More than 400 local business leaders packed a Lexington Center ballroom last Tuesday to hear lectures encouraging entrepreneurship in Kentucky from two of the state's most successful entrepreneurs.
Jim Host, the founder of Host Communications and now chief executive of iHigh.com, and Pearse Lyons, founder and president of Alltech, told their personal stories, talked about why Kentucky needs more entrepreneurs and offered their personal tips for success.
I know how much business people love lists of success tips, so I will share those later. First, though, I want to discuss why, beyond their obvious success, Host and Lyons are worth your attention.
Both are classic, hard-charging entrepreneurs. They are keen observers of business and society. Not only do they embrace change, they try to anticipate and drive it. They know that people always want better ways to satisfy their needs and desires, and in that space are great business opportunities. They know how to make things happen.
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Host is a home-grown success story. He moved to Ashland as a boy and has spent most of his life in Kentucky, including serving in state government and running unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor early in his career.
Host created world-class companies in travel, sports marketing and communications. Now he is trying to create the future of television. Host never felt he needed to move elsewhere to succeed. More importantly, he never allowed his vision to be limited by Kentucky's cultural aversion to change.
Most recently, Host led the effort to build Louisville's KFC Yum Center arena, despite being a blue-bleeding University of Kentucky alumnus and fan. Working in Louisville underscored for him the foolishness of allowing intrastate rivalries to obstruct progress.
Host, 74, has become an evangelist for Louisville-Lexington cooperation. He was founding chairman of the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement, a new effort led by both cities' mayors to bring more advanced-manufacturing jobs to Kentucky.
Lyons' story is different. Born, reared and educated in Ireland, he came to Kentucky in 1974 because he thought it was a great place to start a business.
Alltech began with the idea of developing and making all-natural animal nutrition supplements. Now, the company's goal is no less than figuring out how to feed the world using natural ingredients and breakthrough technology, not to mention making good beer and whiskey on the side. Privately held Alltech now has 3,000 employees in 128 countries, including more than 500 in Kentucky.
Part of what makes Lyons worth watching is that he has figured out how to embrace and build upon Kentucky's strengths without feeling limited by its traditional shortcomings. He is bullish about Kentucky's potential. He took a "Kentucky Proud" road show to England's Windsor Castle. Alltech is selling Bourbon Barrel Ale in China and, soon, in Ireland. Alltech just launched the Lyons Farm brand of premium meats, which have a distinct Kentucky marketing flavor.
"If you can't sell Kentucky as a place to do business, then you're not in any shape or form a salesman, because it's an easy sale," Lyons said. "I've been around the world I don't know how many times, and I've never found a place as conducive to doing business or rearing a family as Kentucky — y'all."
Now, about those success tips. Both entrepreneurs stressed the importance of having a positive attitude, passion for your work, a willingness to take risks, a confidence in self and a good sense of humor.
Among Host's success tips:
■ Be prepared. Eighty percent of any sale is preparation; 20 percent is presentation.
■ Under-promise and over-deliver.
■ Do not lie or misrepresent to a client about anything. "You build great companies on integrity and character," he said.
■ Write down the five most important things you need to do each day, and do the hardest one first. That will clear your head for creative thinking.
■ If you focus on creating excellence, profits will follow.
Among Lyons' success tips:
■ Take a chance, any chance, to start a business. And, if possible, go it alone. You can never truly align partners' dreams with your own.
■ Be curious and add to your expertise, both through your own education and by hiring great people.
■ Avoid negative people, whom he called "energy vampires."
■ Be prepared to change your business, but not your core values.
■ You have two ears, one mouth; listen more than you talk, and take notes.