A conversation with Pierre Lassonde and his advice to three student entrepreneurs

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

In 2021, we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute—and the remarkable vision of Pierre Lassonde, who conceived the idea for this incredible hub for student innovation at the University of Utah. In this conversation, Pierre reflects on the past 20 years and outlines what’s next for the Lassonde Institute. You’ll also hear from three student entrepreneurs about their startup ideas and hear the advice Pierre shared with them. Recorded on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Original music by Taylor Hartley.


President Ruth Watkins: Hello, I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah. I am thrilled about today's episode. Why am I thrilled? Because we have remarkable, special guests with us and we have the opportunity to celebrate and recognize a very important milestone at the University of Utah.

The Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary. It is truly remarkable what has happened at the University of Utah because of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute. We are known as top 10 in the nation for entrepreneurship. The Lassonde Institute is at the center of that recognition.

I'm delighted today to have a very special guest—Pierre Lassonde, an alum of the David Eccles School of Business, a very successful entrepreneur himself, and it is his vision that we're going to talk about today, the vision that has been realized at the University of Utah. Pierre, warmest welcome to you!

Pierre Lassonde: Well, thank you so much, Ruth. And it's such a pleasure to be here on this podcast with you and celebrate. Thank you.

President Watkins: Well, so much good has happened because of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, dedicated to helping our students learn about entrepreneurship, about innovation and about how they can make the world a better place with their big ideas. Today, we have three students with us who are participating in the program—Austin Birch, Will Pepper and Tiff Polmateer. Welcome to all of you!

Austin Birch: Thank you.

William Pepper: Hello.

Tiff Polmateer: Hello. Thanks for having us.

President Watkins: It's great that you could be with us. And I think we'll start with you, Pierre. As we prepare to celebrate this big milestone, 20 years of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute at the University of Utah, tell us about what this milestone means to you. You had a vision for what could happen at the U some 20 years ago. Give us a little history and tell us what comes to mind as you think about this really remarkable celebration of 20 years.

Pierre Lassonde: Yeah. I can tell you that it is an incredible feeling, and I would liken it to when your child goes to university and that feeling of accomplishment. And you've... he's grown, and he or she has developed and now is entering university. And for me, it's a bit like this. The program started after we—both my wife and I left, she did nuclear engineering at a university, and I was doing my MBA. And as a way to think about giving back, we said, "Well, why don't we create a program that marries the both of them and gives the student an entrepreneurial experience."

So, from the very get-go, the whole idea was something by the students, with the students, for the students. It was about a student experience of entrepreneurship. As you know, we started very small. One of my fondest sayings is when you don't know what you're doing, do it small, do it short term. So, we started it small. How can we make this grow? Are we going to get traction from the staff, from the professors, from the researchers, are we going to get traction from the students? And sure enough, after a number of years, we started to get the traction, and then it just got better and better.

And I have to say that people . . . one of my other sayings is, you know, good people make good things happen. And this program would not be where it is without Troy D'Ambrosio, who has been the heart and soul of this program from Day One. And he has done such an unbelievable job. And also, I must say, all of the presidents, including yourself, Ruth, and all your predecessors, have been huge supporters of this program. And the University of Utah made this possible because the presidents have given us their support, but also because the university is a place where you find flexibility and creativity, and that has given the program the space to grow.

And also, you've pushed us. I mean, I still remember one of your predecessors saying to me, "Well, Pierre, that's nice. You've got a few hundred students, but what are you going to do for me next, okay?" And we came up with the Lassonde Studios, and then we said to ourselves, "How are we going to infect the university with the entrepreneurship bug?" And we designed new programs to do that. And then, not too long ago, we said, "Okay, we’ve got to push this forward. And how can we be the best in the country, if not the best in the world?"

And that's when we came up with the MBC, the Master of Business Creation, which to my mind is the best new business program since the MBA was invented a hundred years ago. So, to be proud is not even—doesn't even start to say how incredibly pleased I am and of the relationship and all the possibilities that we've given to all the students. So, it's a great day for me, no question.

