Trapped at an airport in Seattle four years ago, Bob Jordan had an idea.
Unlike most people, Jordan actually did something with his enlightened state of mind once he returned home t0 Northbrook.
“There’s a bit of a perception that if you want to do something innovative you have to live in Silicon Valley, and that really bothered me,” said Jordan.
So, with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, Jordan set out to reverse this misconception. A serial entrepreneur, he had founded Online Access, one of the first magazines to strictly cover the Internet. He also landed on the Inc. 500 list of fastest growing companies in 1996.
After he sold the company, he founded two others. He had the contacts, he had the infrastructure. And just as important, he had no fear of building on an idea from scratch. So what would he do?
He decided to do something not necessarily all that innovative: He wrote a book. But here’s the catch—it wouldn’t be filled with his ideas on entrepreneurship. No, bookstores are filled with manuals written by people who claim to have invented the secret sauce on how to build a successful business. Instead, he would contact hundreds of CEOs of companies in the “heartland” of America and compile their stories into a book.
Published in late 2010, it is appropriately titled How They Did It: Billion Dollar Insights from the Heartland of America.
Eat your heart out, Mark Zuckerberg
If Mark Zuckerberg, who established Facebook, had attended the University of Chicago instead of Harvard, he would have met Jordan’s qualifications for founders interviewed for the book. For the record, recent reports say the social networking phenom, Facebook, could be worth $50 billion.
To be considered for inclusion, the founder had to be from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin or Minnesota, have sold a company for at least $100 million, or took the company public for $300 million or more in market valuation. The methodology was designed to favor the bootstrapping, diligent, skillful entrepreneur who relies more on industriousness than fortuitous timing, according to Jordan.
Out of the 45 founders interviewed, almost all started technology companies. No hedge funds.
“We wanted the most extreme examples of innovative creativity,” said Jordan. “A person sitting at home in their apartment dreaming up a software company is not the same thing as someone who knows a hedge fund director.”
The making of a 'home-run hitter'
The examples featured in the book build the case for a 21st century mid-America created more by ingenuity than inheritance.
Mike Domek, for example, didn’t even own a computer when he founded TicketsNow in 1992. He had a one-bedroom apartment, a phone line and an idea on how to sell tickets to events.
“When people called, we’d hit the keyboard and pretend we were typing so we sounded professional,” Domek told Jordan.
He sold the company to Ticketmaster in 2007 for $265 million.
Then there is Peapod, the Skokie-based grocery delivery company. Well before he was operating a multimillion dollar company, its co-founder, Thomas Parkinson, was selling just one product, eggs.
“I had a chicken coop. So when I was 10, I was an entrepreneur,” Parkinson is quoted in the book. Along with his brother Andrew, sold a majority stake in the company in 2001.
How They Did It is filled with these types of anecdotes, a window into the soul of men and women who possess, like a baseball slugger, risk-taking characteristics making them the business equivalent of a “home-run hitter.”
“These people are not into failure avoidance; they are risk takers,” said Jordan.
Even doing the book was a leap of faith for Jordan and his staff. It took four years to complete, mostly because he said, “no one wanted to be in it. None of them wanted the spotlight."
Because there were no Donald Trumps in the group, Jordan had to call on his own entrepreneurial intuition to get interviews. Consider this—he had a private plane on standby to pick up and fly in out-of-town CEOs. He even hired a private investigator to track down one particular subject.
“It got a little wacky. I was so desperate,” said Jordan.
A little advice from mom
Desperate and deep into the project, he still didn’t have a title. So when he opened his golden Rolodex of start-up millionaires, who did he call? His 85-year-old mother.
A former copywriter, she possessed the one trait only a mother could: intuition.
“I repeated back to her ‘how they did it’ and she said, ‘That’s it. That’s your title,’ " said Jordan.
Readers of How They Did It will learn that all of the founders met Jordan’s qualifications years ago, during better economic times. With tighter flows of capital and Illinois’ higher taxes, one could conclude starting a company is more challenging today. Not so, said Jordan.
“I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish. There are problems in the world. But this is the best time,” said Jordan. “It’s never been less expensive based on your own creativity. The garden-variety Internet platform used to cost $1 million. Now it can cost you $10 per month. If you want to be a publisher, you can set up a blog for free. The premium is on the idea. Who you are or who you know is irrelevant.”
With one exception. Always listen to your mother.
How They Did It can be found on Amazon.com, BN.com, 800ceoread.com and facebook.com/howtheydiditbook.