Kate MacArthurBlue Sky Innovation
As CEO of 1871, Howard Tullman ⇒ aims not only to raise the profile of the downtown tech hub, which a Sweden-based organization last year ranked ninth in the world among university-associated business incubators.
He says he’s on a campaign to make Chicago the leading global destination for entrepreneurs.
Tullman, a serial entrepreneur and investor, also is general managing partner of investment firm G2T3V. Before joining 1871 in 2013, he founded Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy and turned around Kendall College while he was its president.
He explains why people sometimes aren’t neurotic enough for entrepreneurship.
Q. What’s the most difficult task you’ve tackled as a leader and how did you handle it?
A. Picking up Kendall College after 75 years and moving it downtown from Evanston and explaining to people that it wasn’t a question of new marketing materials, but of a new vision and approach for the whole school. That was difficult and threatening to faculty and everyone who had done things in a very traditional way for many, many years.
You need to have a series of small steps and early wins so you start to build up the momentum. We started with bringing everybody to see this new location and then explaining how our job was not to disrupt what they were doing but to create a better and more powerful platform for them to do their best work.
Q. What are your current leadership goals and challenges as you expand 1871?
A. We want to be the No. 1 incubator in the United States, in the world. We’re No. 9 as of last year. We’re about to announce a very substantial expansion again. So we have to execute on that. We need to continue to create businesses that can be sustainable and create jobs.
We want to continue to put 1871 and more importantly, the city, on the global map. So we're continuing our outreach for reciprocity arrangements. I’m going to Japan shortly. We’ll be in Cuba shortly and we're working on Brazil and Columbia.
We need to continue to create businesses that can be sustainable and create jobs. Jobs are really the bottom line of everything we do.
Q. Are these trips to build or scout 1871 satellites?
A. People ask us all the time when are we going to build more and different 1871s, and the answer is we’re never going to do that.
With these reciprocity trips, two things happen. These cities send us startups. So we just had 11 companies from Turkey come here for a month. They come here and they increasingly see Chicago as the jumping off point for their U.S. expansion.
Our part is to create the ability for our startups to have a place to land if they want to expand to some of these cities. We’re making sure that we lay the track for that.
We have a very strong relationship with Startup Mexico, which is in Mexico City. We have relationships with four or five different incubators in accelerators in London. That makes it possible for our companies to have a leg up on how they would go global.
Q. Who do you, as a prolific author on leadership and entrepreneurship yourself, consider your leadership gurus and authors and why?
A. If I had to pick one, I almost always pick Steve Jobs. And I always pick him for a very peculiar reason. The single piece of wisdom that I took away from my dealings with him and watching everything he did is that he used to say, “Whatever we did yesterday was yesterday. But the best and only thing we can focus on is what’s best for the business, the organization and the employees today.”
He never looked back. He never regarded himself as having to drag around his prior mistakes or be uncomfortable with change. That’s the world we live in today. That’s the principal message we tell everybody.
Q. Why did you call it a “peculiar” reason?
A. He was a great liar. He didn’t want to waste any time or energy debating the old news because he was done with it. He would pretend like he never said something because he didn’t want to engage with those conversations because that wasn’t a productive use of his time.
Q. What lesson did you learn the hard way about leadership?
A. The hard lesson that you learn as a leader over and over again — and it’s just as hard every time — is that people are going to disappoint you for a variety of reasons. And you just have to live with that.
We take renewals as business and terminations as personal. When somebody leaves, I always wish him or her well. But I always feel like they were sort of jumping ship. It hurts a little bit.
That’s the hardest part of being a leader, getting over this emotion of taking it personally and understanding that not everybody is a zealot. People want to have a life. Not everybody buys into the vision. Some people just want a job.
Q. What hard truths do people not want to hear about leading?
A. You have to do some very hard and unhappy things to individuals in order to make a happy company.
I once wrote this letter about a perfectly decent person who wasn’t making it within our crazy, neurotic, aggressive organization. I actually said this person was too healthy. They weren’t neurotic enough to work in a certain kind of entrepreneurial environment because they weren’t sending the message to their peers that they were taking it that seriously.
Sometimes it’s important to let people see you sweat and not have everything be calm and steady sailing.
Q&As are edited for length and clarity.
Kate MacArthur is a freelance writer.