Crossing the Chasm
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Scott Litman says there was a time when he couldn’t give a three-minute report without shaky knees. Listening to his comfortable eloquence today, you could be forgiven for thinking that this stage-fright memory simply cannot be accurate. He insists, though, explaining that he realized that if he were to become the entrepreneur he wanted to be, he would have to overcome his nerves. And so he did, taking enough CLA speech classes to graduate one course short of a major in speech communication. Scott Litman is willing to pay a price for his dreams.
In fact, Litman has been an entrepreneur for his entire professional career. For the past five years, he has been a managing partner of Magnet 360, an integrated marketing/technology/creative-services firm and the metro area’s fastest-growing business. It serves Fortune 500 companies, requires ever-expanding office space, and records a monumental revenue increase from $1.5 million the first year to a path toward $25 million this year. It’s not his first business, only the latest result of his enthusiasm for new ideas, an uncanny ability to see what’s coming next, and the will to jump in.
Magnet 360 is only the most recent of his multiple success stories. There was Imaginet, the company he started only a year after graduation, which sold Mac’s and NeXT Computers to Ad Agencies and Corporate Marketing . He sold it a few million dollars later, then bought it back with his long term business partner Dan Mallin, refashioning it to help Fortune 500 companies with e-business strategy. They later sold Imaginet a second time, this time to global ad giant WPP Group. Along the way he and Mallin also created a business called Spot by Spot, which created a platform for media buyers to place ads on cable television. They sold the business to Comcast in 2007 and today over 12,000 media buyers use its software every day.
be a successful entrepreneur,” says
Litman. “Too often people think that
the decision before them is unique.
Yet, all the decisions we make in
business have preceded us.”
What he may be most proud of, though, is an unpaid venture called the Minnesota Cup, which he founded in 2005. His idea was to sponsor a statewide competition for early stage entrepreneurs, with winning teams receiving seed capital and with it, a boosted image for investors.
“It’s about supporting the next breakthrough entrepreneurial success story,” he says of the venture he launched in partnership with the University of Minnesota, Wells Fargo and the state of Minnesota. “There’s a point between the time a new venture is launched—probably funded by friends and family—and the viable growth company that generates significant revenue and hires lots of people. Between these two is what many call the ‘valley of death,’ that place where most businesses go to rest. The Minnesota Cup lives right there in the valley of death. Many businesses never make it over the chasm, but we’re trying to discover those that should or could.”
In retrospect, it seems obvious that Litman would have been the one to dream this up and make it happen. He has an entrepreneur’s soul, and knew from the time he was 14 that he wanted to be in business for himself. A Minneapolis native, he grew up connected to the U, with a father who was a professor in the School of Public Health, and a family whose Gopher-game attendance was tradition. By the time he got serious about choosing a college, he realized that the U also was the best possible choice for a budding entrepreneur.
“The U of M is this amazing Big 10 school adjacent to one of the country’s leading centers of commerce,” he says. “This meant I could get a great education right next door to a great place where I could develop connections and do things that would be available to me the rest of my life.”
So with all that obvious and inherent business acumen, Litman chose a history major and an almost-major in speech communication. He thinks that makes a lot of sense.
“CLA is an excellent background to be a successful entrepreneur,” he says. “I’d argue that history is a great background for business leaders anyway. Too often people think that the decision before them is unique. Yet, all the decisions we make in business have preceded us. If you pay attention to what people before you have gone through, then you have a wealth of knowledge to bring to your decision-making today.”
It’s big-picture thinking, or as he puts it when talking about his company, “We get inspired. We recognize a trend. We see something amazing. Leadership is mostly intuition and experience. We recognize what is going to cross the chasm.”
What he says:
“I would tell a student to take advantage of the opportunities that come from the U of M being so close to a large center of commerce. Instead of working at bar or restaurant, work at an internship of interest to you--not only to get that on your resume, but to get the connections that come with it and that will feed the early part of your career.”
“Our greatest failings are what inspire the greatest learnings. While few projects go completely off the rails, those are the ones where you look in the mirror and learn the most about yourself and your business. We’re really good at learning from failure and making dramatic changes that improve our business. It’s OK to fail, but it's not OK to fail to learn from failure.”
“The great entrepreneur wants to build things, to make something from nothing. To be successful at this, you need to be absolutely passionate and dedicated to what you are building. To sustain the energy of late nights, weekends and great personal sacrifice, it’s key to love what you do versus doing it to pursue economic gain.”