OwlSpark | Rice University Startup Accelerator | PeopleWise: Doug Erwin
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PeopleWise: Doug Erwin

Doug Erwin, Chairman and Principal of RedHouse Associates, has been an entrepreneur most of his life. At seven years old, he started a paper route; his goal was to earn enough money to buy a motorbike. After buying his motorbike, Doug was able to double the size of his paper route. But he didn’t stop there. He used his paper route earnings to start a lawn company, and joked by saying that it was fun for a twelve year-old to be the boss of a bunch of seventeen year-olds. Using his lawn-mowing money, he expanded into a painting company. It was here that he saved up enough money to attend Duke University debt-free. Doug has been creating value through his work for for years, and we were so appreciative that he imparted on us his top ten key requirements to business success. Here are a few of his insights that really resonated with us.

#1: Write down your goals

I am a goal-setting person, I really do attribute a lot of what I’ve been able to accomplish to setting clear goals. Next, put them somewhere that you know you’ll see them to remind yourself of what you’re striving for. Some people post their goal on their mirror or refrigerator; I use my briefcase because I always bring it with me. Another key to successfully setting goals is creating a time-table to plan out when you need to accomplish each task. Finally, don’t be afraid to modify your goals as situations and expectations change. You want realistic goals that will leave you satisfied, and sometimes you need to adapt your actions to get to where you want to be.

How did you come up with this system?

When I was a kid I was reading LIFE magazine and read about a man who had listed out all of his accomplishments, climbing the Himalayas, running a marathon, etc. At the time I didn’t have many accomplishments, so I decided I’d write out a list of things I wanted to do. That was the first time I wrote out my goals, and I haven’t stopped doing it since.

#3: Hire only the best people

Besides picking your partner for life, hiring for your business is most important thing you’ll ever do. When Investors look at potentially investing in your company they’ll first look at your management team, second look at your management team, and third look at your management team. Sure; the business structure is important, but a great management team can fix a bad business plan, and a great management team with a great business plan is a business investors will double down on.

When you hire, how do you be sure to hire the best people?

You have to essentially find your soulmates. It’s a bit of a gut feeling, and I’ve got a pretty big gut with a lot of years of experience. With executives I’ve hired, I ultimately want to tease out what their character is like, and make sure it lines up with our company values and culture. We do this through a complex system of office tours, management meetings, and an expansive reference check. My last test, though, is for my wife and I to take them and their spouse out to dinner and explain what I expect my employees to do and what kind of hours we keep. It’s very important to me to look into their spouse’s eyes and have a frank discussion about the impact the job would have on their lives. Family is something that drives me, it’s the most important thing, and if I can see that hiring them would negatively affect their family I don’t want to be responsible for that.

#6: Develop your own leadership style

You will need to decide what type of leader you’re going to be, and you have to make sure that your style is appropriate. This could be your first company, you have no real experience, and those around you may be very experienced. You’ll be a very different kind of leader than I am at my age now, with the experience that I have. There is no one size fits all style, and you shouldn’t try to steal someone else’s style. Some elements of good leadership stay the same though.

Can you elaborate on one of those elements?

Don’t ever expect an employee to do something that you won’t. If you want to inspire your people and gain their respect, you must be willing to get in the trenches with them and show them that their task is possible to accomplish and is important. Once you’re a leader someone will always be watching you, seeing how you act, and taking their cues from you. If you’re late to work, don’t follow procedures, or seem like you don’t care about your work, your employees and company will start to take on the same outlook. As a leader, it is your job to lead by example.

#9: Grow a Company Culture

A common misconception is that you can just decide to “build” a company culture. It is much more complex than that. A culture evolves, and it starts with you as the leader. It’s very similar to how you develop your leadership style. The small things that you do will define how the rest of your company develops. This culture that you’ll create is super important because it can be the reason that your employees decide to stay at your company or leave. If you create a culture where people are appreciated for their work, and you actually walk the walk on that, then people won’t leave; they’ll stay fiercely loyal to you.

How have you created your company culture?

In one of my companies, I would serve everyone ice cream on Fridays. I bought one of those bikes that had a freezer compartment on the front, and would literally ride down the hallways in our building, ringing a bell, and stopping to scoop everyone ice cream. (It drove the engineers up the wall). It’s a little thing, but it broke up the monotony of their day, and it meant a lot that I personally served every single one of my employees.


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