so important.”
Your work as an entrepreneurial and start-up advisor is a real value-driven business. How do you balance providing that value against the financial side; being a money-driven entrepreneur?
I work with about 3-6 clients at a time and constantly review the best use of my time. I have a great team, so each time I go into a company they’re not only hiring me, but also hiring a set of tactically-minded individuals.
Freelancing and consulting or is a good model, but there’s a limit to how much work you can sell – you probably only have about 2000 hours a years (maximum) to work with, and that’s before you do things like market yourself. So you have to learn to take control and outsource to others when you can. That’s how you grow a business, and it’s why I don’t like to take contracts where they want my physical presence to do all the work. It’s just not as efficient.
“You have to learn to take control and direct, to outsource to others when you can. That’s how you grow a business.”
What advice can you give to anyone working to test their concept, and identify their market?
The first step is to be enamoured with solving a problem, not the product you’ve built. You have to really start with your buyer, and talk about addressing the root problems they have. Don’t just focus on your solution. Next, go out and research; talk to your potential customers about the problem in their context, and listen. Make sure the problem is what you think it is, then pivot your approach to solve those challenges. Most of your consumers will tend to fall into one of two broad categories, they are either convenience people who want things to happen ‘automagically’, or they’re people who prioritise saving money. So those are the two key angles to consider when talking to your buyers.
“So many companies think along the lines of; ‘I’m building a website, I’m building an app”. No you’re not, you’re solving a problem. What problem are you solving?”
If you’re at the stage of trying to identify who your market is, remember you can’t market to everybody. A lot of businesses think “Oh I’m marketing to men aged between 25-40” when they’re probably not. They’re selling to a person with particular traits, and need to identify and segment that audience. The best way to identify your buyers, is through face-to-face interviews. Typically 8-42 interviews are enough to identify the patterns of the direction you should go in, and the problems and people you should focus on.
“Think about the traits you’re trying to address rather than the broad demographic.”
If somebody wants to get into entrepreneurship, what would you recommend they do?
Any company trying an intrapreneurial approach (ie: a small team funded by a larger organisation) can be interesting to look at, but I don’t know that an entrepreneur should always do that – it can work against you as an excuse to not start your own project.
A lot of times when I’m talking to an entrepreneur, they’re waiting for that cheque, for the funding to go do what they want to do. But you need to just start. If your idea is good, you’ll find that funding. There are always lots of reasons not to begin. But you need to bet on yourself and go for it.
“What have you done today that’s going to make tomorrow better?”
How do you deal with the loneliness that comes alongside entrepreneurship?
Being an entrepreneur is a lonely, lonely job. So I have an informal board of advisors made up of different contacts. Some will tell me all my ideas are terrible, some will tell me my ideas are great, so I get a contrast. I’ll talk to my wife to get the personal perspective, and change up who I speak with to get the best advice for each topic – reaching out to arrange a lunch, coffee, or a phone call. Being OK with reaching out and having a conversation with others is so important.
“We think we’re superman and know how to do everything when we become an entrepreneur. But that doesn’t magically happen. Being OK with reaching out and having a conversation with others is so important.”
You focus very much on helping individuals find their entrepreneurial style. How can the Rebelhead audience discover what entrepreneurial style they have, and what activity they’re suited to?
On my site there’s a quiz you can take that will identify you as either an Operator, a Visionary or an Implementer type entrepreneur. Visionaries are the ones with the big world-changing ideas. Implementers know how to put those ideas into action, but don’t want to operate them on a daily basis, and Operators love getting involved in the everyday running of those ideas. Of course each style has its own benefits, so for an entrepreneur to be most effective, it’s wise that they partner with others who have a different working style to their own. I’m an implementer. I can build the process, but don’t leave me to run the books!
“For an entrepreneur to be most effective, it’s wise that they partner with others who have a different working style to their own.”
You describe yourself as an unconventional thinker. How important is it to ‘think different’ in entrepreneurship today?
Entrepreneurship is not only about the next cool thing, or new technology; it’s about knowing how to use that tech, or new burgeoning thing, in an unexpected way. I love that technology can be an enabler, but there needs to be new thinking and unconventional thought behind it to take things forward.
There are factions between the world of business and the world of art where the two aren’t always aligned. But creativity is the one thing that robots will never be able to take from us. Being creative, using whatever outlets you can to move you forward, is an important differentiator. I can’t draw a straight line with a pencil. But I consider my businesses – the way I create – to be my art.
“I love that technology can be an enabler, but there needs to be new thinking and unconventional thought behind it to take things forward.”
Rebel Wrap Up
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received, who gave it to you and how has it positively affected your career?
That we are in control of creating our own destiny. It’s a matter of perspective. We can get so caught up in our singular way of viewing the world, that we can forget that we’re way more in control than we let ourselves believe.
“We’re way more in control than we let ourselves believe.”
Who is the most disruptive, rebellious or revolutionary entrepreneur of the last 2 years?
Mark Cuban and Marcus Lemonis
What advice would you give to anyone reading this who wants to become an entrepreneur?
You just have to start doing it. Merely ‘wanting’ to become an entrepreneur is just an excuse. Go out there. You can do it part time or in the evening at first – but it’s really about the doing.
“You just have to start doing it. Wanting to become an entrepreneur is just an excuse.”
What is the one generally agreed upon rule, or conventional piece of wisdom that you disagree with?
I’m not a big fan of college. I believe it isn’t always best placed, and often ill fit.
If you could change one law what would it be?
Everything that has to do with the US tax system. It’s totally against capitalism.
What’s your definition of entrepreneurship?
Disruption, and being disrupted. Using technology in a way you wouldn’t expect. Building a new business model that hasn’t been thought of. Viewing the business world in a different way, and being the one to create it.