An Entrepreneur's Odyssey
By Brent Wilhite
Pointing to the wrinkled dollar bill taped to his dry erase board, Jon Butler proudly declared, "There's our first dollar"--the symbol of entrepreneurial spirit and trophy of every startup.
Winning the 2002 Utah Entrepreneur Challenge, placing as runner-up in an international business plan competition, and securing thousands of dollars in startup capital, Butler discovered the advantages of starting a business in a learning community.
"I came into Westminster's MBA program thinking that having 'MBA' after my name would help me do the things I wanted to do," recalled Butler, now CEO of his own company, MediaPort. "Having run four successful businesses, I didn't think there was much that I could really learn." One of his favorite sayings, "You don't know what you don't know," taught him a valuable lesson. "Now I know how naive I was."
Entrepreneurial blood runs through Butler's veins. As a serial entrepreneur, he loves the thrill and challenges of setting up a new enterprise. Backed by a resume filled with professional titles such as consultant, manager, president, and executive director, Butler couldn't wait to begin another venture.
Having started four successful companies already, he knew the process would devour his time and energy--especially while pursuing an MBA. To conquer these challenges, he enlisted the help of his classmates, his professors, local business leaders, and whoever would listen to him. Hoping to give his latest startup the edge it needed to succeed, Butler tapped every resource he could find. Armed with an innovative business idea, Butler began pulling in support like a magnet. Everyone liked his idea: taking a 50,000-square-foot entertainment store and condensing it down into an ATM-sized kiosk called a "MediaPort." Customers can compile their own CDs at these entertainment kiosks. After a quick credit-card swipe, the entertainment (music, movie, or video game) is written directly to a CD--complete with jewel case--and ready for use.
So, just what does it take to transform an idea into a company? Well, unless you've subjected yourself to the painful process, you have no idea. Consider the bankroll needed to conduct market research, run focus groups, create logos, build an identity, and attract a stellar board of directors. In 2000, Butler came to Westminster with determination, drive, and an idea for an innovative company. The rest he found at Westminster.
Two years ago, everyone knew where they could find Butler on any given day: Just check the southwest corner in the basement of Westminster's Giovale Library. He was always there. He typed away on the college's computers. He fine-tuned his business plan from classmates' and faculty feedback. He even pitched his idea to potential investors in the library study rooms. Butler tapped every resource he could find at the college and was always on the hunt for more. Committed to sharing the journey, Butler sought support for his vision wherever he could.
"He was in a class called 'Business Plan Development,' where the students acted as a lab to help each other develop business plans," recalled Dr. Aric Krause, interim dean of the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business. "That was the first semester he really started working with his MediaPort business plan. I remember Jon constantly asking other students in the class to give him feedback, running through the first iterations, and clearly putting a lot of time and thought and energy into trying to make the best possible business plan. It was his dedication and his thirst to really make it happen for himself."
That class (and others like it) provided a springboard to Butler's business idea. Led by Utah's experienced executives and business leaders with firsthand experience in the startup trenches, the class offered Butler personal mentoring and one-on-one coaching. The class also brought two unlikely business partners together. Trevor Suelzle, now a MediaPort officer, met Butler in that class. "We didn't hit it off initially," said Suelzle. "We probably talked the least of the members in the Master Track Seminars. But I found myself at a transitional point in life, where I wanted a bigger challenge and something new to do. Jon presented his executive summary to the class and asked if anyone wanted to help with a full business plan. It came at the right time, and I had the right complementary skill set. He was looking for someone to help with the financial side of things, so I decided this is what I was going to do."
Suelzle, the company's CXO, plays nearly every role in the startup. "The 'X' in CXO means I do whatever needs to be done in the company. Fill in the blank with a 'T' for CTO, 'F' for CFO, 'I' for CIO, or 'O' for COO," he said. "It's a great partnership. We really complement each other well and have learned a lot from each other"--yet another advantage of starting a business in a learning community. The team hopes to raise $750,000 before rolling out their MediaPort kiosks to the public. Butler noted, however, that the prototype is near completion, so he may beta-test in a few select markets before raising the total amount. "We'll put MediaPorts in Salt Lake, Las Vegas, and Seattle. Then we'll prove the concept and show that we can pull it off nationwide," he explained.
Butler and Suelzle definitely have an advantage compared to other entrepreneurs, and they know it. "There just aren't words to describe how helpful the college has been," Butler said, "not only on an administrative level, but with the faculty and students as well. To do what we have been able to do would have cost tens of thousands of dollars. We've been able to survey, market test, refine our user interface, and do so many other things we couldn't normally do. On top of that," he added, "we have 26 Ph.D.s in this building [Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business] who have real-world experience. So, if we have a problem with financing, or marketing, or whatever, they're 100 feet away. They'll take time to sit down with us, review the problem, and help us find a way to work it out. The network of people associated with Westminster College who have stepped in and helped is unbelievable."
When Butler began his MBA, Krause was Butler's advisor. "When Jon first came to Westminster," Krause recalled, "I told him, 'You can be the type of student who just gets an MBA--or you can be the type of student with an MBA who goes far beyond--because an MBA is only as good as your commitment to getting every skill that you can possibly get out of it. In other words, you can do as little, or as much as you want.'"
Anyone looking at Jon Butler today can see the route he took. You might say as Krause put it, "He sucked the marrow out of the bone."