Business & Economy Georgia Impact

Pointers for startups from UGA’s new innovation mentor

David Salyers (Photo by Aaron Coury)

David Salyers will deliver a Signature Lecture about entrepreneurship and innovation on Oct. 24

Success in the realm of startups and innovation is not easy. No one knows that better than David Salyers, a co-founder and board member of several startup companies and a former marketing executive at Chick-fil-A. Salyers delivers a Signature Lecture about entrepreneurship and innovation on Oct. 24 as UGA’s first Startup Mentor in Residence.

Salyers, as the startup mentor, is a champion for innovation and entrepreneurship at UGA. He will speak and meet with faculty and students on campus to provide expertise, new insights and encouragement for those looking to start new businesses and nonprofit ventures, or to otherwise commercialize their inventions and ideas. This role builds on the growing support system for faculty and student entrepreneurs through the Innovation Gateway and the Entrepreneurship Program.

“David has a huge range of experience in innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Ian Biggs, director of UGA Startups at Innovation Gateway. “To sit in a room and talk with him about starting successful businesses is fascinating and—I don’t use this word lightly—inspiring.”

As Salyers tells it, he went to work for Chick-fil-A just four hours after graduating from UGA’s Terry College of Business in 1981. That was back when the fast food chain was just getting off the ground. Over the following 30-plus years, he was part of the front-office team that helped the chain grow to what it is today. As an entrepreneur, Salyers has helped launch businesses and nonprofits including ROAM Innovative Workplace and Champion Tribes.

Before his visit to campus, we posed several questions to Salyers on his experience with innovation and entrepreneurship.

What strengths do you think faculty bring when it comes to entrepreneurship?

Salyers: There are many strengths. One is that they bring disciplined thinking. A lot of entrepreneurs tend to be creative and think outside of the box. But all of that has to be backed up by good research and a thoughtful approach.

So, on a university campus, the faculty bring experience, disciplined thinking and research. And then students bring that creative thinking that breaks the rules. The combination of those two can be really powerful.

In your experience, what is the key ingredient to becoming a successful innovator or entrepreneur?

Salyers: Passion is the first one that comes to mind. You’re going to have to go through a series of defeats, so you have to have that passion to persevere. Entrepreneurship is a fourth-quarter game. You have to make it all the way through the fourth quarter; you can’t quit at half time. That is something that entrepreneurs need to understand. It is not an easy life, and there are so many defeats along the way to get to the prize.

The percentage of startup failures is high (90% by some estimates). What do entrepreneurs get wrong when starting a business?

Salyers: Your business is going to fail if you don’t focus on the needs of your customers. I think a lot of people start a business as a “get rich” scheme, and they don’t consider what value they can bring to the people they serve. But if you take the mentality that you’re here to enrich the lives of others, there’s an unlimited amount of what you can do, and people are attracted to that. People want to join with you.

Of course, 100% of businesses exist to make money, no exceptions. Everyone needs to make money. But the point is that great businesses have a mission beyond just a need to exist. They are doing something valuable that the world needs.

You’ve spent the last couple of months learning more about the university’s Innovation District Initiative.  What are you most excited about as you dig into this part of our university?

Salyers: I remember when we decided to make innovation be part of the DNA at Chick-fil-A. We created a space, the Chick-fil-A Innovation Center, to cultivate the skills and attract the talent to become more innovative. What I’m seeing at the university is that they’re basically creating the same thing for not only the people on campus but for other businesses and community members. UGA is already strong in this area, but by creating that space it almost becomes the factory to be able to produce this element of your DNA.

The theme that runs through everything that I’m doing now is helping other people experience work differently. How do I help other people create jobs so that they love what they do, who they do it with, the mission that they’re on, and who they’re becoming in the process?

That message is why I’m excited about working with UGA. To be able to do that at my alma mater is heaven on earth!

UGA Signature Lecture: David Salyers

Thursday, Oct. 24, 12:30-1:30

Jackson Street Building, Room 125