Ag Springboard keynoter to students: Be CEOs of your own lives

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Risk. Fail. Pivot. Repeat. This is the advice of Todd Erdley, the co-founder and CEO of Videon, for student entrepreneurs.

Erdley spoke Thursday evening at the Nittany Lion Inn during the Ag Springboard awards banquet, at which students pitching a new pasta fortified with cricket flour won $7,500 and first place and students pitching a patent-pending scope for use on multiple rifles won $2,500 and second place in the student business pitch contest.

Ag Springboard is the signature competition of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program at the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Teams of students pitch their business concept in the agricultural sciences to a panel of judges for a chance to win $7,500 to fund their company.

Erdley founded Videon, a State College tech company with a huge global impact.

Videon develops software for different technology companies including Intel, Samsung and LG. Videon software is used in products such as DVD players, Blu-ray, Chromecast and Google TV. More than 30 million devices use Videon’s media technology.

However, like most entrepreneurs, Erdley did not start off a success.

“I stand before you as a failure,” Erdley said. “I stand before you as an entrepreneur who failed miserably. I stand before you as someone who didn’t have the luxury of what you’re doing right now. You’re entrepreneurs. Congratulations.”

After selling his first start-up company, Erdley said he ended up $1 million in debt. The venture capitalists he sold his company to completely disappeared, taking everything of worth with them — computers, desks, phones — and left him and his business partner buried in debt.

“This was truly the greatest moment of my life from a professional standpoint. I realized when the company was going down and the money was running out, the concept of power and money didn’t matter. It was all gone,” Erdley said. “And what I did realize was, as long as I have my family, my friends, my health and my moral tenets, you can’t touch me. I’m okay. I’m invincible.”

Thus came into play the risk, fail, pivot, repeat philosophy. Erdley realized that this pattern had been repeatedly coming up in his life, and that it was going to continue to be the sequence of events that made entrepreneurship so addictive.

“Emphasizing failure is really important because a lot of students don’t realize what you can learn from failure and how those failures are just great stories in your journey,” said Deanna Spaniel, one of the four final-round judges in reaction to Erdley’s keynote speech. Spaniel won Ag Springboard in 2016 with specialty potato chips made from colorful potato varieties. She is an agribusiness student at the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Erdley also emphasized throughout his talk how anyone can succeed in the entrepreneurship space, as well as how anyone can be a CEO, whether that is a CEO of a company or the CEO of his or her own life.

He said a CEO is someone who is trying to balance the purpose of the company, the vision of the company and the mission of the company. Purpose, vision and mission are also three things that he said drive everyone through life.

“How many of you are going through life right now defining who you are by your purpose? How many of you have a vision for where you might go, and how many of you are exhibiting your mission in how you walk through life to go where you’re going?”

When Erdley faced $1 million in debt and needed a new path, he said all he did was ask his dad for $3,500, get on a flight out to the West Coast and start knocking on people’s doors, asking for money in exchange for engineering services.

Two days before the two-week deadline he had given these investors, $10,000 showed up.

“Three thousand five hundred dollars, a plane ticket, knocking on doors, taking a chance and just going for it. Every single one of you can get your hands on $3,500,” Erdley said. “Every single one of you can go knock on doors and go say, ‘Hey, I have an ask. My ask is your money in exchange for something.’”

Erdley then discussed his company’s most recent pivot from being an entirely service-based company to now being a company that also sells products.

“His talking about how you have to pivot when things don’t go the way you expect was really beneficial,” Lauriel Stewart, of team Pasta 2050, said. “You just have to look at it in a different way, turn it a different direction and keep going.”

At the beginning of his talk, Erdley asked how many CEOs were in the audience, and only a few people raised their hands. By the end, everyone raised their hands after Erdley had instilled confidence in the audience’s capacity to be the CEOs of their own lives by embracing every opportunity that comes to them through following the risk, fail, pivot philosophy.

“Each of you have a particular amplitude on your willingness to take a risk, your ability to fail, and your desire to pivot,” Erdley said. “I need each of you to be a CEO that has a vision, a mission and a purpose.”

Last Updated April 17, 2017