Five Questions for Steve Guengerich, UT-Dallas Innovation Institute CEO

Dallas—In addition to founding tech startups such as mobile e-retail company Appconomy, entrepreneur Steve Guengerich has simultaneously focused on teaching young entrepreneurs and taking on roles that can help build an innovation ecosystem during his years in Austin.

So it’s fitting that this experience has culminated in an actual full-time teaching position. Guengerich this month packed up and headed north to become the executive director of Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“We’ve got this amazing university that is ‘crushing it,’ to use startup language,” he says. “I’m very excited to create bonds between these groups and where the action is happening in the private sector.”

This week’s “Five Questions For …” visits with Guengerich, who speaks about the advantages of working for a big company, his love of books, and lingering lessons from the ’90s dotcom bust. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: If you could go back in time and get five minutes with any major historical figure, who would it be, and what would you want to say to them?

Steve Guengerich: The first one that occurs to me would be Teddy Roosevelt because if you’ve ever read much about his life, he accomplished so much as a person at such a young age. It’s just phenomenal. On every front, in business, physically as an athlete, as a family man, a leader of the country, it’s just extraordinary.

I’d want to spend a few minutes with him, How did you do it? One, how hard was it to sell his ideas on the National Parks System? It was not easy. What did he use beyond his strength of will to make that happen?

X: What’s your favorite book? Or maybe one you’ve read recently?

S.G.: My favorite is the “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese novelist. I love that book; it has everything in it. It’s sort of similar to “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” It’s in that spirit with a distinctly Asian and, particularly, Japanese lens. I really have a deep love for fiction. I’m a big public library fan. I’m at the library all the time. I check out five books a week.

X: What career advice do you give to new college graduates?

S.G.: I strongly advocate that they work for somebody else in a real quote unquote job when they come out of school. I urge them, depending on the degree, to really take a strong look at large and very large companies and a role within a big institution of some kind. It’s like anything else in life. Even if they decide to go on a path like I’ve gone, more on entrepreneurial ventures, that experience in a large institution will serve them well. I tell them, interview with bigger companies.

Big companies still to this day have resources that small companies don’t have. They have skills and capability-building both on the job and through the programs they have. I started at Accenture and I wouldn’t trade my first three years for anything. It so equipped me to have the fundamental building blocks, how I manage my schedule, interact with people, have a supervisor do a performance review. There’s a lot of [shrinking of] training budgets but still, larger companies do this the best in a way that’s very valuable.

I don’t think [new college graduates] really appreciate big companies. They sometimes feel they are tiny little cogs in this giant machine. They don’t appreciate the power of “convening” that they have, operating under the power of the brand that the organization represents. Even at the lower level, at a big brand company you’ve got tremendous power to convene companies’ or universities’, or organizations’ support to come together and talk about topics that are interesting to you. It’s a lot harder when you’re trying to get a foot in the door as a startup.

X: What’s your biggest failure as an entrepreneur?

S.G.: It’s partly connected to the time that it happened; there’s guilt by association collectively for our type, the startup entrepreneur. We really did such a poor job of going through the dotcom era from around ’98 to late ’01. It was just one giant massive groupthink about how we were the masters of the universe, how nothing we did could go wrong. It was all about getting big, spending money that you would never do in any other situation. We didn’t look at the fundamentals. I was a part of that era and remember thinking like that at the time.

X: Tell me about your early influences.

S.G.: My parents. I grew up in a pretty entrepreneurial household, though I didn’t think of it that way until I got older. My dad, as a lot of people of his generation did, grew up on the farm. Then he went to the big city, where he got involved in a niche piece of the healthcare world, emergency ambulance service. He worked his way up. This was back when ambulance services mostly were privately operated, versus hospital EMS services you know of today. He had the monopoly for emergency ambulance care for the Panhandle of Texas, around Amarillo. He built that up, with no experience and a little bit of college education. Mom was a registered nurse; she was kind of his right hand lieutenant and helped with the operations of the business.

I really do have to call out a colleague of mine, Steve Papermaster, who I’ve known for 30 years. We started at Arthur Anderson within six months of each other 30-plus years ago. He’s been a great running partner over the years for me, to work with, to learn from, to be inspired by. That’s why I stayed affiliated with Powershift Group all these years. He’s approaching 60 and he’s as active as ever. It’s going to sound boring to mention it, but he just works hard.

Trending on Xconomy