President Watkins: Well, Pierre, pretty remarkable because I think some principles that you just offered there are incredibly wise. One of them, starting small, think about a pilot, figure out what you're doing, with a way to create a big vision. And then, the people that will join you, help you along the way in making this a reality—pretty remarkable, I would say. And in fact, it has been achieved with the high rankings and recognition that the University of Utah now enjoys because of that big vision and that ambitious pilot at the start. I think, students, we'd like to hear from you a little bit about what you think sets the Lassonde Institute apart from others and how this is working for you. So, Austin, maybe you'd like to start and give us a little of your perspective.

Austin Birch: Absolutely. Thank you, president. I feel like I have a bit of an interesting take, given that I've only been in Lassonde for a couple of months. I'm a freshman here. I only got back into the country a couple of months ago, let alone to get into university.

So Lassonde has been a refreshing change from what I was expecting. I had a friend a couple of years ahead of me who lived at Lassonde for three and a half years, was on the student board, and did a number of other leadership opportunities within Lassonde. And he raved nonstop about how much Lassonde had helped him and had helped push his business along. And, in fact, he's doing about the same thing that I am doing—an entertainment and DJ company. So, I feel like I'm almost following in his footsteps as I get into Lassonde as a freshman and hopefully continue to live at Lassonde for as long as possible.

Further, I've been given the amazing opportunity to be a member of the Lassonde Founders Program, which is, much like Pierre mentioned, a small pilot program. It's something that Lassonde is just putting out right now. It's a small cohort of students who have previous entrepreneurial experience, and Lassonde has allowed about 25 of us, or 30 of us or so, to gather together and to work as a group to help develop each other's ongoing and new business ideas. We've seen everything from marketing agencies to pandemic-tinged software development studios to fashion lines to entertainment companies, like what I'm doing. We're seeing a huge hodgepodge mess of ideas being thrown together, and we're creating something amazing out of it.

President Watkins: So, Austin, you have highlighted one really important thing, and that is how much the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute has helped us recruit the best people at the University of Utah, and, wow, for a freshman, I got to say, hats off to you.

Tiff, let's hear a little bit of your story.

Tiff Polmateer: Sure. Thank you. Well, I am a student in the second cohort of the MBC program, and I'll be graduating this May. And to be honest with you, I'm an older student, right? And I was at a point in my life, I've got two kids, I really wasn't considering going back to school at all, honestly. And I had just left a really fulfilling career to step out on my own as a founder. And I was seeking resources that were going to help me with that endeavor. And I just saw a LinkedIn ad for this new program, MBC, and after a little bit of research, I realized that this is really a very special program. It's not this ordinary higher-ed type master's program. It is just an abundance of resources. And because of the great scholarship programs that we have, it's really not taking anything from us bootstrapping founders.

So, I said, "Man, this is just the perfect program for true founders, for true startup founders." And I would say that my favorite part of the program so far has really been the support of the mentors. There's a great cast of characters in the program. Troy, as you mentioned, and so many others. And then, of course, just the other founders in the program, in the cohort, you know, we all go through similar pains as we're starting businesses. And we all have some wins that we want to celebrate. And we have this group that's just become this beautiful thing where we can celebrate together, share best practices. It really makes the whole concept of entrepreneurship seem much less lonely. That's been a great, great experience so far.

President Watkins: We're glad you joined us, Tiff, and you must be, in fact, a really fabulous entrepreneur because I've gotten some idea of how competitive it is to be chosen for the Master of Business Creation Program. William, tell us about you.

William Pepper: So, I'm currently a junior in the business school, and my journey to Lassonde was a bit different because I didn't even know what Lassonde was until my second year of college. I was in my entrepreneurship class, and I had this idea for my business, but I had no money to start it. And then, my teacher was telling me about this program at Lassonde called Get Seeded. I was like, "You know what, if I really want to do this, I should just put myself out there and apply and just see what happens because I have no money. And this is going to be a great way to prove to myself and to others that I'm capable of winning, and I'm not just some college kid that doesn't know what I'm doing." So, I applied to Get Seeded and I actually won the first time, surprisingly.

