Troy D’Ambrosio, the executive director of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute and an assistant dean at the David Eccles School of Business, is a serial entrepreneur and widely admired business mind. Cofounder, officer and director of multiple startup companies including Transworld Telecommunications, Convergence Communications and EPM Mining Ventures, D’Ambrosio’s pursuits have attracted over $500 million in capital and sold for millions. Outside of his own entrepreneurial pursuits, D’Ambrosio has served as the VP of investor relations and corporate communication for American Stores Company, the director of mutual fund operations for Wasatch Advisors and a former deputy chief of staff to the mayor of Salt Lake City.
When was your first encounter with entrepreneurship?
D’Ambrosio: It goes back to my youth. My father was an entrepreneur, he ran his own businesses, so I saw that from a young age. My first personal experience with entrepreneurship was around 1992, when I started my first company with my brother.
If you’ve had that exposure your entire life, what ended up drawing you to it?
D’Ambrosio: I was working at a big company and had been there for 10 years, and decided to go try something different. There wasn’t this overwhelming feeling that I needed to become an entrepreneur – at that point I just thought I’d try it out, and it went well! I’ve gone back to work for companies in between entrepreneurial stints, I’ve floated in and out of being an entrepreneur and working for other people, like I am now, and even though I’m here at the U, I have some startups I’m working on, still keeping my hands actively in entrepreneurial activity. I guess it’s not an either-or proposition.
What interests you about the field of entrepreneurship? Why do you stick around?
D’Ambrosio: It’s really fun to create new things, to take an idea and build a team around it, raise capital, get a product launched, explore new markets and products. That has been intellectually stimulating and intriguing for me, to work on startup companies. At the other end of it, here at the university, getting more of a student’s perspective, we’re trying to help them learn about what it means to be an entrepreneur, and they’re incredibly creative, dynamic and energetic. These experiences actually feed my entrepreneurial bent, working with students who are pursuing entrepreneurial activities.
What would you say to students that aren’t interested in getting a business degree or even come to this part of campus, what’s the benefit of taking an entrepreneurship class, or even just stopping by Lassonde Studios?
D’Ambrosio: There’s two things about that: first of all, I would say whether you’re running a retail store, developing technology, running a university, non-profit or an art gallery, teaching music lessons or you’re an engineer in an aerospace company, you’re in a business using business skills. I was a political science major, and even running political campaigns and government offices, you need business skills. Secondly, I would say that if you asked everyone on campus, “Do you want to have an impact on the world?” what do you think their answer would be? Yes! That’s the number one reason I’d ask students to get involved in this part of campus, if you want to use your creative ideas or be part of a team that’s going to have an impact, we’re the place that allows you to do so.
For an entrepreneur, is success having an impact, then? Or is it more of a quantitative thing?
D’Ambrosio: It’s more having an impact. It’s finding a problem and creating a solution. The financial reward or quantitative result is evidence of how well you’re solving the problem. It might be your idea or somebody else’s and you join the team as the accountant or engineer or web designer, but you go out together as a group and find a problem, and, eventually, have the ability to change people’s lives.
What was the most important entrepreneurial skill that someone taught you? Was it to understand that definition of success, to have an impact?
D’Ambrosio: I think the most important entrepreneurial skill that I have is the ability to identify opportunities and problems, to see something that’s not working in the world as an opportunity, and then to create the solution around it. Start looking at the world, instead of seeing a problem and just living with it, or seeing other people’s problems and just letting them suffer through it, start thinking, “There’s got to be a better way to do this,” and creating a solution. That skill, the creativity and the energy that it takes to do that, it’s the most incredible thing in the world.
Were you taught that skill, or was it something that you just had innately?
D’Ambrosio: Both. I think it’s more learned, though. I had parents, mentors and teachers that pushed me, that told me if I wanted to get something done, to go figure it out, go do something about it. There was no “that’s the way the world is,” or “someone else can handle that problem.” Instead, they encouraged me to not put up with things that I saw as a problem.
To be that kind of influential, changing force, do you really need more than practical experience? Where do you best learn those skills, is it in a classroom?
D’Ambrosio: I don’t think that there really is a particular place. I can think of many useful skills that I learned in school, like the ability to write, to read and analyze and research, to work in a team. I learned those skills in class. But, I also applied all of those skills in real-world settings: I worked in government for a while, then a Fortune 500 company. I’m still learning every day, with every student and startup that I work with, and I think that that ability, not only to continue to learn but to take what you have learned and use it on a new problem, is incredibly important.
One of the things that we’ve tried to make sure happen is that it’s not either or, classroom experience or practical: they reinforce each other, it’s a virtuous cycle of learning, iterating, applying, learning and so on. The Lassonde program compliments the class experiences as the applied side of that learning. Students are learning about business, engineering, finance, whatever it might be, and we’re the place to take that knowledge out of your classroom, find a team to work with, an area that inspires you, a problem that you want to solve, and then be able to do something about it. I think that the most rewarding thing about this program and what we do here is that we give people the opportunity to test an idea and develop an entrepreneurial mindset.
What is your definition of an entrepreneurial mindset, or even just an entrepreneur? It’s a pretty vague term.
D’Ambrosio: It really is! My vision of an entrepreneur is what I mentioned earlier, the ability to see opportunities and problems in the world, and doing something about them, taking action. That might be creating a petition and getting an initiative on a ballot to get a law changed or even organizing a non-profit to clean up the Jordan River. That’s the entrepreneurial mindset: creative activities to go out and solve problems. I mentioned that my background is in political science and political campaigns, and the reason that I got involved in politics is that I wanted to change things in the world that I didn’t agree with. Another outlet that I found for that was creating a product or service, so my second business was bringing the internet to Latin American countries, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador and Venezuela. We were solving their problem: the internet was important to their commerce, education and survival.
When students are going out with their ideas, academic background and their practical experience and now they’re in the world, is there a mistake or a common misstep that these students make? If so, how can it be avoided?
D’Ambrosio: I always say as a kind of joke that there’s a thousand reasons that a startup will fail, and there’s only one reason that they succeed: they avoided all of those mistakes. The two biggest mistakes though, are, one: you think that you have to have the idea to be a contributor, when really, good, successful entrepreneurs are good team builders and team players. They know that they need other people’s skills and that they’ll have to rely on other people.
The second big mistake is thinking that it’s going to be easy. It’s really, really hard, and if you don’t have the perseverance and the willingness to fight through the issues, and to fail, it won’t work. How do you avoid these mistakes? I don’t know if you can avoid the latter, other than giving it your best effort and being willing to accept the failure. But, realize that entrepreneurship is a team sport: you can contribute even if you don’t have the idea. That is something that people can understand and learn how to do, and something that we try to provide through the Lassonde program, to help you find something you’re passionate about, and then lend your skills and talents to that project. Sometimes I’m the coach, sometimes I’m the quarterback and sometimes I’m on the sidelines cheering, and it’s a great experience regardless.
Anything else you want to add?
D’Ambrosio: We have a pretty unique program here in a couple regards, more resources for students who have creative ideas and want to have an impact on the world, along with mentors and professors that will help you along the way, than any other university in the country, so I would encourage students to take advantage of what’s available. We’re really focused on the student experience. This is about you as a student. We try to give students a broader portfolio of experiences, a broader network of people to impact, and a step beyond just the traditional classroom experience. We’re really run by students, our leadership is made of students involved in all aspects, who run our competitions, Make Space, our Company Launch program.