aquent story

How Do You Teach Innovation? My Entrepreneurial Story

A few readers have asked me to post more on my entrepreneurial experience (b.k. — before kids). I co-founded a dorm room enterprise, now called Aquent, with two friends that has grown, now nearly 30 years later, into a mid-sized company (as defined by “less than one billion in sales but larger than one hundred million”).

history of Aquent, aquent: innovation culture, John Chuang, Mia Wenjen

It does feel like a different era now that I spend most of my time blogging, but starting my company also feels like just yesterday. The foundation of our business was the new Macintosh computer and desktop publishing software (PageMaker) that we learned to publish a liberal political magazine back in 1986.

MacIntosh 128k, first macintosh computer

The computerized version was less costly and time-consuming than the old way of waxing up galleys into place.

John Chuang of Aquent on creating culture of innovation

One of my partners, John Chuang, now the CEO.

From there, we won the contract to typeset the Harvard Business School student newspaper and saved the earnings — a whopping $5000 — to buy a used laser printer from a Harvard Business School student who had worked for Apple. We set up a laser printing store where we rented out our computers and laser printer. It was called LaserDesigns and it was in the heart of Harvard Square.

Laser Designs Corporation, MacTemps, AquentThe sign is a funny because we rented two ratty rooms down the hall from each other, but we thought big in the early days!

Our next idea was to start a temp agency staffing folks (MacTemps) who knew how to use the MacIntosh computer. It wasn’t just any computer, we messaged to clients, so don’t hire someone who thinks word processing is desktop publishing! (The horror!)
photo (5)

During our senior year of college we asked our parents sign their houses against a business loan that we took out. Don’t worry mom and dad! We have the Accounts Receivables to pay off the loan. Your money is never in danger; we just need working capital. And they did it. It took just one call to my mom! (Thanks mom!)

MacTemps co-founders in 1987

Here we are in 1987.

Five years later after expanding into Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, London (why not go European!), Chicago and Atlanta, we made the Inc. 500 List for Fastest Growing Private Company. I was 26 at the time and in my first year of business school at UCLA’s Anderson School. Those were heady times but also insane as all three of us co-founders were in business school and trying to run the business at the same time. I would do board meetings from a pay phone on the professor floor of the business school (no cell phones back then!).

history of Aquent, aquent: innovation culture, John Chuang, Mia Wenjen

history of Aquent, aquent: innovation culture, John Chuang, Mia Wenjen

MacTemps is 4th from the bottom, clocking in at #12. We were part of “The Upstarts”.

history of Aquent, aquent: innovation culture, John Chuang, Mia Wenjen

We made the Boston Business Journal’s Top 100 Largest Private Company list too.

My lessons for would-be entrepreneurs are:history of Aquent, aquent: innovation culture, John Chuang, Mia Wenjen

  • Don’t do it for the money.We think of our business as a laboratory for creative entrepreneurship. Our focus has always been on learning and improving but we also did things just because it was a cool idea that had to be tried. Extra points if everyone thinks it’s hilarious. It was never for the money.
  • Go off the beaten track. Starting your own business wasn’t the cool thing to do after graduating in 1987. No one envied our career choices back then.
  • Embrace failure. Fail often, and learn from your mistakes.
  • The money will follow your passion; it will just take time. I would say that it takes 5 years minimum to gain traction on pretty much anything, be it a rock band or a new business.
  • If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. And you will be thinking about your business 24 hours a day.
  • Enjoy the ride. It’s all about the journey; not the destination. There are ups and downs and frequent moments of self-doubt and you just have to grind it out. You can’t rely on external motivation; there will be none. In this rapidly changing marketplace, success is also fleeting. Be prepared to destroy what made you successful in order to stay relevant.

history of Aquent, aquent: innovation culture, John Chuang, Mia Wenjen

My partner, CEO John Chuang, talks about the importance of creating a culture of innovation. This pep talk is due to an upcoming move for our headquarters from traditional assigned cubes to a new hotelling office space design where you have a locker and zones to work in but no assigned spot. The new zones include a library, meeting huts, a Starbucks-like cafe area, a hidden room, and a pergola area.

history of Aquent, aquent: innovation culture, John Chuang, Mia Wenjen

This is our current space which we have been in for nearly twenty years. The new space is designed by architects who also worked on Google space. Not surprisingly, change is hard and this new design and way of working will take some adjusting for everyone.

history of Aquent, aquent: innovation culture, John Chuang, Mia Wenjen

history of Aquent, aquent: innovation culture, John Chuang, Mia Wenjen

But luckily John Chuang can convince almost anyone to take a leap of faith and make the change. Here he is. Is he convincing enough?

Books for Kids with Entrepreneurial Leanings

Aquent MacTemps cofounders 30 years after founding company in 2015

Here we are in 2015.

Do your kids have an entrepreneurial bent? Even if they don’t, just talking about it helps open their minds to the possibilities. I know because I have one young entrepreneur who lives and breathes money, one art-y daughter who we taught the art of negotiation for her art, and my son who likes to give away his money.

