The Serial Entrepreneur

By Peter Bronski

Why stop at one good idea when you can have...well, many.

What do hot chocolate, an automotive smartphone app, and aftermarket bicycle parts have in common? They’re just three examples of the kinds of products  Paul Lehman ’86  has sold through his various companies. 

The economics major got a job marketing mutual funds for the New York Life Insurance Company out of Vassar, but left after only six months, wanting to start his own business. “Vassar was awesome in providing me with a liberal arts education,” he laughs. “It gave me the belief I could do anything I wanted, without the knowledge of how difficult that was going to be.”

His venture was a high-end hot chocolate company, which he described as nothing more than “a marketing idea” initially, and a response to “generic” brands such as Nestlé and Swiss Miss. After some initial research at the New York Public Library, he settled on two goals: 1) make a box of the stuff, and 2) sell it to someone he didn’t know. Lehman soon realized, however, that the product was too seasonal. In the specialty foods business, he says, you “have to sell something someone eats every day, or at least a few times a week, like chips,” he says.

Lehman sold the business and focused on fleshing out his finance background, earning a graduate degree from Harvard Business School and spending time at both small and large private equity firms. Next came a string of successful enterprises: a motorcycle parts company, another that made aftermarket electronics for pickup trucks, yet another that makes high-end composite bicycle parts, and most recently, one that makes automotive electronics and another that’s building an iPhone app that streams car data to your smartphone.

Lehman has focused on taking small companies and growing them, rather than concentrating on start-ups. “I enjoy getting a business with a good product, but that is still really small, and bringing in the resources that it needs, hiring the right people, building out the brand. It’s very creative,” he says. “In a growing business, every six months you have a different job; it’s a different company that you’re working at. And it’s exciting to see it grow.”

By the time a business gets really successful and big—at about $20 million to $40 million in sales, Lehman says—that’s when things get “less creative and more process driven. That tends to be where I get bored.” Which is when he moves on to the next thing.

Yet, as diverse as his endeavors may sound on paper—ranging from hot chocolate to motorcycles—there is, in fact, a unifying element. “What I really like are enthusiast brands,” he explains. “Products where people have a passion. Never once have I had a business that made or sold something anybody actually needed. It’s just stuff they want.”

But how to build a business that successfully delivers what people want? It takes three components, Lehman says. “Luck, timing, and skill—in that order.” He explains: “If all three of those align, you make a lot of money. If two out of three align, you can make a go. If only one aligns, you’re ruined. It takes a certain amount of ignorance and optimism.” And a ton of perseverance, he says. “If you sat down and really thought about how hard it was going to be and how hard you’d have to work, you might not ever do it.”