While setting up to interview Tim Hayden, Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Saint Louis University, we can barely get a microphone on him in time to capture his goofy mannerisms. This is a welcome surprise for someone of his pedigree.
While it’s nearly impossible to sum up an entire human being in three adjectives, an article from Inc.com gives it a try, calling him “bright, articulate, and enthusiastic.” The list, while kind, feels incomplete. It flattens him. There’s a lot more going on inside to unpack.
The atrium at SLU’s John Cook School of Business is a daunting, impressive space, where Hayden casually sits down in a freshly upholstered chair while we turn the spot into a makeshift movie set. One of his friends walks across the vast expanse of the hallway, who appears to be amused at the giant fuss happening around Hayden. “It’s for America’s Most Wanted,” Hayden explains.
He has become such a fixture at SLU it’s hard to envision him anywhere else. But while Hayden grew up in St. Louis, he originally left his hometown and attended Indiana University to wrestle. His St. Louis roots have kept him grounded, but he’s also a self-professed “boomerang.” He did his fair share of bouncing around in his twenties, but eventually what kept him on one path was the excitement and creativity of start-up culture. But he couldn’t have known that early on. It’s hard to envision him there now, in the unknown, as he’s the kind of serial entrepreneur who is never satisfied with a half-full plate.
During his undergraduate career at Indiana, Hayden came home for surgery and muscle rehabilitation after suffering two crushing injuries to his knee. The second one kept him out of competition for good.
“Was that initially devastating?” I ask him.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “Devastating, yeah. But then again, what’s that next step?”
As a teacher, Hayden mentors generations of students who were just like him once upon a time. He is consistently amazed by the drive, passion, and self-awareness he sees in them. “Maybe too self-aware, to the point where they’re too critical,” he says. But for an entrepreneur, that ability to truthfully peel back the layers and look at yourself is vital. You need to know what your strengths and weaknesses are, and you need to be able to see them, good and bad, with undiluted clarity. “Focus on your strengths, and find the people who can actually help you on your weaknesses.” To Hayden, the people who are capable of that type of introspection “become the best entrepreneurs.”
Sometimes, this requires the help of a firm, loving mentor, someone who cares enough to tell the truth. For example, a mentor could say to Hayden, “’Tim, you’re never going to play basketball, so get that out of your mind. But as far as owning a basketball team, here is the process that you go through. Here are the people you can surround yourself with.’” Hayden, just over five feet tall, learned to surround himself with people who were willing to give him that tough love, and has learned how to give it to others in return.
He completed surgery and rehab for his knee, and decided to stay at SLU for the remainder of his college years. Coming back home also forced him look at himself; really look. “I realized I was having a great time at Indiana, partying, and it was time to come home,” he says. It was a choice that changed everything for Hayden. Had he stayed at Indiana, he might not even have attended business school. “I was never going to get into the business school [at Indiana] with my grades,” he says.
At SLU, he started with classes in entrepreneurship, which sparked his interest and creativity, and he eventually selected the program as his major. He then landed an internship with a sports marketing agency called Hoop it Up, which Hayden calls, “the fire that lit everything.” Upon graduating, he started working at UPS as a business development intern, and eventually worked his way up to head of Strategic Planning for the Missouri District, while still in his twenties. But still, Hayden wasn’t satisfied.
As a big, conservative company, UPS wasn’t the right match. “I don’t fit into very big or very conservative companies,” he says. “That wasn’t where my true path was.” After five years at UPS, Hayden went back to SLU for his MBA, and now he also teaches at his alma mater. He knows exactly what students must go through.
The capstone course at SLU has students prepare a business idea and pitch it to a room of actual investors at the end of the course. This not only gives students experience with pitching, but gives them potential access to seed funding right out of graduate school, if their idea lands. With so much riding on one presentation, one chance, the tension is heart-stopping. Hayden leans in closely and walks me through the process. “The student is pitching for their class grade…and maybe their college career,” he says. “It is intense. After all, if they receive an F from the judges, they are not walking at graduation.”
Of the thousands of students who have passed through the program, only around 20 have received A’s on the final project. Hayden was one of them. “You have to grow a thick skin,” he says.
Years earlier, when Hayden was young, he attended a baseball game with his father and uncle. While Hayden’s father took him to the concession stand, they missed what his uncle still calls “the best play he’d ever seen in his life,” Hayden recalls. “My dad still hates me because he never saw the play,” he says, with acerbic, self-deprecating sarcasm. But sarcasm or not, as a young boy, the experience stirred something in him.
Fast-forward to his late twenties, in the thick of SLU’s MBA program. Hayden built an entire business model that either consciously or subconsciously responded to his father’s angst, which also became his capstone project. He named it Vivid Sky, a business plan for a handheld device which fans could use to order food, watch instant replays, and communicate with other fans, all without leaving their seats. It was 2003, well before the global influx of mobile technology. In practice, this meant people like his father would never have to miss a play again.
