Emails to a Young Entrepreneur – The Dialog Begins

From: Mikhail Rostov

To: Skip Walter

Professor Skip,

As I was sitting in front of my locker staring at the detritus of my three year combined MBA and Master of Design program at the Institute of Design, I was deep in thought when Patrick Whitney stopped and asked me “what’s next for you, Mikhail?”

How did Patrick know that is exactly what was on my mind? For three years, I’ve worked towards the goal of graduating. What’s next? I want to do a startup that builds on the multiple disciplines that I’ve learned – business and human centered design. I even have an idea that I’ve worked on during many of the class projects – a virtual coach for helping managers, executives and entrepreneurs get better at getting better.

But I don’t know how to get started.

“Thanks for asking, Patrick,” I shared. “This is the question that’s been plaguing me for months now. I want to do a startup. And I’m going back to Moscow where there isn’t much of an infrastructure or ecosystem for supporting high tech startups. Who can help me when I’m thousands of miles away from all the resources here in the United States?”

Patrick smiled his Cheshire Cat knowing smile and offered “you should contact one of our favorite serial entrepreneurs, Skip Walter. He taught here for ten years commuting from Seattle once a week. He calls himself a pracademic (practitioner academic) and enjoys ‘paying it forward’ with young entrepreneurs.”

Patrick was kind enough to give me your contact information. Skip, I’ve got this great idea for a new talent development tool to help knowledge workers practice how to communicate authentically and lead their collaborating teams.

I’ve just finished the three year combined MBA and MDES program and I am ready to start my own business.  Patrick wanted to make sure that I let you know that I am Russian and am headed back to Moscow now. He thought maybe this would be something that would catch your interest. He also thought that you would be intrigued by the challenge of working with me remotely. I would be delighted to help you learn about how an ID MDes and MBA creates a new venture.

Attached to this email are some of the key artifacts from my final project. These artifacts include the design of the virtual coach for mobile devices and a business plan to start the company. I would really appreciate your taking a look at these documents and offering your thoughts and comments on whether there is a viable product here.

Unfortunately, I am leaving for Moscow tonight so I won’t be able to come to Seattle and meet you in person.

Let me know what you think of my ideas and prototypes and whether you would be interested in helping me bring this prototype to market.

Yours sincerely,

Mikhail Genrich Rostov

Chicago, IL

From Skip to Mikhail:


Thank you for your kind email seeking my thoughts on the quality of your ideas. With great fondness, I remember the joy of immersing myself in the Institute of Design and the wonders of late night conversations with Patrick about the history and evolution of human centered design. Patrick is the pied piper of the design world wandering through Global 1000 corporations sharing his message of the power of design to make a real difference in the business world.

Before I share my entrepreneurial experiences, a meditation is in order. I’ve found the regular reflecting on the entrepreneur’s serenity prayer to be a good practice (the use of God, Lord and other spiritual terms in these emails are in the sense of the Alcoholics Anonymous higher power or power greater than ourselves):

God grant me the serenity to accept my team, my customers, my investors and my suppliers as bringers of opportunity;

The courage to change my understanding of what the customer truly needs;


The wisdom to know the difference between what is right and what my investors, my board and my bankers want.

I am not sure I have anything of specific value to you in your journey. Most entrepreneurs ask me very detailed questions like you did in your letter. On my good days, I make sure not to answer those questions. Each startup is its own journey. What I’ve done or observed in the past may or may not have anything to do with the journey that you are on.

Mikhail, only you can know what is right for your new venture.

After forty years of entrepreneuring and intrapreneuring, I realize that for most of my professional life I did not understand the game of business I was playing. I had the core processes backward. I learned that I needed to flip my perspective.

Shortly after we sold Attenex to FTI Consulting two concept shattering events occurred. The first event was sponsored by the Northwest Angel Capital Association and featured Basil Peters sharing his process for Early Exits. As he described all the best practices that you should do as part of planning the venture exit process (getting acquired), I put my head down on the table and damn near cried.

Where was Basil’s book, counsel and valuable resources when we were exiting? I quickly understood that Attenex was the poster child of what NOT to do when being acquired. His best practices illustrated why we lost $35M in value from the initial FTI Consulting offer to our closing valuation six months later.

The second event was a surprise announcement from FTI Consulting, that based on the $91M acquisition of Attenex, they were launching an IPO of the division that acquired us to raise >$1B by selling 40% of the division. The FTI founders designed a way to turn a $91M acquisition expense into raising $1B of new capital. I was stunned at the innovative creativeness. We did not see it coming. Yet, upon reflection, if I had truly understood my Valuation Capture framework, the prediction of such a strategic move was embedded in the framework.

I am getting ahead of myself. I wanted to share with you that becoming an entrepreneur is a lifelong learning process.  It never stops.  The world of commerce is constantly changing. As a young entrepreneur, you need to learn just as fast. What worked yesterday has no guarantee of working tomorrow.

The above is a way of saying I am not qualified to pass judgment on your ideas or business plan or prototypes. Only you can do that. It is your idea and hopefully your passion.

While I can’t offer specific feedback on your ideas, I can offer many meta-thoughts on what an entrepreneur needs to be thinking about and acting on as you create your new venture. If you are willing to engage in a reciprocal learning experience in our email exchanges, I would love to share my thoughts on the entrepreneurial experience and I would like to learn from you how your product ideas, target customers and opportunity evolve as you engage in the market.

Yours in Entrepreneuring,


Emails to a Young Entrepreneur – The Book

While mentoring, coaching and teaching thousands of entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs over the last fifteen years, one thing is clear: entrepreneurs don’t understand the game they are playing or the “game board” on which they are playing. I am not surprised. I took forty years to understand the entrepreneurial game.

New entrepreneurs are so focused on their product and working IN their business, they forget to work ON their business. They never learn that as a founder your “product” is the business.

Emails to a Young Entrepreneur is a journey of discovery to understand the new venture game and to develop and trust your inner guidance system.

If you would like to help with adding your insights to the up coming book of email exchanges, please contact me and suggest ways you would like to be involved.

Contact Information for Skip Walter:
This entry was posted in Emails to a Young Entrepreneur, Entrepreneuring, Flipped Perspective, Human Centered Design, Value Capture. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Emails to a Young Entrepreneur – The Dialog Begins

  1. Great invocation and adaptation of The Serenity Prayer!

    I recently started my umpteenth re-reading of Rilke’s timeless classic, so it is especially heartening to see your evolving adaptation of his mentoring approach to entrepreneurship … and having recently attended a David Whyte workshop in Seattle, I don’t think poetry and entrepreneurship are all that far apart.

    FWIW, years ago, in a fit of frustration while working at a research lab for what was then the world’s largest and most successful mobile phone company, I adapted another staple of 12 step programs: The 12 Steps for Technology-Centered Designers. I don’t think it (or I) had any significant impact on the organization, but it felt cathartic to post it.

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