Learning From the Best

Taking a Cyber Leap

In 1939, two men started out with $538 in working capital and a garage as their work space. They were intent on establishing their business and, before long, had introduced their first invention: an electronic instrument used to test sound equipment. William Hewlett and David Packard have both passed away, but the company they left behind is widely known for its spirit of innovation. Hewlett-Packard invests $3.5 billion annually in R&D and is best recognized by its more recent inventions, including a full range of computers and a line of inkjet and LaserJet printers. The founders also proved innovative in their management style, which contrasted with the top-down management style widely practiced at the time. An open-door policy was put in place, employees were treated with respect and given a voice, and the "HP Way" was born.

Dave Deasy, 44, never had the chance to meet the founders, but he was able to study their code to success during his 12 years as an HP employee. In 2003, when he was ready to launch MyFavoriteCity.com--a San Mateo, California, online gift basket company specializing in city-themed merchandise--from his basement, he had the HP Way to guide him.

Treating people right and trusting that they will do a good job if given the opportunity is a fundamental aspect of the HP Way, and Deasy continues to practice it at

MyFavoriteCity.com. At HP, open cubicles and executive offices without doors create an atmosphere of trust and respect. At MyFavoriteCity.com, although Deasy has fewer than 10 employees, the work space is also open, and employees are encouraged to share ideas. Says Deasy, "You can't wait until you're big to start having the right philosophies on how to deal with people and employees."

Hewlett and Packard constantly worked on the next big invention to stay ahead of the pack, and now the company produces an average of 11 patents a day worldwide. Deasy's not inventing products, but he has learned the importance of actively watching for new ways to grow his business. He initially targeted individual consumers, but when he realized he had a product that would appeal to corporations wanting gifts for sales events and conferences, he was quick to re-evaluate, shift his focus, and change price points and gift configurations accordingly. Keeping his eyes open has certainly paid off: Sales are expected to reach $1 million to $2 million by year-end.

Banking on Marketing
Stacy Blackman, 34, remembers well the lessons she learned as an online marketing manager at The Charles Schwab Corp. She launched her Los Angeles-based MBA consulting firm in 2001 to help applicants gain acceptance into the MBA programs of their choice, but after working at the well-known financial services firm for a year in 2002, she realized that marketing financial services was not so different from marketing people.

Blackman's time at Charles Schwab coincided with the company going through a period of re-evaluation. Although entrepreneur Charles Schwab founded the company on the premise that the stock market should be accessible to all and that prices should be fair and ethical, this core value of the company was coming into question 30 years after its establishment. When held up against glitzier and more glamorous firms serving high-end clients, Charles Schwab, with its relatively low profile, was struggling to keep up. The company decided to stay true to its philosophy, however, and ultimately succeeded in positioning itself as the firm that was affordable and accessible to the common man.

"[Charles Schwab] turned what might be a weakness into [its] key strength," says Blackman. Using the same philosophy, Blackman turns her clients' weaknesses into strengths. If a client has been laid off, she puts a positive spin on it by showing his or her resilience, and she paints a bigger picture to artfully explain low grade-point averages. "It's all in the perspective," she says.

One key reason for Charles Schwab's success: its awareness of the prices, promotions and services offered by its competitors. To grow her business and help her clients become successful, Blackman likewise keeps a careful eye on the countless number of applicants vying for acceptance letters. To help her clients differentiate themselves, she pushes them to dig a little deeper--to uncover an experience or skill that hasn't been repeated by other applicants.

While at Charles Schwab, Blackman witnessed the extensive efforts that were made to get to know customers--to study what they expected from the call center and what types of ads they responded to best. Taking this to heart, Blackman stays informed by networking with admissions officers, students and alumni; researching programs; and maintaining an information database, all of which help her advise clients on how to best present themselves to schools.

"Schools are always looking to diversify their student populations," says Blackman. "So [the key is] understanding [each] school's needs and showing that you can be a solution."

Marketing people has become Blackman's forte, with 97 percent of her clients gaining acceptance into at least one of their top four business-school choices, and 2006 sales expected to approach $1 million. And while many would rather not know that people can be marketed like financial services, Blackman has identified this truth as a lesson best not forgotten.

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This article was originally published in the March 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Learning From the Best.

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