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Q&A with a Venture Mentor: Ric Leutwyler
Whether you're toying with a business concept in your head or you've already built a team and launched a venture, ASU provides a variety of opportunities to explore, share, test and advance your ideas while also serving as a connection to mentors and fund founders who can further propel your business goals. It’s what you can expect from a university that has been consistently ranked No. 1 in innovation by U.S. News & World Report.
Our ASU Venture Devils program supports all ASU students, faculty, staff and community-based entrepreneurs, giving them the community and tools they need to succeed. Recently, we sat down with one of our Venture Mentors, Ric Leutwyler, to learn more about his role and his view on what it takes to make the most out of the program.
How did you become involved as a Venture Mentor, and what is your business background?
I was introduced to Venture Devils by a fellow Venture Mentor and because I’d worked in some startups and had benefited from mentoring, I reached out. I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now and really enjoy it. I have worked for some of the largest companies in world, including AT&T before it broke up. I was with a private equity-backed company that grew through acquisition into a $22 billion organization and publicly-traded company. I’ve also been with really small, venture-backed companies and have launched my own small business for philanthropic purposes.
What has surprised you most about being a Venture Mentor at ASU?
What has surprised me most is the diversity in the goals of the individuals involved. I’ve run into founders who are working on philanthropic nonprofits, as well as founders who have been working toward new things in multiple industries, some based on service, some on products. There has been a range in the number of founders, from individuals to five-person teams, and so it’s been a great mix and I’ve enjoyed that. It’s been rewarding to see the progress of teams who invest in themselves. If nothing else, it has been interesting to watch them deal in their own way with the challenges and success that come with this kind of work.
What does your involvement as a Venture Mentor look like?
From an intensity and time standpoint, the general flow is that we’re supposed to meet for about an hour every other week during each semester. It’s not a fixed hour, so if you need it to be more regular you can, but in general we are looking for continued interaction so that the entrepreneurs don’t go too far off path. The time I’ve spent with them is quite varied in terms of quality and focus. Sometimes the entrepreneurs have prepared what they want to do, when and how, and I’m just trying to help them fine tune along the way. Other times, they really just have an idea, and I have to pull back and start from the beginning. The path is very individual to each team, which keeps things interesting.
What additional tools does the Venture Devils program offer to founders?
What has impressed me most is that the people behind Venture Devils have looked at things from a lot of different angles. They have networking opportunities for founders and mentors to get together, including with people who are investors and put money into the program. They have competitions where they encourage people to make their pitch, no matter what state their business is in, with some businesses being awarded real money to go and do things like build a website and develop contracts. They are putting all the pieces around it that it needs and trying to help everyone be successful through encouragement, mentorship and measurement. At the same time, there’s no pressure that says if you don’t do X, then you’re out of program. They recognize that these teams all move at a different pace.
How can ASU Online students participate in Venture Devils?
The program makes it easy for ASU Online students to participate. In some ways, they may even have an advantage, since their regular use of online resources and virtual instruction is well suited for the Venture Devils approach to communication and engagement. Presentation videos, entrepreneurship courses and supporting materials are all available online; mentors are accessible via phone calls and web conference; founders submit a recorded video presentation for consideration during pitch competitions; and feedback mechanisms are all online. These are just a few examples of the program’s forward-looking approach. As a business leader, I spent most of my career leading teams who were located in other cities, states and countries. As a mentor, I now meet with founders in very similar ways.
What have been some of the greatest successes from companies you’ve mentored?
I have seen some really strong founders take an idea to the point where they are starting to generate revenue and getting more investment, even outside ASU. They’re on a path to great to success, which is very cool to watch. The reality is that outside of ASU, 9 out of 10 startups fail for one reason or another. Venture Devils gives founders invaluable experience to take with them, whether they ever pursue something else entrepreneurial or not. Sometimes they discover they don’t want to be an entrepreneur, and that’s a valid learning, too!
What qualities do you think it takes to make it in the startup world?
The most important thing is perseverance. If you have the perseverance, you can find someone else to be the marketer, the developer — you can combine them all, but the startup process is just not easy. The number one thing is for someone to have the perseverance to understand they’ll run into problems. They’ll run into way more obstacles than they realize, but no matter what, they’ll keep pushing through. Not giving up is by far the number one criteria.