News and Tribune

February 19, 2014

Priceline.com founder explains at IUS that success requires leaps of faith

Jeff Hoffman delivers Sanders Series speech

By DANIEL SUDDEATH
daniel.suddeath@newsandtribune.com

NEW ALBANY — Go to college. Earn a degree and get hired by a big company. Garner loyalty points and boost your resume by racking up years on the clock at the same job.

These are common career tips for up and coming business professionals, but a path shunned by one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the United States.

“I was labeled as unstable,” mused Jeff Hoffman, founder of Priceline.com, in reference to how some viewed his decision to chase his dreams rather than follow the standard course.

Even as a young entrepreneur, Hoffman was consistently shifting from challenge to challenge while staving off complacency.

Each day is a new day, and there’s too much to learn for people to stay in their comfort zone, he said.

Hoffman — who also founded Black Sky Entertainment which produced movies such as “Cabin Fever” — spoke to a crowd of students, officials and residents at Indiana University Southeast on Wednesday as part of the Sanders Speaker Series.

Hoffman launched his first startup as a way to solve a dilemma. He was in college, didn’t have enough money to pay his tuition, and needed to make money.

He started a software company that paid the bills, though Hoffman stressed several times during his lecture that getting rich was never the motivation behind his success.

“Never was I sort of focused on, ‘I just want to make money,’” Hoffman said.

Like the cash shortage that led to his first startup, Hoffman said he centered on solving problems. Many of his startups were purchased within three years of launching, as Hoffman said money follows hard work and dedication.

“We were solving problems that made people’s lives easier,” he said.

From Michael Jordan to Boyz II Men, Hoffman has worked with dozens of celebrities and musical groups on startup companies, or through his own business interests.

Starting a business can definitely frighten many people, but Hoffman said entrepreneurs have an autonomy that should be revered.  

“Entrepreneurship is the art and science of controlling your own destiny,” he said.

But what frightens Hoffman?

“Ostriches,” said Hoffman, as he joked he had a dream he was being chased by more than a dozen of the creatures. “If you ever see ostriches chasing me, please help.”

But in seriousness, apathy scares Hoffman, who said people don’t always realize how much power they have to control their own lives.

Those aspiring to be entrepreneurs should engage in the world around them, outwork the competition and maintain a positive attitude. There are certain traits that always seem to be found in successful entrepreneurs, he continued.

“They focus on the positive, not the negative,” Hoffman said. “They find ways to get it done.”

But starting a business merely to get rich will quickly lead to discouragement. Hoffman said there are days when the money is tight, and the future looks bleak for the entrepreneur who’s just launched a business.

That’s why successful business owners are inspired by more than just money. Hoffman said he’s always been drawn to solving problems, and that’s led to many of his greatest inventions and companies.

“I would like to be judged not by the business deals I’ve done, but by the people’s lives I’ve made better,” he said.

And the best entrepreneurs know they can’t do it all by themselves. When it comes to hiring a staff, the boss should oftentimes be the least qualified person in the room.

“You’ve got to build a team of people smarter than you in every area,” he said.

Hoffman once wrote a story for a business magazine that highlighted his point titled “Hire the best people and then pick up their dry cleaning.”

Hoffman had been advised that he should hire a 20-year-old computer engineering prodigy for one of his startup companies. After hiring him, Hoffman went to meet the computer whiz for the first time, and asked him if there was anything he needed.

The employee didn’t know who Hoffman was, and responded that he only needed someone to pick up his dry cleaning.

Hoffman said his senior staff members looked at him in amazement to see what his reaction would be, and it surprised all that witnessed the conversation.

Hoffman said he grabbed the receipt, went to the dry cleaners, and in 20 minutes returned with the clothes.

When questioned by his staff members why he did it, Hoffman said the 20-year-old would probably help make the company enough money to pay for all of the staff’s bonuses that year.

“I said not only can I pick up his dry cleaning, but I’m also thinking about going out and washing his car when I get done,” Hoffman said.