While Kentucky is known for college basketball, horse racing, bourbon, and bluegrass music, Luke believes it has something else to offer: it’s entrepreneurs.
In this episode, we talk about some of Kentucky’s most successful entrepreneurs and Luke’s vision for the Kentucky Entrepreneur Hall of Fame.
Listen in to Luke to learn:
- How KFC went from small-scale operation to global franchise powerhouse
- What it takes to get the attention of some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the country
- Why entrepreneurs need more recognition in our education system
How did you come up with the idea for an “Entrepreneur Hall of Fame”?
When I was in medical school back in 2008, my best friend and I started a business incubator. Essentially, we started a company in college, but after we graduated we thought, “Hey, it would be really cool to hang out in a place with our entrepreneur friends and other startups.”
So, we got a decent sized office space and started inviting other startups into our space. Then we thought, “It would be really cool if the president of our university, who happens to be a serial entrepreneur, could come down and check out what we’re doing and give us some advice.”
We reached out to him and other successful entrepreneurs and said, “Hey, would you like to come see what we’re building?” Of course, most of them blew us off. So we thought, “What can we do to add value to these people to convince them to come down here to look at what we’ve got and give us advice?”
Our solution was to send them an email saying, “Congrats, you’ve been inducted into The Entrepreneur Hall of Fame.”
Most of these serial entrepreneurs replied with, “The hall of what?”
Our motivation was to give these people some recognition for their work.
People get plenty of exposure for playing basketball or acting in movies, but no one was really talking about the businesses that exist here in Kentucky. Business leaders don’t get the same exposure here that they do in the San Francisco area.
So, we tried for about a year to get the attention of some of these super successful entrepreneurs without much success, but during that time we’re also running our incubator and throwing a bunch of events.
Eventually, we came up with the idea to run an event for an Entrepreneur Hall of Fame.
“This is actually advice I give to every aspiring entrepreneur which is, look at what you already know, look at your current skillset, and focus on doing that.”
We knew how to throw events, that was pretty much the only thing we knew how to do, and the only reason we knew how to run events was that we were trying to get people to move into our space.
So we said, “Look, we know how to throw parties and we think these guys are awesome, so we’re going to throw them a party.” And that was how we started the Kentucky Entrepreneur Hall of Fame.
Can you give us a quick “how-to” for hosting a successful event?
One of the problems with throwing successful events is this chicken-vs-egg issue of how do you get people to come to your event when you don’t yet have a reputation for hosting successful events.
When we first started the Hall of Fame our whole brand, our value proposition was, “We are going to induct you into a club that connotes prestige” but we didn’t yet have a brand that connotes prestige.
Since our brand didn’t have enough power to bring people to the event, we had to think about who we could get to come that would attract these other super successful entrepreneurs.
Luckily, as I mentioned, the president of my university was a serial co-founder and I just happened to be the president of the Entrepreneur Club when I was in college which meant that I had met with him with once while I was a student.
He was by far the easiest target because I knew where his office was and I had his email address. So, we started showing up at his office regularly. We got the know Judy, his assistant, who would always pass on that we had been there to see him when he was out or too busy for us.
Over time he knew that we’d shown up enough that he eventually said, “Yeah, I’ll show up to your dinner or whatever you’re doing.” Once we knew he was onboard, then we could reach out to other folks.
So, using that domino effect going is very important when trying to set up a regular series of events.
Who were some of the other guests at your first Kentucky Entrepreneur Hall of Fame event?
One of our other co-founders at the business incubator had worked with Jim Host in a past life. Jim is the guy that invented the term March Madness and is the founder of Host Communications. So he contacted Jim who replied, “Sure, I’ll do you a favor by showing up at this thing you’re trying to make up.”
We also had John Y. Brown, the guy that bought KFC from the Colonel back when it was doing only about three million dollars in sales a year.
So about three weeks out from our first event we now had three people coming.
We wanted to have seven inductees for our first event but with only three people confirmed we were willing to take a risk and start publicizing the event, not necessarily to our friends, but to other leaders in the business community as well. Of course, the reality was that this thing could still totally flop with only three entrepreneurs showing up.
“Three weeks later when we ran the actual event, we had seven plaques up on the wall and six entrepreneurs in the room, so we were pretty happy about that. Six out of seven made us look legit enough that we were able to run another event the following year.”
But we still had legitimacy issues in year two, three, and even four.
Why did you decide to write Unbridled Spirit?
