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What tech founders can learn from an entrepreneur who made it big in cookies and coffee

Margie Manning

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MIchael Coles

Serial entrepreneur Michael Coles isn’t a mathematician, but he has developed a mathematical formula that he says leads to business success.

Product, environment and service are the three parts of the formula that create a customer experience, and that experience changes when any one of the parts of the formula changes, said Coles, co-founder of Great American Cookie Co. and former CEO of Caribou Coffee.

“If you have a good product and service, but the bathrooms are filthy, customers probably won’t come back,” said Coles, who will be a keynote speaker at TiEcon Florida on Feb. 16 at the USF Alumni Center in Tampa. “You have to consistently working on giving people the full experience to differentiate yourself.”

The formula works for any business, including tech companies.“You’ve got to make sure that you are continually evolving your business and holding on to the customers you have and trying to get new customers,” he said. “It’s all about customer experience.”

Coles discusses his business formula and his entrepreneurial journey in his new book, Time to Get Tough: How Cookies, Coffee and a Crash Led to Success in Business and Life, with practical advice that’s sure to resonate with members of TiE Tampa Bay.

“I wrote my book to inspire people to do more than they think they can,” he said. “I am trying to get that message to as many people as possible, that you can’t give up and have to find that strength in yourself.”

He described himself as a leader who likes to bring out the best in other people, and with a different way of thinking about problems.

“I’ve found that in any business I was involved in, I would always think of a better way to do something. Sometimes you get the opportunity to do it, and sometimes you don’t,” Coles said. “I finally realized that the only way to have that kind of control is to build your own business.”

Coles spent the early part of his career in the clothing industry, but as clothing production moved overseas, the travel took him away from his family more than he wanted, so he changed careers.

“Cookies came out of left field,” Coles said. “I saw a cookie store in California, and it looked like an opportunity to do something while I was figuring out what to do with the rest of my life … I thought we might open a couple of stores, then go on to something more significant. Then I had a motorcycle accident and was unable to walk and couldn’t do anything else, so I found myself focusing on the business. By the time I was walking we had about 25 stores, and I thought maybe I could do cookies the rest of my life.”

His focus on a positive customer experience led to growth at the Great American Cookie Co., where he invested $8,000 initially. The company had more than $100 million in sales when he sold it in 1998, and was the largest cookie franchise in the United States.

Coles also put his entrepreneurial mindset to work in recovering from his near-fatal motorcycle accident, setting a big goal — walking again —and combining that with a lot of intermediate goals.

“A lot of people make their goals too lofty without milestones along the way,” Coles said. “I had to go a little farther every day … if I hadn’t set intermediate goals, which comes from being an entrepreneur, I don’t know if I could have developed that self-styled rehabilitation plan that got my legs back working so I could pedal a bicycle across the United States four times.”

He’s been involved in politics, with unsuccessful runs for the U.S. House during the 1990s. He’s also the namesake for the Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University.

Coles has had a long-standing relationship with TiE Atlanta.

“TiE has gone thru its own transformation over the years and has become a better and better organization. I hope more and more people get involved,” he said. “I’ve been to several of their events in Atlanta and if Tampa is anything like Atlanta, anyone coming for that weekend will walk away with an incredible experience.”

Click here for registration information and an agenda for TiEcon Florida.

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