The Two-Minute Mentor: An Info-Tech Executive

by | March 31, 2009

Editor's note: This is the third in a series exploring career paths through interviews with professionals in a variety of fields. If you have any suggestions for people or careers to feature, send an email tocjeditor@wsj.com.

CollegeJournal.com spoke with Ben Nelson, president of Snapfish.com, a Hewlett-Packard Co. division based in Palo Alto, Calif., about what it takes to succeed in the technology industry. A former independent business consultant whose clients included CDNOW Inc., SmithKline Beecham(now GlaxoSmithKline plc), The Walt Disney Co. (Disney-Singapore), Mr. Nelson, 30, joined Snapfish in 2000 as director of corporate development. The company was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2005. Read Ben Nelson's career path.

  • How did you get your start in the technology industry?

As an undergraduate, I worked for the Small Business Development Center at Wharton, where I got to work with a ton of clients. This experience actually helped me start my consulting career while in college. Most of my responsibilities for these clients involved researching and analyzing business opportunities, using proper modeling skills to develop strategies, and providing assistance with business-plan creation and financials.

  • What experiences in college helped prepare you for the work you do today?

I was the chairman of the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education, one of the primary drivers of the University of Pennsylvania's curriculum. It's odd that this helped me in my business life, but the lessons learned are extremely relevant to my work today. As chairman, I had to harvest the collective thinking and ideas of all the groups' members and put them into action by making a winning argument in front of the school's decision makers.

AIESEC [a French acronym for The International Association of Students in Economics and Commerce] was another group that I was involved in. Through AIESEC, I met the head of consumer projects for Disney Entertainment in South-East Asia. He invited me to spend the summer after my junior year in Singapore, helping to develop a business plan and financials for a new business they were seeking to launch in Asia. Most of my success today is related to my ability to abstract and model life. Classes helped develop these skills, but these extra-curricular activities allowed me to put them in action.

  • How did you get involved in Snapfish?

I heard that they were looking for someone with business-development experience. I just called them on the cell phone and told them I was interested in the position.

  • How many hours do you work a week?

When I started at Snapfish, it was 100 hours. Now it's around 60 to 70 hours a week.

But how do you define work? If you include travel and extra time spent emailing late at night, it's probably more than that. Since our profile was heightened significantly when Hewlett-Packard purchased us, there is a lot more to do, with all the opportunities now available. It's a lot more hectic for me.

  • What skills are valued in your field?

There are three skills that have served me well. First, I enjoy working and am not deterred by 100-hour work weeks. Second, I am very data driven and am comfortable with numbers. Excel models with many variables are a good thing (laughs). Third, when I am passionate about something, I can effectively convey this, whether I'm applying for a job opportunity or pitching a product or company.

  • What's the best career strategy for undergrads who want to do what you're doing?

There are many paths, but try to work for an operating company sooner rather than later. Investment-banking and consulting jobs should be very brief stepping stones at best.

  • For graduating seniors deciding between a job offer with an established company, or launching or joining a start-up, which would you suggest?

There is no one answer that works for everyone. If you're going to be cog in a line of people at the company, and your entrepreneurial idea is good, why not go for it? But if you have no background in the business you're thinking about launching and are not sure how to get things done, it might be best to take the offer. My best experience was when I worked as a consultant for Disney, which is a very established company. I had the benefit of being able to work and learn at the same time. But it's never clear-cut and depends on the circumstances.

  • What tips for success do you have for college students with similar ambitions?

There are two things. First, work very hard. Second, don't plan. Some people focus too hard on the five-year plan. But that's absurd. You are better able to seize opportunities as they come if you're not tied down by a set course.

  • What's the best advice you ever received?

My parents take great pride in a story about how my father scolded my sister for being a bad piano player every day when he came home. He wasn't supportive, and didn't sugar coat. He was simply honest with my sister that she had no talent. Eventually she quit. The message is this: knowing what you are good at and using that focus is good contrarian advice.

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