AURORA — Without Kevin Miles, Wells College student Trysten McLaughlin believes he likely wouldn't be where he is today.
Miles is the director of the Susan Wray Sullivan '55 and Pike H. Sullivan Center for Business and Entrepreneurship at the Aurora private college. McLaughlin said he had formally looked into "the sports management side, front office marketing stuff" before taking Miles' entrepreneurship class last year and "found a niche" of solving problems with ideas.
"I don't even think I'd be down the entrepreneurship route without Kevin," McLaughlin said.
As the co-founder of the consulting groups SEMA Corp. and Avantras Group, Inc. and a business teacher at Wells, Miles is no stranger to helping companies and students innovate. Originally from Philadelphia, he has launched 11 start-up businesses across six states and countries such as Germany and Aruba, according to his biography on the Wells website
Radical, sweeping changes that disrupt industries — such as the advent of the iPod made by Apple in the early 2000s — may be what people think of when they think of innovation, Miles said, but the most common and successful type of innovation is incremental innovation, or small changes in technology or improving on existing circumstances, such as better customer service.
Through his consulting work, and guiding Wells students through their entrepreneurial efforts, Miles has observed that feedback from a wide variety of people assists entrepreneurs, so he encourages students to seek constructive feedback for their ideas. Miles said that while meeting billionaire Sir Richard Branson at the World Business Forum a few years ago, Branson told him that sometimes people fall in love with their ideas while inventing things. Don't just assume customers are immediately going to pay something for an idea if it is manufactured or produced, Miles said.
Miles emphasizes the idea of getting feedback on their ideas from people from they don't know. "Feedback loops" are developed in a number of Wells business classes, Miles said, so students are tasked with asking questions of strangers who are their potential customers in order to get to get constructive feedback on their concepts. Student have told Miles on countless occasions that they get nervous questioning the first few people, he said, but students get more comfortable with the process as they continue gathering important data. Once that data is gathered, students continue in their plans for their product or idea or they look at it differently based on their feedback.
Another idea Miles tries to emphasize is following through on your pursuits and not giving up. Wells tries to help business students become more comfortable as they learn more and gain a better understanding of how the "entrepreneurial ecosystem works," Miles said.
"They realize these are the steps to take, these are the kinds of contacts, and so they see this structure or semi-structure of these programs or opportunities out there, and when they meet people who we contact them with, whether they be investors or be people to help them continue developing their idea, then they get more comfort," Miles said. "There is risk with any new business, but the fact is an innovate entrepreneur who has really spent the time and worked through it and gone through this process that we teach them, they actually lower the risk because of the knowledge that they gain and the skills they gain and the steps they take."
McLaughlin, who won a category of a business idea competition at Wells last year with Cell, a headband with sensors that would detect if someone has a concussion, said he has put Miles' teachings on feedback into practice, conducting over 100 interviews over the summer so he can apply that feedback to Cell. Cell was also in a state business competition as well.
McLaughlin said Miles' guidance has been invaluable, as he is in his professor's office at least an hour a day. McLaughin considers Miles a mentor, adding that Cell was born from an entrepreneurship class with Miles, in which McLaughlin and others were tasked to come up with an idea that would serve as a solution to a challenge.
"He wants to see his students succeed,' McLaughlin said of Miles. "You can really feel that when you're working with him by just all the different opportunities he displays for you, all the different connections you can get from him. Even if he might not have the exact knowledge of a certain area, he can still get the connections you need and will work with you,."
McLaughlin is in his last semester at Wells, and plans to continue working on Cell once he graduates. He said he will talk with his team members for Cell and miles about potential grant opportunities. Miles said he is trying to convince McLaughlin to set up shop in Cayuga County. Miles said that while McLaughlin is open to opportunities for investors for Cell, he pointed out "you don't have to live where the investors live."
Attracting and keeping businesses in the area is of big interest to Miles. He is on the board of the Cayuga Economic Development Agency, which is developing strategic workforce plans and working with local entrepreneurs.
"What we're trying to do is get everyone together who has these ideas, we'll invest the effort and hopefully have the contacts so we can work with both the private sector and the public sector," he said.
He said it is important to have an ongoing dialogue with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, local politicians, investors, those who have contacts with investors and those who support entrepreneurship so innovators can be kept within the state and more specifically, in and around Cayuga County. He said he believes the agency is doing a good job of providing grants and financial rewards for projects within the county.
Miles said he wants to work with the the next generation of entrepreneurs.
"Entrepreneurs and business owners, successful, retired, whatever the case may be, the vast majority of them are willing to help others and share information. And we need to make sure that the people who have these ideas or have these dreams not only develop the skills and knowledge to pursue the dream, but also the comfort of reaching out to those people who can mentor them, support them, make contacts for them and be able to successfully pursue their dream. That's what our goal is here," Miles said