Herb Sih currently serves as Managing Partner and is one of the founders of Think Big Partners. Collectively through its associated entities including Think Big Ventures, Think Big Accelerator, bizperc and Think Big Kansas City, the Think Big Partners network specializes in incubating, accelerating and maximizing business ideas, opportunities and entrepreneurs across the United States.
Think Big Partners is an early-stage startup accelerator and mentorship-based collaborative network located in Kansas City, Missouri. Think Big Partners has successfully launched or grown over 100 successful companies with its creation of coworking spaces, entrepreneurial conferences, essential services, startup resources and funding. To learn more about Think Big Partners, please visit http://www.thinkbigpartners.com.
MO: Would you say that being the son of immigrant parents and a first generation American has influenced your interest and passion for entrepreneurism?
Herb: I have to think so. And the reason why I say that is because the concept of the American Dream is so important to me. The fact that my father came to this country, finished his education here and opened up his own company—I’ve got to think that it was all because of the American Dream. I worked in it, I lived in it, I saw it and I took note of all of the good and bad that came with it. It’s all about the ability to have an idea, apply hard work and really believe in what you’re doing until you become successful—I think that’s the American Dream for most entrepreneurs.
MO: Can you talk about the inspiration creating Think Big Partners and the process of putting together such an impressive and resourceful network?
Herb: The creation of Think Big Partners came from frustration, opportunity and inspiration to help others. My business partner, Tyler Prochnow, and I had a lot of realizations when starting companies of our own. The first realization was that there are a lot of good ideas out there, but no clear direction on where to take them. Sometimes, ideas die a natural death and you realize it wasn’t such a good one after all. Other times, you’re able to take action after establishing your idea’s path. But I think, more often than not, that path is difficult to find, so ideas are left languishing. This can mean the opportunity starts fading, the window is missed or competition executes what you had in mind. Think Big Partners attempts to eliminate the frustration of not knowing what to do next and put ideas into action.
The next realization I had came after opening a few companies, selling a few companies and having a few companies fail. What I learned is that the recipe for successful companies is never identical, but it’s very similar because there’s always a process. There are certain components to the development of every business and you do them in a similar order every time. There are so many mistakes that I think are avoidable, but they are only avoidable if you have the right amount of experience. Remember, these mistakes are not always obvious. The older I get, and the more seasoned of an entrepreneur I become, the more I recognize the value of experience and the role it can play in creating success. Think Big Partners collectively has a lot of success based experience in our network.
And the last realization I had came from my past career. I worked in the investment industry for almost 15 years. The most gratifying thing I did was to help people manage their investments. In doing so, I felt like I had the ability to enable people’s dreams, futures, retirement, and kids’ college education. But another form of an investment, I realized, didn’t come in the form of stocks and bonds, but in people’s ideas. Great wealth has been created from people becoming a business owner than by simply investing. Being able to go from managing somebody’s investment in another company to managing an investment in their own company, when I look back at my path, was a little bit of an obvious conclusion. But I didn’t really realize it until I started going down this path. Being able to still help people achieve dreams of retirement, their kid’s college educations, or the realization of their idea and turning it into a profitable, sustainable company is deeply gratifying and very important to me.
MO: In your experience, what are the most common challenges or obstacles that entrepreneurs seem to struggle with the most?
Herb: There’s a long list with a few of big ones. One of them is that entrepreneurs do not understand how hard it can be to make your company successful. There are a lot of moving parts to entrepreneurship that must be figured out in time. “In time” means before you run out of stamina, before you run out of money or before the opportunity is solved by competition.
One of the mistakes I often see is that entrepreneurs do not understand that building a startup is a process. He or she must be fully committed to doing whatever it takes within that process to get it done. Another challenge I often see entrepreneurs face is undercapitalization. They don’t understand the costs it’s going to take. Almost every venture I’ve ever seen takes twice as much money and twice as much time as anticipated—and that’s if you’re lucky. Being able to be equipped to find the right capital—smart money preferably—is really important. You’re not going to be able to find it if you don’t have process.
And lastly, I think it’s crucial for every entrepreneur to be coachable and work within a team. Every idea needs a leader and every leader needs followers. Together, real work can get done. If you’re not open to coaching, if you’re not receptive to good and bad input and if you’re not able to work collaboratively within a team, I think the odds are even greater stacked against you. Teams win.
MO: Think Big has helped launch or grow over 100 businesses. Are there any specific success stories that you’re particularly proud of or have been surprised by?
Herb: There are too many success stories in varying degrees to really single them out, but I think the success stories I’m most proud are those ideas that come from an entrepreneur’s passion to solve a problem. Through time, you slowly start seeing a process form around these ideas. Then, when an entrepreneur starts talking to others, they start finding components they didn’t know were missing—that’s when the idea takes on a life of its own and it evolves into something that can become commercially viable.