And that was kind of my foot in the door to Lassonde. And from there, I joined Company Launch, and I applied to every single other competition. And so far, we’ve won a couple and we lost a lot, but that's kind of how you learn. And thanks to Lassonde, I've met so many people, other entrepreneurs, who are doing their own companies and they've been a great resource to me, as well as Troy and yourself and everybody else. So, I think the main thing is that I'm not even living there, but the fact that I'm able to join and have my own office and join these competitions is the real reason why I'm able to do this.

President Watkins: I think that's great. And we've met before, I think, William, talking about your business venture. So, maybe we'll just do a quick, rapid-fire round of you three students. And then I'm going to give you a chance to ask Pierre a question because I think that would be interesting for you to be able to talk about what you'd like to hear from Pierre. William, why don't you start and tell us a little bit about your business venture in Parq, because I do happen to know a little bit about that because we've talked about it before.

William Pepper: Yeah. So Parq is a parking app, obviously. And it kind of started out . . . I'm a very cheap person. I don't like paying for the parking permit. I don't know why I'm telling you this, but I don't like paying for the parking permit! And then I were parking at random places around the U and that ended up, I got 10 tickets, which cost more than the actual parking permit, so then I was like, "Man, I probably should buy the permit."

So then, I bought the permit and I found out that I still couldn't park, especially during the morning. And then I realized that there's so many empty parking spaces around the U, around 7-Eleven, these homes. And I was like, "Oh, maybe if I can just park there and then pay them." And that's kind of when Parq was born. I was looking it up and there's no app currently out there that works really well. So, I pitched at Get Seeded, and we won that first one, and I found my partner, who is a very talented developer, and we created this app called Parq. It's a peer-to-peer parking app where home and business owners can rent out their unused parking spaces.

President Watkins: So, the conversation between William and me began because he came and thought maybe the president's house should sell out some of its parking spots.

William Pepper: Right.

President Watkins: That was a bit genius, but I wasn't a hundred percent sure if I could do that or not, but I got to hand it to William for creative thinking! And it is an issue we hear a lot about from students. Austin, tell us about Argus Entertainment.

Austin Birch: Absolutely. So, like President Watkins mentioned, I am the founder of Argus Entertainment. And Argus Entertainment is a concert production and DJ service company, primarily focused within the Northern Utah area, but we are willing to travel, and I have done so before for various events. Argus Entertainment has been a bit of a long time coming. It grew out of a twelve-year-old Austin's dream of being the next superstar DJ. The next David Guetta, the next Martin Garrix, just like any young kid, has a dream of becoming a world-famous superstar.

But after a couple of years of my parents knocking on the empty head up here and telling me that probably wasn't very likely, I decided to just keep deejaying for fun and just as a hobby, something I could do for fun, with the bare bones, maybe $200 of gear that I had invested in. At a local high school prom, I met a local group of professional DJs who taught me the art of mixing, of emceeing events, of learning how to work with gear and how everything fits together to run a business. This is also actually where I met the fellow who got me introduced to Lassonde a couple of years ago, that same DJ.

And thus, a couple of years later, Argus Entertainment was born. It started as a bedroom project of a 16-year-old. I eventually shut the company down when I went to go leave the country and live in the UK for a couple of years. And we have just relaunched Argus Entertainment less than a week ago. So, although it started small, Argus Entertainment has grown into a full-featured entertainment company specializing in weddings. We’ve done everything from small intimate, 35-person weddings—those are very common amongst COVID restrictions right now—but in past years, we've done events up to about 7,000 people or 6,000 people. So, we've done everything from small to large and everything in between.

President Watkins: Thank you so much, Austin. And Tiff, tell us about what you're up to with your MBC project.

Tiff Polmateer: Sure. So, I'm building an app that matches people who need their vehicles moved somewhere but just can't do it themselves or don't want to do it. And the idea was born about 12 years ago. I was bartending in Colorado, and I just observed so many people who would sit there and drink a lot and then drive away. And it just kind of broke my heart to watch this unfold. And there wasn't really anything I could do about it. People would always say, "Well, I just don't have another way home, and I can't leave my car here."

And so, I just thought that was such a lame excuse. So why not create a business that just moves you and your car. And that's where it stemmed from. But as I've explored this with my mentors, there's many, many other times where you just might need your car moved and you can't do it yourself, or you don't want to. For example, imagine you're running late to the airport to catch a flight. Why not drive yourself, park in short-term parking, and then just have a driver team come, fetch your car, and bring it back home for you?

