5–1/2 Questions for Tom Duening

Dr. Thomas Duening

Entrepreneurship Professor & Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship — at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

Dr. Thomas Duening is the El Pomar Chair for Business & Entrepreneurship, associate professor of management, and director of the Center for Entrepreneurship — at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs — College of Business.

He has over 28 years of experience in teaching entrepreneurship and leading entrepreneurship centers. After receiving his PhD from the University of Minnesota, Dr. Duening was recruited to be the assistant dean of the business school at the University of Houston. There, he helped create the first entrepreneurship center in Texas, which has become one of the leading centers in the world. Dr. Duening went on to create centers for entrepreneurship at the University of Houston-Downtown and in the Fulton School of Engineering at Arizona State University.

Dr. Duening also has 38 years of experience as an entrepreneur. He started his first business in 1984 and has founded or co-founded nine other ventures since then. In 1997, Duening founded U.S. Learning Systems, which provided content development and management services for e-learning companies across the United States. HighTechCampus.com, an integrated e-learning company focused on corporate compliance training acquired U.S. Learning Systems in 1999.

Duening next founded the Applied Management Sciences Institute, a management consulting and research firm. He left that company in 2002 and co-founded ansrsource, a company that provides learning design and content development to a wide range of publishers, universities, and corporations.

While residing in Arizona, Duening founded the Arizona Technology Investor Forum, which quickly became the most active angel investment group in the state. The Forum (now known as Arizona Tech Investors) has been operating since 2006. His most recent venture is HomePride Bath, a home improvement company based in Centennial, CO, that Inc. magazine recently cited as the 6th fastest growing company in the Western region of the United States.

He is the author of several books on Entrepreneurship and is Research Director at the The University of Colorado’s El Pomar Institute for Innovation and Commercialization (EPIIC) Venture Attractor

5 1/2 Questions for Tom Duening

1 Tell us about a moment or incident that “made” your career?

That question is kind of interesting because I don’t really think that there’s any moment that anybody could point to. you, know if you’re gonna be an entrepreneur there are a lot of moments, and and, I’ve got to tell you I started 9 or 10 different companies, both for profit and nonprofit in my career.

To be honest with you, I don’t think there’s there’s a single venture that I started where I haven’t at some point in time, said to myself: Why did I get myself into this again? Why, why am I doing this again? right? And so I think that’s interesting. so that may be you know a repetitive kind of a moment that people will endure.

But you need to get past it. I have to make an analogy with my students, because it’s really difficult to understand — I mean, I can talk about my own personal experiences and what it felt like — but one way that I like to describe it is: Imagine you’re at the at the beach, and you see this lake, and you can see there’s an island out there and you wanna swim out to that island and you don’t know how far it is you don’t know how much energy you have. But you start out and you start swimming to that island, and eventually you get about halfway there and you start to feel like you’re not going to make it right. Well, you you know you’re halfway so you could turn around, but the distances is going to be exactly the same.

So it’s that point of no return … If you can get push past that in the world of entrepreneurship — and it it’s something that I think every entrepreneur is going to encounter at some point — and you don’t know when you don’t know why you don’t know how it’s gonna manifest itself. But if you can push point past that point of no return where you’re asking yourself, maybe you’re not even sleeping, and you’re asking yourself, why did I get myself into this and how do I get myself out and you keep going?

That’s gonna make the difference. In your success so when you when you ask that question of yourself that means you’re about at that point of no return. It’s not like it’s an instant though … I mean it might take weeks to get through it you know because it’s a time frame more than anything else. And you’re just, you know, you’re doubting yourself.

Maybe you’ve got doubters out there and the business has not taken off the way you wanted to. But you have to push past that every single time I’ve done that I’ve ended up finding a way to be successful.

2 What job/profession do you really admire but could never do?

Yeah, I think probably the one that has escaped my life — and unfortunately it it might have been a good fit for me — would be something like an M&A Attorney. Yeah .. an M&A Attorney.

I find the world of deal-making to be very exciting — and I’m involved with several investment bankers who do that kind of work on a regular basis — they get to see a lot of really fun ventures meet a lot of great entrepreneurs. There’s nothing in my mind there’s nothing as exciting as being involved with entrepreneurs who are creating the future and find ways to you know, leverage and bring together synergies of various companies so that they can grow together, as a collaborative, than they could individually.

I tend to have a little bit of an analytic kind of a slant and probably would have been good at looking at the nuances of a deal. It’s too late now, but if I had another life to live I might I might go to law school and become an M&A attorney and and find ways to make deals happen all over the world. So I think in this case, I admire those M&A guys little bit. The fact that they’re they’re in a role where they can negotiate and make deals every day.

You know, and one of the one of the more fun things that I’ve ever done in my life — and CJ, you were there to witness this — was years ago at (what is now called) Arizona Tech Investors. I started that in 2006 from nothing, basically, and grew that to over 60 high net worth individuals. And we were looking at some tremendous deals. I left in 2009 it’s and it’s still alive today, and in the exact same format that I put in place. It was really exciting to bring together the investors and the ventures into that forum, and to see those deals happening. It was probably one of the more rewarding things that I’ve done in my life, even though I didn’t make any money personally doing it. It was something that I founded, directed, and ran. But it was very, very rewarding, because of the quality of the people, and the quality of the ventures that were able to bring together.

3 What kind of people in business annoy you?

You know the people that annoying them most of the people that say “no” … or or think that something can’t get done. It just makes me crazy.

And I tend to push past that. and I had somebody in my life about a year ago that I was i’d been nurturing for about 9 years as a colleague and a partner in ventures. And when we got into some very difficult times because of Covid with my current venture that i’m running. and she just lost her ability to see the future and to see the positivity in what we were doing, and started to become more of a naysayer, and it led to a falling out.

