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Taking Healthy Risks: Experiences of Four Marriott School Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurship is, in many ways, the lifeblood of our economy. Each year, more than half a million businesses are started, and millions of jobs are created in the United States alone. Additionally, the entrepreneurial itch helps advance technology and diversifies the economy.

The innate drive to create new ventures and build new enterprises has led the United States out of many recessions. According to a recent USA Today1 article, in the previous nine recessions since 1948, self-employment rose as laid-off workers started their own companies. This increase in businesses produced jobs and innovation, providing a vital shot in the arm to a floundering economy. 

However, during the past two years, new business startups have been slow to aid in the recovery. The share of all self-employed workers has actually fallen since March 20012.
Experts attribute this recent trend to rising health insurance premiums, lack of readily available financing, and a decrease in investor confidence. Despite such obstacles, many are still counting on entrepreneurs to nurse the economy back to health. 

With a strong tradition of entrepreneurship, Marriott School graduates are reinventing traditional businesses and creating innovative ventures—nourishing a hungry economy.
These are four stories of Marriott School alumni garnering entrepreneurial success. Common among them is a desire to help others succeed, reliance on the gospel of Jesus Christ, and application of skills acquired at the Marriott School. 

Discover Nathan Gwilliam’s path to start Adoption.com, one of the world’s largest adoption media web sites; how Chris Lansing converted a local building supply company into the national Ted Lansing Corporation; what prompted Marva Sadler to restart Baron Woolen Mills and join new venture eLeaderTech; and why Stephen Jenkins believes his newest startup, CheatCodes.com, is honest work and a lot of fun.

Nathan Gwilliam 

Adoption.com 

Pivotal Moment 
Banging on the doors of the post office at 12:45 a.m., former BYU business student Nathan Gwilliam couldn’t believe his luck. Tired and overworked, he had postponed finishing a business plan entry until earlier that evening. Procrastination had caught up with him.

After hearing about a U.S. West-sponsored competition with a $10,000 prize, he resolved to give it a shot. His new company, Adoption.com, had experienced minor success generating revenue through advertising, adoption attorney listings, and parent profiles, but was still unable to meet its expenses. 

The company had just downsized and moved from Provo (where it started in 1995 in a BYU computer lab and won the BYU ACE Business Plan Competition) to Arizona, where Gwilliam could save rent money living with his parents. The warm glow of CNN and MSNBC cameras that followed the young entrepreneur at the site’s launch had faded, and the cold realities of running a business remained. 

“There’s a standard rule they tell you in business school—the rule of threes,” Gwilliam says. “It will take three times as long, cost you three times as much, and generate a third of the money you think it will. That was pretty true.”

Earlier that evening, he had decided to grab something to eat before returning to the office to finish the business plan entry, which had to be postmarked that night for competition eligibility.

“Looking back, we were at a pivotal moment of the company,” Gwilliam says. “We could very easily have folded. All the credit cards were maxed, and there wasn’t enough revenue to meet our needs.”

On the way to dinner, his automobile was rear ended—the first accident of his life. By the time he returned to work, got the business plan in a workable state for submission, and drove to the post office, he had missed the postmark.

Standing in front of the post office’s locked doors, Gwilliam noticed several postal workers exiting the side door. Hoping for a miracle, he nearly pounced on them, passionately explaining his situation.

“I told them it had to be postmarked before midnight. They told me, ‘It can’t,’” he says. “I explained to them that this was to help kids get adopted, and it was for a really good cause.” His sincerity swayed them.

“When they came back out—minus the package—they said, ‘You are so lucky. The lady in charge of turning over the date stamp is having a baby shower, so she hasn’t done it yet.’”

His entry properly postmarked, Gwilliam went on to win the competition. The prize money arrived in time for Adoption.com to pay critical obligations and garner more media coverage. More importantly, it attracted the attention of financiers.

A Helping Business 
Under Gwilliam’s leadership, Adoption.com is now a profitable network of more than two-hundred web sites related to adoption, foster care, infertility, and crisis pregnancy. Aside from catering to people hoping to adopt, the Adoption.com network also serves women facing crisis pregnancies, adoptive families, adoptees, and birthparents. 

