Movement is key to the mission of Erick Mueller. Travel – be it for teaching, for business, or leisure and discovery – figures prominently in conversation about his life. In teaching at CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, he shows how to take an idea and advance it into fruition.
The executive director at Leeds Deming Center for Entrepreneurship, his lessons are informed by experience, having helped build business ventures from the ground up. Some were big successes, others not. He kept a smile on his face throughout because he was following his passion.
His travels have taken him to more than 50 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and Australia.
“I love getting outdoors, and I love road trips with my wife and kiddos and our pups,” Mueller said of his free time. “You just can’t beat that. I’ve had the chance to go on global adventures myself, but to share it now with our kids – we have a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old – is super fun.”
Free time also means an opportunity to give back. Earlier this year, he led a workshop, “Demystifying Entrepreneurship,” in Buena Vista.
“The goal is to elevate entrepreneurship and innovation in rural Colorado,” he said. “We volunteer, travel there and help people in rural Colorado start and grow their businesses and create jobs.
“Making a difference in the world is really key. My greatest fear in life has been to not make as big of a difference as possible in the world, with the talents and abilities I’ve been blessed with, before I’m dead.”
1. You rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle across the country to gather interviews for a study and documentary on what makes people happy. What led you to choose that journey and what was the result?
As a teacher and as a boss, I was always asked a lot of questions about, what should I do with my life? In my teaching role, other questions were, what should I study? Where should I live? What kind of job should I look for? How much money should I make? As a boss, it’s similar things: What kind of role should I play in the business? How long should I do it?
I found myself always responding with one question back: What makes you happy? If they said, “What makes me happy is that I make a difference and have an impact in my work,” well, maybe you should work for a smaller company or a startup. If what makes you happy is stability and a solid paycheck and to be part of a team, then maybe it’s a different piece of advice I share.
I had just exited a venture. I would work really hard, build a venture up, then exit: Either the business failed or was sold to another company. Then I’d take a six-month sabbatical and just experience life – be rather than do. It dawned on me in my sabbatical in 2006, I didn’t want to just go and sit on the beach. I did that in my 20s. I wanted to have some meaning.
I wanted to understand what makes people happy and I wanted to feel it. I wanted to experience it. I thought, what if I start building a documentary about this thing called happiness? Because it’s been front and center for me in my life.
So I threw my leg over my Harley and cranked it up. I just traveled the country for three months on my hog. It was like Huck Finn camping along the Mississippi River and talking to the heartland of America about what makes them happy. I did it so I could be a better teacher, a better boss, ultimately a better dad. It was such a grand adventure. Really just magical.
I came out of that experience feeling what makes people happy as opposed to intellectualizing it. I have 73 hours of footage of people sharing their intimate stories about happiness and life and regrets, etc. So that was the framework, and now I have more insight into what this thing called happiness is.
2. You’ve been involved in growing several businesses. What, if anything, did those endeavors have in common, and how do the experiences inform your teaching?
There are common threads. Most important by far was the people. Who you invite on the bus is really the most important part of your venture. I understood it wasn’t about the money or where I lived or the title I had. It was about the people I was going to work with for 60 to 80 hours a week. I’d much rather clean up dog poop with a bunch of kick-ass folks rather than try to go to the moon with a bunch of jerks. I naturally just knew that.
When I earned my undergraduate degree, there was this gentleman, Jim Plouffe, who ran a first-aid business – supplying OSHA-required kits. I’d had offers from GM, Kodak, Merck – big offers with expense reports, cars, big money. Then there was this startup thing where I’d make half as much and work twice as hard. Obviously, you know where I went. The reason is because of the owner of the business and his small team at the time: I knew I could make an impact, I knew I’d have fun working with this team and I knew I could learn a lot.
The other thread that comes to mind is, you really do have to love what you do. It’s such a cliché nowadays, but I have lived that and experienced that. I’ve had moments where I didn’t really enjoy what I was doing: I was helping a friend develop a hedge fund, which could have been very lucrative. But there was no passion. It was all numbers and spreadsheets and sterile. I just didn’t enjoy it.
