What is your name?
Who are you and what are you doing?
I graduated from W&L with a degree in Economics in 1976 and then got my MBA from the Darden School (UVA). I spent most of my career in Information Technology and have moved several times back and forth between established companies such as Apple, SGI, and LexisNexis and start-ups. I have held management positions in manufacturing, staff (accounting & finance), and sales/marketing, but the majority of my positions with large companies were in marketing and sales management.
I was COO of my last startup company, SMSI. SMSI was a software and engineering services company. Our software product, Twister Data Framework, was a data integration product, managing an enterprise’s ETL (Extract, Load, and Transform) process. We sold the company in late 2011 and I’ve spent the past few years consulting with some startups. I’ve also been involved with W&L’s Entrepreneurship Program and have greatly enjoyed the interaction with students, teachers, and alumni.
Where did the idea for your current startup come from?
I don’t currently have a start-up but the idea for SMSI and Twister Data Framework came from two large organizations that the principles at SMSI were long familiar with. SMSI was bootstrapped so we didn’t have the luxury of lots of funding to try different things. Instead we listened carefully to these first two customers and designed a product that met their needs. From that successful beginning we were able to round out the product and sell into many more organizations. I can’t overstate the importance of your first couple of customers.
What books, ideas and people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to other entrepreneurs?
Having worked in IT and for Apple, several of my favorite books are about the beginnings of Silicon Valley and personal computing, such as Fire in the Valley & Hackers. And Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs does a terrific job showing the relentless passion and energy that are required to push a company through change. These aren’t management books – in fact the management style of many of these entrepreneurs is a bit appalling. But they capture the excitement that most entrepreneurs seek.
There are hundreds of books on entrepreneurship, some focusing on products, some of marketing, some management style. A couple of classics are Jim Collin’s Built to Last & Good to Great. I think it’s important to read at least a couple of relevant books a year to keep you focused and grounded…and in some cases, re-inspired.
What are your favorite online tools, software or resources and what do you love about them?
The web has made lots of things easier – from competitive analysis to salary evaluation to online marketing. In addition, most industries have online discussion groups where you can pose a question, or read what “experts” think about various topics. Find this for your industry and use it.
Several traditional back-office functions can now be outsourced (or at least the platform to run the application is available as a service – SaaS). This includes CRM (sales forecasting & pipeline management) such as Salesforce.com and accounting (Microsoft Dynamics & NetSuite).
Regarding what I like about them? Simple – they’re faster and less expensive than traditional tools.
What startup besides your own are you most excited about?
I have always worked in enterprise businesses, never in the consumer space. Even now, I think the most exciting business to be in is monetizing web traffic. This is so fantastically leveraged compared to anything I’ve ever done and is still wide open to new ideas.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
There are dozens of small things – but most importantly, I should have kept in better contact with classmates and business associates through the years. They are terrific resources, but easily forgotten about in the day-to-day challenges of managing a company.What advice would you give to entrepreneurs?
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs?
1) Early on establish an advisory board, and as quickly as possible, a management board with people who understand the different parts of your industry & business. They will provide oversight to make sure you stay on track & can help you through the many issues you will face (customer acquisition, financing, hiring & firing, etc.)
2) This will be the most satisfying, and the most difficult thing you have ever done. Make sure you have people around you who can provide the emotional support you need
3) When you start a company, go in with the goal to “build it to last” rather than “build it to sell”. That means make sure that it’s in an industry that you enjoy and that your daily routine is one that you can handle for years. If the company is well put together and successful, down the road you may have the opportunity to sell it and reap the financial rewards. But the road to that final transaction is filled with bumps and turns, many of which you can’t control. You don’t want to be in a position where you have created a successful company, but one that is not very sell-able, and you hate your work schedule, location, the industry, etc.
4) Before you start a company, figure out what you’re good at. This probably means working for someone else for a while. This time also allows you to meet other people you would approach as you build out your management team.