Hoover sought change through entrepreneurship

June 12, 2006


You meet unusual people at awards ceremonies. The scene was the recent Cato Institute dinner at the Drake Hotel, where Cato presented the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. The prize went to Mart Laar, former prime minister of Estonia, who adopted a flat tax that rejuvenated his economy after years of communist rule.

Hoping to meet Laar, I bumped into Gary Hoover. It led to a conversation about entrepreneurship and the world economy.

Hoover, 55, is the University of Chicago-trained entrepreneur who studied under three Nobel laureates in economics -- George Stigler, Milton Friedman and Robert Fogel -- but cut classes to mind his entrepreneurial ventures.

"They hadn't won their prizes yet," says Hoover who attended the university from 1969 to 1973, earning a degree in economics. At a time when students were protesting Vietnam, Hoover believed he could change the world though entrepreneurship.

"In 1970, people thought I was nuts," Hoover says.

Not crazy anymore

When Hoover meets students today they don't think he's crazy.

"Worldwide, people understand entrepreneurship is powerful stuff," Hoover says.

He travels the globe lecturing on entrepreneurship. "I spoke in Australia, Calcutta, Mumbai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Manila, Jakarta, Marrakesh, Paris, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico, Canada and across the U.S.," Hoover says.

He caught the entrepreneurial bug early in life. At school he ran concession stands. Then he launched a charter-bus service and later a discount book business.

In 1982, he built BOOKSTOP, a forerunner of today's destination bookstores. In 1989 he sold BOOKSTOP to Barnes & Noble.

"They added the coffee shop and the mahogany," says Hoover, who was among the first to stay open long hours, carry a wide selection, and offer many titles below list.

Hoover is best known for creating Hoovers.com, the online business information service that went public in the summer of 1999 and was later sold to Dun & Bradstreet. Hoover launched the company in 1990 to provide paper-based business reference books. "We wanted to create the 'Webster's of Business,' " he says.

After selling Hoovers.com, Hoover put up his profits and his house to launch TravelFest, the first travel superstore.

"It had books, maps, luggage, video rentals, a currency exchange, tickets, reservations, cruises, Euro rail passes -- you name it," Hoover says of his failed company.

"That's the way it goes," Hoover says without remorse. "I don't live in that big, beautiful house anymore. I started several companies. One failed. One was sold. One went public and then got bought. It's never the same pattern. I'd rather have them go public or get sold than go broke."

Hoover's new venture is StoryStores. It's a for-profit museum concept aimed at aging baby boomers. Hoover says aging boomers have sufficient time and money, and seek thought-provoking experiences.

Hoover has advice for June grads and aspiring entrepreneurs: "Successful entrepreneurship starts with curiosity and looking in places where nobody else is looking. Find something you love and where you have skills that match with people's needs. That is the core of it."

WiTi Women

Who are Chicago's top women in technology? Women in Technology International (WiTi) is seeking nominations for its 2006 Excellence in Corporate IT Leadership award. Nominees must be corporate IT leaders making a significant contribution to their company's business and tech strategy while also contributing on a civic leadership and a mentorship level.

Past winners include: MPEA CIO Ellen Barry, Allstate CIO Catherine Brune, former Aon CIO June Drewry, UIC CIO Joy Keeler, JPMorgan Chase divisional chief operations officer Maureen Osborne and Motorola CTO Padmasree Warrior.

"This award shines a spotlight on leaders whose achievements might otherwise have been left in the shadows," says Marian Cook, CEO of Ageos and organizer of the competition. Go to www.witi.com/chicago to nominate a candidate.

Innovate Illinois

State finalists in the Innovate Illinois competition square off Thursday at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The program is organized by Chicago Community Ventures to foster innovation and to recognize breakthrough small businesses across the state.

Michael Krauss is a Chicago area tech writer and consultant.


 ©2006 Marion Consulting Partners