Popular sites include AdoptionWeek.com, an online magazine sent via email weekly to 220,000 readers; AdoptableKids.com, a photo listing with nearly 2,000 children in foster homes and orphanages; ParentProfiles.com, a service allowing hopeful adoptive parents to build online profiles and pregnant mothers to access those profiles; and AdoptionRegistry.com, the largest mutual-consent reunion registry that helps adult adoptees and birthparents find each other. 

Privately owned by Gwilliam and his father, the world’s biggest adoption media company employs twenty people and creates revenues from advertising, directory listings of adoption attorneys and agencies, listings of parent profiles, and from sales of adoption books, music, videos, and other products. “A lot of people said you couldn’t make money in the adoption world,” he says. “But I knew it could be done.”

Guiding Principles 
Important to his accomplishments has been the foundation he gained in Marriott School classes.

“Rick Farr’s marketing class was wonderful,” he says. “It was so practical. I’ve used almost everything I learned there.”

Key to his success is three principles upon which Gwilliam bases business decisions: (1) Do the right things for the right reasons, and worry about revenue second. (2) Pay outright for everything needed to run your business, but make all of your revenue streams recurring. (3) Give credit where it’s due. 

“We are very open in our business culture that we could not do this without the Lord,” Gwilliam says. “He gets the credit, not us. We need to make all of our decisions in ways we can be worthy of that assistance.”

Marva Sadler 

Baron Woolen Mills and eLeaderTech 


Eye for Opportunity 
Struggling with humidity-related health concerns, strategy consultant Marva Sadler left her job with consulting firm Marakon Associates and moved her family from the East Coast to the drier climate of Utah. Upon returning to the state of her childhood, she enrolled in a doctorate program at the University of Utah in the fall of 1991.

“I quickly realized I was too entrepreneurial to get my PhD,” Sadler says. “I lasted one semester.” Shortly thereafter, she heard about the bankruptcy and closing of Brigham City’s Baron Woolen Mills—founded in 1870 by Church President Lorenzo Snow. Marva saw an opportunity.

“I thought it would be exciting to take all the principles I had taught other people as a strategy consultant and see if I could make them work,” says Sadler, who earned an MBA from the Marriott School in 1981 and went to work for Bain & Company after graduation.
Sadler took the reigns as CEO and her husband, Bob, took responsibility for sales and marketing. Together, they developed and executed a business plan to return the company to full operation in eighteen months and profitability in twenty-four. But the turnaround wasn’t always smooth. In a small-company setting, Sadler had to adjust her approach to doing business.

“My consulting firm clients were Fortune 500 organizations with big problems involving huge amounts of money. I was accustomed to doing financial projections and spreadsheets where $10 million was a rounding error,” she says. “When I began running my own business, there was no such thing as a rounding error—I started struggling over things like, ‘Am I paying seven cents or can I find five cents a minute for long distance?’”
During four years at the mill, she quadrupled production, improved the quality of blankets, and reintroduced past products. She says she learned to focus on creative problem-solving skills, which involved finding simple, low-cost solutions. “As an entrepreneur, in the middle of growing a business, ‘I can’t’ is not an acceptable answer,” she says. “There is a constructive solution to almost every challenge.” 

One creative solution involved scrap yarn. Instead of figuring out how to just minimize the problem by reducing or recycling, Sadler’s company reversed the situation and turned the scrap into a profitable opportunity. The mill invented a blanket called the “Joseph” as in the “coat of many colors.” According to Sadler, the blanket was tremendously popular with its unique color weaves and also very profitable because it used all of the leftover yarn. “We never had to discount a ‘Joseph’ blanket because of a weaving flaw,” she says.

Attitudes and Behaviors 
When she became pregnant with her fifth child, Sadler developed an allergic reaction to the wool and turned the company over to her husband in 1996. She moved on to work for business training companies AchieveGlobal and later FranklinCovey.

Sadler explains that even when she’s worked for larger businesses, she’s tended to behave in an entrepreneurial fashion. “Entrepreneurship is not just about running or owning a small business,” she says. “It also has to do with attitudes and behaviors. There’s a difference between the constant sense of urgency and creativity that entrepreneurs have versus the bureaucracy and process that managers of large businesses tend to fall into.”

