My father, at age 40, decided to leave the insurance industry, and start a company with two partners. He left behind the expense accounts, stability, safety, etc., to follow his dream. I watched every step of the journey, good, and not so good. I watched them build a company from an idea to going public on the “big board.” I watched them do it again and again. Whether genetic, environmental, or inspirational, I always knew that I would be an entrepreneur.
Even as a young kid, I had a natural attraction to business ideas. At 12 years old, I was looking out of our condo, 45 floors over Oak Street Beach in Chicago (yes, there are beaches in Chicago) and saw millions of hot, sweaty people. I figured that they might all like a nice cold piece of watermelon. I grabbed a friend and bought a couple watermelons for a few dollars. I wanted to offer a choice of small or large but I couldn’t figure out how to cut the slices in different sizes and have it work out. I cut them all the same but still offered large for $1 and small for $.50. If anyone asked for small, I would look in the bucket and say that we just ran out. The cool thing was, 100% of the time they upgraded to large. I didn’t realize it, but that was my first marketing lesson. We sold a ton of watermelon. We cleared about $400-$500 a day and for a 12-year-old kid, that was a lot. I was hooked and the rest is history. As a footnote, I do believe this was my most profitable company for many, many years.
Why did you start your business(es)?
- My current company, rFactr, started out of a need, I heard in the marketplace. I had spent several years trying to think of my “big idea.” A chance encounter with my Dad’s business partner changed my view forever. I was waiting for my Dad, and his partner walked in to say “hi.” He asked me what I have been up to, and told him I was trying to think of my big idea. He looked at me with a wrinkled brow and confused look. He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You know, like Post-It Notes or what you guys did.” His face calmed and he gave me a look similar to what you would give a foolish child, and said, “You know it isn’t about the idea, right?” “Your Dad, Larry and I have lots of ideas that could each be a $100-million-dollar company. But, if we gave it to you, it would turn into nothing. You should spend your time trying to figure out what makes a great company and the idea will come to you naturally.”
It was great advice. In 2009, with the economy in shambles, companies were looking for innovative ways to reach potential customers. One of our customers, on the consulting side of the company, was launching a new phone system and didn’t have the budget for the traditional marketing and advertising. They asked us to come up with an innovative solution. We built a heavy-duty platform so that they could enable all 28,000 of their resellers and get them to promote the product via social media channels. It was the most successful sales enablement program they ever ran. We decided to eliminate all other lines of business and focus only on this solution. rFactr was born.
What entrepreneur has most inspired you?
Obviously my father, but, non-family would be Rick Sharp. Rick had an incredible career including, CEO of Circuit City and Chairman of CarMax. He was an incredible man and victim to the early onset Alzheimer’s. Rick took me under his wing and meant more to me than he ever knew. I still hear his words of wisdom and wonderful probing questions.
What is the biggest obstacle you have overcome thus far in business?
I could list a thousand. There are many situations that have been difficult, but I think the biggest obstacle for any entrepreneur (and it was for me) is the need to just keep going … don’t give up … be persistent even when everyone tells you it won’t work. You can’t achieve uncommon success by following conventional wisdom. Learning that the crowd is wrong was the biggest obstacle that I overcame.
What have you learned from failure?
Everything. You really don’t learn from success. However, there is one differentiation I would like to make; a small failure is the most dangerous thing that can happen.
It is dangerous because you will tend to keep doing the same thing, but just try harder.
However, if you have a huge mistake, you’re likely going to pay attention. These are the two major lessons I’ve learned from epic failure:
- If a lot of people knew how to do it, you probably wouldn’t have had this big failure.
- And more importantly, if you figure it out, it is worth a LOT. When we first launched the sales enablement program for the telecom, it was a massive failure. I mean MUSHROOM-CLOUD failure. But, we figured it out and we are still one of the only companies today that knows how to produce the results we do.
What are your top 3 responsibilities as a leader?
- Help create value for our employees and shareholders.
- Drive innovation of the non-obvious.
- Chart the right course.
How do you define success?
Knowing that I have made a real difference in people’s lives is my benchmark for success.
Which book has inspired you?
The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity – by Julia Cameron
What do you think is the coolest technology out there, and why?
rFactr SocialPort; it provides a new way to communicate directly with your potential customers beyond phone, email and text. Ok, if it can’t be my tech, I guess the virtual reality (VR) stuff is currently blowing me away. But, the quantum computers will change the universe.
Editor’s note: So what’s happening with quantum computers in 2018? If you’re interested in finding out what is up and coming this year, and in the years ahead regarding this incredible technology, you can find out all about it in this article on the subject. Hope this helps!
Bonus: Wildcard (Anything else we should know about)
- I spend a lot of time with entrepreneurs and new business owners. I made a promise to myself to NOT be the old disgruntled guy, that tells entrepreneurs how hard it is. It’s not a promise that’s always easy to keep. The road is so much harder than I ever thought and it takes incredible fortitude to continue when most stop.
- I have read hundreds of business plans and find most of them complete garbage. However, even the ones that seem pretty darn good, I have found great value in applying a simple formula to their proforma spreadsheets. It seems overly simple, but I have seen it put things in much better perspective.
THE BRASSER WAY:
- Put one month in between every other month in the spreadsheet.
- Multiply the revenue by .5 and the expenses by 2.5.
This is a mathematical way to illustrate the idea that, “things will take twice as long as you think, cost twice as much and make half.” It’s amazing how often this is true. If you look at the spreadsheet and the numbers still make sense, in the long run, it’s a good thing. You might look at the numbers and realize the model never works, no matter how much time or money you pour into it. Still, it’s way better to realize this sooner rather than later.