No Fear of Failure: Technology Entrepreneurs Urge Students to Go for It

By Dennis Walikainen | Published

Panelists (left to right): Paul Fulton, Martha Sullivan, Dave House, and moderator Dave Reed.
Panelists (left to right): Paul Fulton, Martha Sullivan, Dave House, and moderator Dave Reed.

Start-ups are not easy to start, according to experts visiting campus, and success often happens through failure.

“If you are going to fail, fail fast,” said Paul Fulton ’84, a Silicon Valley investor and consultant, at Tuesday’s Entrepreneur 2.0 panel at Michigan Technological University. “You learn from your mistakes, and it’s like skiing at Mont Ripley, which is why I came to Tech. If you don’t push yourself to the edges, you don’t know how far you can go.”

Entrepreneur 2.0 sought to expose students, faculty, staff and community members to some of the sharpest minds from Silicon Valley and elsewhere, all of whom are alumni.

Fulton said it was important to fail soon, so resources are not wasted on a misguided plan. It was a theme agreed upon by the other panelists: Martha Sullivan ’80, president of Sensata Technologies of Massachusetts, and Dave House ’65 executive chairman of Brocade Systems in San Jose, Calif.

They were high on taking risks when starting businesses—they all had—and they had all failed at one time or another on their way to success.

“I judge a person in part by what they learn from their failure,” says House, who was an executive at Intel before launching his own companies. “You don’t want to spend too much time at the intersection. You need to move quickly down the path, even if you have to back up and go another way.”

One student asked how to know when a risk is worth it. “When you know what’s at stake within that environment,” said Sullivan. “Never take a risk with incomplete data,” said House.

Risk is inherent in entrepreneurship, House said. “Only one of 10 Silicon Valley startups succeeds.”

Fulton discussed the loneliness, and need for confidence, in leadership.

“You really have nobody with you when you are a CEO,” he said. “At the same time, you listen to yourself and weigh the risks. You create your own luck. Look at ideas that work elsewhere.”

Some of the entrepreneurs talked about contemplating startups while having a job at an established company.

“Don’t give up your day job, but be willing to move when the time is right,” Sullivan said. “Inventions can’t be scheduled.”

Fulton created his first startup after being laid off from Texas Instruments (“a great company”), and he had prepared for his new company while still employed with TI.

Students wanted to know how to build a good team.

“I know you all dread team assignments in class, when you don’t get to pick your partners,” Sullivan said. “Make sure you are all aligned toward your objective and that you are the one who brings high competencies to the team. Don’t worry about the others.”

“Great business teams are like the great sports teams,” Fulton said. “You can read each other’s minds, and when your teammates make mistakes, you help them and cover for each other.”

House argued for the importance of diverse personalities on a team and getting women to join because of their team-oriented skills and the balance they can bring to men who are more risky and egocentric.

“How do you know when the business idea might be good but not good enough?” another student asked.

“The outside world has a way of telling you,” Sullivan said. “Earnings growth matters. An exciting idea is not good enough.”

The panelists also did a little crystal ball gazing, 10 to 20 years down the road.

“Look at the economic issues that exist and will continue to be around, and address those with technology. Energy and health care are prime examples. The technology should be invisible, and a lot of it already is," he said, holding up an iPhone. "Most of this is happening in the cloud, and think where it all was just 10 years ago.”

Texting, GPS and cameras all were unheard of or accomplished on completely different devices then, he said.

House perceived a day when people could get health feedback from their cell phones and could adjust their lifestyles and their medications accordingly.

“Or the insurance companies could,” an audience member offered.

The cost of the current system of energy consumption, especially oil, is prohibitive, House said.

“By the time you pay for protecting the people who sell us the oil, you can double that $3 per gallon,” he said. Electric cars are becoming increasingly reliable and maintenance free, he added.

Fulton touted his Tesla electric vehicle.

“It goes 0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds,” he said. “Hey, I’m a Michigan guy, I’m a car guy!”

Students were also implored to look outside the local to the global.

“Seventy percent of searches on YouTube videos come from outside the US,” Fulton stated. Sullivan couldn’t think of a company that should not go global.

“Except maybe dry cleaning,” someone offered.

And the human side of entrepreneurship and technology was not overlooked.

“What Steve Jobs did so well was to start with the human experience,” House said. “And then he worked back to the technology.”

“It’s important to work from the outside in,” Sullivan agreed, “instead of just pushing out the technology.”

Or getting lost in the technology.

“A good time for small companies is when there is going to be a large shift,” Fulton said. “Remember mainframes versus PCs?”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.