The Value of Starting Small

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I GREW up in Minneapolis. My mother, a former teacher, went back to work when my younger brother went to kindergarten. I was 8. She had a friend whose child had a disability, which inspired the two of them to start the nonprofit Pacer Center. They wanted to help parents of children with disabilities and expand the opportunities for these youngsters. My mother still runs the organization today.

My brother and I collated and filed papers for her, and I put on shows with Muppet-like puppets to teach schoolchildren that disabled kids deserved their respect and friendship. For a long time I didn't realize that although my mother is in the nonprofit sector, she's an entrepreneur. Her second career influenced the direction my life took.

When I was leaving to attend Harvard, my uncle, a professor at the University of Minnesota, told me I was going to learn more from my fellow students than from my professors. He was right. Harvard teaches you humility. People heading there think they're the best at something, but there's always someone smarter. I graduated in 1989 with a degree in history and government.

The summer of my junior year I worked on Michael Dukakis's 1988 presidential campaign, which turned me off to politics. It had nothing to do with his candidacy; I concluded that working inside the system is not about changing the world or having an impact, it's about raising money.

After college I got a job as a management consultant at Bain & Company. On one assignment, I spent nine months in Grand Rapids, Mich., in a turkey processing plant helping to increase efficiency using lean manufacturing principles. To show that the plant was wasting food, I spent a weekend in a warehouse-sized freezer, counting the inventory. We fixed a related problem by scheduling production around the most expensive machine in the plant, which was the bottleneck. It was the first time I saw how small changes could have dramatic effects.

I wanted to be responsible for a business, so when one of my friends from Bain told me about a job at Capitol Records for someone with consulting experience, I interviewed. I believe the company hired me because it recognized that music was my passion. I was one of the first to license music for video games, and a friend and I developed the idea to sell music CDs at Starbucks.

I believed that the computer would become an alternative to radio and MTV, and in 1993 I left to start Launch Media, an online music site, with Bob Roback, my best friend from high school. Music is personal, and by giving people control over what they choose to listen to, you can give them a better experience. In 1999 we took the company public and two years later sold it to Yahoo. Bob and I stayed on for six years.

In 2007 I left to work at Benchmark Capital as entrepreneur in residence. As an Ancestry.com board member, I got to know the team at Spectrum Equity, an Ancestry.com investor. Spectrum wanted to purchase a majority stake in SurveyMonkey, which provides online survey tools. After helping Spectrum executives with that, I joined SurveyMonkey as C.E.O. in 2009.

SurveyMonkey allows customers to create, distribute and analyze surveys. Our tools can be used for customer and employee feedback, or to plan events, for example. We have customers in 190 countries; more than half work in education, government or other nonprofits.

I may no longer be that 26-year-old who started an online music site, but I'm still interested in starting small on something that can make an impact, and I still believe in the triumph of hope over experience. That's what being an entrepreneur means.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

employment

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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