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CEO: Entrepreneur spirit thrives on good foundation

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The SPARK Columbus event features local entrepreneur Rick Johnson giving a rare glimpse into some of the secrets of his success. It
The SPARK Columbus event features local entrepreneur Rick Johnson giving a rare glimpse into some of the secrets of his success. It


Sometimes that’s what’s needed to bring an innovative idea from the formation stage to startup.

But first, the spark of the idea must be recognized and incubated.

“The world changes and people are always looking for new and better things, and the entrepreneurial spirit is what brings those things to market,” said Rick Johnson, president and CEO of Johnson Ventures.

Johnson was the keynote speaker at SPARK Columbus on June 4, an event where entrepreneurs, inventors, young professionals and others had the opportunity to network and exchange ideas — and also listen to Johnson talk about living in a community that encourages innovative and creative thinking.

“There is a spectrum of entrepreneurs that range from the inventor and very early startup to really what amounts to corporate innovation,” Johnson said.

Johnson Ventures has become successful largely by recognizing innovative businesses, acquiring those companies, then building and achieving long-term value in them, he said.

Johnson focuses on companies that have a proven business model, identifies their strengths and maximizes their customer base.

He is not a startup investor — the businesses Johnson pursues have a good foundation.

But he has been involved in ventures that did not meet expectations. The key, he said, is to fail quickly and move on.

He said creative thinkers should not limit their opportunities to independent ventures that can be difficult and expensive to bring to market.

“There is innovation in corporations and, while entrepreneurs are more independent-minded people, you can find them in lots of business places,” Johnson said. “Cummins was begun by an entrepreneur, and they want to maintain that innovative culture, at least in certain areas of the business,” Johnson said.

Greg Knudson, director of the Center for Economic Development at IUPUC, said innovators within corporations, often referred to as intrapreneurs, can become very successful.

“That’s not talked about as much, but intrapreneurial activity is really reinventing the entrepreneurial spirit with new programs, products and business units within the corporate structure,” Knudson said. “Not only do we have the independent entrepreneurs, but I think we have a growing talent pool of people who want to grow and make things happen within the corporate structure.”

Innovative thinkers who work in a corporate environment also have access to resources, both financial and material, that may make an independent venture cost-prohibitive.

Knudson, who previously ran a venture capital firm in Ohio that helped commercialize about 100 companies, said it takes more than an attractive product and a good marketing plan to be successful.

Events such as SPARK Columbus and Risk It: Indiana, a competition for entrepreneurs and inventors, provide valuable resources that help move ideas from the drawing board to the marketplace.

“Networking and building relationships is critical,” Knudson said. “These events are venues for people to talk to and learn from others and recognize that they are not alone.”

The Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce recently announced a new event, the Venture Awards, which will recognize the accomplishments of local entrepreneurs in several categories.

Nominations for the awards are being accepted until July 3 on the Chamber’s website.

Award winners will be announced in August.

Chamber President Cindy Frey said one of the group’s primary goals is to create an environment where startups have access to exposure, education and mentoring resources.

That is why having people in the community such as Johnson, who are willing to share their experiences, is such an asset.

“One of my favorite things to do is connect startups with folks who have walked that path,” Frey said. “It’s important for entrepreneurs who have created a successful business to share the thought process of how to recognize what is a good idea or a viable option.”

Johnson said an important lesson, and one that is not always easy for entrepreneurs to accept, is that they must be wiling to recalculate the course of an idea or concept.

“It’s rare when an entrepreneur starts out with an idea that gets to market unchanged,” Johnson said. “If you go in believing that the way you think of things is absolutely right, that’s not a learning attitude and you are probably going to fail.”

Johnson said not all innovation takes place in the business world.

“There are social entrepreneurs who look at the world and think it can be different in a better way,” Johnson said. “They see things differently, and they think there is a path (for change), and they have a willingness to give it a try.”

Regardless of where the spark for innovation leads them, Johnson said, one thing all entrepreneurs and startup investors have in common is passion. He says not all ideas are great ideas and not all entrepreneurs have the capacity to pull a great idea off.

“There are a lot of people that have a deep passion for startup ventures, and they know the risk is really high,” Johnson said. “It really ultimately is an expression of them; and for them, that’s worth the risk.”

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