That you know, is unfortunate, but you know these kinds of things happen … but let’s say [it was all about] pessimism about the future and I wanted to push fast that, and and literally it got very visceral for me where I literally couldn’t sleep at night because I couldn’t figure out how to deal with that, you know [negative] trait. I had not seen coming. I mean other people that say negative stuff , like lawyers and accountants, and that kind of I’ll push past them with with no problem because I could hire and fire them, but somebody that I had developed for 9 years, and suddenly, you know, I turned into more of pessimist kind of a personality type than I had thought … it was something that was very difficult for me to deal with as an entrepreneur. You can’t be in entrepreneurship or in that field and be a “no” person.

4 What’s the best thing that’s happening in your industry today?

Well I’m personally working in several different industries [that I fund interesting]. I just started a home improvement company, and this is first time really in a B 2 C kind of environment. It’s been a lot of fun; we actually have the contract in the State of Colorado, and I partnered with a gentleman that I’ve known for many many years, who is just a great entrepreneur in the home improvement industry. He knows how to generate, leads he knows how to close leads. He knows how to make sure that and to end we’re taking care of our customers, and I’ve learned so much from this guy i’m more of a passive investor in the whole deal but it’s just been so exciting to be in that industry and what’s interesting about it, and I’ve learned a lot in is even during Covid, where many many industries were retrenching and and cutting back the home improvement industry actually did pretty well, because people were staying home and they’re like “Well, that bathroom needs some work.”

[So we said] … Let’s go ahead and invest in that right and so there are industries that are anti-recessionary, and that I think home improvement — depending on the nature of the projects — can be somewhat anti-recessionary. As education is sometimes [anti-recessionary] which is the other thing i’m involved in , and some are in more regional economic development, for instance, we created a concept called the venture attractor, and what that does is it attracts companies startup ventures to regions around the world based upon what that regions unique industry cluster might be . And so i’m working in Colorado springs Colorado, where the industry cluster that we’re focused on is sports outdoors, health, innovation, and human performance.

We are Colorado Springs is the world is the headquarters for the United States Para-Olympic Committee, and also has a big training center there as well. So we want ventures to start up there and take advantage of all the amenities that are already in place in that community, and we’re doing our first $50,000 grant awards for companies. So we have 3 grants that We’re gonna be giving the companies at an event in October. So, if I’m gonna have to pick just one — this would be it.

5 What historical person in history would you most like to have worked with?

You know I’m. a big history. buff and I read a lot of books on on people that started massive enterprise like Henry Ford. There’s also a great book on the wright Brothers and how they came to get into the airplane industry, and there’s a great book on on John D. Rockefeller called Titan which is a tremendous business book that anybody should read to understand how he built Standard Oil into this massive company.

I’m also a big fan of Steve Jobs, and what he did, and and the insight that he brought to Apple in the early days. And you know, and just kind of the fact that he was a dropout from college, and I’m this wonky college professor always astound me and makes me proud that you know of entrepreneurs that just go out there and just change the world — and as an example, the CEO of Home Pride (my Home Improvement Company), he [started it] after like, one semester of college, and when we exit this company, you know he’s gonna do very, very well.

5–1/2: …. And … the bonus question:

Tell us about a time that you did something foolish in business.

Yeah, that’s that’s an easy one. And that was a huge error. we started a company back in 1997. It was called us learning Systems. And, it was my partner was a great colleague of mine, a former mentor that became a business partner, and we really had a great idea of how it is that we were gonna position ourselves.

In the is seamless, e-learning industry.

We basically were going to be like the McGraw Hill of E learning where we were going to publish content and and and make the content available to E learning engines that were emerging all over the all over the world and we were only 2 years into it, and we got approached by a company out of Dallas called High Tech Campus, and they wanted to acquire us, and we got all excited.

We’re like, Oh, my God we’re 2 years in you know It’s 1999 everything dot com era was just, you know, really really cruising and rather than allowing us to be acquired with a cash deal. we decided to do it all stock transaction, where we took a fairly substantial stake in in the combined entity — the company that bought us was was acquired us was well funded- but the combined entity ended up running out of cash in 2001, and went bankrupt, and we’re left with nothing.

My partner wanted to do a cash deal. I said, No, this is gonna work and all do a massive IPO. That is the dot com era and we all know how that ended … So I regret that I didn’t do a cash transaction at that time, which would have been substantial and would have made a difference. And so I I will not do another transaction like that — ever again.

For more 5–1/2 Questions Interviews, see:

5–1/2 Questions” from CJ Cornell is a new series of mini-interviews with leaders in the entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem around the world. In less than a half-dozen short questions, we’ll try to learn more about each leader, and what makes them successful and unique.

The questions are designed a little like a “Magic Eight Ball” (my GenX colleagues know what this is): A set of questions, posed at random. Plus, at least one question, or half-question, is designed to find out something about their personality that most people might never suspect (I mean expect).

CJ Cornell is a serial entrepreneur, investor, advisor, mentor, author, speaker, and educator. As an entrepreneur, CJ Cornell was a founder of more than a dozen successful startup ventures that collectively attracted over $250 million in private funding; created nearly a thousand new jobs; and launched dozens of innovative consumer, media, and communications products — that have exceeded $3 billion in revenues.

He is the author of the bestsellingThe Age of Metapreneurship — A Journey into the Future of Entrepreneurship.”

And the upcoming “The Startup Brain Trust — A Guidebook for Startups, Entrepreneurs, and the Mentors that Help them Become Great.”

Follow him @cjcornell or visit: www.cjcornell.com

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