La Jolla CEO shoots from the hip in new book loaded with biz lessons
By Steven Mihailovich
When you walk into the La Jolla Shores office of Neil Senturia’s investment company, Blackbird Ventures, there’s a sign above his desk that sticks out like a bright, floral-patterned gown at a funeral. The sign contains four simple words in two sentences. “F**k you. Pay me.”
Is it supposed to be funny? A warning? Perhaps a mission statement? Like beauty itself, the meaning lies in the eye of the beholder, but it speaks volumes about the owner.
Senturia is a hard-bitten, straight-talking, painfully honest, eminently practical man. His gaunt face, large eyeglasses, lean, almost frail, physique belie a tough interior, essential in his almost 30 years in business. He’s that special sort of businessman: the entrepreneur.
Senturia wasn’t always thus. He said he began his career in Hollywood in the 1970s as a writer, creating scripts for hit TV sitcoms like “MASH,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” and “Alice,” among others, before his entrepreneurial streak eventually took hold.
Senturia combined his two prodigious talents – entrepreneurship and writing – to pen “I’m There For You, Baby: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to the Galaxy, Volume 1,” his first book.
“The premise behind the book was, can you tell the truth,” Senturia said. “I had the sense that sometimes the entrepreneur, the featured speaker, doesn’t always tell the truth. He or she stands up and says, I started the company, then I raised some money, and then it worked out perfectly, and I sold it for a $100 million. And you sort of say, listen a******, what I really want to ask you is tell me about the failure. Was it exactly like that? In other words, what’s the truth? There’s always a dark side to the truth. So I wanted to see if I could peel back and tell as true a story as I could.”
Above all, Senturia is humorous. As evidenced, Senturia can be vulgar, but it’s not profanity for the sake of it. For instance, the book’s cover illustration depicts a single barb from a barbed wire. Closer inspection will reveal a different interpretation of the picture, an alternative that Senturia said was deliberate.
“That’s the nature of entrepreneurship,” he noted. “The world does that to you. And then, when you’ve overcome obstacles and you have a success, they say, I knew all along … But at the beginning, does anybody reach down and say, I’d like you to do (something)? Nobody does that. If you get that job, it will be because you pounded on the doors; you beat on the walls. The basic response of the world to entrepreneurs is … [makes rude gesture].”
Senturia is passionate about entrepreneurship. Aside from his stint in TV writing, he’s been a real estate developer, taught entrepreneurship at San Diego State University, and started six tech companies, of which one failed and the rest sold to industry giants such as Cisco and Lockheed Martin, according to his biography.
Currently, he teaches at the UCSD with his wife, Barbara Bry, and the pair writes a weekly column for the Union-Tribune that has the same title as his book.
Senturia maintains that the entrepreneur is a breed apart. To illustrate the point, he noted that when Bry asked 40 students in their class whether they would forsake the security of a bi-weekly paycheck to start a business, only eight hands went up.
“I don’t think you can teach someone to be an entrepreneur,” Senturia said. “You can teach entrepreneurial principles. But at some level, this entrepreneur thing is in your DNA. I’m saying if you need to, it’s your nature, then you find a way to do it.”
The book is a biography of sorts, offering vignettes from Senturia’s long career in making deals and running companies that are followed by a rule, almost always witty and quirky.
The book contains 223 rules out of the 500 or so Senturia said his experience in business has taught him.
“In all proper immodesty and humility and arrogance, we get to the end and it’s going to the printer, and I make one change,” Senturia said. “I put the words ‘Volume One.’ I thought to myself, I’m not done telling stories so I want to let people know that Volume Two is coming eventually. It was a little hubris. I mean, Volume One. I did it tongue-in-cheek.”
The 61-year-old Senturia said he hasn’t toured with the book because, of course, he’s been busy forming two new companies – Oberon Fuels and LonoCloud – since the book’s release. But the book has nonetheless opened new doors, including the chairmanship of a company that was offered to him after the company’s CEO read the book, he added.
“(The book) taught me a lot of lessons,” Senturia said. “First of all, I had a lot of fun doing it. Number two, I did it for the wrong reasons but it worked out right. Or maybe I did it for the right reasons and it worked out wrong. I haven’t decided.”
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