Bernhard Schroeder: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris


SchroederBernhard Schroeder is the Director of the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center Programs and oversees all of the undergraduate and graduate experiential entrepreneurship programs on the San Diego State University campus. He also has responsibility for the Center’s marketing and outreach on both the SDSU campus and in the San Diego community. He is a part-time Clinical Faculty, Entrepreneurship teaching several entrepreneurship course including Creativity and Innovation.

Prior to moving to San Diego, Bernhard was a Senior Partner in the worlds’ largest integrated marketing communications agency, CKS Partners, which in 1998 had offices in over 30 countries, more than 10,000 employees and over $1 billion in revenue. Bernhard joined CKS in 1991 and working with the other four partners, grew the firm to almost $40 million in revenue by 1995 and led CKS to a successful IPO that same year.

He has experience working with Fortune 100 firms like Apple, Nike, General Motors, American Express, Mercedes Benz, Kellogg’s and others as well as start-up companies. He was involved in the initial branding and marketing launches for startup companies Yahoo! and Amazon. Today, he mentors more than 20 founders of startup companies in San Diego with yearly revenue ranging from $400,000 to more than ten million.

His book, Fail Fast or Win Big: The Start-Up Plan for Starting Now, was published by AMACOM (February 2015).

Here is an excerpt from part 1 of my interview of Bern.

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Morris: Before discussing Fail Fast or Win Big, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Schroeder: Two people had a huge impact on my personal growth. The first was my father who instilled in me the notion of working to get what you want. He worked two jobs for 14 years to put five kids through private school. Never saw him much in those years but we had an amazing relationship after he retired. So, I started working and making money at the age of 11 and I thought that was completely normal.

The other person who I never thought would have an impact on my life but did was my aunt. Looking back, my aunt was just a good average person who was fun to be around but no one that really stood out in my family. That all changed one day. I was 19 at the time, full of piss and vinegar trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I was definitely struggling trying to determine how one laid out their life, like it was a play or something. I was told by my father that my aunt was dying. Just like that. Stomach pains for a few weeks, then the diagnosis. Terminal cancer. Three weeks to live. Having never experienced death in the family, I could not get my head around the concept of death. My aunt was only 38, looking amazingly healthy and was going to die. She had told my father she wanted to meet with me. My fear and apprehension was, “What do you say to someone who is dying?”

I met her in a hospice room at the hospital. When I walked into the room, she was sitting on the bed with a serious mound of paper all around her. I asked her, “What are you doing?” She replied, “I am organizing my life so as not to be a bother when I am dead.” For the next three hours, we talked about life. My life. Her life. And she started to tell me about all the things she had never done or had regretted. She sacrificed for the family and lost the love of her life (my aunt had never married). I can almost picture her sitting on the bed and talking to me as she said,” Bern, no matter what you do with your life, don’t ever have regrets. Don’t ever settle for something you don’t agree with. And live life as if you were going to die tomorrow.” That day when I left, I don’t think I realized what had just happened. But her words would come to define the way I lived my life. My personal life and entire career was defined by this statement,” I will not spend one day being in a place where I don’t feel I belong.” And that is exactly the way I have lived my life.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Schroeder: Three mentors have had the most impact in my professional development. The first mentor was in my very first marketing job. I did not realize it at the time because if you have never been mentored before, you really don’t know it is happening (being mentored). The key element is trust. We usually don’t build a quick trusting relationship with our boss. But looking back, he leaned in…he nurtured me, pushed me, scolded me and praised me. In the two years I worked for him, I received five years of experience and advice. He actually created a solid platform for my entire career.

The second person was a few years later and he was a crusty kind of curmudgeon guy we brought in from Xerox. Within about two weeks of meeting him (I reported to him), he pulled me into his office and flatly stated that I was terrible at two things: I did not know how to listen, and I really did not know how to sell. Now, you have to realize in just three years at this marketing agency, I had risen from entry level employee to vice president. So, I thought to myself “this guy is full of shit.” But over the next 3-4 months, he actually proved to me that I really did not listen and I was really not accomplished at the art of selling or as he liked to put it, the art of getting people to buy from you.

He did two things that changed my professional life. The first thing he did was to send me to a “Spin Selling” seminar in San Francisco which I did not want to attend. The three-day sales seminar changed my outlook on my personal and professional life. I learned the skillset of listening. I learned the difference between what people wanted and what they needed. I learned personality types and how to read a room. It was amazing. The second thing he did was simple. He honed my ability to trust my instincts. This is a really hard skill “or feeling” to develop. You can’t really see it. Can’t really take a class or seminar in instinct. Over the next two years, after every client or prospect meeting, he would ask me to deconstruct the meeting. What was “really” going on in the meeting, who were the decision makers, what did they really want and so on. Then, based on my deconstruction and thoughts, he would give me feedback on where I was spot on and where I was completely off and why. Again, you don’t really see or understand it when you are going through personal development in a deep way but looking back, it was huge.

