Strike While the Iron Is Hot

April 17, 2013

1:12 pm

In late 2000, I was raising a seed-stage venture fund to commercialize innovations coming from universities and federal laboratories in the Midwestern part of the United States. During that time, I attended a function at the Union League Club in Chicago. While I was standing in line to get my coat at the coat check, I heard a very familiar voice. I turned around and, sure enough, it was (then former) Senator Paul Simon.

He had an astoundingly rich, deep voice that was unmistakable. Once I knew it was him, I had about five seconds to decide whether to approach him or to shy away in fear. Indecision would have meant a missed opportunity.

One of my rules of sales is to strike while the iron is hot. Sometimes things come together and, even if you’re not prepared, you have to take advantage of the situation because the opportunity isn’t going to come around again. This was one of those moments.

I introduced myself to him and quickly told him about our venture fund, which was going to create innovative businesses based on the best research coming out of Midwest universities. Our secondary goal was to locate these businesses in areas that would rehabilitate depressed neighborhoods. As a former politician, he would resonate with our desire to help universities while stimulating economic development. He was also a person who very early – long before it was a global issue – was concerned about clean water.

In that moment, I gave him my elevator pitch and asked him for a meeting to more fully describe what we were doing. As I recall, he didn’t give me a card, but he said I could look him up at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

Which I did.

My business partner and I trekked down to Carbondale, which is at the far southern tip of Illinois. You can get to Honolulu from Chicago faster than you can get to Carbondale. Anyway, we went down there for a meeting with Senator Simon.

We had a pleasant meeting with him in his office, and I asked him if he’d join our advisory board. He agreed to. He told me that the reason he agreed to support us was that he was aware that I saw him in line at the Union League Club, that I saw an opportunity, took a chance, and made it happen. He said he admired those traits and, based on that observation, he figured we must be good guys who would succeed. He didn’t ask for references…he just made the decision based on how we conducted ourselves. Our actions, not our words, compelled him.

It was a compliment I will never forget. Someone with his reputation, stature, and connections was a huge lift for our fundraising efforts. He also gave me one of his signature tie clips (he was known for wearing bow ties and had lapel pins made up of bow ties), which I still cherish.

A similar thing happened to me when I met a Russian billionaire in Davos, but that’s a story for another post.

Lesson learned:

  • You might only get to take one shot. Even if you’re not ready, you have to take it because the opportunity may not come around again.
  • Luck is when opportunity meets preparedness.

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Neil Kane, the Director of Undergraduate Entrepreneurship at Michigan State University, is a leading authority on technology commercialization and innovation and has the battle scars to prove it. He was named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum in 2007. His Twitter handle is @neildkane. He’s also on Google+ and LinkedIn.