During the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, John Lusk and Kyle Harrison chose to go in a different direction from most entrepreneurs: manufacturing and marketing a novelty gift -- a computer mouse shaped like the head of a golf club. The Wharton MBA graduates also decided to share their views on the ups-and-downs of entrepreneurship, first in chatty, e-mailed newsletters, and later in a book, The MouseDriver Chronicles.
The newsletter, the book, and the talks Lusk and Harrison give at business schools around the country make it clear they find ownership exciting and empowering, but also fraught with difficulties and lessons. By conveying the humor of the situations, they successfully turn entrepreneurial trials -- there are many -- into charming, funny episodes of what it's really like to start your own business.
Recently, the duo sat down with BusinessWeek Online contributing correspondent Karin Pekarchik to discuss, among other things, what can and can't be taught in business school, and how writing a book differs from flogging their product. Edited excerpts follow:
Q: What are your goals now?
John Lusk:We've learned so much, not only about all the intricacies of bringing a new product to market but also about real-world business. The natural next step for us is to leverage all these assets in some way.
Having built MouseDriver, we would truly enjoy the opportunity to bring another product to market. However, we're really looking at a totally different type of product for the next go-around -- something that has a bit more intrinsic value than MouseDriver, something that you can build a sustainable business around and get excited about for the next 5 to 10 years.
Q: What made you choose to manufacture the MouseDriver when you could have chosen one of the more lucrative opportunities that attending Wharton afforded you?
Lusk:I wanted to have that true entrepreneurial experience, with the opportunity and responsibility to create and build my own company. I wanted the freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted to do it, and on my own terms.
Am I happy with the choice? Absolutely! While I passed on the high-dollar jobs, I've learned more about business, from both a personal and professional perspective, than I could have ever possibly imagined.
Kyle Harrison: No regrets. I'm an entrepreneur at heart. MouseDriver was our own baby, and for that reason, running with it was a no-brainer. And what a tremendous experience having not only the opportunity to commercialize your product but to tell your story and publish a book along they way.
Q: Do you think that more emphasis should be placed on nuts-and-bolts learning in business programs?
Lusk:Even if you tried to teach the nuts-and-bolts of business in school, there's still no substitute for real-world experience. And each entrepreneur is going to handle real-world situations differently. I'd like to see more emphasis placed on the emotional aspects of entrepreneurship in business school, but I don't think you can teach people how to execute.
Q: You're refreshingly honest about the less-than-glamorous aspects of being a two-person startup with a shoestring budget. What are some of the things you guys had to learn the hard way?
Harrison:B-school does a great job of teaching you how to think about business, [like] how to analyze opportunities and create winning strategies. Ultimately, however, theories and strategies are just that -- theories and strategies. The real education comes when you get out and have to implement them.
Finding the right sales people, negotiating optimal distribution contracts, resolving channel conflicts, and managing personalities among parties with different interests. Wharton taught us the frameworks for success, and MouseDriver taught us how to implement them.
Q: Besides afternoon golfing, what's most satisfying about being an entrepreneur? What are some downsides?
Lusk:Most satisfying: Seeing people benefit from your entrepreneurial experience, whether they're purchasing your product or benefiting from your knowledge and insights. Downsides: The emotional roller coaster. The instability. The isolation. Not knowing if you're going to be able to pay yourself.
Q: Do you feel your choice has been vindicated now that the dot-com bubble has burst?
Lusk:We've always felt justified about our decision. I think now that the dot-com bubble has burst, others believe that, overall, we've had a more educational entrepreneurial experience. The naysayers are coming back to us and saying, "You guys did it the way it should have been done."
Q: How did your newsletter morph into a book? Did the publisher approach you, or did you pitch the idea yourself?
Lusk:Well, in February, 2001, Inc. featured a cover story...that focused on our MouseDriver Insider newsletter, and how we weren't afraid to share our insights, failures, successes, etc., with other entrepreneurs out there. A couple of weeks after the article ran, a number of different literary agents and publishers approached us with the idea of writing a book.
The next thing we knew, Kyle and I were putting together a book proposal, flying to New York City, and officially presenting the book idea to major publishers. It was cool.
Q: How surprised are you to be both entrepreneurs and authors? What are some of the differences between your two hats? The downsides and rewards?
Lusk:Totally shocked. If you would have told me three years ago at Wharton graduation that I'd be an author of a book, I would have been like, "Yeah, whatever." The primary difference between being an author and an entrepreneur is that as an entrepreneur, you have to make things happen. As an author, you write a book and it's up to the publisher to really make things happen.
In the end, the book really belongs to the publisher, and it's responsible for bringing it to market. That little difference takes some getting used to.
Harrison: It goes to show you that you can't quite predict all the twists and turns that life is going to take you through. I think the ability of the publisher to distribute the book so quickly, compared with our MouseDriver rollout, gave it a much stronger impact. A week after the release, people were sending in their kudos from around the country.
Q: What do you hope people will take away from your experiences?
Lusk:We really wanted to give people a very realistic, honest, and authentic insight into what it's like to go through the entrepreneurial experience -- the highs, lows, failures, successes, and emotions associated with it.
The best way for us to deal with the hardships of entrepreneurship was to laugh at some of our mistakes, and we tried really hard to make sure the humor associated with all of this came out.
Edited by Patricia O'Connell