Professor Stan Mandel talks candidly about entrepreneurship

6.14.2010 Article, Entrepreneurship, Faculty News

Up close: Stan Mandel
Originally Posted on Friday, June 11, 2010 | By Matt Evans
Reposted from The Business Journal of the Greater Triad Area

Much of academia has discovered entrepreneurship in recent years, but Wake Forest University has been teaching the skill of starting and running a business for longer than most. Stan Mandel learned the ways of big business early in his career at Texas Instruments and later of small business when he helped his family grow and sell a group of clothing retailers in Texas. He now runs Wake Forest’s Angell Center for Entrepreneurship, which is regularly recognized as one of the top entrepreneurial schools in the country.

What was your first entrepreneurial experience?
When I was 5 a friend gave me a bunch of neat-looking booklets of some kind from IBM, and I sold them to other friends for a nickel each. I didn’t do a business plan for that one, but it was responding to an opportunity.

Your family business was in retail, a sector dominated by big-boxes these days. What’s some advice for an entrepreneur up against a giant?
It takes a lot of effort for a big company to ‘move the needle’ — if Procter & Gamble is going to do something, it might take billions of dollars and it has to have a huge impact to be worthwhile. That leaves a lot of niches for smaller companies that you may understand a lot better than Wal-Mart Inc.

Have you come across any business concepts that you were surprised actually worked?
Not really. It’s all about execution. You can have a great concept everyone assumes is a shoe-in that will fail because it’s executed poorly. Ideas you might criticize may work with the right team.

What’s the hardest aspect of entrepreneurship to teach?
The front end and the back end. It’s not too hard to teach planning and finance, but it is hard to teach a person to recognize an opportunity and to have the heart to see it through. But if it were easy, we wouldn’t hold entrepreneurs in the high regard we do.

You started tweeting last year but gave it up before too long. How important is that kind of social networking to entrepreneurs?
It’s an important tool, and I wouldn’t say I’m through with it. My concept was to tweet a new opportunity I’d seen somewhere in the world every day. It’s a responsibility to come up with good ideas, and a real challenge in 140 characters. But I want to go back to it.

Entrepreneurship education has trickled down from graduate schools all the way to day cares. Is it something anyone can learn, or are some people just not cut out?
Some people say if it’s not in your DNA you can’t put it there, but I say that’s bull. Everybody can find a place in a startup. You may not be the lead entrepreneur, but you might have a unique insight into team building or be perceptive about trends in sales data.

Now that many if not most universities are teaching entrepreneurship, what’s the best way to distinguish WFU’s program?
I can, with a straight face, say that entrepreneurship is infused in just about every program at Wake Forest. It happens in a number of forms, but we believe in it and staff for it and have high expectations for faculty and students.

What would be your own dream business to own?
I’m involved in a number of student ventures, and I love that. I don’t expect to leave academia, but if I did, I’d love to open a bar in the Piedmont Triad Research Park and hang a sign that says ‘Free business advice, two drink minimum.’

What’s the most common failing of would-be entrepreneurs?
You’re darned if you do or darned if you don’t on this because you have to be persistent, but I’d say it’s often the mindset that, given enough time, you’re sure to succeed. Sometimes you just have to pull the plug, and that’s very difficult for entrepreneurs.

You were in your 50s when you went into academics. What’s something important for mid-career changers to consider?
That it’s time to do it when what you’re doing now doesn’t excite you. Find what reinvigorates you. I get up at 5 a.m., take a run with the dog and then I’m ready to go to work. And if there’s some way to apply what you already know differently, that’s even better.

What do you think the best invention is in the past 50 years?
The germanium chip from Bell Labs that moved us from vacuum tubes to transistors. Texas Instruments, where I worked, followed that with silicon transistors. That’s what led to the IT revolution.

What’s something not many people know about you?
That now that our kids are grown, we’ve replaced them at home with Toby, our golden retriever. We spend a lot of time together training for agility competitions. We just had our first meet, and we failed miserably. He got a case of ‘the zoomies.’

What really annoys you?
People who don’t have the same sense of urgency that I do in traffic.

Do you prefer to go to parties or host parties?
Hosting them — entrepreneurs tend to like to be in control. Sometimes that leads to differences of opinion with my wife.

What is your worst habit?
If you were to ask my wife after one of our parties, she might refer to that “control” issue.

If you couldn’t live in the Triad, where would you want to live?
Geography isn’t that important to me. I’d want us to live somewhere where we’d have friends as good as the ones we have here.

Where would you like to go next on vacation?
I get the most out of trips to countries that I’ve never been to before, and I’ve never been to Israel. They have had incredible entrepreneurial success, as well as a sense of religion and history.

What’s your favorite TV show?
Probably “24,” though it was getting predictable there at the end. Jack Bauer keeps getting shot and clobbered and stabbed and then healing in 20 minutes. It’s a hoot.