So, there's lots of little cases like that—the car garage as well. And over the last 18 months, I've been developing my app. I have a working version that I'd consider kind of a V1. And I'm just cleaning up those last few bugs to get on the app store. So probably in January of next year, we'll actually be on the app store and launched. And it's been just such a wild ride and so fun to have the support of the MBC crew as I prep for launch.

President Watkins: Sounds exciting! Now, students, let's give you a chance to hear from a wise guide and advisor. Pierre, questions, comments, thoughts from you on these students' ideas?

Pierre Lassonde: Listening to the ideas and having looked at them a little bit before, I am always impressed at human creativity. All of the doomsday sayers about the future that it's going to be darker and all. You don't believe that for one second! When I listened to these young people and all that creativity that comes out, and it gets better and better because yeah, they start with one small idea ,and just start small, don't put too much money, and then it grows.

And sometimes what happens is it grows in directions you did not expect at all, just like was mentioned a second ago. The whole idea was from bartending, but then all of a sudden someone says, "Well, what about running late at the airport? And what can you do?" And then the idea keeps growing. And that's where you get the expansion. All of a sudden, the business goes from X to 10X, and I find that fantastic.

President Watkins: I couldn't agree with you more, Pierre. And it is so encouraging to see the talent and the creativity of our students and to know that Lassonde Institute has given our students a way to take those ideas up and out into the world. So, students, here's your chance to ask a question to Pierre. And so, maybe it's Tiff, we should start with you this time. Let's give you a chance . . . what would you like to know from this superstar entrepreneur and innovator?

Tiff Polmateer: Yeah. Pierre, thank you again, just for everything. And before I ask my question, I would just like to say thank you for supporting the MBC program. As a founder, again, I just can't stress enough how precious resources are. Education is a resource, but it costs money. And as founders, we just don't have a lot of excess capital a lot of times. And so having a program like this that is accelerated and then also doesn't take resources from us—it truly just gives and gives. It's just been a wonderful opportunity.

I would just say, do you have any advice for those of us who are just getting ready to launch as you think about that process of really getting out in the world? I guess, what would you share with us?

Pierre Lassonde: Well, you mentioned something about mentors, and it is one of the keys to young entrepreneurs is. I call them, and I've had a number of them over the years, that I call—it's an Italian term—consigliere. But to me, it means so much more than just, I guess, what the Italian version is. It’s not only a mentor but it's a trusted advisor because as an entrepreneur, you do have to take no for an answer. To succeed against all odds, you got to be a bit of a knucklehead.

But at the same time, you have to have that ability to listen to these trusted advisors that will tell you, "Well, have you thought about this? And if you were to do this, have you thought about that?" That they're not telling you what to do, they're telling you what to think about. And that is probably one of the keys, whether you're about to launch or whatever you're going to do in business. But that, to me, has been one of the keys to my success, and also having a partner who is sort of like the yin and the yang has also been very important.

President Watkins: Very wise advice.

Tiff Polmateer: Thank you.

President Watkins: William, let's hear from you. What would you like to know from Pierre?

William Pepper: Yeah. So, I just want to start off by saying thank you, too. Lassonde has been a great resource. It's honestly changed my life for the better. When I came into the U, I didn't even get in. I got rejected, actually, because I was a terrible high school student. I came in as an underdog. And then now, having Lassonde, I've been able to really work in something that I believe in and really change the narrative around my life kind of.

And my question is right now with Parq, we launched our app last month on the Google and Apple Play Store, and we're getting users right now. We're partnering up with 7-Eleven and multiple sports complexes all over Utah. And my question for you is, should we really focus on scaling and getting a foothold into Utah first? Or should we... how should we scale? Or should we go to different cities? Or should we just focus on Utah first?

Pierre Lassonde: Well, another principle that I've held dear in everything I've done is the 80/20. 80% of the results come from 20% of what you do. So, when you look at your app, and you look at where is it the most used, where is... there's got to be 20% of the users that end up providing 80% of the revenue. Where is that? And that's where you’ve got to concentrate. Focus, focus, focus. Those are the keywords is 80/20. Where is that 20% that gives you that 80% of the revenue? And if it's local, if it's regional, if it's national, that's where you’ve got to focus.

