CHAMPAIGN — Christopher Michel called himself an unlikely candidate to deliver the V. Dale Cozad Lecture in Entrepreneurship.
As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois in the late 1980s, he was fascinated by national security and political science. He took no business classes at Illinois — indeed, he had "zero" interest in business.
When he did enter the business world years later, "bad things" happened to the companies he worked in.
But Michel did become a successful entrepreneur, developing Military.com, an online site for military service members. He sold the venture to Monster Worldwide for tens of millions of dollars.
He went on to create Affinity Labs, which developed online sites for nurses, police officers and government workers — and sold that to Monster too.
Those achievements earned him an invitation to deliver the lecture, named for the Champaign business leader who formed the basis of what is Cozad Asset Management.
Nearly 400 UI students turned out Tuesday to hear Michel, who today runs Nautilus Ventures, a San Francisco-based venture fund.
Wearing blue jeans and a beige jacket, Michel, 45, described his unusual career path, which took him from the UI, where he earned a Navy ROTC commission, to naval flight training school.
He then worked at the Pentagon as aide to the chief of the Naval Reserve.
Despite having no interest in business, he was given the opportunity to attend Harvard Business School. There, a guest speaker — Dan Bricklin, the co-creator of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet for personal computers — said something that clicked: "The things we create are the things that matter the most."
"At that moment, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur," Michel said.
That certainty was soon replaced with fear and anxiety — because Michel didn't know what he wanted to create.
The answer came when he attended a meeting of comrades from a military squadron. They talked about who knew whom in the military and complained about their benefits.
Michel realized the Internet would be a great place for people like that to connect.
He presented the idea to venture capital groups nine times, but failed to muster interest from them.
He wondered whether he should drop the idea, but a friend said he should keep trying — and add more "bravado" to the presentation.
The next time he pitched the idea, he told prospective investors he wasn't sure he wanted to raise money for the idea — making them fearful someone else would make a fortune on it.
He left the meeting with a check for $5 million.
"I did not communicate desperation at all in the pitch," he said, noting such a strategy can also work well in dating.
Soon Michel received another $20 million check and, within three or four months, had hired 100 people.
But the tech bubble burst in March 2000, and the company had several rounds of layoffs. Michel was replaced as CEO, but remained chairman.
The company continued to do worse, and Michel said he "wanted to move to China so I didn't see it fail."
As fate had it, he came back as CEO, turned the company around and sold it to Monster.
During the dark days, Michel said he swam a lot and thought about the mistakes he had made.
Among the lessons he learned, he said, were:
— Don't confuse activities with outcomes. You may be tempted to put money and effort into projects that look good but don't really affect the company's performance.
— Create a culture of excellence that's enforced at even the lowest level of the organization.
— Employees must not only be good performers, but must also be passionate about their work.
The secret of success isn't money, connections or brilliance, he said.
"The common denominator of every successful person I know is they have the confidence to go try," Michel said. "You can be successful at almost anything you try."
"Swing for the fences, think big and live the life you want," he said. "If I can do it, you can do it."