ROBERT CASPE, ENTREPRENEUR AND PART-TIME PROFESSOR AT THE BABSON COLLEGE IN MASSACHUSETTS
"It's about life in a world that's randomly driven"
In this immensely engaging interaction, serial entrepreneur and b-school professor robert caspe reveals some of the secrets to great entrepreneurship
| Issue Date - 01/10/2011
Robert Caspe is in a terrific comfort zone when it comes to entrepreneurship. He has experience in incubating ventures in industries like medical electronics, machine vision, graphic arts, photojournalism and consumer electronics and is a part time faculty at the Babson College in Massachusetts.
"Call me Bob". That's what you get to see when you log in to the website of this maverick genius, who is an accomplished professor, consultant, entrepreneur and artist. So far, he's started five companies and helped establish numerous others. He widely applies his engineering skills to understand what makes small companies click. In a freewheeling chat with pawan chabra of DTDIY, Caspe talks about what motivates him, why he loves reading and how "Doing deals is just plain fun."
What, according to you, is the best first step in the direction of positive change at an organisational and at a personal level?
Lose your fear. Life is short and don’t be afraid of failure. As Thomas Watson (IBM) said, “To find success, you must double your failure rate” (or something to that effect). Also, you must give yourself the permission to fail and accept it as part of life. No one is watching except for you.
A look at your CV suggests that you have accomplished a lot in life. In times when multitasking is a pressing reality, people have a lot of things on their plate. How does one try and concentrate on the more important issues?
That’s really hard to do, especially for a techie like myself. It’s easy to get “lost” in an engineering project and forget that business starts and ends with customers. The best way to develop discipline for this is to form a team where you keep reminding each other of priorities. Supporting your team becomes the priority and offers the discipline.
How do you start a typical work day?
I read NY Times, especially the business, science and news sections. The world is changing fast and it’s hard to keep up. I’m constantly amazed at how much I learn by simply reading. Every book and newspaper teaches me something about business and life.
What principles do you consider indispensable as you balance work and your personal life?
It’s all about integrity and fairness. There’s a saying, “What goes around comes around.” Be fair and generous with others and you’ll get it back. Most importantly, it’s essential that you act with integrity and if, by chance, you make a mess – it’s important to own up to it and clean it up. Keeping one’s priorities straight is the key as well. My family comes first. If they have a need that conflicts with my business goals, business can wait. Maybe as a result, I’ll not be the most successful entrepreneur financially, but I’ve been married 34 years and my family is strong. And, that matters to me.
Readers here in India have no idea of how you started off in life. What were the challenges you faced in the race up to the place you stand where you stand today? Was there a time when you thought of putting an end to your pursuits?
My parents lived through the Great Depression and were second generation immigrants in the US. As a result, I and my brothers (and cousins) all had three choices: we could be doctors, lawyers or engineers. Our parents felt that education was the route to financial stability and assimilation. I chose engineering. My brother is a doctor. All my male cousins are engineers! I’ve always loved technology and my businesses have often included it. Around 2003, I grew tired of running my third high tech company & decided to hire a CEO and retire. As it turned out, I can’t sit still. Now I teach, create art, consult and I’m thinking about new ventures all the time. I’m involved in several startups.
Can you mention a point in your life when you even felt like giving up on something but carried on?
When my mom died, it was also a particularly tough time in the life of my first company. My company was sold, I was forced out by venture investors and it felt like there were lots of terrible things happening to me. But I went on to start another company. Life goes on. I don’t think, though, that I ever consider just giving up. It was more about “moving on” than giving up.
What is it that drives and motivates you to deliver the best at whatever you do?
It’s fun to discover new opportunities and it’s even more fun to create “deals” that solve customer’s problems. I love meeting new people and peeking behind the curtain to see how different businesses run. “Doing deals is just plain fun.”
How much of your success both as a professional & as an individual do you credit to your parents? Can you narrate a particular incident involving your parents, which had a profound impact on your life?
When I was quite young, my engineering curiosity got the best of me and I took my parent’s TV set apart and put it back together, but with a few parts left over. Their TV never worked again. I was never punished. My parents nurtured my curiosity. Frankly, I had a pretty good childhood. I always felt loved and safe and I thank my parents for providing that environment.
How much of a role do you think does positive outlook play in making a great entrepreneur? What is it that differentiates, say for instance, a Mark Zuckerberg & a Steve Jobs from the rest?
I do believe that entrepreneurs do tend to focus on the upside and not on the downside. They don’t get paralyzed by the risk, but rather see the opportunity. That’s one reason that they need a good CFO or COO to keep them out of trouble. But don’t be fooled by “selective analysis.” You look at Zuckerberg and Jobs like they are Gods. To me, their talent is matched by thousands of really great entrepreneurs. They are two of the lucky ones for whom the accidents of life converged to offer apparent success. We only observe them in retrospect.
Do you think most of the limitations that block success are created by individuals themselves? How can one work towards turning these limitations into opportunities?
Most small businesses suffer from turbulence and unforeseen events that have little effect on large companies, but are overwhelming to small ones. As well, most small companies fail, not because of a product deficiency, but rather because they cannot figure out how to sell their product or service at a selling cost that's less than the available margin. Selling is the hardest part of business. On the other hand, the random fortuitous opportunities that come along for a small company can be exploited and make the difference. It’s all about living in a world that is mostly randomly driven. I recommend “The Drunkard’s Walk” by Leonard Mlodnow as a good book to help understand this.