Sept. 5, 2008

Rob Ryan '69 speaks on success, flowers and zebras

It's not often that you get to hear a prominent businessperson dish out success secrets. But if you're taking Applied Economics and Management 1210 -- Entrepreneurship Speaker Series, it happens weekly. The course brings entrepreneurs and others involved in personal enterprise to campus to share their thoughts on getting to the top and staying there.

The first lecture this term on Sept. 1 featured Rob Ryan '69, whose Ascend Communications grew from a four-person venture in 1989 to going public at $13 a share in 1994, the largest such sale in U.S. history. He founded the company with little more than an idea and without any specifically marketable products.

The big difference for Ryan, he said, came when he devised the "sunflower method." His attempts at describing his company to a Morgan Stanley analyst floundered until he drew a sunflower on a napkin. The center of the flower represents core technology, he said; the petals represent products and markets to which you sell, and the stem is the driving forces behind your company. For Ascend, Ryan decided that the core would be high-speed dialing, and the petals would be the Internet, video, remote access and telecommunications.

Ryan also chairs Entrepreneur America and is the author of "Smartups: Lessons From Rob Ryan's Entrepreneur America Boot Camp for Start-ups," which is used as a textbook for the course. Now retired, Ryan focuses his energies on the Entrepreneur America ranch in Montana, where he invites promising technology startups to stay. He mentors entrepreneurs and helps them sharpen their products, plans and presentations in exchange for shares in the new company. Since he views a company's value proposition as a very important first step, he said, he teaches young entrepreneurs to map and analyze their careers to find their "core."

"Does your product save money or make money?" asked Ryan. "If you can't figure it out, your customers can't either."

Ryan said he sees competition as healthy and not something to be overly concerned about. As long as you can get customers to distinguish you, success is sure to follow.

"If you manage to put a big red polka dot on a zebra, it would really stand out," said Ryan. "You have to try and be a zebra with a red polka dot, because in the world of customers, if you can't put that red dot on yourself, you just look like one of the other zebras and it's very hard for a customer to discern one difference from the other."

Ryan has taught at the Johnson School and helped initiate and fund the Cornell Entrepreneurship Network. He was named Cornell's Entrepreneur of the Year in 2002.

Jennifer Wholey '10 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.