The third person taught me about the power of teams. Up until I met my third mentor, I thought that all my accomplishments to date were based on me. That is, my success was singly determined by me and what I could accomplish. I had been on pretty fast track since coming out of school late (undergraduate at 27 years of age) and I was motivated to move aggressively in building my career. Took on risky promotions and difficult clients and was successful. When I met this person who would become my third mentor, I did not really see him as even being a potential mentor. First, I felt I was his peer. We were both about the same age, both had accomplished a lot and were now partners in building what would become a billion dollar company. But early in my relationship with him, he pulled me aside and in a very nonchalant conversation told me two things: I was not a strategic thinker and I absolutely did not know how to build teams of people that would go “to war” for me. I thought about that. Over the next two years, he taught me how to be real with people. How to nurture and care for the talented stars working for me. I learned the art of management where everybody wins. The other thing he taught me about strategy was perspective. To use a military analogy, I was always the lieutenant or captain building and rapidly executing marketing campaigns. But I was not the general, sitting on the hill or further away, who was looking way beyond the battle…looking at the how the entire war would be waged. I learned an immense amount of strategic perspective from him that lifted me to a new level of branding and marketing strategy. One that allowed me to clearly create brand and marketing strategies for my future clients (like Amazon and Yahoo!) with a very strategic plan, strong on tactics but amazing on marketplace strategy.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Schroeder: It’s hard to identify a turning point or epiphany in one’s life unless it’s something cathartic. Something that shakes or even defines your core. I would have to say, looking back, it was my aunt’s death. Her calmly talking to me as she was dying about never having regrets really formed the basis of how I would view life. I did it my way or the highway. I had people tell me, “ I don’t really like you…but you are one of the sharpest marketing people I have ever met and I respect you.” And seriously, all I wanted was to be respected. I did not really care if people liked me. Never have. The other part of what has become my mantra is I firmly believe no one was born to do anything…so what will you do? I have crafted my career around constantly challenging myself and enjoying life. I am not working on the cure for aids or cancer, so trust me, I have a perspective on what’s important in life. Sell another car or book, great. But don’t get hung up on that. I have wanted to make impacts and bring people along for the ride. I still stay in touch with people I hired and mentored in the mid 90’s. I mentor more than 20 founders of companies in San Diego. I reach thousands of students on the SDSU campus with messages of entrepreneurship, passion and doing what you want to do. It’s the most fun I have ever had.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Schroeder: This is a tough question, especially since I work on a university campus. I look back and view my formal education as a necessary part of life to learn some core basics and learn how to become a good speaker and writer. I look at what impacted my life and formal education has played a very small role. My accomplishments have come from doing what I wanted to do that pushed me, really pushing the edge of marketing, mentorships and work/play experiences.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Schroeder: Okay, going to date myself here. I remember seeing A Wonderful Life several times and realized two things: I don’t want to be the hated banker guy and I do want to feel like I was important or loved enough to be missed. I also wanted to care about people. Second movie was Dead Poets Society. I wanted to live carpe diem…to seize every day. I did not want to have a meaningless professional career. I did not want a job. I did not want to settle or conform. I did not want to do what other people wanted me to do. I did not want to live through other people expectations. The third movie was Wall Street. I both wanted and did not want to be Charlie Sheen. I wanted success to come from hard work but not from cheating. I never wanted to compromise my integrity or ethics. Maybe walk up to that line but not cross it. The second thing, I knew I was going to be involved in growing or running a big company someday. I did not want to be Gordon Gecko. I did not want to be that guy that ruined people’s lives for money. Maybe that’s why still today, I carry a slight disdain for some venture capitalists. I encourage all the founders I mentor to bootstrap and eat top ramen so as to preserve their equity for as long as possible so that they can maintain control of their companies should they ever have to take on investors.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Schroeder: Tough question. What do I say to sound pithy here? As I look back to the books I read in my formative years, I think of Papillion, The Outsiders, Catch-22, The Godfather and a few others. I think the one book that impacted me with its realism and symbolism was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. If you have read this book or seen the movie, you are not supposed to like Randle Patrick McMurphy. But the more I read the book, I saw Randle as one of the few sane people in the book. My takeaway from the book relating to business was life is crazy, don’t try and completely predict it. Whatever your situation, make the best of it and change it if you can. And don’t ever conform in your beliefs or who you are…no one really cares anyway especially in business. And if you can befriend people on your journey, do so. They could be the part of your professional life that matters most. I don’t really remember, in a fond way, all the billions of dollars of products or services I helped sell in my career. I do remember the people, good or slightly crazy.

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To read all of Part 1, please click here.

Bern cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

Lavin Entrepreneurship Center link

Fail Fast or Win Big Amazon link

TEDx Encinitas video link

StartUp Circle video link

LinkedIn link

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