Walking the Walk

Down But Not Out

Although some entrepreneurs new to the vicious game of competition fold under such pressure, Eli didn't. "I think we came to our senses immediately and decided bully tactics were the last reason we were going to [fold]," he says. "The only reasons to close anything are 1) you don't have any money left and 2) it no longer resonates with your soul. But if it [does], it's important to continue to manifest and grow it." And for Eli, a psychology major in college who admittedly "has lived in the self-help section of bookstores" and has always been fascinated by the mind's capabilities, offering an estimated 1,500 seminars per year on everything from alien abduction to becoming a stock day trader is a personal mission.

Throughout a nearly three-year whirlwind, The Seminar Center has enjoyed constant growth, despite continued blows dealt by the competition, which has gone so far (vandalism wasn't enough?) as to blacklist speakers from lecturing in other metropolitan locations if they talk before a Seminar Center audience. Imagine trying to build a positive, dependable reputation when a house-filling, world-renowned speaker reneges on a seminar engagement twice in two years because of pressure from the other guy. It's only happened a few times, according to Eli, but when you've booked the venue, and people have paid anywhere from $28 to $45 for their spots, get ready to see red. Staying out of the bitter zone seems unavoidable, but the founders manage to stay positive. "That is our way of being," says Eli.

While sometimes working 22-hour days and constantly feeding money into The Seminar Center to sustain growth could induce marital squabbling, Eli says the chaos would be a lot less tolerable if it weren't for Elsie. He says her decision to volunteer at hospices for a couple years following a 12-year stint as a computer network operator at a law firm exhibits her phenomenal will to help-which extends far beyond the office. Once, when the couple's regular stroll through Central Park was interrupted by a horse trotting off with an unmanned carriage attached, Elsie caught up to it, jumped on board, and returned it to its owner. "She's not one to hesitate," says Eli. "She's the one who handles most of the pressures, but she comes forth with great understanding, and is someone people love to be around. She's a role model for anybody."

Together, Eli and Elsie weather the storm that is running a mini-university without a staff of thousands-with a staff of eight, to be exact. But Eli won't lie: It's not a walk in the park...it's even harder than stopping an escaped horse. "This business takes a lot more than your average business because you're dealing with hundreds of speakers, hundreds of classes, and you're always looking to make sure all the details are done properly," he says. Then tack on the lack of time in any given day.

Reasons their tremendous effort is worth it abound, however. Attendees regularly say they feel an overwhelming sense of caring from Seminar Center employees-probably because Eli and Elsie make it a point to treat each and every person of the thousands they encounter as they would hope to be treated...like part of the family. And the image of two individuals who'd lost loved ones standing up during a Betty Eadie (author of former best-seller Embraced by the Light [Bantam Books]) seminar to confess they were going to commit suicide before finding solace in Eadie's words will never leave Eli's mind. "Literally everybody who comes my way gets something out of it and becomes a better person," he says.

Fearing his competitor will use it against him, Eli is leery of releasing hard sales figures, but says that, fueled by a 25 percent increase in sales, The Seminar Center should reach profitability this year. Membership is expected to grow 50 percent by next year. With speakers ranging from unknown experts in various fields to Gloria Steinem, and a country "starving" for their services, Eli says the future looks luminous. Of course, to expand out of New York, the help of an investor or partner is probably necessary. But the founders of The Seminar Center are just patting themselves on the back for what they've already accomplished. As for that pesky competitor, Eli says, "We didn't go into business to compete with them-we welcome anyone who wants to make a difference in the world." Don't mistake their good-heartedness for passiveness, however. Telemarketing, infiltrating the press, and "going neck and neck" to persuade a speaker to come their way (like Angela's Ashes author Frank McCourt in the fall) are all strategies The Seminar Center has employed.

"The key is to believe what you're doing is making a difference to others," says Eli. "When [we're] ready to move into the next world, [Elsie and I] want people to recognize we had a passion for things. It wasn't just about us."

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This article was originally published in the August 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Walking the Walk.

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