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Best way to learn business is to start one, says entrepreneur

by Ed Cohen

September 27, 2011

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Neil Kane with the label from the barbecue sauce based on his grandfather's recipe that he marketed

A serial entrepreneur whose startups include a company that turns methane gas into a film made of diamond says he learned more about starting businesses by selling barbecue sauce than in all his MBA coursework.

Neil Kane is the former co-executive director of the Illinois Technology Enterprise Center at Argonne National Laboratory and former entrepreneur-in-residence at Illinois Ventures LLC, an early-stage technology investment firm that seeks to commercialize research conducted at Midwest universities and at the Argonne labs. He spoke to students in the entrepreneurship course and lecture series Entrepreneurial Insights at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business on Tuesday.

Originally an engineer with IBM, Kane went on to co-found and serve as CEO of several high-tech startups, including Advanced Diamond Technologies. In alchemy fashion, the company turns the greenhouse gas methane, which comes from cow manure, rice fields, landfills and other sources, into a film of synthetic diamond. The film is usually used to coat machine components to make them more durable.

Kane’s first business venture was decidedly lower tech: a barbecue sauce made from a secret family recipe.

As the entrepreneur explained, his grandfather, Ben Kane, was a star high school football player in Chicago the 1920s. Recruited to Notre Dame by Knute Rockne, the elder Kane later returned to Chicago and opened a fondly remembered restaurant, Benny Kane’s Bar-b-Kue, on Independence Avenue. Famous for its sauce, the restaurant lasted until Ben Kane enlisted in the military during World War II.

After earning his MBA from the University of Chicago in the early 1990s, Neil Kane got the idea to try to sell his grandfather’s sauce. The younger Kane had worked in the family’s camera shop growing up, so he had experience in retailing, and he later held a sales position with IBM. He also had his MBA.

But he said, “The experience I got actually running the (sauce) business and doing it myself was infinitely more valuable than anything I learned in the lecture halls at the University of Chicago.”

Kane said he was warned that it would be impossible to find a manufacturer for the sauce, and even if he did, it would be very difficult to get stores to carry it. Through research and perseverance, he overcame both obstacles. But he learned there were issues he hadn’t considered, such as how the product would be perceived by consumers.

With its 1930s picture of his grandfather and “original Chicago recipe” on the label, the sauce sold much better as a souvenir in tourist locations than up against familiar, lower-cost brands like Open Pit in supermarkets, he said.

“It didn’t do poorly, it didn’t do great,” he said of the business, in which he invested $5,000. He said he got out of it because the next step would have been to grow the product line, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to do that.

Kane’s advice to students was not to drop out of college, but don’t be afraid to start a business either. It’s the best way to learn, he said.

“If you let your fear or hesitation get the best of you, you’ll never do it. You’ll never know all the answers. The timing will never feel right. You’ll always feel anxious. You’ve just got to get out there and do it,” he said.

Named a 2007 Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum, Kane writes about entrepreneurship at his blog, Belief Without Evidence. The title, he said, is a euphemism for faith, something all entrepreneurs need.

Entrepreneurial Insights is a fall lecture series and course of Notre Dame’s Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. It features entrepreneurs, investors, innovators and business leaders who offer their experience and advice in areas critical to the creation of new ventures, the ongoing viability of existing business, economic growth and the betterment of society. For more information about the series or the Gigot Center visit http://business.nd.edu/gigot_center/