Interview with Mr. Steven Kursh

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Steven Kursh, Executive Professor at Northeastern University, is one of the VietChallenge Final Round Judges. Dr. Kursh has provided consulting services to numerous companies including financial institutions and insurance companies, retailers and manufacturers, professional services firms including investment management firms, health care providers, law firms and title insurance companies, not-for-profit organizations and government agencies; and private equity firms. 

In a recent interview with VietChallenge, Dr. Kursh shared his experience and lesson learned about business and startup.

1. Why did you accept the invitation to become a judge for VietChallenge?

There were three-related reasons: The first reason is that in life we do favors to help people out. I’m a believer that what we give in our lives is returned in other ways.

Second, I was approached by a member of your panel who I respect tremendously for her energy and entrepreneurial spirit.  She asked me to participate, and on that basis, even though I, like most of us, have a lot going on, I said I’d be delighted to do it.

The third reason is that I’ve had the pleasure of serving as a judge in numerous business plan competitions.  These have been wonderful experiences!  I like working with people as they grow their businesses and face the challenges in doing so. So my participation is selfish as well and I appreciate that an invitation was extended to me.

2. What experience or expertise do you think you can use to help young Vietnamese entrepreneurs at this competition?

I think my experience and expertise that will help Vietnamese entrepreneurs falls into four-related categories.  The first is I’ve served as a mentor capitalist in several different ventures and by that, it’s a combination of capital, mentoring, and generally helping them. So, I’ve lived and “seen the movie before” in terms of the experience and expertise in several other companies.  So I think that’s first – my entrepreneurial experience and service as a mentor capitalist and in the field.

The second category is that I’ve been fortunate to have had some ventures that have succeeded far beyond my widest dreams, and I’ve had ventures that did not succeed.  So, the experience of starting a business with nothing and growing the business and having the sheer exhilaration of success is addicting!  It’s stressful, but tremendously rewarding, not just financially.  This experience could be helpful to the people in the competitions, as well as anyone else who’s thinking about starting a business.

The third factor I think is that, we need to look at this process of this competition as being a first step in a very long journey that everyone will experience. It’s critical for all us to recognize that no matter who wins the competition, what really matter is the kind of ethical behavior you have and the ways that you work with your peers.  Are you being honest with yourself and helping others or are you trying to “cut the line” to get ahead? We call this a competition, but everyone is really working together; we all want to be successful.  All you have is your reputation and once it’s lost by unethical behavior it’s gone forever.

The success of one company does not come at the cost of another company; we can all be successful and we all need to help each other out.  So I think it’s really important in helping folks here to network, to get to know each other, and to grow their relationships not just with people involved with the competition but nearly with everyone else that we could help out.  That’s a long-term situation because even if your business succeeds you likely aren’t going to be the next Google or Facebook. You will be on a long journey and will need help from others.  Plus, you will benefit from helping others.

That ties into the fourth category which is I’d like to stay involved and help beyond just this competition.  I think I can help out going forward in the next month and the next year as well, whether it’s phone calls, emails or meetings and other activities.  I do that for other companies and it sure is a lot of fun for me.

3. Would you like to share a little bit about the companies you have founded and sold?

I’ve founded multiple companies, some succeeded and some failed. There’s a classic story about children opening a lemonade stand as their first venture – with full funding and support from their parents!  Since I was a child I was involved in several ventures and work.  I knew growing up that I would never want to work at a big company; life is better when you are independent and aren’t part of the crowd.

The first really successful company I had was a software business. I went into the software business because I had no capital, and it was an industry with relatively easy entry because you get by on brains and working hard.  It’s also a business that I could do at nights and on weekends because I did not have the capital to do my business full time.

So, as people say, you work 9 to 5 in regular job to cover your living expenses and to raise the capital so you can work from 5 to 9 and work on the weekends.  My software was used in the housing finance industry from end-to-end all the way from loan origination to the mortgage-backed securities bond market and trading.  The company at one time had a relatively large share of all the residential home loan closing and foreclosure in the U.S.

