Gary Hoover

Austin entrepreneur never stops asking the big questions

Entrepreneur Gary Hoover has more than 55,000 books in his private library, and if he stacked them, he says they would tower more than twice as high as the tallest building in America.

"It's out of control," he said. "If I was addicted to anything else, they would throw me in jail."

Hoover founded specialty bookstore chain Bookstop Inc. in the 1970s. In the 1990s, he founded what would become business information publisher Hoover's Inc. He has lectured at The University of Texas' McCombs School of Business and mentored startups.

He said his passion for learning began early. At age 12—an age when his peers were reading about cars and horses—he asked his parents for a subscription to Fortune magazine.

At school, he was learning about leadership strategies and decision-making styles.

"I thought it was fascinating, and I held up my hand and said, 'What about General Motors? Can you tell me about them because they seem real important?'" he said.

In high school, he visited any business or corporate office he could find and asked for an interview.

He would walk in the door with his paper tablet and ask his questions: Do you like what you do? What is the worst part of your job? What do you look for when you are hiring someone?

After graduating high school, he studied economics at the University of Chicago.

While Hoover values his college education, he warns would-be entrepreneurs that the classroom can only provide a very small element of what they need to learn.

"We've been mistaken to confuse education with the classroom," he said.

He stresses the importance of conversation, observation, experimentation and critical thinking.

His own first venture was Bookstop, a success inspired by the business concept of Toys R Us. Toys R Us is a specialty store, not a general merchandise store, and offers a large selection of one category type marked by low prices.

When doing his research in the 1970s, Hoover was convinced he could adapt the method into a bookstore.

He moved to Austin 30 years ago and opened Bookstop. Within seven years, the venture went coast-to-coast.

"Then a venture capitalist fired me and sold it to Barnes & Noble," he said.

Bookstop was sold for $41.5 million. He began his second venture success, The Reference Press, which was renamed (not by him, he notes) as Hoover's Inc.

After going public, the company was purchased for $117 million.

The next businesses did not go as well. When airlines cut away at commission to travel agents, TravelFest quickly died, temporarily destroying Hoover's personal finances. Then Hoover tried what he describes as his best idea, a chain of private, for-profit museums.

Again, he began with research, visiting 400 museums worldwide. He is convinced the concept could have worked, but he never raised more than half the money he needed because of the recession.

Hoover has spoken thousands of times on entrepreneurship and before business audiences throughout the world. He preaches what he calls the "liberal arts approach" to business, and that means accounting and marketing are less important than sociology and psychology—not unimportant, just less so.

In his opinion, what separates winners from losers in business is an obsession with the customer. He said nothing else matters beyond making a great product or service that gets better every day.

"It's pretty straightforward," he said. "General Motors for their 100th birthday went bankrupt, and in their glory days they made the best cars in the world."

"By the tale, they were obsessed with their quarterly profits, and then they had no profits," he continued. "So they totally wiped out their shareholders because it ain't about profit. It's about great cars. If you make great cars, you'll make a lot of money."