I think that I’m always more proud of the individual, rather than the idea—whether it’s a person working in a big company that wants to make the leap to work for themselves, or somebody who has the “ah-ha” moment and doesn’t know what to do with it, or somebody who’s frustrated and wants to be able to find a way to change things—whenever I see somebody persevere, take action and be rewarded for the risk they take. That to me is a success story and the American Dream.
A lot of these success stories are happening here in the Midwest and here at Think Big, we get to watch it all happen. A lot of people are surprised that it can get done here in the Midwest.
I have been surprised in this industry many times. But my surprise comes in two forms: One is how hard it really is. Two is that I’m always surprised by the ideas that don’t make it. The boulevard of broken dreams is littered with a lot of great ideas and business plans that for whatever reason just didn’t work out. Our job is to help avoid some of these preventable tragedies
MO: Can you tell our readers a bit about, Think Big Partners’ Percolator Program?
Herb: The percolation process is not our accelerator model. In fact, it’s very different from our accelerator class. The percolation process is an ongoing period of focused time for thinking that can take good ideas and turn them into something worth doing. Once again, you have to trust the process.
Here’s how it all starts: We like to look at the analogy of brewing a great cup of coffee. You have to take the right beans at the right time. This is like finding the right idea and knowing what to do with it. Then you roast the beans (or evolve the idea), grind them into the proper shape (or Minimum Viable Product) then finally, the beans can create the perfect cup of coffee. An idea is the same way. We look for ideas that have certain traits that are defensible, scalable, cater to large markets and can undergo intellectual property protection. When subjected to the right process, the result is a very clear understanding of if the idea is worth doing, and if so, how to bring it to market.
Every idea goes through the first phase called PRISM, which stands for Proof-of-concept Rapid Innovation Sequence Method. Just like a prism where you take visible light and bends it to see different layers of light within the entire spectrum, we expose ideas to a lot of different filters, before we even begin building the idea into a company. We look at what problems the idea solves, what solutions we need to build, what features we need to build into the idea and what we need to create so a consumer can actually interact with it. This is a customer development model coupled with a Minimum Viable Product roadmap. We look at the financial model of how to make money and the return on investment versus the risk. We also look at the time it takes to bring the idea to market, which is another risk due to competition and affects internal rate of return on investment. We also look at the competitive landscape and try and take cues from the marketplace on what’s going on.
Once you have this insight, the percolation process continues by letting the idea sit and building the right team around it. That’s when we decide who’s going to execute on it, who’s going to build it, how to build it, what skills we need, what leadership is needed, how to market it and how to get the first customer.
The percolation process relies on taking all of the different components of the idea and putting them into the right sequence and process. Then, we give it time to brew—that, hopefully, turns it into the right company. It’s a very disciplined process. It’s very agile. It has milestones that are very objective and it really pushes us to evaluate the idea in a time period that will yield the right output.
MO: What would be your biggest piece of advice to someone who has a great idea that they’re passionate about? What should their starting point be?
Herb: Never forget the goal of entrepreneurship: To take an idea and turn it into a profitable, sustainable venture. An idea can make an impact on society. It can change the way people work or think. It can help improve quality of life. It can do so many other things but, ultimately, it has to be able to make money at some point. Without money, a business is just a hobby or a non-profit mission. And while those are very important, entrepreneurship is about creating a successful business venture that’s profitable. Otherwise, in our mind, that’s not entrepreneurship. You have to remember the goal is to take an idea and not completely fall in love with it. You have to be willing to pivot and mold the idea into a sustainable and profitable venture. It’s the ultimate discipline.
If you have an idea, a vision and a passion, start sharing it with other people. If you start sharing it with others, you will receive feedback. It won’t always be completely valid, relevant, helpful, or frankly, even completely truthful—but all feedback is important. When you start sharing your idea with other people, it starts to come to life. If you don’t share the idea, it could become bigger than yourself and turn into that nagging voice in the middle of the night that says you’ve got to do something with it. It gives you a reason to really pay attention to it, either move it forward or kill it. But you’ve got to do something with it. You can’t just wake up one day and say, “I coulda, woulda, shoulda. Ten years ago I had a really great idea, but somebody else did it.” It’s those people who hold the idea too close, who refuse to talk about it. At some level, if you’re so close to an idea that you don’t want to share with anyone, it’s either not worth doing because it’s so easily copied or you’re not ready to start. You’ve got to start sharing your idea with people and start enlisting the help of others. And you also have to have fun too. Keep a sense of humor – you will likely need it!