Always an entrepreneur

This article was originally published on Brunonia here.

How do you become a successful entrepreneur? Troy Henikoff, class of 1986, shares his story.

“In hindsight I was always an entrepreneur, but didn’t realize it. When I was young, I had a love of sailing, and dreamed of owning a sailboat. So I cut lawns, washed cars; delivered newspapers. By the time I was ten, a friend of mine and I bought our first sailboat with the money we made.

“I concentrated in mechanical engineering at Brown, planning to earn a graduate degree in naval architecture.  I joined the sailing team and had a blast. As a sophomore, I went to Newport to watch the America’s Cup finals—and saw the United States lose the cup for the first time in 153 years. More important to me, though, I lost my passion for the sailing industry: I couldn’t see how spending tens of millions of dollars to determine whose sailboat could go around a triangular course faster would make the world a better place.

“I hadn’t, however, lost my passion for a challenge. So when confronted with the idea of starting my own company after graduation, I took stock. At that point, I had the power of zero: I was living in my parents’ house with no mortgage, no kids, and no car payment. The worst that could happen was I might hate it after six months and be a 22-year-old looking for a job. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

“Times were different, I didn’t know anyone else who had started a company; I had never heard the word ‘entrepreneur’ nor knew what it meant…

“Our company doubled its size every year, made a ton of mistakes, and eventually went through a period of explosive growth. This occurred in Chicago at a time when there wasn’t a lot of support: it was an entrepreneurial desert.  Today it’s an entrepreneurial oasis, but the transition did not happen over night.

“Although entrepreneurship has been on campus forever, I am pleased that Brown is supporting and embracing it in a formal way. A few of my favorite lessons for would-be entrepreneurs:

  • Life is easier with the wind at your back: find an industry with rapid growth and few existing players; it covers a lot of mistakes.

  • It’s easier to sell pain-killers than vitamins.

  • Nothing is more important than your customers: opinions only matter if they come from the market.

  • Solve a real problem with a great product and you’ll win.

But the entirety of my Brown experience, both in and out of the classroom, also taught me that I could do almost anything I wanted to without someone paving the way. I had the flexibility to create my own education, to take the classes that I thought mattered and had impact.

Troy Henikoff '86

“My engineering classes at Brown taught me to take big complex problems, break them into smaller ones, and solve those—thereby solving the big problem. But the entirety of my Brown experience, both in and out of the classroom, also taught me that I could do almost anything I wanted to without someone paving the way. I had the flexibility to create my own education, to take the classes that I thought mattered and had impact. I was exposed to so much more than I ever expected I would have been had gone to a traditional engineering school. Sitting in the hallway of my dorm, wrestling with issues I had never even contemplated before opened my mind and honed my interpersonal skills more than I could have imagined. If I had gone to a school with a more rigid curriculum and was approached to start a company I probably would’ve said, ‘I can’t do that. I haven’t had a class on that.’ But those soft skills that I learned at Brown enabled me and empowered me to say, ‘I’m going to start a business; I can do that.’”

Troy Henikoff ’86 is the managing director of Techstars Chicago (formerly Excelerate) and managing director of MATH Venture Partners. He has built multiple successful technology-based businesses from the ground up over a 20+-year period. A donor of both time and money to the University, he specializes in creating order out of chaos.

Henikoff came to campus in December 2016 at the invitation of Danny Warshay, Executive Director of the Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship.