A Conversation with Tim Muth

Tim Muth, Florida Tech Instructor, has a long, successful career in the academic and private sectors, but it’s his experiences beyond the classroom that have taught him the most.

“Doing some things outside the norm can come back to benefit you. While I think I’ve helped with other folks, it’s taught me ten times more than I’ve ever given anybody else. So sometimes in volunteering your time, it’s hard to see how it’s going to come back and help you, but it really does.”

We spoke to him about Florida Tech’s MBA online, what it takes to be an entrepreneur, his extensive international experience and more.

What do you enjoy about teaching students in the MBA program online?

As an instructor, it’s a lot of fun, because these are real life things they’re doing. They bring practical experience into the classroom. The questions they ask you are on a much different level. I love the interaction between the students because in many cases, somebody will bring up some comments, and somebody else has already experienced that, and they’ll just talk about it on the discussion board. So they’re exchanging information, and I learn stuff that way.

They’re more motivated because they’re older, their time and their money is valuable, so they want to get something out of it. They’re actionable, they’re gonna do something with what they’re learning.

How can students best reach out to faculty members?

In terms of reaching out, how I tell them is – if you have a question, ask somebody. You’re going to find that the Bisk folks, the Florida Tech folks, in general, are going to help you, but if you don’t ask us, we don’t know what to do. If I don’t know the answer I’ll try to find somebody who can help. Just reach out, let somebody know.

And don’t hide in the shadows. I think in every class there’s always like five or six students who stand out just because they’ve written to you a couple times. You start to get to know them because they’re corresponding with you, and other students are really good students but you don’t hear too much on a personal basis from them. So email your professor – make up the question or whatever – just to try to establish that relationship.

What skills should entrepreneurs have to be successful?

What we stress is the entrepreneurial mindset. A lot of us are never going to start our own business. Even in larger companies, some people take initiative more, come up with ideas, drive new products, new features and stuff. So even having that mindset – openness to new ideas and willingness to try things, sometimes you don’t always succeed, but you learn and you go on. An entrepreneur can be any place: big companies, medium-sized companies, small, new; it really is more about your thought process.

Some of the traits that I see are:

  • A willingness to try new things
  • An openness to admit you don’t know everything and there are different ways of doing stuff
  • Persistence – that even if things don’t work out the way you thought the first time, you’ve got to keep going
  • You enjoy learning from – maybe failure’s maybe too strong of a word – but from things that didn’t work and improving and going forward
  • It also helps to have a tough skin too – don’t take things too personally.

Why is it important to go outside your comfort zone?

I tell the kids in the class, there’s a risk when you stick your head out and do things. I came up through a corporate career, but what I always tried to do was to volunteer for things that were outside my area of expertise. People saw that you could do more than just this little box – you could use your skill sets in different areas. And to me personally that was a much more rewarding career because I got to do a lot of different things. I got to travel to a lot of different places. Where, if I had done the same job for thirty years, I would have gone nuts.

What you see today isn’t going to be your career 10 years from now or 20 years from now. It’s going to be a different marketplace, and you’ve got to always keep your antenna up and understand the trends and what’s changing around you so that you continually learn things, you’re updated, you’re not surprised by things when they change. You’re thinking a step or two ahead.

Can you tell me about the different approaches to creating a business plan?

Business plans are typically really big, complex documents, which are trying to forecast 5-10 years in the future before you actually start your business, build your product, engage any customers.

This other line of thinking, they call it the “lean startup,” is all about going out and testing your hypothesis before you spend a lot of money and a lot of time on a business plans. In some of our MBA classes, we teach the Business Model Canvas, which is under the lean startup approach. Business Model Canvas is a good approach to testing things out, because usually you don’t know exactly what you want to do before you start. Even if you know what you want to do, you don’t know if people are going to buy it.

I urge you to get outside your office, outside the classroom, go talk to potential customers, people, and that you get a lot of feedback, you build prototypes quickly rather than spending millions of dollars on prototypes – spend $100 and go get some feedback from people.

Uber, Airbnb, all those guys, they had to adjust their businesses as they went along. So, this model is more aligned to helping you build it gradually and not investing tons of money and endless amounts of time, and hoping at the end that you got the right product.

Now, for someone like Kyle, he was pretty advanced, he did some testing more unofficially, and his fiancée was a physician’s assistant just sort of doing some things in that field.

Watch the story of Kyle Graham, MBA grad, who was encouraged by Muth to start his own business. Read an interview with Graham here.

He needed finance to buy machines for his office where they remove tattoos, do facials, Botox, that kind of stuff. They’re not going to just go on a whim. He needed to have enough detail to convince a bank to lend him money to show that he knew what he was doing and they’d get paid back.

The document was similar to what we do with the MBAs. It walks you through all the functional areas of business, so you’ve got to look at the marketing plan, you’ve got to look at the manufacturing plan, delivering services, you have to look at the facilities, you’ve got to run financial statements. It’s a much more involved, detailed document, but by that time you should have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to do, which he was at that point.