We had a great team of people who worked with me.  I made many mistakes along the way and like many startups we were were effectively bankrupt on at least two occasions.  We struggled for a long time; practically every time I stay at a Four Seasons hotel or Aman resort now I recall staying at hotels where I had to take showers with my shoes on because the places were so gross.

It actually took me several years to figure out what were the elements to make the business a success.  It worked out well and I ended up selling it to a major publisher.  That liquidity event was wonderful because that means I had enough money to do what I wanted to do in life.  Although it’s not Facebook money or Google money, it’s a wonderful sense of accomplishment.

Another successful business I had was developing software that was used in the early stage of the distance-learning market.  We developed software that was used in the corporate education market.  Again, here’s a classic example of good lessons learnt for everyone here: When you go into business to sell products and services, be ready to exit quickly when circumstances change. I ended up selling it to one of the largest companies that distributed distance learning and professional education products.

And then I’ve had other ventures that I was lucky to get out my investment.  Now I tend to do more service-oriented businesses and consulting.

4. What do you think about doing startup?  What advice would you give to the young Vietnamese entrepreneurs?

There’s a certain perception, which has been created in the venture capital community and also other places, that startups are exciting, fun and great places to work.  The reality is that it’s true for some people and it’s not true for other people.  If you are ever interested in getting involved with a startup, you really need to understand the commitment you are making, because the reality is most startups fail or they become what we call “living dead” – the companies that survive but they don’t really scale or grow.

In fact, you may have a business that you grow to dislike. It’s often said you don’t own your business, it owns you.  Most people aren’t fortunate to have a good liquidity event.

Now, the flip side of that, which is my personal preference, is even in an enterprise like that, I still think it’s a better way to work.  There’s nothing worst in my mind than to work in a large organization, show up for work everyday, follow the rules and then have a tap on your shoulder and the difficulty you have in moving forward.  Much better to control your own destiny.

In effect given the global economy and velocity of changes and opportunities, all of us now have to be entrepreneurial whether we work in a large organization or we start our own business.

My philosophy is if you’re going to work hard, it’s better to work hard for yourself and your loved ones than for large organizations.  However, I also feel that it’s not such a good idea to go start your business when you’re right out of school or anytime if you believe that one “works to live” not “lives to work.”

Work somewhere else for a few years, gain some experience, enjoy that time of your life.  It’s a wonderful time to get out, socialize with friends, and not having the kind of pressures you will have when you start your own business.  Because when you’re in a startup, you give up all of that.  You cannot build a startup and grow a company and have much else, including a life partner, along the way.  This is again part of the choices we make in life.

On a related part in terms of the advice, it’s what kind of company do you want?  It is also really important in understanding that you cannot, no matter how smart you are, come up with a business plan that will make you really successful.  Anyone who cooks a meal knows that the best recipes come from experience, not a formal set of requirements and planning.

Instead, get the business started and learn along the way. You’ll grow the business and you’ll pick up opportunities along the way.  A lot of people getting caught up sitting at their desk trying to create business plans and ideas rather than hitting the pavement, getting out, and talking with prospective customers.  That’s how you learn to build the business.  You’ll be amazed at the opportunities that come up as you proceed in that journey.  You’ll be pivoting so much and so often because it is really a rapidly changing world.

5. Could you please share with us a little bit about what you are doing at the moment?

Because of my luck in entrepreneurial ventures, I’ve been again very fortunate to return to what I love to do, which is teaching and research.  I’m a professor at Northeastern University in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. I really enjoy working with students in the classroom and quite frankly, it’s a two-way street – I learn a lot from them too.

I am doing research now in financing innovation.  I’ve just finished research related to crowd sourced funding with the JOBS Act and the various phases businesses go through as they grow and seek different kind of finances.  Where you get financing will often depend on where you are in your life cycles as a company.  You need to move quickly in deciding where to get that money.

I also do consulting, primarily related to intellectual property. Plus, I’ve been busy with some personal things as well.

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