She credits part of her success in the business world to her time at BYU. “The Marriott School provided as good a classical MBA education as anybody,” Sadler says. “In the business world I was able to put my strategy sense and certainly my finance and operations understanding, against anybody else’s.”

Sense of Priority 
Today, when she’s not using her entrepreneurial skills as chief operating officer of Salt Lake City-based start-up eLeaderTech, Sadler is mother to five children, ages twenty-one to seven. And though she says it hasn’t always been easy, she follows a strict policy to make the two parts of her life work the way she wants them to.

“I tell my employer, ‘I work really hard when I’m at work. And when I go home, I’m home,’” Sadler says. “When I’m home: I’m a Mom; I coach soccer; I make Halloween costumes; I do the things that Moms do—but when I’m at work, I’m at work.”

She takes the gospel very seriously in relation to her business and home life. The values and principles she holds closest—a deep sense of integrity and honesty—have served as guideposts throughout her career.

“I’ve walked away from jobs where I thought people were a bad influence or where there were things that I didn’t want to participate in. I can’t do one thing eight hours a day and live the gospel the other sixteen.”

Chris Lansing 

Ted Lansing Corporation

Vision of Growth 
“When we first started, we had six warehouses and $10 million worth of business,” says Chris Lansing, president of the Virgina-based Ted Lansing Corporation. “Today, we’re at fifty warehouses and more than $200 million dollars worth of business.” 

The 1974 BYU accounting graduate, CEO of the nation’s foremost independent building products wholesaler, has no plans to slow down.

“To me, when you’re green you grow, and when you’re ripe you rot,” Lansing says. “As we attract and hire new people we have to sell them on our vision that the company can grow and that they will be able to grow along with it. If we don’t give them those opportunities, someone else will.”

When Lansing took over the company in 1980 upon the death of its founder and namesake, the Ted Lansing Corporation was in a tight spot. Plagued by high interest rates, the economy had ground to a halt.

Shortly after assuming his father’s role as president, Lansing, then thirty-years old, got word that several of the company’s key leaders were defecting to go into business for themselves.

“It made for a very challenging time,” Lansing says. “I didn’t feel like I was particularly ready for it. But it forced us to work hard, and I think it brought out the best in us.”
Bringing in other young guns to fill vacancies, Lansing earnestly began building the business. Under his leadership the company has prospered, with warehouses from Washington, D.C., and Atlanta to Salt Lake City and Seattle.

Marriott School Dean Ned Hill has worked closely with Lansing, who serves on the school’s National Advisory Council, its Entrepreneur Founders Board and on BYU President Merrill J. Bateman’s Leadership Council.

“Chris is a wonderful entrepreneur. He’s very kind and personable to his people but very demanding of quality as he expands his business,” Hill says. “An entrepreneur is someone who takes risks and develops new ideas, and Chris certainly does that.”

A People Business 
Lansing credits his company’s expansion to the focus he places on personal relationships—those fostered with employees and customers alike. Additionally, the support he gets from his spouse in his business ventures is something he believes is vital to any entrepreneur’s success. 

“I like the opportunity of watching people grow,” Lansing says. “We’re not a high-tech business, we don’t have a secret recipe, and we don’t make anything. We’re wholesalers. Ours is a service business, which means it’s a people business.”

Lansing considers himself lucky to be the leader of so many dedicated and special people. “We hire friendly and train technical,” he says. “We expect our employees to know their customers’ names and treat them with respect. Customers are our partners. Their success is our success.” 

Importance of Example 
A former stake president, Lansing is also active in the community, where he tries to be a good example.

“Being a Mormon in the community—a Baptist Bible-belt area—you become very visible because of your religion. The same holds true in the business world,” Lansing says. “It’s an opportunity to put the Church forward in a positive light.”

Lansing says many great missionary opportunities have resulted from the attention his company garners. He attributes the corporation’s continual expansion and success to the Lord, saying it is a tool to further missionary work. 

“Our family believes that where much is given, much is required. We’ve been the beneficiaries of so many blessings that we feel we must give back.”

Dyer, W. Gibb. (1992). The Entrepreneurial Experience. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Stephen Jenkins 

WinFiles.com, VServers.com, and CheatCodes.com 


Fun on the Job 
Thirty-one-year-old Stephen Jenkins is a confident fellow—he has an engaging verbal swagger that perhaps stems from the sale of two of his companies—WinFiles.com and VServers.com—for a combined $60 million in cash. And though money doesn’t necessarily make the man, it certainly didn’t hurt the assurance of a person who had the chutzpah to run for Provo mayor at age twenty-one.

