Planting Seeds

Schooling Entrepreneurs with a Corporate Job?

The corporate grind can be the best education for an entrepreneurial second act.

Schooling Entrepreneurs with a Corporate Job?

Entrepreneurs have no formal degree requirements, although some “schooling” is crucial for success. Apprenticeship is often touted as an attractive educational path. What if that apprenticeship was a corporate job, with riskless salaried pay? How sweet would that be?

Cindy Koebele began working in title insurance in the 1980s. She co-founded TitleSmart in 2007, as the housing bubble was collapsing, with a proffer of a higher level of service. Today, the company has 100 staff members in eight locations throughout the state, conducting 13,000 annual real estate closings.

Koebele was an EY Entrepreneur of the Year for the Upper Midwest in 2015, and her company has received numerous awards, including a listing in Inc.’s 5,000 fastest-growing private companies in America for 2014–2018, Star Tribune’s 150 Top Workplaces in Minnesota in 2018 and 2019, and this magazine’s Best of Business in 2017 and 2018.

Koebele found time to author two children’s books and a nonfiction book for adults, Obsess to Success, about the cardinal virtue of customer experience. She serves on the board of a nonprofit providing housing grants to parents with a seriously ill or critically injured family member.

Kristi Piehl was an anchor/reporter for more than 12 years at five television stations. She became savvy about attracting media exposure. According to Nielsen, most consumers trust “earned media”—nonpurchased media exposure—over paid ads. Yet traditional PR agencies were spending client money to secure news coverage mostly with press releases, free pizza, or emails.

An unexpected layoff in 2008 led her in 2010 to found Media Minefield, which is focused on helping businesses secure earned media. Her 28 employees are mostly former journalists who understand how to create compelling content and coach clients on regular or crisis communications. The company has clients from startups to billion-dollar brands, including Starkey Hearing, MyPillow, and Be The Match.

Recognition includes various iterations of Minnesota’s best places to work, the Inc. 5,000 for 2018 and 2019, and Minne Inno’s coolest companies list in 2019. To pay it forward, she is a founding member of the Women in Entrepreneurship Institute at DePaul University in Chicago.

Jaime Taets spent 11 years at Cargill and two years at Moneygram International. She’s delivered change management and enterprise transformation across many industries in many countries. After turning down a promotion, in 2013 she founded strategic consulting firm Keystone Group International for businesses facing transformation. Now the company has six consultants and three support employees.

These entrepreneurs recount several benefits that flow directly from their corporate “apprenticeship” that allowed their entrepreneurial venture to flourish:

  • A salaried career allowed them to save money they could use to bootstrap their business, rather than chasing investors for funding.
  • The opportunity itself grew out of their job experience. In some cases, having worked in several venues, they could clearly see an industrywide opportunity to exploit.
  • In a corporate setting, they discovered their real strengths and weaknesses. Project work gave them firsthand knowledge of their own abilities and limitations. After hearing a lot of no’s from superiors, clients, and team members, they learned to turn a “no” into a “yes.”
  • They discovered that the competency to build and run a business can only be acquired by being immersed in one. These skills went beyond sales techniques and software tools to financial details that drive a business, working with limited resources and managing egos in a diverse workplace.
  • They developed a network. These contacts became invaluable in their startup.

For each, when it became harder and harder to see the impact they were making in a larger company, they left the safety of the nest to fly on their own.

Aspiring entrepreneurs need not consider a corporate job as an abandonment of their dream. It may be a delay while they are “going to school.” This alternative earns double compensation—cash for resources, plus knowledge and personal experience gained from peers and bosses.

Rajiv Tandon is executive director of the Institute for Innovators and Entrepreneurs and an advocate for the future of entrepreneurship in Minnesota. He facilitates peer groups of Minnesota CEOs. He can be reached at rajiv@mn-iie.org.