So, the two can work hand in hand. With the very early stage folks, we’re pushing them now more towards the Business Model Canvas, which is not as detailed in the traditional stages.

Can you tell me about your experience with weVENTURE?

weVENTURE is a non-profit organization tucked into Florida Tech. It’s partially funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration, and the main aim is to provide business advice, counseling, mentoring to small or medium-sized women-owned businesses. Some of them, it goes all the way from the gamut of someone wanting to start a janitorial supply business to very technical, complex products that would be sold to Kennedy Space Center.

This one lady, she has an engineering degree from Florida Tech, and an MBA from here, but she loves animals, so she started one of these doggie daycare things, but it has just exploded. It went from just dropping dogs off to now she has a yard where they run, and she’s got like a swimming pool there. I was over there touring a couple weeks ago and every room has got different themes, like a Star Wars theme. Some of them have TVs so you can monitor your dog 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The business just keeps growing. And I remember dealing with her when she was just starting off. She did 99.99% of it herself, but you feel like in some small part you help.

There was another one where I was a mentor for this guy who owns a pizza restaurant in town that’s very, very successful, and he’s now expanded in the Orlando marketplace.

So what we do with these folks: they run a really great restaurant, but their knowledge is limited in some areas. Maybe it’s a financial area, or maybe it’s marketing. Maybe just banking relationships. When they try to go to that next size, sometimes they struggle. We help bridge the gap in those areas.

While I think I’ve helped with other folks, it’s taught me ten times more than I’ve ever given anybody else. So sometimes in volunteering your time, it’s hard to see how it’s going to come back and help you, but it really does.

How do you apply experiential learning in the classroom?

I try to encourage students to do the work, do the readings and stuff like that, but I try to use the classroom and do experiential things. So in this one class, International Business, it spans eight weeks, and each student in my class gets five teammates. Each teammate is from a different country and a different college. And over an eight-week time period, they work on a global, virtual team, so they have to put together a report – usually it’s marketing research, if some company wants to go into a country that they haven’t been before. So while it’s a real, live international business project, most of it is students learning how to work on a virtual team.

A global view of the students’ locations. Image from Florida Tech’s Flickr

A lot of lessons come out by doing these things, that’s why I like experiential learning. For my students, I think it sticks with them better when they learn by doing things.

Students communicating via Facebook. Image from Florida Tech’s Flickr.

Tell me more about your international experience.

It was about 20 years of my corporate career that I traveled, extensively in Asia and in Europe. Probably 40 different countries. Business dealings, marketing, buying/selling companies, supply chain operations. So I got to experience different cultures, dealing across time zones.

Probably the most interesting was the very first trip to China in 1995. I was going to a country where I heard things about but had never seen – it was so much different when I got there than what I expected. Things were developing so quickly. My view was that it would be very, very backwards, but in Shanghai and Beijing and other cities – they were very crowded, and there were people on bikes and stuff, there also were cars, high-rise buildings.

I stayed in a Western hotel, so I could have been in any place in the world. I got very high-quality service. There were American restaurants, or people imitating American restaurants at that time we were over there. I went in the mall in Shanghai, and there were models modeling clothes and very expensive jewelry. It couldn’t reconcile with what I was thinking about Communism and what they were going through. It’s not always what you hear from the outside, the way things are operating.

For the last ten years, about every year or so, I’d take an international trip, and a lot of them. They have a program in the United States called CIBER (Center for International Business Education and Research). They take professors at different parts of the world, and usually about two-week trips and on the trips you go to businesses, universities, non-profit organizations, and what we call “cultural visits,” or having fun. I’ve been able to go to a couple African countries, South America, some European countries. It gets you into places you wouldn’t normally get into as a tourist. Like I remember one, when we went to South Africa, we got to go into a diamond mine. They talked about how they mine the diamonds, what the next process is, then they get cut, then they get sold. I’m a very visual person, so the more I saw, the more I understood how it works. It’s helped me a lot in the classroom, and personally from an understanding standpoint.

I’m also involved with a charity in Haiti. I make several trips a year to Haiti and do work down there. It’s a non-profit thing; we’re based around faith-based education.

The more you get to travel to places, it just helps you fit in. I think it made me more open to differences: differences of opinion, different viewpoints in the world.

Tim Muth’s book recommendation: The Travels of a T-Shirt: Global Economy, by Pietra Rivoli.

What is your one last piece of advice you’d give future professionals?

I’ve just found it’s things outside the formals that have made big differences in my career. The volunteering outside of the classroom. Every once per year I audit a course on campus I know absolutely nothing about. I usually embarrass myself because I’ll have some students in there.

One time, I took a History of Pop Music from 1900 to 2000-something. I remember the second day of class, the teacher made us do a rap. And you had to make a presentation about your favorite artist, and mine was John Denver, and I actually brought the record album in and talked about it. Things like that, I’ve been able to take things away from that. I didn’t know how it was going to help me, but it has, and I would encourage people: take every opportunity as a learning opportunity, don’t be afraid to try new things, don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself – no one can do worse than me!

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