After taking a year off in 2000 to recharge following the sale of his businesses, Jenkins became the “cheat” executive officer of CheatCodes.com, a company he envisioned in 1996 that provides video game enthusiasts with the secret codes, hints, and tips to imbue game characters with even more super powers and unlock hidden levels.

Jenkins’ company name sometimes raises eyebrows. But a quick explanation that video game programmers purposefully include such codes to add variety to games usually resolves concerns.

“There’s nothing dishonest about it; it’s not really cheating,” he says. Raised eyebrows aside, Jenkins loves his job.

“I’m sure every kid has thought at one time or another, ‘If I could just figure out a way to make money playing video games,’” Jenkins says. “I haven’t figured out how to make money playing video games, but I’ve figured out how to make money and it’s related to video games. I think that’s about as close as I’m going to get.”

Dot-Com Success 
In 1996, while still in graduate school, Jenkins “accidentally” founded Jenesys, a web media company that created WinFiles.com, a site that let people test drive software via downloads and provided informational articles about the Windows operating system. 
The articles became extremely popular—many web sites linked to them, and most of the high-tech print magazines recommended them. Jenkins became an unintentional expert on Windows 95 Internetworking almost overnight. 

In the process of creating and maintaining WinFiles.com, Jenkins hired people to develop programs that dealt with advertising and marketing, content management, and databases. Realizing the software’s marketability, he and a fellow BYU student co-founded VServers.com, a Web hosting and e-commerce tools provider.

While Jenkins was running the two companies, Microsoft launched Windows 95 in August 1995. WinFiles.com was caught up in the media hype, and members of the Windows marketing team offered Jenkins a job. He worked for them as an online marketer following graduation.

“I was working with people from Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, and Wharton, and I was just as competent and well equipped to deal with business problems as they were,” Jenkins says. “That’s a credit to the curriculum, methods, and faculty of the Marriott School. I was sent into a gunfight with plenty of ammunition.”

He loved working for Microsoft, but found it impossible to balance a family, job, and two businesses. After four months at the company, Jenkins left to focus on his own enterprises.

Juggling the management of two profitable businesses was still no small feat, so when the opportunity arose to sell WinFiles.com to competitor CNET for $11.5 million in cash, Jenkins took it. A year later, he also sold VServers.com to Micron Electronics for nearly $50 million in cash.

“We were competing with other dot-coms that didn’t have real customers or revenues. Our companies were privately held, growing, and viable,” Jenkins says. “We were conservative, not like other dot-coms that were throwing caution to the wind.”

Entrepreneurial Zeal 
With the financial independence the sales of his two companies gave him, Jenkins started CheatCodes.com in 2001. The Seattle-based company serves up more than 300,000 web pages daily, attracting about 200,000 visitors a week during slow periods and almost double that during the summer and on holidays.

Currently, the site is free and makes a profit on advertising, but will eventually charge a minimal fee for some of its services, Jenkins says.

In his free time, Jenkins enjoys lecturing about entrepreneurship to BYU students in Rexburg, Laie, and Provo, and makes an annual visit to the Philippines to teach microenterprise to budding capitalists at a school founded by one of his former Marriott School professors. “I love helping others catch the excitement of what it’s like to own a business,” he says.

Like other Marriott School graduates, Jenkins credits his family and the strength he derives from the gospel to helping him maintain perspective.

“It’s helpful knowing and having some exterior direction in my life—understanding that I’m not just trying to make money for the sake of making money,” Jenkins says. “I’m very grateful for the influence the gospel has to help me and my family stay on the right path.”

Endnotes 

  1. Jim Hopkins. (2002). “Entrepreneurial spirit suffering; Start-ups fail to help U.S. shed recession.” USA Today, 18 September, A1.
  2. Ibid.

_ Article written by Grant R. Madsen
Photographed by Bradley H. Slade

About the Author 
Grant Madsen is a freelance author and media relations manager for BYU’s University Communications. He earned a BA in communications from BYU in 1998.

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