• Catherine Armstrong

Dr. Stephen Harper - Entrepreneurship Professor and Author

Updated: Aug 30, 2019



Hey everyone!


Today (June 27, 2019) I am in Wilmington, NC, with Dr. Stephen Harper, one of the most influential professors I have had so far at UNCW.


Dr. Harper taught marketing, management, and entrepreneurship at the undergraduate and graduate level for over 40 years. He has written over eight books on entrepreneurship and leadership as well as over seventy other publications in academic journals and professional magazines.


i.e. he’s a pretty cool guy and knows a great deal about entrepreneurship.


To start things off, can you tell me a little bit about your background and your journey as an entrepreneur?


Some people say they are raised by a pack of wolves. I wasn’t. I was raised by a pack of CEOs and entrepreneurs. So, the whole journey probably began at birth. Over the years, I knew I wanted to go into business, so I had an undergraduate, masters, and Ph.D. in business to give me some of the basic skills. Yet, we know that is just the tip of the iceberg.

I set up numerous businesses – three economic development organizations and my own consulting firm. When I was in college, in addition to doing the usual yard jobs/fixing-type jobs, I had my own service business that serviced large scale parties. I had that experience very early on and learned a lot more about project management, customer relations, and employee-relations.


During your time as an entrepreneur, what were some of the biggest challenges you had pushing a company forward, and how did you overcome them?


Attracting really highly motivated people who have the same passion you have. It is not fair to expect employees to have the same passion, but you are still looking for people who are really excited about the vision and what can be done. So, that’s always a challenge for any firm.


Do you have any recommendations for hiring that person who is highly motivated?

Articulate where you plan to go and how they can play a critical role in that almost as if they were partners in the process. I think that is crucial today. That is a good sell. For most people, they have to give up their current job. They have to put their marriage, mortgage, and things like that at risk to join a new venture. Because of this, I think you have to have a compelling vision for how everyone will benefit from the journey.


Are there any mistakes that you wish you could have avoided when you started your first business?


I didn’t develop a successor. Most entrepreneurs are not great at delegating. If you want to develop a successor, you have to develop your people from day one. I didn’t do that with the venture I had in college. I learned to develop your people right away. Delegation is critical. If you can delegate, it gives you more time to work on developing the future of your enterprise or even leaving. I didn’t develop a successor, so I just shut the business down. My name was on it, and I didn’t want anyone to tarnish the name.


Do you have any tips or tactics you have discovered to stay focused and productive with a super busy schedule?


Having long-term goals puts things into perspective. I have always been a believer in having specific, time-based objectives - something to move me forward. If I have those for the long term, I can work backward and develop milestones so that each day I know what I need to do to make progress towards achieving the overall objectives. It provides great focus and a sense of urgency.


What is your approach to marketing?


I have a little bit of a different view. I don’t believe a lot in marketing. I think that if you really understand what the market wants and provide a tailor-made solution to the problems they have, it is not traditional marketing there.


What do they want?


Develop a product or service that provides what they want. If you do that right, I don’t think product strategy is that difficult because you know what they want.


Pricing strategy is what you know they are willing to pay.


Promotion strategy is if they came to you saying ‘Steve, can you solve this problem?’ like one of my ventures, and I can develop a solution when no one else can, then you’ve got tremendous pricing latitude.


For accessibility, an online presence is mandatory today.


You spoke about the importance of the people you hire. You also discuss this a lot in our entrepreneurship classes how the entrepreneur and the team are essential to the success of the business. What recommendations do you have for building the entrepreneurial team?


The years of the lone wolf entrepreneur are over. It is critical. No person can be all-knowing and ever-present. So, in this case, I think it still comes down to how can they be a partner in the process? If they are a co-architect for the future of the enterprise, then they are truly engaged. If they are just on the receiving end of the entrepreneur’s vision, then it becomes a job in that case. So, I think that you have to have something that is truly compelling where they want to be involved, and they have the opportunity to be a co-architect.


How do you make difficult decisions?


I don’t think decisions are that difficult. I think that a lot of people say that there are only gray areas there. If you know exactly what you want, you know what has to be done, you know when it has to be done, and you are committed to it, decision making is clear. You have your North Star to navigate by. So many people have flaky objectives – ‘I want to be more successful.’ That’s not an objective. That is a direction.

I’m a classic Peter Drucker guy. Going way back, I think he was the best management mind of the last century. He simply said that if you have clear objectives, everything seems to fall into place. If you don’t, everything is just blurred.


What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?


1) Market Orientation. I am always a market-driven type of person. If you do not have a clear sense for what the market values, a gap in the market, or a problem to be solved, everything else is worthless.


2) Planning. I am a strong believer in planning. Have a good idea of what needs to be done, how it’s to be done, when it’s to be done, and what resources are required in a very specific way.


3) Leadership by Example. Don’t ask or expect of others what you are not willing or able to do yourself. If you are going to ask them to take the journey, I think they are more likely to take it if you have personally taken the journey – even if it’s a matter of sweeping the floors.


What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?


I got this from a veteran entrepreneur years and years ago. Early in my career, I made a mistake on something I was doing. So, I consulted with him as a member of my kitchen cabinet. He said that we all make mistakes. It is clear that you are going to make mistakes. The question is, how quickly did you resolve it, and did you do it in such a way that you actually came out with a better relationship with whoever was involved than before? Customer recovery is important. But, I think in this case, expect the fact that there will be speed bumps. There will be setbacks. Try to be proactive to prevent them or minimize them. But, they’re going to happen. So, the question is how quickly you can solve the issue; and hopefully, do it in a positive way rather than a neutral or negative way.


What is your biggest piece of advice for a young entrepreneur?


Know yourself. It’s critical. It all begins there. Why are you really thinking about starting a business? If it’s for money, bad idea. If it’s for the chance to serve the marketplace, to provide, as Steve Jobs said, ‘a dent in the universe,’ then to me it’s making a difference that is far more important than making money.

I’ve found that too many people today do not know exactly what they want. I’ve always known what I want, so, as we’ve talked about before, it’s easy to make decisions. I’ve made so many decisions driving in my car around sunset in terms of decisions that have been really critical in my life. It’s just a matter of stepping back: What’s really important? What are your basic values? If you have those clearly articulated, everything else falls into place.


Do you have any book recommendations?


Today you have so many alternatives (online courses, podcasts, etc.). Networking with veteran entrepreneurs is critical. I think today you have to cast a broader net than you would have even ten years ago. Reading is nice. But, to gain real insight, you need to network with people who can provide the tips.


Seek the advice of others. But, remember it is your business, and it is your life.


Seek the advice, but you will still have to make the decisions that will determine if you are successful.

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