Gary Hoover’s Entrepreneurial Journey

By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Gary Hoover being interviewed by the Austin Business Journal's Colin Pope

Gary Hoover being interviewed by the Austin Business Journal’s Colin Pope

Few people romp and revel in business the way Gary Hoover does. He is a serial entrepreneur, he sold his bookstore chain—Bookstop—to Barnes and Noble for more than $40 million and later sold his online information service about enterprises–Hoover’s Online– for $117 million. But he’s been soaking himself in the business world since he was 12 and got his first subscription to Fortune magazine. It is both business and play. He spent his college years playing games he invented with friends based on running various businesses. He’s spent his adult life filling dozens of tiny notebooks with business ideas —most of which will never see the light of day. And his most recent venture, BigWig Games, is a series of computer games formatted for the iPad based on realistic operation of various businesses…all of which will eventually interact in multiple-player online games where the purveyors of one game serve the consumers of another.
Hoover was interviewed Tuesday morning by Austin Business Journal editor Colin Pope at the paper’s Face to Face event at Whole Foods Headquarters. Pope asked Hoover if any businesses had “blown him away” by their brilliance, innovation or beauty.
“I’m glad you said beauty,” Hoover responded in his gravelly voice. “Because I think that the great enterprises of the world are among mankind’s greatest inventions.” He went on to say that Whole Foods, which he watched grow up in Austin, was one such business.
“I saw people who were lifelong learners, who were committed to being the best,” Hoover said of Whole Foods beginnings. “(John Mackey) so passionately believed in what he’s doing…he’s a health food nut. He was a health food nut 30 years ago. Beautifully crafted enterprises are built to last and it’s a fundamental business, feeding people. It’s a beautiful thing in itself.”
So many entrepreneurs are focused on introducing the latest technology, he said, that they lose sight of the idea of building the kind of businesses people will always want and need. But the latest tech often becomes passé very quickly. Hoover remembered telling people in 1999 that the biggest Internet companies had yet to be invented, a statement met by incredulity: “What could ever be bigger than AOL?” He’d rather have a potato chip company, he said, than a computer chip company.
On the other hand, he acknowledged some of the most disruptive companies are ones the market doesn’t know it wants—like UPS and FedEx.
“One of the greatest American companies is UPS, it’s the world’s biggest transportation company. They were employee owned and they converted to a public company. The drivers make $80,000-to-$100,000 a year. I know a driver who has 13 kids and they all have health care until age of 26,” Hoover said. “And, there would be no Amazon without UPS .”
Since the age of 12, Hoover has studied everything he can get his hands on to understand where trends are going. Though he’s always been a slow reader, he still studies books and magazines…but mostly people. That’s how he decided that tablets were going to be the medium of choice for people consuming information, though his reading style prohibits him from using them for written material.
And it’s what tells him that investment in Mexico is looming huge on the horizon. With the growing Latin population in the U.S., he said “This is going to be a Latin country. It’s a done deal. That train has already left the station.” He leads tours of Mexico City and Monterrey to show people that reports of crime are greatly exaggerated while reports of the area’s economic potential are underplayed.
His predictions don’t always work out of course. One of Hoover’s businesses, TravelFest was a retail store that sold all things related to travel, from airline tickets to luggage to books. Then, one day, the airlines just stopped paying commissions on airline tickets and the business began to plummet.
Hoover had to borrow a million dollars, sell his house and take out a personal loan to make payroll that week.
“I’ve never had an exit plan,” he said, and he’s not inspired when an entrepreneur brings him an idea that has an exit plan in a few years.
“I’m 62 and students ask me ‘How do you know when it’s time to quit?’ I tell them you have to go talk to another teacher.”
As far as he’s concerned the most crucial characteristic of a successful entrepreneur is passion. The most important and costly investment an entrepreneur makes in a business is the investment of heart and emotion. Without that a business can’t succeed; and focus on making money won’t do it. It has to go deeper. For a real entrepreneur, even if your business fails, it’s worth it to find a new business to put the heart and emotion into.
With respect to TravelFest, he didn’t see the airline’s decision coming. Would he fall into a trap like that again? “Probably,” he said. “I hope so.”

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