Those things absolutely inform my teaching in the classroom. We definitely do a lot of team building in my classrooms: I talk about team dynamics and choosing wisely as you start your businesses. And I talk every day about being into what you do and being passionate. I make sure my students realize the most important thing is that you really enjoy what you do.
3. What can you tell me about your current business venture?
It’s called Funovation. We create amusement attractions for theme parks and fun centers around the world. Our metric truly is how many smiles we create around the world – how can we make the world a happier place? Our vision is to remind the world to play. We manufacture and market a laser maze system, which is in over 370 locations in 29 countries. We have 13 locations in Colorado; the closest one is in Fat Cats in Westminster.
We create smiles. That is our shared vision. To be a Funovator, you must share our vision that when you walk in the door every morning, it’s all about making the world a happier place.
We judge the success of our venture like any other venture: our revenue, how many jobs we create, our growth rate, etc. But the metric that’s most important to us is how many smiles we create in the world. We correlate one play of our laser maze with one smile. So we’re tied into all of our systems around the world. We’ve created around 68 million smiles. So we’re super excited we’ve created a product that allows people to take a respite from stress and just go play.
One of the most heartwarming things I see is a grandma who can’t do a roller coaster, because her body’s not ready for that, right? But grandma can hold grandson’s hand and go into a laser maze and just be delighted with the lasers and sound effects. That shared experience is super special. Those are the kinds of things that really drive you to build a venture and work your butt off when you can make an impact.
It’s been a lot of fun. If it wasn’t fun, we’d have to change our name.
4. You earned your MBA at Leeds, where now you’re a faculty member. How did your experience earning your degree influence your approach to teaching?
It’s affected my teaching in a very positive way. I have literally sat in the seats that my students sit in, right? I think that gives you empathy and a perspective unlike any other experience.
I remember as a student, there were a lot of faculty who taught their agenda. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. I’ve had some amazing professors who really shared their research and it’s a very positive thing. But sometimes this wasn’t what I was expecting to learn.
Having paid tuition here and getting my degree here and sitting in these seats, I switch it around. When I walk into my first class, the perspective I give my students is, you are paying me to teach you something, so what do you want to learn? I create a working agreement with every class I’ve taught for the last 15 years. I tell the students, write down what you’d like to learn. And they write, I want to learn how to raise venture capital. Or, how do you build a team? How do you get over failure? I compile it and come up with a framework for what we do. I adapt probably 20 percent of every class to what those students are excited about. We co-create the experience together.
Experiential learning is the key. When I was a student, those were the best experiences for me, when a professor allowed us to get our hands dirty. I have incorporated that into my classroom. All of the faculty in entrepreneurship here do that.
Throughout the class and at the end, I ask, did you get your tuition dollars’ worth out of this class? If not, tell me why, so we can adapt and make it better.
5. What does your role as executive director of the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship entail?
In terms of leading the center and teaching entrepreneurism, our mission is to inspire and empower the world to transform ideas into action. The keyword is action. Entrepreneurship happens at the intersection of having the idea and taking action. So that’s the tool set we empower our students with. It’s when you take action that you can say you’re an entrepreneur.
The output of our work may be starting a venture, but that’s not our goal. Our goal is to impart the entrepreneurial way of thinking. The entrepreneurial way of thinking can help you if you go work for IBM or if you start your own venture.
One area we’re super excited to explore is global entrepreneurship. That’s something our tenure-track faculty are researching. We’re also excited about cross-disciplinary entrepreneurship or cross-campus entrepreneurship.
I truly believe that entrepreneurship can change the world. I spend a month every year in Africa through one of our programs, Entrepreneurship and Empowerment in South Africa. We take students and teach them how to consult and work with people in the slums of Africa. This is where families of five live on a dollar a day. And every year I see the impact that entrepreneurship has on these folks. We’re teaching them and empowering them with the tools of entrepreneurship to make their lives better. It’s pretty powerful.
I’ve experienced it personally in my ventures. It’s very difficult but very rewarding to create something from nothing. It’s pretty cool. To empower people with this way of thinking is really a gift, and it’s a privilege to do what I do. I think the work we do is pretty special in that regard. I’m the luckiest guy I know to be able to work with students and a community to give them the tools to live a better life and make the world a better place.