Paul Orfalea on Creating the Kinko's Brand (2024)

Paul Orfalea

Paul Orfalea is the founder of Kinko's, a philanthropist, and a serial entrepreneur. He is a visiting professor in the Global and International Studies Department of the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) and the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business. He founded Kinkos in 1970 with a $5,000 bank loan co-signed by his parents. He ultimately grew the business into 1,200 locations and 23,000 employees in ten different countries. Paul established the Orfalea Family Foundation, which is focused on enriching early childhood, education, and youth development opportunities.

In this interview, he talks about what inspired him to start Kinko's, what challenges he had, how to best network online and offline, and more.

What inspired you to start Kinko's and what was your vision for it?

I grew up in an extended family of entrepreneurs. That’s a big part of Lebanese culture – you don’t get a job; you start a business. So I was trained from an early age to look for opportunity. In college, I was mystified by the reserved book room in the library. Lots of anxious students desperate to get their hands on a scarce resource that didn’t have to be scarce at all. And then they all lined up at the Xerox machine to pay ten cents a page.

Well, anywhere there’s a long line, there’s opportunity. And if the library Xerox machines at USC and UCSB had lines at them, I knew there were hundreds of other colleges and universities with a problem I could solve. That was the original vision – to open stores near colleges and help students get what they needed with a lot less anxiety. It seemed like a huge market. Naturally, as we opened stores and met new kinds of customers with different needs, the vision evolved as opportunities presented themselves.

You had some struggles growing up. How did you overcome them?

There were two types of support very important to my success: One was the support I got from my parents, and the other was the support I provided to my friends.

Among the blessings of my youth were the facts that I couldn’t read, I couldn’t sit still, and I had no natural mechanical ability. Today we know about Dyslexia and ADHD, but in the fifties and sixties I was just a problem to teachers and administrators. My parents knew better; especially my mom. My folks knew ME, whereas the schools – and I went to a lot of them – only knew that I didn’t fit their mold. My parents never lost faith in me. They knew I wasn’t dumb or lazy. They tried everything to help me succeed in school and in life. With the special schools and tutors and counselors, Dad joked that they paid fifty dollars for every word I learned to read. They stuck with me and I think that’s a big reason I never gave up.

But the other kind of support, that which I gave to my friends, was also really important. All success depends on relationships, but for someone who can’t read, can’t sit still, and lacks mechanical ability, relationships are critical. I developed a sixth sense for finding synergy. For example, my friends took exhaustive notes during lectures. I couldn’t take notes, but I listened very attentively. They collected the details, and I garnered the meaning. We needed each other, so I would organize study groups where I provided the pizza or beer or whatever, and we would share information in my learning style, which is spoken word. I learned how to depend on other people, appreciate their strengths, and SHOW my appreciation. That got woven into the Kinko’s culture. As I hired coworkers and then partners, I was never shy about telling people how happy I was to have them with me. Of course we all depend on other people; I think my struggles taught me not to take them for granted.

How can someone develop and grow their network online and offline?

I don’t deal with this so much anymore, and by the time you print an opinion on online networking it will be obsolete anyway, but the basics don’t change: Be helpful, be useful, bring something to the party. Don’t just network because you need something; network because you have something to give. If you join a board, work your ass off. Do the homework.

At the Orfalea Foundation, we’re trying to change the way philanthropy changes the world, and we need a network of partners that want to look at things differently. In online forums or offline meetings, we’re always walking that fine line between the humility that keeps us trying harder and the pride in what we’ve accomplished. Well, if we want people to learn from our mistakes and our triumphs, sometimes we’ll have to brag a little. Candor is the key to all these relationships, because you want an effective network, not just a huge group of self-serving “friends.” Be yourself, and you’ll find the people who are looking for YOU.

When you were hiring workers, what did you look for?

I liked to have very free ranging conversations with prospective coworkers, and it didn’t hurt to have an adult beverage or two. I believe in In Vino Veritas – in wine there is truth. I value candor very much, and it’s hard to get in an interview, because people are too nervous. But really, the interview is where you need candor most, because a bad fit hurts both parties. And the two things I really wanted to learn were these: How do you get along with your family, and how well do you manage your money? Because I’m about to adopt you into MY extended family, and you’re about to manage some of MY money.

Some people don’t like equating business and family, but here’s how the metaphor works for me: you can pick your friends, but you’re stuck with your family. So you better learn how to appreciate people’s strengths and forgive their faults. If you can do that at work, you can be part of a very effective team, because the people feel connected to something greater than themselves. That will help you avoid people who are more interested in managing their careers than in managing the company.

There’s this good quotation from Rabbi Abraham Heschel. He says, "When I was young, I always prized competence over character. But as I've grown old I've come to value character over competence." You can teach people skills, but if someone comes in equipped with frugal habits and the ability to get along with people, you know the new skills they learn will be put to good use.

What three entrepreneurship tips do you have for those who are just starting out?

1. Take an accounting class. Be “on” your business instead of “in” your business. And always remember the advice I read in a fortune cookie: “Your eyes believe what they see; your ears believe others.” You don’t have to do your own accounting, but you need an accounting class because you want to speak the language. No matter how much you love being a designer or a baker or a company president, you won’t really own the company until you understand the accounting.

2. Being “on” rather than “in” your business means you cannot let yourself be consumed by the day-to-day dramas. My father used to say that the mundane is like a cancer. Sure, you need to visit the trenches, but if you live in the trenches you’ll never have time to dream about the future, to see through the customer’s eyes, to identify and remove the obstacles that prevent your coworkers from doing their best for every customer. That’s your job: to see the future, empathize with the customer, and remove obstacles.

3. Earlier I said I was blessed with the inability to sit still. That restlessness really helped me build Kinko’s, because I was out in the stores all the time, seeing the business with my own eyes. Too many executives manage by spreadsheet alone. I think you’ve got to be out in the world, looking for obstacles to remove and new opportunities to exploit. The world doesn’t stand still. Why would you? As much as you crave candor, a lot of people will tell you what they think you want to hear, or what they want you to hear, so get out and see things for yourself. With practice, you’ll learn to see new opportunities everywhere you look.

Dan Schawbel is the managing partner ofMillennial Branding, a Gen Y research and management consulting firm. He is also the #1 international bestselling author of Me 2.0 and was named to the Inc. Magazine 30 Under 30 list in 2010. Subscribe to his updates

Paul Orfalea on Creating the Kinko's Brand (2024)
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