by Sam Huang
You’re logging in your tenth hour of work for the day as a startup founder. Or perhaps you’re still in school or employed at a job that excites you as much as watching paint dry. The idea of doing your own thing—running your own startup—is something you’ve dreamed of for ages. But you keep asking yourself: do you have what it takes to succeed? Can you make it as an entrepreneur?
For Lars Uffhausen, being an entrepreneur is about adapting and moving forward even when things don’t look so certain. When he left his native Germany to work as an intern for $7.50 an hour in Silicon Valley, he never imagined that he would run Wolfe Engineering as Chief Operating Officer by the next decade. While at Wolfe, he turned what had begun as a thirty-person job shop into a $110 million company. “I was given an opportunity and the team made it happen,” Lars said. In his spare time, he kept busy by founding other businesses.
When asked about what lessons he learned along the way, Lars had the following words for those entrepreneurs dreaming big:
Lesson #1: You have to focus on something bigger than just money—a vision which drives you personally.
You need to discover what are your personal drivers–your vision–that motivate you across life. When Lars received the offer to run Wolfe Engineering as COO, he took the offer “not because of the money but because of the challenge.” He wanted to prove that he could do it. As for Lars, he cited his personal drivers as a love of learning and a belief in making a difference for those around him. He jokingly calls it his tendency for “getting bored.” “It was never about becoming COO or CEO,” Lars said. “The lesson I learned is that when you create a company that is about money, you can easily get distracted and discouraged because it’s often hard to make money [in the beginning.] It needs to go beyond money with a focus on a greater vision and then the money comes automatically.”
Lesson #2: There are always ups and downs. If you’re afraid to be defeated, you will never be innovative.
As entrepreneurs, you need to start developing a tough skin. You need to learn to cope with failure and learn from it. When the 2009 great recession hit, Wolfe Engineering nearly went belly-up. It shrank from $110 million dollars to $10 million dollars in revenues basically over night. Lars had to make some tough decisions: he closed the business’s facilities in Texas and Taiwan, downsized the headquarters office, and laid off over three quarters of his employees. It was one of the most horrible experiences for Lars. Over time, Lars and his team was able to grow the company back up to its previous levels through not only hard work and creative strategy but also remaining optimistic: “With failure comes success,” he said. You have to be able to fail with the ability keep your enthusiasm, in order to become successful…I would regret that I haven’t done something more than I have failed.”
Lesson #3: If you don’t change, you become irrelevant.
If you want to grow a successful company, you need to adapt and innovate–not just focus on cost-cutting measures. When Lars became COO of Wolfe, the company was focused solely on manufacturing capital equipment for the semiconductor industry. However, the problem was that semiconductor technologies were changing every four years. This meant that Wolfe was always on its feet struggling to adapt. So Lars sought out to diversify the company across different industries with his team, branching out into other industries like renewable energy and cryogenics. What was the result? A more stable company optimized for long-term growth. “[Too many entrepreneurs] focus on cutting their cost instead of focusing on the return on investment,” Lars said. “What I call our “Walmart Society” doesn’t know how to innovate but knows how to cut cost, consume, discard, and recycle people.”
Lars is someone who you’d say has reached that elusive concept called the American dream. When asked about whether he viewed himself as successful, he recalled a story of a friend, who upon seeing his beautiful house, toys, and family, exclaimed in awe that he had “made it.” Lars, however, is shocked by the idea that somehow he has “made it.” His reaction is partly out of humbleness. But for the most part it reflects an insatiable hunger to create, invent, and reinvent. It’s that hunger—the love for creation in the face of uncertainty—that drives all entrepreneurs.
While Lars has since left Wolfe, he continues to run his other companies Simplicity in Sound and Microflare, Inc. as CEO and founder. Both companies have won top honors in their respective industries.