RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Serial entrepreneur Bob Young, a founder of Red Hat, Lulu, and Needlepoint, has two primary pieces of advice for other entrepreneurs

First, he said, “Just keep moving. It doesn’t matter if its in a good or bad direction. If you’re moving, you’re learning things. There is the Chinese proverb, ‘A journey of a 1,000 miles starts with a single step.”

He also noted that in today’s virtual world, you don’t need an office and a copying machine to launch a company.

“You can do it at home in your pajamas,’ he said, speaking virtually to last week’s Startup Summit.

As for arrogance … leave that behind.

Young said friends accuse of being humble – with reasons.

“It’s because I have a lot to be humble about,” he said. Just out of college, he landed a job as an assistant branch manager at a bank. “There were a lot of other assistant branch managers. I’m the dumbest and laziest guy on this zoom call, so I realized there would always be someone handsome and smarter than me. So I started my own business.”

The nice thing about early-stage companies he said, “Is that no one can tell you what to do or not to do. It’s only your customers that matter. If I can provide something they can’t get somewhere else, it doesn’t matter if about your gender or if you’re ugly.It’s only the customers who matter.”

Bob Young on the Startup Summit Zoom broadcast. Copyright Capitol Cities Broadcasting, ARR.

And that was his second major piece of advice:

“Keep your focus on the customer.”

He’s not crazy about some of the words venture capitalists and entrepreneurs use frequently like “excellence” and “passion,” because “They’re hard and I like the easy stuff,” he said.

Young noted that staff will come to him asking what to do in a given situation. “I’ll say ‘I don’t know” but the customers do, let’s ask them. My colleagues at Needlepoint will tell you I’m really boring about my focus on the customer. They’re paying your bills.”

At the end of the day, he said, “Customer money is sustainable. Investor money is not and once you accept investor money, the clock starts. He (the investor) wants his money back in months or years. A lot of burdens come with investor money that doesn’t with customer money. Customer money comes from you giving them something of value. If you increase their sales or cut their costs, customers will never stop giving you money.”

What you start out to do is not always where the money is, he adds. For instance, when he was a typewriter salesman, his company discovered that what people really needed were computer technicians, requiring a pivot. “If we had investors focused strictly on typewriter sales, we couldn’t have done it.”

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It helps in starting a company to have an interest in the product itself. His wife’s needlepoint business started with a shop in Raleigh and is now is one of the largest dealers of needlepoint on the Internet. Part of what help it achieve that success was that his wife is a lifelong needlepoint practitioner herself. “So every decision we make is made by someone who stitches needlepoint. Our designs and our marketing are authentic. The things our customer cares about are the things she cares about.”

Young conceded that he has become a good storyteller, a necessary skill for the startup founder. “If you can articulate the value of a product or service to your customer, you’ll do much better.”

The secret to good storytelling?

“Practice,” said Young. “The more you do it, the better you will get.” That applies to other things in business as well, he said. “You’re tyring to impove yourself. You don’t want to write more code, you want to write better code. Do things a tiny bit better every day and the magic of compound interest kicks in and you’ll be better.”

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