Beyond the Pitch

I Learned to be an Entrepreneur by Teaching High School Physics

My career as an entrepreneur began right after college when I signed on to teach high school physics at Frederick High School in Frederick, MD.

My job was to bring advanced placement physics (AP)—one of the most challenging subjects going—to a bunch of high school kids.

People look at me kind of funny when I say that it was my experience teaching physics that truly prepared me to become an entrepreneur.

But it’s absolutely true.

In “reverse” David Letterman order, here’s what I learned.

#5 Boil It Down

In basic physics, there are two things to understand. Newton’s Laws and the conservation of energy. Anyone who truly understand those concepts, can start with any challenge and create a framework for solving it. You don’t have to master calculus.

When I taught projectile motion (another aspect of gravity) at Frederick High, we’d go out on football field and shoot water balloons at each other. The kids used stop watches and measured how far a balloon went and how long it was in the air.

They had a blast and all of a sudden they got the concept in a way they never would have by working a calculus problem at a desk.

It’s the same thing starting a company.

There are one or two things you have keep in front of you at all times. The client has a problem; you have a solution. They know their problem. You know your solution. You have to figure out how to match them up to make the concept real.

In physics class, you have to get out of the classroom. In business, you have to get out with the people whose problems you are trying to solve.

#4: The NO A__hole Rule*

In education, I had to teach any kid that got put in my class. I had to deal with all the staff. I had to deal with all the parents and the scrutiny of community. (I was young guy with progressive ideas that ticked people off.)

I learned that I couldn’t let anyone else’s behavior dictate what I did next.

To survive in a culture that was this challenging, I couldn’t shy away from confrontation. I had to deal with issues, then wipe the slate clean. I couldn’t let a jerk dictate how I behaved the rest of the day.

In school, when the bell rings, you can start over. Thirty students go out; 30 new students come in. When your job is teaching kids, you get to start over many times a day.

It’s similar for entrepreneurs.

First, we have the opportunity to build a civilized workplace from day one. We can start out with a no a__hole rule. At our companies, we had people read the book. We talked about what it meant to us—not allowing our behavior to negatively impact another person’s day. It wasn’t tolerated. We were named one of the best places to work in Central Ohio.

Second, things are always changing in a startup. The bell rings. You get to start over. The most important thing when you are building a company is hiring the right people. The second most important firing the wrong ones. There’s a bus for everyone but a startup culture isn’t necessarily it.

When the bell rings, entrepreneurs get to move on.

#3 Get on the Bus

In Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about attitude over skill. In physics or business, good values and good attitudes are far more important than the specific skill sets individuals may have.

Collins says that getting the right people on the bus is the starting point. Then you can decide where to take the bus.

In AP Physics, we got the right kids on the bus—kids who wanted to be part of a transformation at Frederick High.

There was this one kid who was inspired to be part of the physics group. He didn’t necessarily have the aptitude for physics, but with his attitude, he certainly belonged on the bus.

He learned by focusing on the concepts—no way he was going to use calculus to solve equations—but he was definitely an active participant, and today he’s a really successful EMT.

In the same class, I had another kid who had perfect SAT score. He topped out in my hardest AP section in tenth grade. This kid yelled out every time I made a mistake in class.

But he also belonged on the bus—after we taught him some social skills. He’s a PhD now, was on the team that created the software language Python, and is presently doing research in marine biology.

The same thing happened for me in business. I have two people in mind. One was a brilliant kid straight out of college. You could tell that he would run a company some day; he just needed experience.

Then there was this other fellow. He was a great person, but at the end of the day in every position we gave him, he couldn’t succeed.

We kept moving this second guy from seat to seat. Finally, we put him in a support role. We bought a small company in Chicago. He rented a truck, tripped back and forth, and got them all settled in.

He became our internal project go-to-guy and added so much to our culture and our success. It wasn’t the same as the other employee who created solutions that created profitability. But this second one cared so much and bought into our business so completely, he also belonged on the bus.

Our company was named one of the best places in Central Ohio to work. That’s because we got the right people on the bus and then put them in the right seats.

#2 Find the Love.

Newton’s law of universal gravitation—that all objects attract each other—is a simple equation, but it’s really hard to get your arms around.

In college, we learned gravity by replicating the Cavendish experiment to measure and see the force of gravity in the lab. It required a really sensitive apparatus with a horse hair as a pendulum.

My high school classes were never going to be able to do the Cavendish experiment. They were never going to say, “Wow, look at that, I can see gravity happening.” It was always going to be about the concept, not the equation.

So, I explained the concepts of gravity by talking about the equation of love—how anything with mass is attracted and attracts. How if we were in an empty space, we would start to accelerate toward each other until, through that force of attraction, we became one.

My students were high school juniors and seniors. They were dating and trying to figure all that out, falling in and out of love. The boys acted like it was gross; the girls were enamored.

Either way, they all found the love in gravity and all got the concept.

It’s the same in business.

The companies that I started were software-based. Sometimes software can be pretty mundane. We found the love in signing up clients, in really understanding them, and in figuring out how to help them transform their companies, by saving time or making money.

We treated our clients’ desired outcomes as something to cherish. That was our mutual attraction. That was our gravitational pull.

And the #1 thing I learned…

#1: Go Team.

Our goal at Frederick High was to grow AP physics. When we started we had only six kids enrolled. They were bright as heck, ultra-nerds who didn’t really fit in anywhere else.

By the third year, we had 60 kids in the program, a 10X return; we were tops in the region.

That didn’t happen because students suddenly had some epiphany about physics. In fact, when I was talking to kids about enrolling in my class, I hardly talked about physics at all.

Instead, I challenged them to be part of something bigger, something great—a vision for being part of a transformation at Frederick High, just by taking the AP high school class.

As a founding entrepreneur of a company, there is so much to do. People have to accomplish great things, heroic things, things they aren’t qualified for—things that by every right they should not be able to do.

But when they have a shared vision, of where things are heading—that they are building a great company together and a great place to work, they can beat the odds.

When an individual feels connected that way, he or she can do powerful things.

In Conclusion

Teaching physics was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I learned to be a role model for the behavior that I expected. I learned that everyone wants to be part of something bigger than themselves.

I learned how to become an entrepreneur.

*With credit to The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t, by Robert I Sutton.
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