Doug Villhard is a serial entrepreneur, investor, Olin’s academic director for entrepreneurship, a philanthropist—and now an author.
Company of Women, his first book, published November 15 and is live on Amazon. The 364-page historical novel is based on the real-life E.G. Lewis. At the time of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Lewis was an early advocate for a woman’s right to vote and owned the largest women’s magazine in the world—until he ran afoul of a government conspiracy reaching up to President Teddy Roosevelt.
“As an entrepreneurship professor and as an entrepreneur, I fell in love with this story,” Villhard said in an interview.
Like Villhard, Lewis is an entrepreneur whose mind is always spinning with ideas. His Woman’s Magazine employed a multitude of women and reached nearly every household in the country. It was based in an octagonal, domed building Lewis had built that is now University City’s City Hall.
Lewis came to St. Louis in the late 1890s selling dubious products to kill insects. As his wealth and influence grew, temptations challenged his family, coworkers and his marriage. Luckily, he had strong, smart women in his circle.
“I think he had one of the most entrepreneurial minds and creative minds that I that I’ve ever encountered,” said Villhard, who last year sold a company he cofounded. “The more I researched him, the more I couldn’t believe no one had ever written a book about him. I felt like this was a story that needed to be told. It also lets me weave in the major themes that I teach in class, too.”
“Feedback is a gift” is one theme, and Villhard takes it to heart. At his request, 20 people read his manuscript. He asked them to tell them everything they liked and everything they didn’t like. “And that led to a wonderful revision,” he said.
Fall in love with the customers’ problems
Another theme is to fall in love with the customers’ problems.
“We teach at Olin if you try to chase money, you’ll never get it,” Villhard said. “You have to fall in love with the customers’ problems. You also have to fall in love with your own team and make sure you create an awesome environment in which they want to work. And then the rest works itself out. And Lewis was a guy who was obsessed with his customers.”
In the early 1900’s, nearly two-thirds of Americans lived on farms. The postal system had just been expanded, allowing Woman’s Magazine to connect with those rural households.
“Women on these farms had money, by the way. They wanted to participate in the economy. And Lewis saw this as an opportunity,” Villhard said. Based on Lewis’ earlier experience selling door-to-door, he realized that they wanted goods and services for themselves, their kids and their households just as much as city folks did. “He wanted to bridge that gap.”
Ninety percent of startups fail because “they literally make something that nobody wants because they don’t go out and talk to customers,” Villhard said. “And Lewis’ whole philosophy, and my whole philosophy and really the modern way of teaching entrepreneurship, is no other opinion matters than the customer’s.
“E.G. Lewis was somebody who figured that out early.”