The optimism of a successful entrepreneur

December 9, 2011

Ballast Point Ventures’ 2011 Annual Meeting featured keynote speaker Scott Rasmussen, co-founder of ESPN and founder and president of Rasmussen Reports, an independent media company specializing in the collection, publication and distribution of public opinion polling information.

Scott Rasmussen (center right) flanked by D.Graham (R), P.Johan (L), and members of the BPV team.

Mr. Rasmussen recounted how he and his father Bill founded ESPN in 1979, and differences in raising capital then and now.  After being turned down by several potential investors, they successfully pitched Getty Oil (!) to back the venture – specifically, the division in charge of “non-oil operations.”  It didn’t take long for the corporate and entrepreneurial cultures to clash, and as a result the partnership did not endure as a long term relationship.  (The venture capital industry has come a long way since 1979, to the benefit of all…)

The story includes tales of adaptability and serendipity.  Their original idea was to create a cable television network covering only Connecticut sports, but upon learning it would be cheaper to purchase a continuous 24-hour feed on the “new” satellite technology than to send the signal for a few hours via landlines, they pivoted, installed satellite dishes on a grassed-over dump in Bristol, CT, used a credit card to lease space on RCA’s Satcom 1, and began broadcasting any and all sports throughout the entire nation.  Their content breakthrough came via the NCAA, from whom they negotiated the rights to broadcast 18 different sports, including (critically) the early years of “March Madness.”  Soon thereafter Anheuser-Busch agreed to the largest (at the time) advertising contract in cable television history.  Yet, advertising revenue was still not enough to make the business model work so they pioneered the practice of charging subscription fees to cable companies.

Mr. Rasmussen subsequently applied his entrepreneurial expertise to the field of market research, developing automated telephone survey techniques that provide reliable data at a fraction of the cost required for traditional operator-assisted surveys.  His techniques not only conduct traditional research in a less-expensive manner, they have led to the development of new research applications not possible with traditional, operator-assisted polling techniques.  The company’s frequent and large sample research yields less volatile results and enables more precise measurement of narrow demographic segments of the population.   

Mr. Rasmussen is frequently cited in the national media for the accuracy with which he has predicted political races, including both the 2004 and 2008 presidential contests to within a percentage point.  As a result of this, several attendees used the Q&A session to ask him to handicap the current political environment.  The most intriguing answers relied on data in his polling that indicate the major division in the country is no longer between parties but between political elites and the people:  67% of the “political class” believes the country is moving in the right direction, while a full 84% of “mainstream voters” believe it is moving in the wrong direction.   From this finding he made two points about the current election cycle:

  1. An online effort to nominate a third party candidate is growing.  Their goal: to allow the American people to directly nominate their own candidate (“Pick a president, not a party”), with running mate from a different party, and then put this “Americans Elect” ticket on the ballot nationwide.
  2. Whichever candidate can best give voice to the widely-held sense among those mainstream voters that “we’re losing our country, losing what makes us exceptional” will win.

As an addendum, Mr. Rasmussen posited a theory about a “time lag” in American political movements.  What we often see as a catalytic event or trigger is in reality a culmination of 15-20 years of change.  Political leaders are generally slow to understand and process the citizenry’s desire for change and craft effective electoral responses.  What appears to be “leadership for change” may oftentimes more closely resemble getting out in front of the parade. 

Scott remains fundamentally optimistic about the country’s ability to eventually overcome its challenges.  The current angst has been building for some time, and at some point we will collectively solve our problems – but there is no guarantee that it will happen in 2012 or be without some rough seas. 

Which, when we think about it, sounds very much like the optimism of a successful entrepreneur.

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