RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — On a beautiful fall Saturday, a bunch of kindred spirits turned away from football, a trip to the mountains to see the turning leaves, and tuned out college football to go back to school.

Entrepreneurial school, that is.

Some 540 people showed up for the Entrepreneur ’04 conference at Duke University, including 60 who registered on site. And they didn’t come grudgingly. They came excited, ready to learn, and to grow businesses.

“I thought the day went extremely well,” Grace Ueng, a veteran entrepreneur herself and co-chair of the conference, told Local Tech Wire. “The only complaint was they wished each session could be longer and they could have attended more of them.”

Much of the uncontrolled heat of the “dot com” boom — when business plans on napkins were plentiful and cash from investors was much easier to get — is gone. But the passion to be successful in business remains. It’s simply more realistic.

“I was very encouraged to surpass our target attendance figures with 540 folks — many new to CED — attend the entire day and not hesitate to ask bold questions and network aggressively — interested in starting companies from software to consumer products,” said Ueng, whose latest venture is Savvy Marketing.

“The audience indicated they felt more bullish about the chances to start and grow a company here in RTP than in previous few years,” she added. “Themes repeated throughout the day were back to normalcy — intense focus on customer satisfaction and a vision and growing the business through revenue and other sources of funding in addition to venture capital and public markets.”

The Ultimus success

The program, put on by the Council for Entrepreneurial Development, included a wide variety of speakers and panel discussions. Several executives also presented case studies as possible models for other people to use in building their own companies/

“The biggest hit there was Marco Fregenal, COO and President of Ultimus,” Ueng says. Ultimus is a business process management software company that was co-founded by Rashid Khan and Mike Andrade in 1994. Fregenal joined the firm in 2001 after a stint at Howstuffworks.com. Khan, a native of Pakistan, came to the United States for a college education and decided to make America his home. He once told me how tough life was for him as a student — short on money, he subsisted on donuts made available free of charge to students in one of his labs. (Khan is the CEO and Andrade is vice president of development.)

“Half the classroom stayed for an extra 30 minutes to hear him answer their questions and answers,” Ueng said. “He emphasized hiring the right people and spending time on hiring. He talks to everyone who gets hired; he also emphasized to put the customers and making them referenceable above all else. He also said that you must choose to do something that you are passionate — and he showed his passion! He was just an awesome presenter — and what a great story Ultimus is.”

The CED announced results of a poll of entrepreneurs last week in which most respondents viewed today’s environment as a good one for launching a venture. Ueng also polled the audience Saturday.

She asked three questions:

  • Who is thinking of starting a company in the next 12-18 months

  • Who has started a company

  • Who thinks prospects are better now to start or grow a company in RTP than last couple of years
  • “There was split of half and half of those who have not yet started a company and those that already have,” Ueng said. “The majority thought prospects were better now for RTP — similar to the (CED survey). I think that the conversations I had and presentations I saw coincided with the (survey) — looking at financing alternatives other than VC and focusing on customer success.”

    She cited specific survey results:

  • “Of those who responded, 64 percent — nearly 30% increase from a year ago said that prospects for starting or growing a business in North Carolina were good or excellent.

  • “Survey respondents most frequently cited maintaining a strong customer base as the top challenge faced in starting or growing a company in the entrepreneurial sector today. Closing the new sale was cited second, and seeking new or alternative sales and marketing channels ranked third. In January 2003, respondents rated closing the sale as the most pressing challenge, followed by seeking new or alternative sales and marketing channels.

  • “Survey respondents most frequently cited revenue financing as the most realistic financing alternative for high-growth companies. Other funding sources included strategic partnerships, angel funding, venture capital, self-financing and grants — listed in that order of importance. In early 2003, respondents ranked revenue financing, partnerships and venture capital in order of importance.”
  • Success brings change

    Some of the lessons and experiences shared Saturday won’t be lost, added Robert Albright of the CED. “The next step for us is to continue to expand our own program offerings and work with partners to fill the needs of these entrepreneurs, with the goal of integrating them into the broader entrepreneurial network,” he said.

    Among the facts shared: Success requires change.

    Billy Prim, CEO of Blue Rhino, told the crowd that “Entrepreneurship is the backbone of our economy.” However, he also pointed out that growth of companies leads to changes in needs for staffing.

    “One of the interesting points of his presentation was his discussion on how his company has evolved from a start-up to a mature, publicly-traded company that was recently acquired $343 million,” Albright recalled. “In the early stages of the company, Prim said he depended on a team that was flexible, original thinking and risk-taking. As the company grew, he had to implement more discipline, which included more structured leadership, efficient execution, focus on consistent processes and best practices and sophistication.”

    And the learning continues. To further help entrepreneurs, many of the speakers made their presentations available for the CED to publish online. For some of the presentations, see this link:

    www.cednc.org/conferences/entrepreneur/2004/speakers/presentations/index.html