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Keynote speaker Caplan tells good stories, raises ethical issues

Entrepreneurship , Event Recaps Marketing | Nov 20, 2013 |

by Farzana Ali (GSB ’15)

“This is a street fight. This is war.”

That is what TrepCon keynote speaker John Caplan — presently the CEO of “social shopping” web site OpenSky — recalled about the competition in the 1990s between two drink companies: Arizona Iced Tea and Snapple.

Back then, Mr. Caplan was spearheading strategic development for Arizona. He took an on-the-ground approach, doing research targeting youth in Brooklyn’s apartment buildings, bodegas and basketball courts.

New York City became the backdrop of his “street fight.”

Mr. Caplan told TrepCon attendees this story: At the time, Arizona co-founders Don Vultaggio and John Ferolito would send their employees into the city streets between 9 p.m. and midnight, challenging them to tear down Snapple posters and stuff them into large trash bags. The team with the most bags got free dinner. The message was: Hustle hard and never stop.

By Mr. Caplan’s standards, tearing down Snapple signs wasn’t unethical. It was aggressive. In the “exhilarating and brutal” space of entrepreneurship, Mr. Caplan opined, aggressive tactics gets things accomplished.

His perspective gave TrepCon attendees something to think about, given Fordham’s emphasis on ethical business conduct inspired by Jesuit values. What would a Gabelli School student or graduate say about this behavior? Was it justifiable? Or was it crossing a line?

Other messages Mr. Caplan brought to TrepCon surprised students, too. He advised people in business to “get input, not consensus,” saying that he too often sees young entrepreneurs mess up the concept of collaboration. In Mr. Caplan’s view, when everyone in business is required to agree, not much gets done and the results are “watered down.”

He stressed that entrepreneurs need to have the courage and confidence to be decision-makers. As chief marketing officer of a company called Miningco in the late 1990s, Mr. Caplan changed the outfit’s name 45 days after it went public — to About.com. The resulting business, of which he was later the president, became in its heyday the No. 1 news information site and fifth-most-visited ad site. In About.com’s first three years, revenues increased from $4 million to $93 million. Mr. Caplan attributed this success to company leaders listening to one another, yet making their own decisions.

Mr. Caplan then offered an example from later in his work history. In 2002, he became the first CEO of Ford Models to come from outside the founding Ford family. At the time, Ford Models was losing money. So Mr. Caplan overhauled operations. To make better use of the company’s model roster, he packaged talent for clients, resulting in more frequent bookings. He established a digital media business for Ford Models by following starring models in their homes, acting natural — pimple cream and all. The resulting video segments created TV personalities out of Ford’s hairstylists and beauticians.

Mr. Caplan said that during his tenure at Ford Models, the company tripled in size, made strategic acquisitions and brought in significant funding from a private equity investor. Innovation was his key to restructuring and expanding.

Provocative to the last moment, Mr. Caplan left with the message that sometimes entrepreneurship is war, against convention, against consensus and against all odds.



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