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Tony Tjan

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Cue Ball Group co-founder and Managing General Partner Tony Tjan is the perfect person to foster new entrepreneurs. After all, he entered the business world at just 13. Growing up in Newfoundland, he first started selling computers, then began leasing billing systems to doctors’ offices. When he started boarding school in Toronto at age 15, he launched a picture frame business before school was even in session. A year later, he learned about multilevel marketing company Nu Skin from a friend. Soon, the sixteen-year-old Tjan was managing a group of adults selling the company’s wares.

Tjan went on to pursue higher education at Harvard University, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1994. Though he opted to study biology and seemed on a medicine-bound trajectory, he never lost his passion for business. He’d often engage in long business-oriented conversations with fellow Winthrop House resident and future Cue Ball co-founder John Hamel.

After graduation, Tjan jumped off the presumed medical school track in favor of Harvard Business School’s MBA program. He hadn’t even finished when he hit his first entrepreneurial success. He founded ZEFER, an Internet advisory company and app developer, in 1996, while still in graduate school. As CEO, he grew the start-up to a company of close to 1,000 employees drawing in more than $100 million in annual revenue. The dot-com crash of 2001 hit the company hard, however, and its assets were eventually sold to NEC.

Post-ZEFER, Tjan took a position at Thomson. He spent seven years there, serving as Senior Advisor to CEO Dick Harrington. Under the pair’s strategy, the company saw cash flow increase four-fold. It also acquired Reuters, creating the world’s largest information media company. In 2001, the same year he joined Thomson, Tjan also began serving as Vice Chairman of The Parthenon Group, a position he held until his departure in 2014. He was the prominent strategic advisory and investment firm’s youngest elected Senior Partner.

Tjan’s current endeavor, The Cue Ball Group, has its roots back at that Winthrop House dining table. In the mid-2000s, Tjan and college friend Hamel decided to turn their passion for entrepreneurship towards fostering new promising businesses. They were joined by Harrington and Mats Lederhausen, the former head of global strategy at McDonald’s. Now that they had a company, however, they had to figure out what to do with it. The answer came from an unlikely direction: nail salons.

After Hamel noticed the coffee shop-like prevalence of nail salons, he brought the idea of a Starbucks-esque nail salon chain back to his partners at Cue Ball. Looking further into the idea, the friends discovered that the idea had serious potential, in multiple ways. First, an aesthetically mindful, high-quality, standardized nail salon definitely had a place in the market. Secondly, the business could be a force for good, creating a new model in an industry full of employee-safety issues and exploitative labor practices. They founded MiniLuxe in 2007, opening their first salon in Newton Centre. By 2016, there were twelve MiniLuxe locations, all well-lit, spotless, and unburdened by the chemical scent commonly associated with nail salons. All of the salons are profitable.

Beyond creating a successful business, however, MiniLuxe also set the tone for Cue Ball’s future work. The company works to foster good people and build interesting business ideas with a positive impact. In their mission to do so, they’ve developed a unique venture capital model. Relatively small, the company has 12 employees and a 21-company portfolio, plus six already sold. All of its management expenses come out of profits, rather than from a percentage charged to investors, so the firm gets paid exactly as the limited partners. Finally, when an investor chooses to put money into Cue Ball’s enterprises, they commit their funds indefinitely. The focus is placed on building companies with long-term potential, rather than rapidly buying and selling new start-ups.

In addition to serving as Managing Partner at Cue Ball, Tjan sits on the boards of ScrollMotion, ShapeUp, Livefrye, and MiniLuxe. He’s also on the advisory council at MIT Media Lab, a Board Member at non-profit From the Top, and one of the World Economic Forum’s Global Leaders for Tomorrow. His book, Hearts, Smarts, Guts and Luck, is a New York Times bestseller. Tjan also shares his insights through contributions to the Harvard Business Review, and has been a TED conference speaker.

Tjan and his wife Laura currently live in Brookline, Massachusetts with their three children.

(Sources used to write this entrepreneur’s profile include a Forbes profile from January 2016, the Cue Ball Group website, and the entrepreneur’s LinkedIn)

Companies and Investments

The Cue Ball Group (Founder, Managing Partner), MiniLuxe (Chairman, Co-founder), The Parthenon Group (Vice Chairman), Thomson Reuters (Senior Advisor to the CEO), ZEFER (Founder), McKinsey & Company

Lessons Learned

The seminal inflection point for me was being at the highest of highs and then going right through the nuclear winter of the dot-com bust. We had a business that had grown from nothing to over $100 million in about five years, with about 900 employees. We had filed to go public, and I could probably tell you the second of the beginning of the dot-com crash, actually on the day we were to go public, April 14, 2000. We then had layoffs and a significant restructuring. It’s hard to even describe that period, but we eventually came out of it.

The lesson from that was that self-awareness trumps all. You need to know what your superhero strength is, but you really learn at tougher times what your and others’ weaknesses are. The biggest shift for me was that I realized how important intrinsic rewards are — like the value of a meaningful role — over extrinsic rewards. (Tjan on the overriding importance of self-awareness, in an interview with the New York Times)

One was Jay Chiat, one of the founders of the Chiat/Day ad agency. He had this incredible capacity for optimism, particularly optimism during mentorship. He had this amazing ability to think of every reason why an idea might work before criticizing it and thinking why it might not work. When you’re a mentor, you’ve got to realize that people are often sharing their dreams, and I think it’s human nature to be a critic. We’re skeptics. As you get older and more experienced, wisdom is great, but you also have to be careful not to automatically impose your mental framework and your lessons.

I’ve translated it into a rule that I try to get people to follow, and I’m still working on this. When someone gives you an idea, try to wait just 24 seconds before criticizing it. If you can do that, wait 24 minutes. Then if you become a Zen master of optimism, you could wait a day, and spend that time thinking about why something actually might work. In venture capital, you’re at the intersection of human capital and their big ideas, their dreams. My favorite quote is from Eleanor Roosevelt: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” (Tjan on optimism in business and learning to see potential rather than default to criticism, in an interview with the New York Times)

So you want to get a sense of their values, and whether you would enjoy spending time with them. And I’ve described the four traits I’m looking for as heart, smarts, guts and luck. Whether you are hiring someone or investing behind someone, especially early stage, you need to feel some of that heart and that will, that fire in the belly. And you can feel it. This often comes out more through stories, so you have to probe. Does this person have some weight behind them, meaning they’ve overcome challenges and adversity? I often ask, “Have you sold anything when you were young?” Because I will never forget selling door-to-door at age 15 in Toronto. You grow thicker skin. Rejection early is good, because you get used to it. (Tjan on seeking out values and passion in choosing who to work with, in an interview with the New York Times)

Inspiring Quotes

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Tony Tjan's Quotes

Wisdom is great, but you also have to be careful not to automatically impose your mental framework and your lessons.

Tony Tjan

You can’t be a good leader without self-awareness. It lies at the root of strong character, giving us the ability to lead with a sense of purpose, authenticity, openness, and trust.

Tony Tjan

Being assertive and direct does not need to mean being cold and hard.

Tony Tjan

There is one quality that trumps all, evident in virtually every great entrepreneur, manager, and leader. That quality is self-awareness.

Tony Tjan

Influential Books

Mentors

Dick Harrington, Jay Chiat

References


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