Interview with Tom Schryver Entrepreneur in Residence P1
Tom Schryver is Cornell’s own Entrepreneur in residence.
If you have not availed yourself of his expertise in the past, you owe it to your start-up to make an appointment.
Schryver, ’93 AB ’02 MBA, has a long vita worth of valuable experience and is a very approachable guy. Make an appointment and see what tid bits you might come away with. He has office hours on Wednesday afternoons in Sage 320.
I sat down with him to glean some of the insights he had on student entrepreneurship and the process getting a start-up off the ground.
Could you describe your own startup experience?
Sure – I was actually working on a foundation here in town – working on their investment portfolio and I was looking at Venture Capital as an asset class and wound up talking to a lot of entrepreneurs so I could get a better sense of their perspective on venture investing. I ended up in touch with a company called Novomer. I invested in the company and wound up leaving the foundation to be Novomer’s VP of Finance and Operations and raised a lot of money there. We hired a new CEO, and I eventually worked at other companies, like e2e Materials, founded a couple of my own companies and then did consulting with other startups here in the Ithaca area.
You said you founded a couple yourself – how did the ideas for those come about?
Most of them were with partners, one was a drug development opportunity which we started and ended very rapidly because it turned out that the compound was effective but probably wasn’t going to be safe. We put quite a bit of time into it but not a whole lot of money so we didn’t lose out too much monetarily. The other was a business simulation software company that I worked at with a partner and that is still ongoing and doing well.
Could you give us some insights into what it means to be an entrepreneur, reflecting on your own experiences?
I’ve worked with entrepreneurs [and companies] for a good part of my life. I’ve dealt with students I’ve met – I’ve done a lot of business plan competition judging – and I think the common thread that I see throughout all aspiring entrepreneurs is that they don’t truly understand what it is that the customer truly wants and what drives their behavior. I think that is the one thing that is fundamental to any business. It’s that a customer has a problem and the customer’s problem getting solved is what is behind the business. So looking at it from the customer’s perspective, they have a problem and the business has a value proposition and this value proposition is the solution to the customer’s problem. Most importantly the customer has to care enough about the problem to deal with the business and the business needs to have a mechanism of solve the problem where they get paid more than it costs to do it.
It’s all very simple, but the problem is that there are a lot of linkages in the process that people miss. And so some of the examples that I’ve seen are when people create amazing new technology that doesn’t really do anything people actually care about. You really have to have this acute pain on the part of the customer that your product solves. We had an experience at Novomer where we were making a material for a very small customer base but we could make high profits off it because the product was a lot better than what was in the market at the time. The problem we had was that for the customer who would be buying our product – our product – in the context of the things they did, was like priority # 137 on their list. So even though we might have been twice as good as what already existed in the market – they had 137 things they cared more about. Essentially, the customer did not care enough to actually do something about it.
So what I see a lot is people coming with an idea, with assumptions about how customers behave and not delving down deeply enough to see what is actually driving their behavior and what is going to push them to buy the product. You’ll hear people talking and they’ll say – “well I believe this and I think this” and I must say – one of the things I’ve learned the hard way is that whenever you say something like that, you should try your hardest to replace the ‘I believe’ or ‘I think’ with facts – facts that you derive from real life customers who give you data about what they care about. As smart as people may be – especially students at Cornell – you still have to actually go out and find out what the customer wants and not assume things.