Sitting in a Princeton, New Jersey, Starbucks in 2003, Dr. Greg Olsen became fascinated with an article he read in a newspaper detailing civilian space travel. As he sipped his coffee, Olsen decided that he would venture into outer space. Just two years later, after completing intense training in Russia and overcoming a medical issue, Olsen became the third private citizen to visit the International Space Station.
Although he talks about his space adventure with a bit of a laugh (he was required to wear a diaper), it is this type of passion and determination that transformed Olsen from a kid who barely graduated high school to one of New Jersey’s most distinguished entrepreneurs.
As the keynote speaker at the EDC Summit held at the New Jersey Institute of Technology last month, Olsen offered his advice on what it takes to become a successful entrepreneur
After graduating from Fairleigh Dickinson University and obtaining a Ph.D. in Materials Science from the University of Virginia in 1971, Olsen worked as a research scientist at RCA Labs for 11 years. In 1984, Olsen left RCA and founded Epitax, a fiber-optic detector manufacturer, which he then sold for $12 million in 1990. Two years later Olsen started Sensors Unlimited, a near-infrared camera manufacturer, which was then sold to Finisar Corporation for $600 million in 2000. Olsen repurchased Sensors Unlimited in 2002 for $6 million before finally selling it again in 2005 for $60 million.
“No matter how bad I screwed up, the one thing I did was that I never gave up,” Olsen told the audience at NJIT. “I always came back for more, no matter what the penalties or the setbacks were. You just keep going, and I’ve learned that lesson over and over again.”
Perseverance was a concept that Olsen learned the value of early in life. After struggling to graduate from Ridgefield Park High School, Olsen just barely got into Fairleigh Dickinson. But at FDU, Olsen worked diligently to graduate magna cum laude with multiple degrees in physics. Years later when he would attempt to find investors for Epitax, Olsen was reminded of the importance of fortitude and persistence.
“The first place I went to was WR Grace, an investing division, and the guy asked to look at my business plan. I said ‘what’s that?’. I walked out of there with my tail between my legs,” Olsen said during his talk entitled “From Entrepreneurship to Spaceship”. “But I went back and I found out what a business plan is, and after about the third or fourth round I was able to raise some money.”
Olsen, who currently manages his angel investments at self-founded GHO Ventures in Princeton, New Jersey, also encouraged the audience at the EDC Summit to surround themselves with driven colleagues.
“If you asked me to describe all of these businesses, I wouldn’t tell you about the technology. I would line up their CEO’s here and if you heard them speak, you would just see the passion they have for what they are doing,” Olsen explained. “It’s not about the industry they are in, it is about the passion they have for success.”
The ability to surround himself with individuals who challenge him and pushback has helped set Olsen apart for more than thirty years, and is something that Olsen recognizes as an ingredient for success
“I’m looking for people to take over, not people that I can boss around,” , said Olsen.
Pulling up a chart that compared the availability of capital, people, and facilities to highlight the importance of utilizing resources, Olsen pointed to one particular column that he calls leverage.
“The thing that never changes is leverage. It is the ability to trade one thing off for another,” said Olsen, who now manages angel investments such as Princeton Power Systems, Power Survey, and United Silicon Carbide.
At his second company, Sensors Unlimited, Olsen did just that. Hard pressed to find money for the expensive equipment he needed to compete in the semiconductor business, Olsen remembered a friend who had just become a research professor at Princeton University. Olsen offered to have his engineers set up the professor’s equipment if his team could use the equipment.
“It was an opportunity made in heaven. We got to leverage millions of dollars of equipment essentially for free,” Olsen explained. “Never let money get in your way. There is usually another way of getting around that, but people tend to focus their mind that money is keeping them in this problem that they have.”
As he stood and spoke, Olsen also urged the audience to get involved in organizations and meet people, as he credits the success of his businesses to successful networking.
“Networking is the most important thing I do. To this day I really don’t understand anything financial, but I know people who do, and I know people who do it very well,” Olsen said. “By having relationships with them I can solve that part of my business.”
Olsen’s final piece of advice to the hopeful entrepreneurs at the EDC Summit was to embrace mistakes and not try to avoid them.
“If you are starting a business, you are going to have to make hundreds of decision a day and they are not all going to be right. But the important thing is that if you sense something is wrong, put the brakes on and go back, rethink it, and maybe go in a different direction,” Olsen advised. “Do not be afraid of mistakes, just make sure you deal with them.”
From barely graduating high school to exploring space and offering advice as a keynote speaker at New Jersey’s largest business incubator, Dr. Greg Olsen certainly possesses a passion for success. And while he doesn’t expect his words to prompt anyone to explore space, Olsen hopes he has provided entrepreneurs with some valuable words of wisdom.
“I believe it is important for me to share whatever experience I have,” Olsen said. “Almost everyday I’m doing something like this.”