3 Takeaways from Serial Entrepreneur Joe Kaplan

One of the best things about going to grad school is getting the kind of exposure to a lot of speakers who’ve been in the trenches and can relate their experiences and the hardships that went into forming their business. This is even more important for entrepreneurship courses, where budding entrepreneurs often feel like they’re battling a huge tide and could definitely use some pointers so that they can head in the right direction with their ventures and be somewhat cognizant of the challenges ahead.

Anyway, yesterday, serial entrepreneur Joe Kaplan delivered a talk about his experiences and how he went from working in the meat-packing business all the way to founding Innovative Merchant Solutions, a company focused on processing credit card transactions. Needless to say, that’s one disjointed journey and it sure made for a fascinating story. But what was even more fascinating were the common threads that seems to join pretty much every entrepreneur in existence.

Every entrepreneur stresses doing what you love. Paul Graham has written extensively about it and now Joe Kaplan was saying essentially the same thing. The reasoning for that is pretty simple: if you actually give a damn about the work you do, you’ll be motivated to learn as much as possible to excel at your craft, even if the rewards aren’t immediately palpable. For Joe, his passion lay in making processes more efficient and reinventing the rules; he describes at length about how he applied these concepts to his early job at the meat-packing plant and the rush he got when he was able to see the results of his work. The lowest points of his career were when his suggestions weren’t acted upon. To hear him describe it, it’s like someone cut off his lifeline, leaving him effectively zombified. But he learned from that experience, figured out what he had to do, struggled to get where he wanted to be, and succeeded.

The second overarching theme is that a lot of rules are more like quaint legacy systems that never got around to being fixed. At the core, there aren’t any real reasons for these rules to exist, and if people could demolish those systems and set up something new, the processes would look totally different.

But people don’t because it doesn’t really occur to people to actively break out of those inefficient structures and routines. People are so oftentimes socialized to the point where the path of least resistance is to maintain the status quo. So when someone with an obvious idea on improving productivity lets loose with their plan, it’s hailed as revolutionary and catches the competition off-guard. The lesson is that the best way to have an impact is to recognize where productivity gaps exist and make an effort to close them within your organization. And if that doesn’t fly because of management resistance, all the knowledge that you’ve gained through your work experience will most likely be sufficient for you to strike out on your own and make the world in accordance to your own vision. If you’re audacious enough to take that step, that is.

Finally, the last point that struck me is that one shouldn’t be restricted by the items in your business plan. That’s a concept that the professors at USC have stressed over and over: that feasibility is more important than writing out a business plan. But it’s Joe Kaplan’s talk that illustrated why. He talks about how the plan was useful in securing funding, but how, once he finally started, unforeseeable events proceeded in throwing curveball after curveball and soon, that plan was effectively useless. Kaplan also realized through those events that the business plan he crafted was based on other people’s ideas and input; what entrepreneurs should do is run companies the way the entrepreneurs want them to be run, otherwise you’re not really working to make your own dream succeed. You’d be realizing other people’s impositions upon your dream.

There are a lot of other items too, like making sure that you’re not confined to being a mere commodity, absorbing as much information as possible (I was impressed with how quickly Kaplan was able to get up to speed in the area of small business lending despite not having much knowledge in that area), and always anticipating where the winds will blow and position yourself there. Overall, Joe Kaplan proved to be a very forceful and charismatic speaker, and I greatly enjoyed his talk.

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