Kenny Dichter was a sociology major when he attended UW-Madison in the 1980s, a “low-SAT, low-GPA guy,” as he describes himself.
Today, Dichter is the founder and CEO of Wheels Up, a membership-based private aviation company with headquarters in Manhattan’s Times Square and investors who include tennis champ Serena Williams and football stars Russell Wilson and J.J. Watt.
One of Dichter’s previous companies, Marquis Jet, was purchased by billionaire businessman Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.
“ ‘No’ never means ‘no.’ It means ‘not now,’ ” Dichter told several hundred students at Gordon Commons on Thursday night.
Dichter was one of a quartet of UW alumni who regaled students with stories of their struggles and successes in business, and what they’ve learned along the way, at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurship Showcase.
For Dichter, who grew up in Merrick on Long Island in New York, entrepreneurship started by selling UW-themed T-shirts door-to-door — with a team of eight to 10 students he enlisted to work for him — during his freshman year. By sophomore year, Dichter had opened a T-shirt shop on State Street.
But he had bigger plans, and plenty of school spirit. Badger basketball was drawing few students to the games. Dichter approached then-coach Steve Yoder with an idea: Create a Bleacher Creature card that students could buy for $39 for season tickets to Badger basketball. Student attendance rose.
When Barry Alvarez came to the UW to coach the floundering football team, Dichter saw a chance to expand the Bleacher Creature concept. He mustered the nerve to approach Alvarez and then-chancellor Donna Shalala.
“I figured if we got students in the stadium, everybody else would come,” Dichter said. “Winning a couple of Rose Bowls didn’t hurt, either.”
In his post-UW days, Dichter co-founded Avión Tequila, whose majority share was bought by French beverage giant Pernod Ricard in 2014 for more than $100 million; co-founded Marquis Jet, which let members buy flight time on NetJets, a private jet company owned by Berkshire Hathaway, which bought Marquis Jet in 2010 for an undisclosed amount; and invested in Juice Press, a chain of 53 stores selling raw, organic foods.
He started Wheels Up in August 2013, offering memberships for $17,500 to those who wanted to fly on private planes — far below the Marquis Jet member cost. “It’s like Amazon Prime or Costco,” Dichter told the students.
Wheels Up has its own fleet of 70 Beechcraft King Air 350i turboprop planes and Cessna Citation Excel/XLS jets. More than 3,000 members have joined.
“In three to five years, it’ll be the largest private aviation company in the world,” Dichter said.
His nuggets of advice to students include:
“Never let school interfere with your education.”
“You have to have passion for the project.”
“When everybody tells you ‘no,’ you’ve got to believe in yourself.”
“You don’t have to come up with the best idea; get yourself on a winning team.”
‘A big dream’
Zainab Ghadiyali, of San Francisco, co-founder of Wogrammer, a nonprofit showcasing women engineers, said she came to the U.S. from India with little money “and a big dream.”
At UW-Madison, Ghadiyali went to a hackathon sponsored by Facebook to get free Chinese food. “I had never taken a coding class in my life. I didn’t know what hacking was, but I thought it sounded scary,” she said.
A Facebook recruiter spotted her, and Ghadiyali grew into a job as software engineer, rising to become a tech lead for advertiser growth at Facebook.
“My job in life is not to be an astrologer and predict the future. My job is to show up,” she said.
Madison serial entrepreneur Keith Streckenbach, whose health care-related companies have included Pharmacy OneSource and HighFive Health, told students one of the reasons businesses fail is: “We build what we want to build” instead of trying to sell “what people will buy.”
Identify ideal customers and get orders before the product is even ready to market, he said.
“The reason I’m an entrepreneur is because I want to have control. Not control of other people — control of my destiny,” Streckenbach said.
Sacrificing to succeed
Jeremy Neren, founder and CEO of GrocerKey, a Madison e-commerce platform for grocery and convenience stores, said when he started his business in 2014, he had to move back home with his mom, an “interesting and humiliating” step at age 30.
“It’s scary,” he said. “I couldn’t go out to eat; I had to ask Mom to make me dinner.”
Today, GrocerKey has a profitable relationship with Woodman’s grocery stores and has 40 employees.
Some students at the event already are entrepreneurs.
Sam Lepak, a UW-Whitewater student, said his company, Social River, linking startups with social media, will have $15,000 revenue this year.
He liked Dichter’s advice not to let school get in the way.
“Every day, I write down my 10 most important goals. School is No. 10,” Lepak said.
UW-Madison junior Troy Howard, whose company, CommUnity, offers businesses a customer engagement platform, said, “Wisconsin entrepreneurs are amazing. They’re so cool ... (They said) you don’t need to be an expert (to succeed) in what you’re doing.”