For the past 23 years, Greg Stone ’84 has been a work-from-home “solopreneur” with a virtual corporation of independent contractors, starting at a time when the "home office model" wasn't necessarily considered chic. “But I would always say,” he explained, “if it's good enough for the president, as the Oval Office is indeed at his home, then it's good enough for me.” Read what this veteran has to say about starting a business and the lessons he learned along the way.
Tell us about Stone Communications.
Stone Communications offers media consulting and video production services, with the occasional film thrown in for flavoring. Our most recent venture is a horror movie called The Tidewalkers now in development.
How did your biggest “A-Ha!” moment change your business?
I tended to be overly protective of my intellectual property and contacts in the past, so I would say “learning to share.” I now realize that the most open form of promotion is the best, within reason. I have also learned the value of "soft" networking. Like socializing with no business purpose in mind. I do this a lot. My wife often asks me, "Whom are you having lunch with again today?"
How have the classes you participated in at Columbia Business School shaped your business/management approach?
Wow. How much space do I have? It would not be an exaggeration to say that all of my classes at Columbia Business School have informed just about everything I do. I learned the conceptual underpinnings of business from the late Professor Bill Evan, who not only gave me confidence as a writer but also became a friend. Never did a kinder, smarter or gentler soul grace a classroom.
Then came the inimitable Professor Al Oxenfeld who taught us how to quantify qualitative criteria in a course on executive decision making. For instance, when weighing two job offers, assign dollar values to non-financial factors such as the culture at each company. A very useful skill. In frustrating moments as an entrepreneur, I often ask myself, "What is your freedom worth, Greg?" In all objectivity, I assign a large dollar value to my autonomy, and then I quit feeling sorry for myself and get back to work!
Other notables in my memory are finance Professor Norman Toy. Professor Toy had a knack for stretching out the calculations in elaborate fashion, and placing the answer in the lower right hand corner of the blackboard. This was the only spot not covered by the end of class, when he would wrap up with dramatic flourish just as the bell rang. It was a pleasure to watch his mind whir.
Also, Professor Pete Garrity, who made business math fascinating; ditto for Professor Gus Grammas who taught statistics and Professor Itzhak Sharav who taught cost accounting. I remember one day in class Professor Sharav, who was said to have been an Israeli tank commander, asked us how to price a particular product. A student tentatively suggested calculating the cost, then adding a markup. Itzhak looked at him like he was crazy. "What do you charge? You charge what the market will bear. And so, we move on." A great lesson.
What tips would you give a company looking to hone their media pitch?
Be unselfish. Don't talk too much about your company. Instead talk about the audience, not to them. If you click "About" on my new website for example, you are first directed to "About You," then "About Us." As far as I know, I am the first to set up the navigation bar this way. I also realize that I have used the word "about" too many times in this paragraph.
George Balanchine once mocked the hapless guy who goes to the theatre to cry over his own life: “I’m married," he explained, "my wife and children have left me, and I’m unhappy and feel that I’m going to kill myself. And that’s what I think Art is – people should pay me for my story.”
Your customers think the same way. I say this without cynicism, or disrespect. They expect service providers to aim for the center of their lives and to immediately grasp the complexities they face daily. And they are right to do so.
What advice would you give to a Columbia student with entrepreneurial aspirations?
Ask yourself some tough questions:
Can you stomach risk? Are you willing to spend twice as much money and wait three times as long as you think for measurable results? Do you covet a steady paycheck and a year-end bonus? If you answer yes, yes and no, then move on...
Are you willing to engage in honest work, with deep concentration, for more than 24 hours in a week? Of course, you say. Believe it or not, the average corporate employee may be at the office for many hours, but engages in only three hours of work a day. Exceed this, and you'll be a rocket by comparison.
Is freedom more important to you than power? And last, do you rely on praise and security? Does anonymity at the start bother you? If you answer yes, no and no to these last three questions, start your business tomorrow.
Do you have doubts about all this? No? Of course you do, don't lie to me. Doubts, schmouts, proceed anyway.
Persistence trumps brains and talent any day.
Steve Gilman '15
“To organize a robust community, sometimes you have to put walls around it,” says Steve Gilman ‘15 about his company, Block Party Suites.