Introduction and Interview of Dan Hoffman by David Wagstaff
This interview with Dan Hoffman is part of a series of articles from entrepreneurs, compiled with the goal of providing other business owners and soon-to-be business owners with a realistic view of what it takes to run a business and some of the challenges commonly faced.
I met Dan after a search for a platform to run The Entrepreneur’s Network’s PeerConnect (our mastermind style peer advising service), LeadConnect (our warm lead referral service), and MentorConnect (one to many group mentorships in a Circl.es style meeting). After investigating the Circl.es platform, I had an opportunity to meet with Dan to discuss our somewhat unique requirements for numerous peer meetings. It turns out Circl.es was the perfect platform. It’s built around the concept of small group meetings where participants equally contribute to the discussion.
Then I learned more about Dan’s background and that he had built other successful businesses. He’s also an incredibly kind person. While there are always stories of entrepreneurs who may seem unkind, in my experience, successful entrepreneurs are often really nice people. One of the keys to success in running a business is being able to get people to take an action based on your request – being likable really helps. Think about it – employees may need the money in the short-term but everyone has a choice in where they work. Customers have very little patience for vendors who treat them poorly. And you may think when an entrepreneur hires a vendor or partner, they can get away with being demanding. But the same dynamic is true for entrepreneurs. People may put up with poor behaviors for a period of time, but if the founder isn’t nice and skilled with people, they will struggle to succeed.
In Dan’s interview, I love that he pursued business for idealist reasons. He believes business is the way to change the world for the better. That’s awesome! I am liberal but many of my liberal friends believe business is associated with negative characteristics. It doesn’t have to be that way. Dan’s right, successful business people can and do change the world. That’s not to say all businesses and business professionals have their heart in the right place, but generally as entrepreneurs we have the potential to take on issues bigger than ourselves. Collectively, we can change the world for the better. I know that’s the kind of business person I aspire to be. That’s why I have this audacious goal of wanting to help 100,000 entrepreneurs on their path to success. And the business professionals who are nearest to my heart are those who want to make the world a better place through their actions. These folks are often called social entrepreneurs or impact entrepreneurs.
One of the things that Dan doesn’t mention in his interview is that he wasn’t just an average student. Dan pursues education with a passion. He attended Harvard University and graduated Magna Cum Laude and then went onto The University of Pennsylvania and pursued dual degrees, both a Master’s in International Studies and MBA from Wharton.
This raises the question that we discussed briefly in James Chang’s article. Does college education help in being an entrepreneur? In my experience, intelligence is important and I believe business classes can be helpful in understanding the breadth of business disciplines. But I also recognize many people are very smart but don’t have the opportunity or the discipline for advanced education. College is definitely not a requirement to be a successful entrepreneur, but I think it can make success a little easier. I studied New Venture Creation as part of my MBA along with finance and accounting. While there are many things I studied in high school and college that I haven’t used since, I believe I have used some material from every class I took while earning my MBA. Advanced education is not critical but can make it easier for an entrepreneur.
With that said, I learned more practical knowledge of what it takes to run a business in my first year in business than I had learned in all my previous years of college and earning an MBA. If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford to hire experts when you start your business, you can quickly learn more about practical skills you need than in years of college and graduate school classes.
In Dan’s interview, he talks about the challenge of finding the right business model. In starting multiple businesses, I crave having really smart people around me. Starting a business requires many skills, and one of the most important is being able to think through complex issues and challenges, like business model decisions.
Business models and pricing models can have significant complexity as Dan explains in his interview. Very smart or very intuitive people can really help in these types of decisions. A current hot topic in the entrepreneurial world is rapid prototyping. You can check out Tom Chi and what he has to say about this topic. I have twice had the opportunity to meet him ad he is one of those uniquely smart people.
Since I started this article a couple of days ago, I have now had the opportunity to host two mastermind style PeerConnect Circl.es meetings and can vouch for the value of the platform. It’s very powerful to be in a video conference with a group of other people and all jointly work together to help one another succeed in business. It’s a great way to get to know other entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs and it’s really nice to have a team of smart business professionals helping to think through complex issues. In the past 6 weeks, we have had about 160 people sign up for these types of meetings through the Entrepreneur’s Network. We know there is more demand out there, but at this point we need to refine our onboarding process before we can add more groups.
What led you to become an entrepreneur?
In college I made a decision to pursue business, believe it or not, for idealistic reasons: I thought business was a way to build important things and change the world. I was skeptical of government. As a kid, I’d had a few little businesses. After college, I got a consulting job and worked for some enormous companies, but that wasn’t my happy place. I was hired to run a division of 200 people when I was 23 and that went well. Then some friends started a small Internet company that was worth a lot of money fast. I thought “I could do that….”
A brief description of your business and what are your aspirations for it?
Circl.es makes it easy for small groups to connect deeply in video conversations. Our software runs meetings so groups of 5-10 can help each other learn or work. This has lots of applications in education: we learn better in circles than we do in rows. Flexible teams are starting to be more important at work, as fixed org charts and hierarchies are proving too slow. So, it might be true that we work better in circles than we do in rows too.
Our first commercially successful application is in learning and development, where we solve the problem, “after the training, then what?” for exec-education programs like Harvard Business School or leadership training at companies. By meeting in circles to discuss and apply the training, you forget less, and keep up new, valuable social connections.
What things have you done with your business that you are proud of or work really well?
I’m really proud of the software we’ve built. It works: it makes you feel almost like people are in a room together. It teaches people how to have great work or learning meetings. I’ve really enjoyed the design process.
What were some of your biggest challenges along the way?
Our biggest challenge is still figuring out a business model. We could do so much for so many different customers. What do we focus on? Who pays how much? My last business was simpler: cheaper, better, office phones.
Have you overcome the challenges? If so how?
Not entirely. One thing we’ve done that has worked well is having an experimental mindset with our early customers. We design tests, track the results carefully, and learn fast. This is a different approach than scaling up and trying to hit sales numbers. We’re still experimenting!
But we have learned that we solve a big problem in learning and development and these programs have budgets and urgent needs. Companies invest millions into training programs and then people get back to work and forget most of what they learned and fall out of touch with the valuable contacts they’ve made.
What have you learned and what would you like to share with other entrepreneurs?
Being a learner, hiring learners, seeking out the company of learners is like using the wish the genie gives you for more wishes. That’s such a fun part of being an entrepreneur. Your company grows as fast as you do. I don’t just mean reading books, I mean having a peer group, coach, mentor, classes – all of it.
Is there someone or group of people you would like to meet? For example, investors in the electrical industry, Mentors in the publishing industry. A knowledgeable SEO person. Specific is helpful.
We’ve got room for one more core person on our team to lead marketing! They have to love learning (our one core value) and be really creative about building a digital funnel.