27 September 2016 (Tirana, Albania) | In his keynote speech to business champions in Tirana as an effort to help Tirana accelerators, incubators, and coworking space recruit mentors, Jeff Hoffman shares his definition of entrepreneurs and what they do.
Firstly, entrepreneurs are persons who design the future careers they want. Secondly, problem solving is what entrepreneurs do.
Jeff Hoffman decided late in 2011 that he wasn’t going to do any work in 2012. But the entrepreneur who helped launch Priceline.com, who serves on the boards of companies in the U.S., Europe, South America, Africa and Asia, and who earlier this year won a Grammy award was hardly going to take it easy.
“At the end of 2011, after eight startups, I got to a point where I was committed to giving back,” Hoffman says. “My goal for giving back was to take 2012 to mentor entrepreneurs around the world. It didn’t really start with around the world. What it started with was a crazy social experiment.
“I was going to take a year and not say no to anyone who asked me for help. I didn’t tell anyone that. It was just if somebody said, ‘Can you help with this?’ I was going to say yes. That’s how I ended up in places like Pakistan, Israel, etc.”
Hoffman, co-founder of Priceline, spoke in May at The Presidents’ Forum of Cleveland sponsored by The Entrepreneurship Institute, which is based in Columbus, Ohio.
“When I started doing that, I got interested in entrepreneurial ecosystems,” Hoffman says. “So I made a decision that if I’m taking the whole year off in 2012 and not doing any work anyway, I’d like to go continent by continent and see what people are doing. How people are building companies, how they are innovating, dreaming, etc.
“I started that in 2012 and I’m not done yet. It’s three years that I’ve been working with entrepreneurs and small businesses all over the world. So a lot of what I’m sharing is things I’ve learned cumulatively.”
Hoffman has learned a lot from his travels abroad, but it’s just the latest in his efforts to understand how the world works.
Here are some of the lessons Hoffman shared from his years as an entrepreneur and how they led to the creation of one of the world’s most successful business enterprises.
Learn from failure
Hoffman has launched eight startups in his career and they each experienced varying degrees of success.
“Two were acquired, two we did IPOs and two were massive failures,” Hoffman says. “Two companies are still going and we’ll see how those turn out.”
The brightest star of those startups, of course, is Priceline. The company, which is part of Priceline Group Inc., has nearly 13,000 employees, had a gross profit of $7.6 billion in 2014 and had a stock price on the Nasdaq in late June that topped $1,149 a share.
But despite all the success, Hoffman freely admits being an entrepreneur is quite a challenge.
“In the startup world, early on, it’s a roller coaster,” Hoffman says. “So many days you wake up and no one is buying anything. You can’t raise any more money and you’re almost out of money again and you don’t see any money coming in. If all you’re in this for is to make money, those are the people who quit. The people driven by some higher purpose or passion to change the world or solve a problem or leave a legacy on an industry, those people never quit.”
Hoffman says it’s that mindset that is often the key to finding ultimate and enduring success. And it was the failures he experienced early in his career that made it possible for him to be part of something special like Priceline.
“Priceline was my fifth startup,” Hoffman says. “I’m not sure how it would have turned out if we had not already tried and failed and learned and been through the fire a number of times before we got to launch that business.”
One of the most important lessons for any entrepreneur is the ability to be curious and to see opportunity where others only see headaches.
“Entrepreneurs tend to stop when they see a problem,” Hoffman says. “They ask the following questions: First, they say, does this bother anybody but me? If the answer is yes, then they go to the second question: Is there already a solution out there that I just don’t know about? Then they do the research. If there is no solution, they say, ‘I’m not leaving until this thing is fixed.’”
Case in point, the moment when Hoffman got fed up waiting in line at the airport for nearly an hour just so he could grab his boarding pass from the attendant to catch his flight.
“She said you have to have a boarding pass to get on the plane and go through security,” Hoffman says. “I said, ‘Can’t you just put the printer over here and I’ll print it myself.’ She said, ‘No sir, that can’t be done.’ So I turned to all the people in line behind me and said, ‘No one is annoyed waiting 56 minutes just to get a printout?’ And everybody said of course, this is ridiculous.”
That incident would eventually lead to the creation of kiosks which are now commonplace in airports around the world, providing a place where travelers can quickly and easily print their boarding passes all by themselves.
“You don’t have to wait in line anymore,” Hoffman says.
Hoffman says there are certain attributes that are common to any great entrepreneurial inspiration.
“Solving a problem that people have and that someone in the world would pay me to solve — that is the formula for the best entrepreneurs,” he says.
Learn from everything
One of the other core beliefs that drives Hoffman in his everyday life is the need to read and learn about things that have nothing to do with whatever it is he is working on.
“If you were in health care, what do you work on all day long? Health care,” Hoffman says. “What problems do you solve all day? Health care problems. If I said to you, ‘Hey, I’m going to the banking industry conference, do you want to go?’ You would say, ‘No, I don’t do banking. We’re in health care.’”
Hoffman says people tend to get so wrapped up in their area of expertise that they miss tremendous moments of inspiration that can be incredibly valuable, even if they seemingly have nothing to do with what you’re doing.
“The world around you outside of your industry, other people are coming up with amazing ideas and innovations that you’re never seeing because all you ever do is think about health care,” he says. “Every single morning before I start work — I got up this morning before I drove downtown and did this as well — I spend just 10 minutes, that’s it. If you can’t do it every morning, do it once a week. For 10 minutes, I pretend I don’t work at my company and I don’t work in my industry.”
Hoffman says he’ll check out a website he has never looked at before or read a magazine that he’s never read before or do something else that doesn’t fit who he is. The reason is to shake up his routine and ensure that he does not lose his ability to notice things outside of his world.
“What can I do today that I couldn’t do yesterday? Every night when you go to sleep, the world changes around you,” Hoffman says. “Some new technology is released. Some new product is announced. Some new legislation happened. Some company somewhere filed for bankruptcy and lost customers that are now available to the world.
“Something somewhere happened that might be relevant to you. It might be something that you can be the first person in your industry to bring to life, but that only happens when you’re looking.”
This thirst for knowledge helped Hoffman put the pieces together for what eventually became Priceline.
“I can take you now to a day in Jay Walker’s office, Jay is the guy whose intellectual property started the Priceline family of companies,” Hoffman says. “Jay and I were sitting in the office pushing puzzle pieces around. Different ideas, different business models, different pieces of intellectual property. This thing we all wound up launching is a distressed inventory, perishable commodity online distribution system.
“Today, Priceline does business in 180 countries and has a market cap of $62 billion. There would not be a $62 billion company were it not for a group of people saying what’s going on in the world around us, what’s changed and how can we use all these new ideas to create something that didn’t exist yesterday.”
Hoffman says entrepreneurs that want to attempt to replicate his success need to come up with ideas that solve problems. They need to take a relentless approach to learning from all corners about how to solve that problem. And they need to realize that it’s not about them, even if they are the inspiration behind the business.
“My job is not to run the company,” Hoffman says. “It’s to hire people smarter than me in every single area and then spend all my time helping them achieve their goals so they never want to leave.”
- Be curious about the problems that give people headaches.
- Never stop learning.
- Focus on helping your people achieve their goals.
by Mark Scott.