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Secrets of Success: Mark Ahn


There are some “rules” of business success most entrepreneurs abide by. But many also have their own “secrets”—things they do or believe that helped them achieve success. In “Secrets of Success,” a weekly interview series here at’s Small Business Forum, I ask some of today’s smartest, most innovative, most successful business owners to share their insights and success secrets with you.

Meet: Mark Ahn, a biotechnology expert, earned his Ph.D. in Business Administration doing his dissertation on the biotech industry in China. Mark’s specific expertise is on the business side of the industry, and he’s an influential thought leader on the subject of efficient management in biotech companies. His consulting company, Pukana Partners, advises small and large biotech companies on strategic direction and value creation. We asked Mark to share his secrets of success. Why did you start your own business?

Mark Ahn: While working in large multinational companies provided tremendous experience, networks and resources, large firms are also bureaucratic and often unintentionally place the status quo above all else. In large companies, everyone is always for innovation and “smart” risk taking, which usually translates into “don’t take actual risk” for the middle management Mandarins making gatekeeper decisions.

But the avoidance of change is the opposite of leadership. Dante’s vision of hell as “the miserable way taken by the sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace or without praise” provides a warning to the executive who blindly maintains a course of spuriously secure mediocrity.

At first, startups seemed so risky but they really are liberating. Entrepreneurship is about shaping, sharing and collaborating to create value—there’s really nothing more satisfying and rewarding. What’s the best small business advice you ever gave and/or received?

Ahn: A dear mentor taught me that, “Wherever you are is the best place to be.” What he meant was that things and circumstances always change, but choosing to always be learning and advancing rather than lamenting and brooding gives you a greater chance of winning. What’s one “best practice” more entrepreneurs should be embracing?

Ahn: Context matters and is always changing, but surrounding yourself with great people, being a careful listener and empowering them increases your odds of surviving and thriving through the slings and arrows of startup life. More importantly, sharing the journey with a great team is truly its own reward. Do you have a 2015 small business prediction?

Ahn: This is the halcyon era for entrepreneurship in the history of mankind. New insights into the foundations of biology, digital frontier and global capital markets are combining to unleash human imagination and value creation. Entrepreneurship can be taught through pursuit of theory, process and teaching to solve social and economic problems as never before. For example, technology allows us to increase the pace and intensity of product commercialization via techniques such as lean business practices to rapid prototyping and 3D printing. And the JOBS Act allows more rapid crowdsourcing to finance new ideas. What’s your favorite book?

Ahn: Entrepreneurs face many hurdles and work amidst great resource constraints. As a result, resonant stories are required to connect the passion and vision of founders to collective action and resilience. From my perspective, Virgil’s (19 BCE) Latin epic poem The Aeneids stands out both from a values-based leadership perspective in its original context as a founding story, as well as its relevance and implications for the demands of modern leadership.

From a leadership lens, Virgil endows Aeneas with human qualities, portraying him as a heroic yet flawed mortal man who overcomes his doubts and setbacks to ultimately realize his fate. One of the more unique and innovative conventions developed by Virgil was to allow Aeneas to transform from an indecisive, self-doubting victim of circumstance into a supremely confident, charismatic leader who selflessly risks single combat to spare others suffering. Is there a quote you find particularly inspiring?

Ahn: My favorite quote from John Keats is: “I am certain only of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination.” To me, it extolls that leadership provides lasting significance throuh serving a mission or cause higher than yourself, developing high-performing teams and leaders at all levels, and delivering results.