William Pepper: Okay. Yeah. So currently, right now everything's local.

Pierre Lassonde: Well, yeah, but it's got to be broken down locally. Is it local around the beer stores, or is it around the churches? Where is it around? Again, segregate your markets and try to find out where is that 20% of users that gives you 80% of revenue.

William Pepper: Okay.

President Watkins: As I'm listening to Pierre, I’m thinking about how that applies to the university, and there are elements of that that apply very much to what the university does.

Austin, what would you like to ask, Pierre, our wise guide today?

Austin Birch: I'll have to pile my thanks on top of William's, on top of Tiffs. Thank you, Pierre.  Both your funding and your experience as an entrepreneur yourself is providing the rest of us with the foundation to start our own ideas and to change the world one generation ahead of you now. So, thank you for that.

With that being said, if you could travel back in time to Day One of your first venture, your first startup, your first day as an entrepreneur, if you will. And if you had 15 minutes to talk to your former self and communicate any lessons you've acquired since then, with the intention of saving yourself heartaches and mishaps as such, what would you tell yourself? If you only had 15 minutes?

Pierre Lassonde: You know, same thing that I just said a minute ago, which has been one of the principles that I've had since I was a teenager, and it's focus, focus, focus. What are you good at? And we always have the quality of our faults or vice versa. There are things we're not good at. I'm not a detail person. I'm a big picture individual. I've got a mild case of ADD. So, I'm attention deficit. I cannot stand, you know, on this ... but I'm laser focused. When I have something to do, I have to be laser focused, otherwise, I lose track of it.

So, to me, focus is the big thing. And if you look at my career, even in the mining business, I've concentrated on one thing and one thing alone, which is the royalty business. And even though I'm successful, people come to me, "Well, you should do this. You should do that." And I say, "No, the thing that I know best is this one." And today we're the largest company in the world, but that's because we focused. And if you're focused and you're the best, people we'll figure it out and real fast.

President Watkins: Well, Pierre, thank you for your generosity in so many ways and in offering advice to these young entrepreneurs.

About three years ago now, we got together and spent President's Day, if I recall correctly, in a little bit of a visioning session of where Lassonde might go next. And now, today, we're seeing some of the outcomes of that from Lassonde+X and the Master of Business Creation that are now happening. So, it's kind of miraculous to think that was just three years ago, that those ideas were kind of being hatched and are now launched. I can't help but wonder what's next? Any thoughts or ideas from you about what you see happening next in this journey of entrepreneurship at the University of Utah?

Pierre Lassonde: Well, we're discussing this very topic, Ruth, Troy and Taylor, not too long ago. And the idea would be to how can we take the MBC, how can we put it on the world scale? And I have been talking to a couple of universities in Europe and I know that Taylor and Troy have been also talking to some universities in the United States. And the idea is how can we take that MBC and really develop it at the equivalent of the MBA? We have the trade name. It belongs to Utah, okay? And I think that is the next step, to essentially bring back to the University of Utah the very best world entrepreneurs and not just from Utah, not just from the United States, but literally from the world, bring them into the MBC and make them part of the tradition of the University of Utah. So, I'm looking forward to the next 20 years. I think that there's no reason why we cannot be No. 1 in the world.

President Watkins: I love that vision, Pierre, and I want to do my part to help make that happen. What you have done at the University of Utah has really put us on the map in entrepreneurship. We are so grateful. We're a better university for it. And the next 20 years of taking this story of the University of Utah into international leadership—what an opportunity for us at the U! Thank you so much for your generous support, Pierre.

Pierre Lassonde: Thank you, Ruth, and thank you for having me.

President Watkins: Students, thank you—Austin, Tiff, William. We're really proud of you. We're so glad you chose the University of Utah, and we're really grateful to the Lassonde Institute for being part of what attracted your talent to us. So good wishes as you wrap up this semester.

Listeners, thank you so much for being with us today for the U Rising podcast and I hope you'll tune in for the next episode. Thanks, and best wishes to everyone.