Making Breakthrough Ideas a Reality

Head Start Gives Litman a Leg Up

CLA Today - Winter 2001-2002
by Mary Shafer

Heading toward the huge red doors looming at the end of the stark, 50-yard-long hall on the fifth floor of the Minneapolis Hyatt, you might feel as if you had just blown in from Kansas.

What you find on the other side of those doors--an ultramodern riot of blue, purple, red, yellow, and black curved walls and circular furniture--isn't Oz. But neither is it your father's company headquarters.

And it certainly isn't your average CEO who runs the place.

The company is Imaginet, Inc. and the CEO is Scott Litman ('91, history), who founded it in 1994 and has nurtured it into a multimillion-dollar consulting firm that counts Fortune 1000 firms among its clients.

Along the way, the 34-year-old Litman has picked up some fame. CityBusiness magazine, which included him on its 2000 list of "40 under 40" promising young professionals, also lists Imaginet as one of 11 "great places to work" in the Twin Cities. And right now Litman and his business partner Dan Mallin are finalists in the Ernst and Young Minnesota and Dakotas Entrepreneur of the Year competition, whose winner will be announced in June.

If you ask him, though, what has meant the most among his various accomplishments, Litman picks up a small, clear cube he received in 1987 when he headed a team of five U of M students who competed in Apple Computer's national collegiate "Design the Computer of the Year 2000" program. From among 2,000 entries, the Minnesota team placed third, selected by a panel that included author Ray Bradbury and Apple founder Steve Wozniak.

At the time, Litman was a 21-year-old history major. Indeed, he says, it's been the combination of a zeal for technology and a well-rounded education that has fueled his success.

His decision to attend the U was never a difficult one, says Litman, who sports maroon and gold genes. "As a little kid, I'd go to Memorial Stadium to watch the game with my dad. My mother, grandparents, uncles, aunts, family members all went to the U. It was kind of like, Why would I go anywhere else?"

"I have a great education for what I do," says Litman, who minored in speech communication. "History is a great major, because it gives you a wealth of content to draw on. It's amazing how often people make decisions without knowledge of the decisions people made before them.

"When I entered the U, I couldn't give a three-minute speech. Now I do public speaking all the time. My ease has everything to do with my speech-comm minor."

As for the technology piece, "The computer industry was just starting when I was growing up," says Litman. "I read every book about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and then represented the U in the Project 2000 competition and met some of the industry leaders. "Six months later I was working for Microsoft." It was the kind of head start that Litman says is available to every University undergraduate.

"One of best pieces of advice I've ever gotten was from my brother, who went to the U (journalism '88) and is now a sports director for WCCO. He took advantage of the strong Twin Cities business community by putting in a couple of years in the real world during his undergraduate days. Because of that, he got hired immediately after getting out of school.

"I did the same thing, thanks to his advice. By the time I was 24, I was ahead of the game. Meeting people and getting networked are great ways to learn whether the path you're on is the one you want." Finding a good fit

Imaginet's own path has taken some detours in its brief life. From an initial focus on digital printing, Litman soon retooled his company to provide broader Web services, a move that attracted some big-name companies, including 3M.

In 1997, Litman sold Imaginet to 3M spinoff Imation, but the formal corporate culture and Imaginet's decidedly casual one were not a good fit. Within 18 months, Litman and his business partners took the company private again.

In January, the partners sold Imaginet again, this time to the British firm WPP, a move that Litman thinks is not only a much better fit, but also a good strategy in the current business climate.

"Dealing with rapid growth is a piece of cake compared to this, where demand is paralyzed," he says. "Our strategy is to play defense. We know we are valuable, that things we do represent good investments.

"We'll be a survivor. And for those who survive, there will be boom times again."