Tom Eblen

They’re Kentucky’s most famous entrepreneurs. Here are their secrets to success.

Kentucky entrepreneurs, from upper left: Jim Host, John Y. Brown Jr., Harland Sanders, Bill Samuels, Deirdre and Pearse Lyons, Dana Bowers and Lee T. Todd Jr.
Kentucky entrepreneurs, from upper left: Jim Host, John Y. Brown Jr., Harland Sanders, Bill Samuels, Deirdre and Pearse Lyons, Dana Bowers and Lee T. Todd Jr. Herald-Leader file photos

How did Kentucky’s most famous entrepreneurs achieve success?

Many came from working-class backgrounds and were among the first in their families to attend college. Virtually all of them mention these attributes: hard work; self-confidence; and the courage to chase opportunity, embrace change and take risks.

There are many other success tips — plus some great personal stories — revealed in a new book, “Unbridled Spirit: Lessons in Life and Business from Kentucky’s Most Successful Entrepreneurs.”

The book, which goes on sale Monday, was compiled by the founders of Awesome Inc., a tech business incubator in Lexington. It is based on interviews they conducted with inductees in the Kentucky Entrepreneurs Hall of Fame during its first five years, 2010-2014, or their close associates if the inductees were deceased.

Those profiled include former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., who franchised Kentucky Fried Chicken and in the process revolutionized fast food; Jim Host, who built one of the nation’s top sports marketing firms; the late railroad magnate R.J. Corman; Alltech founder Pearse Lyons; Bill Samuels, who built Maker’s Mark into one of bourbon’s best brands; iPay founder Dana Bowers; Lee T. Todd Jr., a technology entrepreneur and a former University of Kentucky president; and many more.

The book begins with a funny story, written by Luke Murray, about how he and Awesome Inc. co-founder Brian Raney, along with Nick Such and Bobby Clark, started the Hall of Fame as a way to meet and learn from Kentucky entrepreneurs they admired. The eighth annual induction ceremony will be Nov. 15 in Louisville.

Each chapter is the first-person story of an entrepreneur, written by the Awesome Inc. staff from interviews and approved by each subject.

Brown, for example, talks about how his success as a businessman was spurred by a snide remark his mother made. After his freshman year of college, he and some buddies looked for summer work without success. All he could find, Brown told her, was a factory job that paid $1 an hour.

“Well, you’re not worth that,” she muttered.

That made Brown angry — and determined to prove her wrong. He answered an ad to sell Encyclopedia Britannica door to door. He soon was setting national sales records and managing other salesmen, and that built his confidence.

Later, when he was a young lawyer, Corbin restaurateur Harland Sanders approached him for help. They franchised the colonel’s fried chicken and made history. His business success eventually led him to Kentucky’s governor’s mansion.

Brown discusses how the entrepreneurial mentality often differs from the corporate mentality, and how it can be smarter to rely on your instincts rather than experts.

Host tells how the fear of failure motivated him to success. But mistakes are inevitable, he said; just make sure you learn from them. He talks about everything from the importance of integrity to how he sets his daily agenda: Each night, he makes a list of the five most important things he should do the next day. Then, he gets up very early and tackles the toughest one first.

But Host’s best advice might be this, from his experience when offered an early job to run Lexington’s tourism office: “Don’t hire me; hire my company.” He got that job — and more opportunities allowed his company to grow well beyond it.

Lyons talks about the importance of curiosity, being ready for change, developing the ability to sell and having family support. He said his wife, Deirdre, who has become an important leader at Alltech, “never once said, ‘Well, you just came home. Why are you leaving again?’”

Bowers, who grew up in a farming family near Fort Knox, went to college at night while working full-time in a bank. She worked her way up, but she became “an accidental entrepreneur” after losing her job in a management reshuffle.

Bowers created a company that offered payment processing products to financial institutions, sold it, then bought it back a few years later and grew it to $60 million in annual revenues. This “serial entrepreneur” sold iPay in 2010 for $300 million and focused on another company that she and her husband created, Venminder, which handles vendor management compliance issues for clients.

Bowers emphasizes that technology has made it possible for good entrepreneurs to start a company anywhere — and Kentucky is a good place, because the cost of doing business is relatively low.

The e-book of “Unbridled Spirit” is on sale at Amazon.com Oct. 9 and 10 for 99 cents. After that, it will be $9.95. The paperback version sells for $15.99 and also is available at Awesome Inc., 348 East Main Street.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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