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‘People are always willing to pay for things they value,’ keynote speaker Rob Tarkoff, senior vice president of Adobe Systems Inc., told attendees at the Kellogg Technology Conference.

Rob Tarkoff

‘It’s a great time to start a business … if you can bootstrap it’

Industry leaders and students come together at the Kellogg Technology Conference to identify opportunities in a challenging market

By Amy Trang

4/21/2009 - Labor and infrastructure costs are low; smart people are looking for work. There may be no better time to start a business than now.

That was the optimistic yet cautious message delivered by panelists and speakers at the sold-out Kellogg Technology Conference on April 15. Hundreds packed the James L. Allen Center to learn about trends in technology and entrepreneurial opportunities, and to attend discussions on leadership in tough times, the future of mobile technology and digital marketing.

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Rob Tarkoff, senior vice president of Adobe Systems Inc.
Bill McDermott
Kellogg graduate Bill McDermott, president of global field operations and executive board member of SAP AG, encouraged leaders to focus on cash flow, compliancy, efficiency and retaining top talent.
Photo © Nathan Mandell
Arnaud Robert
‘Consumers are king and they know that they are king,’ Walt Disney Co. corporate vice president Arnaud Robert said. ‘It’s as simple as if you don’t deliver, you don’t get revenue.’
Photo © Nathan Mandell
Start up now

Entrepreneurs shouldn’t wait for the economy to rebound before starting a business, venture capital and entrepreneurship panelists said. People should begin now because smart people are plentiful, infrastructure costs are low and labor is cheap.

“Initial financing is hard but all other aspects of starting a business are favorable,” said Jason Heltzer, principal at OCA Ventures. “It’s a great time to start a business for R&D if you can bootstrap it.”

To sway venture capitalists into investing, entrepreneurs must present a business model that shows a return on investment with a plan to get to cash flow quickly.

“It’s a long haul to get to the IPO stage, but that brings out people with passion and not those out for a quick buck,” said Raj Shah ’93, chief marketing officer for NComputing.
But entrepreneurs also need to be true to their ideas and seek investors who fit with the company culture.

“Don’t say what you think they want to hear instead of your vision,” said Charles Glavin ’93, entrepreneur-in-residence at NEA.

Sharpen leadership skills
Customers rule in this new world of business because there are more options than ever, said keynote speaker Bill McDermott EMP-37. And that requires business leaders to be on top of their game to compete, McDermott added.

McDermott, president of global field operations and executive board member of SAP AG, encouraged leaders to focus on cash flow, compliancy, efficiency and retaining top talent. He said that companies also need to continue to invest in their brand and customer relationships.

“Leaders see endless opportunities but they also have to be realistic about the market,” McDermott said. “Never get comfortable where you are. Always think about where you need to be.”

Focus on revenue stream
As technology becomes more widespread, companies who set the standard with their software or devices are challenged to keep pace with the rate of technological change.

“Technology is so social to how we live today,” said keynote speaker Rob Tarkoff, senior vice president and general manager of the business productivity business unit for Adobe Systems Inc. “Challenges today are so much more robust, it requires us to scale things faster.”

To attract customers, new companies will often give out their product for free. However, Tarkoff warns, this “free” business model needs to have a product that a percentage of the customer base will pay for, such as premium services.

“If I can’t hone in on this 1 percent (of paying customers), there is no way I’ll make money on this,” Tarkoff said. “People are always willing to pay for things they value.”

Or else, it will be very difficult to get customers to pay for something that they once got for free, said keynote speaker Arnaud Robert, corporate vice president for emerging technologies and media security at Walt Disney Co.

“Consumers are king and they know that they are king,” Robert said. “It’s as simple as if you don’t deliver, you don’t get revenue.”

Conference co-chair Shahid Hussain ’09 said that by hosting these thoughtful discussions and bringing these speakers to Kellogg, the conference affirms Kellogg’s role as a center of technology excellence.

“Technology is all about having great ideas and doing something with them,” Hussain said. “Conferences are a way to bring together different people and have them exchange ideas. We hope that in that exchange, more great ideas will form and our delegates will be able to do something wonderful with them.”