For the same reason that we started The Kentucky Entrepreneur Hall of Fame. It comes down to our core mission, which is to raise awareness of the impact that entrepreneurship has made in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and to encourage others to pursue similarly ambitious endeavors.
The grander vision, or step 50, is to have an Entrepreneur Hall of Fame and an Unbridled Spirit published for every state. Every five years a new edition should come out. We could turn it into a course that basically details the business history of each particular state.
Right now you can take a course on the history of Kentucky and learn about the battles and the political and cultural aspects of this state, but there’s no class on the history of Kentucky’s economy and certainly no class that details the people at the centre of that history.
Kentucky is more than bourbon and horse racing, and this book plays a small part in getting that message out there.
Where do you find successful entrepreneurs?
It’s harder than it sounds. Google “successful entrepreneurs” and you’ll get the same names over and over again. Richard Branson gets a lot of press, Steve Jobs gets a lot of press. But what about the people that actually impact the lives of average Americans on a daily basis?
Entrepreneurs that are already famous get a ton of press but the people that actually start companies that become the backbone of local communities don’t. Here’s a really good example: James Booth of Booth Energy. He’s in the new book. James employs something like 45% of the people in his county. That’s amazing. I mean that’s unheard of, and yet few people would even know his name two counties over.
“We need to have a better way to recognize these people, especially the entrepreneurs outside of the tech bubble in Silicon Valley. Having an Entrepreneur Hall of Fame in states like Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee would be a great way to do that.”
What’s Luke Murray’s favorite story from Unbridled Spirit?
I’m going to cheat and read it straight out of the book for you.
This is about John Y. Brown. He’s in his early 30’s. He’s my age, I’m 34 years old, he’s probably 34, and he just bought KFC from the Colonel.
And here’s the best part from the book:
“‘After two years,’ keep that in mind: two years. ‘After two years of trying to run KFC, I contacted Harvard Business School to see if they could teach me anything about running a company.'”
To me, that’s just hilarious. Here’s a guy who just bought a national restaurant chain and he calls up Harvard to ask, “Hey, you guys are smart, can you help me out?”
I would never think to do that, but the amazing thing is that they did help him:
“I had lunch with nine associate professors, that is a heck of a get-together, and they explained how to franchise and build chicken stores.”
“One of the professors then asked me about my sales. I told him that over two years we’ve gone from $3 million a year to a little more than $100 million a year. Another professor then questioned if the company was making a profit to which I responded, ‘Well we’ve gone from about $300,000 in profit to a little more than $10 million in profit,’ at that point the host smiles and says to me, ‘Mr. Brown why don’t you just go back to Kentucky and keep doing whatever you were doing. Don’t let us confuse you.'”
“‘That was the first time I realized that there aren’t any experts out there and that we know more about our business than anyone else.'”
So that just goes to show you that you’ll always know more about your own company and the path you should take than anyone else.
What do you wish other Kentuckians knew that you discovered while working on this book?
The one thing everyone should take away from this book is that you can become a super successful entrepreneur doing something incredibly simple in any industry. Again, take John Y. Brown as an example. Here’s a guy that’s selling chicken.
A lot of people think, “I’ve got to go into tech, I’ve got to be super innovative.” but that’s not true. A lot of people did the opposite: “I just dug coal real hard and got aggressive and thought outside the box and innovated in my own industry.”
“You can succeed in Kentucky on a level that is just as high as seen on the cover of Fast Company or Inc. All it takes is that entrepreneurial spirit. “
What do you hope to achieve with Unbridled Spirit?
Again, the bottom line is that this book exists to raise awareness of the impact entrepreneurs have made in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and to encourage others to pursue similarly ambitious endeavors.
The way to make that happen is to get this book into schools.
Our plan is to reach out to traditional media in the hometowns of all the entrepreneurs that are mentioned in the book and say, “Ashlyn, Kentucky, you know Jim Host talked about growing up there. Here’s a copy of the book, maybe you can do a feature on it.”
Eventually, my goal would be to have a History of Entrepreneurship in Kentucky class in all schools in the state. There could be one version for middle school, one for high school, and then one for college.
I don’t know exactly how that would look, but I can see there being lots of supplementary materials, like worksheets and activities, that would help drive home some of the lessons that are found in the book, because that’s really how you change the culture.
So to any listeners out there, if you know a teacher in Kentucky or an administrator in education, don’t be afraid to say, “Hey, have a look at this book. Maybe this should be a part of our core competency or our core curriculum?”