His judges were the heads of marketing for the Cardinals, Rams, and Blues, a minority owner of the Cardinals, a minority owner of the Blues, and a couple of high-profile investors. “I nearly threw up before my presentation. I was already planning my speech to my parents on why I was not going to walk at graduation,” says Hayden. But his judges liked what they heard, and the Cardinals became his first client.
Vivid Sky ultimately wound up folding in 2009 when the economy fell apart, and the team hadn’t finished raising money to power the business. Even though it was a tough pill to swallow at the time, Hayden isn’t cynical, and it certainly hasn’t stopped him from starting other businesses. Currently, he is a partner and advisor at a sports fan app called Fanz Live, helped start two professional soccer teams in St. Louis, and also founded his own consulting firm, called the Stadia Group.
“I don’t view Vivid Sky as a failure,” he says. “It just wasn’t monetarily successful. But it was successful in my street-education, expanding my network, and opening up new possibilities.” He has also been able to pass on his experiences to his students; he knows what works and what doesn’t from first-hand experience. On one hand, Vivid Sky may have been a fiscal failure, but Hayden sees the direct benefit it actually has on his students, as he is able to teach them from the perspective of someone who has experienced an entrepreneur’s worst fear, and made it through.
“If it [goes badly], even better, because you’re going to learn more from that,” he says. From Hayden’s perspective, monetary success is nowhere near as relevant as the learning process … which is hard to believe, but the more he talks about it, the more it becomes clear this is how he truly feels. Focusing on the positives of a situation, rather than the negatives, is also one of his more effective coping mechanisms, which he passes along to the students he mentors. He knows how tough it is to get a business off the ground, and he knows how it feels when that doesn’t happen. But he also knows there’s a reason why it turned out that way.
His philosophy is hard to believe, especially given the lure of material wealth that does come with the territory when a company is successful. “The definition of success kind of changes. It’s not necessarily just about the money, it’s about, ‘What did you learn from everything?’” I tell him he has quite a bit of foresight. “No. I can barely get to the evening!” he says, laughing.
The kind of person who would focus more on learning from failure, rather than building businesses to make money, would also probably say something like this: “You have 24 hours in the day, and you can split it up however you want. In my case, I split it up very big on the family side of things, and focus on that side, knowing full well that’s the cornerstone. That’s the foundation to everything that follows.” Recently married, he mentions his wife several times, without being prompted. Balancing his business and personal life has always been what he calls his ultimate goal. “You always need that rock to pull back to, and that’s what I have,” he says.
But Hayden is also a man with a relentless passion to make it happen for other people with his experiences, connections, and knowledge. “I’ve actually started or helped start 7 different businesses in the past 10 years. So I’ve packed a lot of entrepreneurial punch into that decade. It allows me to come back here, along with all of the other adjuncts, to be able to say ‘here’s what we did. Here was the path, good and bad.’” Accordingly, Hayden’s new focus is passing the baton to the next generation.
“We have all this talent that we keep growing here in St. Louis, and people are suddenly realizing we need to keep it here. If we don’t, we lose the city as a whole. And that becomes our next AB … our next Monsanto.”
To that end, Hayden reveals an encouraging, yet surprising detail about how universities collaborate with each other in pursuit of a common goal. As an example, “WashU is tremendous in social ventures/non-profit businesses,” says Hayden. “So from St. Louis University’s perspective, we should be pushing some of our non-profit businesses over to them for their competitions. If suddenly they have 150,000 dollars in a competition, it would be such a disservice to our students to say, ‘No … stay at SLU.’”
That collaboration – not just amidst universities, but donors, practicing entrepreneurs, city government, and more – is what Hayden cites as primarily responsible for the advent of the new Midwestern Silicon Valley. “It takes everybody.”
Hayden has also long been a believer in Karma, a mentality that has also been a key factor in fueling the St. Louis technology and the start-up culture that has begun to take root here. “I’ve come to realize it more and more as I’ve gotten a little older. The more I can do for other people, it will come back tenfold.”
Although it feels like it has happened overnight, Hayden says it has actually been in the works for quite a while. It’s a welcome, exciting change, and from the perspective of an expert in the trenches, it’s really happening. The regeneration of our city is no longer just hopeful speculation. It’s real, and it’s happening right now all around us.
And from the kid who came back home from Indiana University to the man he is today, with a presence that extends far beyond himself, he still doesn’t entirely understand how it all happened.
“How do you do it all?” I ask.
“I don’t know. A lot of great people…a lot of great people,” he repeats.
I revise my question, adding on one word.
“How do you do it all successfully?”
“You don’t … it’s life.”
For more information about Tim Hayden, visit http://www.slu.edu/news-hayden_entrepreneurship-29