What do I talk about with my kids? Follow the lead of your child. With PickyKidPix, we talk simple interest vs. compound interest, who owns the money, franchise vs. company owned stores, stocks vs bonds vs gold as investment tool.

With my daughter, we talk pricing for art: it’s what the market will bear. The art of negotiation: let the other person make the first offer.

With my son, we opened a lemonade stand.

How about you? Do you talk money with your kids? Can you add to my booklist? Thanks!


Bunny Money by Rosemary Wells

Money can just fly out the door if you’re not careful! Ruby has her hands full when she takes Max shopping! The key characteristic for an entrepreneur is DELAYED GRATIFICATION! That’s saving and reinvesting rather than cashing out and spending!! [picture book, ages 4 and up]

Alexander Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday by Judith Viorst

Saving versus spending and what Alexander learns after getting a windfall. [picture book, ages 4 and up]

The Monster Money Book by Loreen Leedy

This picture book goes over the basics of starting a business including explaining revenue, cost of goods sold and, most importantly, profit! [non-fiction, ages 6 and up]

A Smart Girl’s Guide to Money: How to Make It, Save It, and Spend It (American Girl Series) by Nancy Holyoke

I think personal for finance is an important skill to learn young and this book is perfect for girls. [non-fiction, ages 8 and up]

Guerilla Marketing: Easy and Inexpensive Strategies for Making Big Profits from Your Small Business by Jay Conrad Levinson

I ended up getting a degree in Entrepreneurial Marketing from UCLA’s Anderson School but this book taught me everything I needed to know and gave me the confidence to go out there and just try stuff. [non-fiction, ages 14 and jpu]

To examine any book more closely at Amazon, please click on image of book.

aquent story

I am an Amazon affiliate which means if you buy anything through my blog, I get a very small kickback at no cost to you. I use this money to pay the postage and handling for my giveaways.

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By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. What a great story you have! I love the books you have recommended here, too!
    maryanne recently posted…Black Bean Mosaic Art for KidsMy Profile

  2. Jim Westcott

    You have quite an interesting background, Mia. Awesome story!

  3. Wow! I knew you were an entrepreneur with a business in your early career, but didn’t realize the depth of what you and your friends accomplished. That’s what I love about young people. They only see possibilities. You certainly did. And, your parents believed in you — big time. What a wonderful experience for you. I enjoyed the lessons for would-be entrepreneurs as they are really applicable to all life. The video was interesting and I liked your suggested books. You know one day you’re going to have one of your kids come to you and say “Mom, I need you to sign over your house against a business loan that I want to take out….” 🙂
    Patricia Tilton recently posted…Hattie Ever After by Kirby LarsonMy Profile

  4. Fantastic story, Mia. I remember the bulky computer! This is inspirational to read your journey and although the world has changed a lot in terms of globalization and communication tools, the one aspect that remains true is the passion. I don’t think anything can be done without the spark that ignites the fire and the passion to maintain its intensity. And it can be applied to any business fied. Certainly for writers and artists at large too. Great story, Mia.
    evelyne holingue recently posted…I Have the Hen’s Bumps or a Month of French Idioms From A to ZMy Profile

    • Thanks so much Eveylyne,
      I think our passion was in using entrepreneurship as an empty canvas for creativity and self-expression which is a weird way to think about starting a business but that is what it ended up being. But, it did make me question why I was doing that particular line of business and to try a lot of other different kinds of businesses. I think finding your passion is the most important thing for kids and teens to uncover and to pursue as adults.
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Teaching Kids About Money TWITTER PARTYMy Profile

  5. I adore your blog, already. After reading your inspiring story, my admiration has reached a new high.
    Ambika S recently posted…Shape by Shape – Suse MacDonald (2009)My Profile

  6. I loved reading about the entrepreneurial part of your life. I completely agree with your comment toward the end about starting to teach about finance at a young age. Visiting from the KLBH.
    Tiffiny recently posted…Educational Ways to Play with Plastic Easter EggsMy Profile

    • Thanks so much Tiffiny,
      It’s surprising that the schools don’t focus on personal finance but I think they are starting to. My kids are learning about saving money through bribery — I match their savings but they can’t take it out until college age but it’s still hard to get them motivated.
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Teaching Kids About Money TWITTER PARTYMy Profile

  7. Congratulations on recognizing an opportunity and taking a gamble on it! There is no underestimating the value of being willing to travel a different path. Thanks for sharing on the Kid Lit Blog Hop!

  8. That is totally awesome! I\’m really really impressed! 😀

  9. Great post Mia, useful and inspirational to as a mum and new owner of a small business – thanks!

  10. Renee MDBR

    What an incredible story Mia and thank you for sharing your tips. I agree with all of your lessons learned including how failure is an important part of the process and being motivated intrinsically by loving what you do and not focusing on making money. The only thing I would add (and I’m sure you could have shared way more!) is aligning with people who share your philosophy and ethics. You really do need to have the right people to work with. Thanks for sharing in the Kid Lit Blog Hop.

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