By Dean Clough
It was right there, in that building pictured above. It's on the western end of Arapahoe Avenue in Boulder, Colorado, and it's where I became an entrepreneur. Although I didn't know it at the time - it was my first job out of college - what I experienced in that building would greatly influence the rest of my professional life.
I will share here what I saw from my start in Boulder in 1985. I am publishing my thoughts on what works and what does not for entrepreneurs. These observations are based on my experience as the founder or co-founder of several different businesses, over the course of almost 40 years.
For sure, my perspective is different from most that make similar efforts to trumpet their entrepreneurial experiences. For instance, I have not raised millions in ever-larger series "X" rounds, and sadly, I have no stories of Champagne-drenched liquidity events to wow you with, either. Instead, I have the scars and smiles that come with real-world, non-venture-backed entrepreneurship. I am hopeful more people can relate to that than they would to yet another unicorn story.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Is entrepreneurship an instinct? Or can it be taught?
How do you get your mind in the right place as you contemplate starting a business? It's not an option, in my experience.
What traits are inherent in entrepreneurs? Here's a formula: 3R + EI = Yes
THE OLD MAN WAS RIGHT
Anxiety and worry? Dale Carnegie had it right a long time ago, for entrepreneurs and everyone else.
PLAYING COMPANY & THE MVP
Starting a business? Are you focused on the right things? Don't play company, and instead, define your MVP and learn.
Put it on paper.
What can happen? This can happen.
Here are the companies I started or help start, and the lessons I learned at each.
BORN OR LEARNED?
By the summer of 2004, I was about the fattest I had been in my entire life of 41 years, but my girth was among the least of my worries. Paramount instead was the state of a business I had started in late 2001, after being laid off after 9/11 as a Director at Charles Schwab.
The business, Casa Integration, was attempting to apply enterprise consulting and project management techniques to the design, engineering and installation of technology for the home. At its inception, I had just come from a 5 year run of doing big things for big companies, and the layoff motivated me to start my own business. From scratch. By myself. With no investors.
I felt - rightly as it turned out - that the ever-increasing complexity of home technology warranted a more formal and structured approach. Mind you, these were the earliest days of things like WiFi and home theater, and smart phones and high-def flat screens and Sonos were still years off.
But it had not gone well to date. To call me naïve would be a major complement. I had not done my homework and it was painful.
Because in fact, there were already well-established companies focused on supplying and installing home technology in a professional manner, thank you very much. And: I was oblivious to the fact that a major part of being successful in this space were contractor-level skills with things like drills, saws, and all kinds of specialty tools - nearly all of which I didn't even know I needed.
This all led to me being tossed off most of the few jobs I did land and basically not making it. In my last year at Schwab in 2001, my salary had been $120,000, plus lucrative bonuses. In 2003, I made $17,000, up from $12,000 in 2002. There had been some progress, but not much.
So it was, nearly 3 years in, that my wife Julie and I sat in a steakhouse in the River North district of Chicago. Schwab was on our minds that night because I had a chance to go back. I had stayed in touch with Schwab Senior VP Douglas Merrill, who would go on to even bigger and better things with Google. But at the time, he headed cyber security for Schwab, and he had offered to bring me back in as a Director in his organization. He knew I had ruffled some sensitive feathers while there previously, but he liked that and me. The offer to go back to corporate and the fat, direct-deposit paychecks that come with it were right there for the taking.
But I didn't take it. When I started Casa Integration, my wife and I agreed that at the beginning of each year, we'd sit down, look at what's happening, and decide if we'd give it another year. In January of 2004, there were just enough bright signs that we agreed I would soldier on until the end of the year.
At the steakhouse, my wife reminded me of our agreement. It is part of why I didn't take the easy way out. In fact, as I look back now, if I had known that night how hard it would be to build the business, I just might have taken the cushy office job.
But it wasn't just the agreement (or ignorance or very supportive wife): I wanted it badly. While I had participated in start-ups as a co-founder before, I had never done it myself, as the leader with a vision. That night, something inside told me it was going to be now or never and that I couldn't quit and go the easy route.
Instead, we went back to San Francisco, and it was like a switch had been thrown. From the summer of 2004 until I walked away in 2017, I had a run of success I will never forget. If I had given up at that moment, I would have missed out. On a lot. In fact, most of my attainable dreams came true, including being able to semi-retire at age 56.
In sum, it was the agreement with Julie, yes, but more the desire to prove to myself and the world that I could do it - I could start a business from nothing and make it into something. I feel you're mostly born with that type of entrepreneurial desire.
I don't take those words lightly, as I don't want to dissuade anyone from pursuing their dream. But make no mistake, starting and running your own business is not for the faint of heart. In fact, I'll wager It's the hardest thing you'll ever do.
So you better feel it in your bones. I hope this and the chapters that follow are helpful if you do.
THE MIND SET
Yes, I do believe being born with at least some entrepreneurial instinct is a requirement for success, if being an entrepreneur is what you want. But how do you know what you want?
That's easy, actually. What are you good at? People enjoy doing things they're good at because . . . they're good at doing them. And that makes it less awful to work.
Me? I was always an A/V and computer kid, going back to being the first on my block with a real stereo. And my early professional career demonstrated to me that I was a good project manager. This formed the mental foundation for me in starting the business I described last time, Casa Integration.
But knowing what you want to do is much different than wanting to be an entrepreneur. You have to go deeper, and here's how I do it.
"Manifesting". "Dream it before you can live it". "Mind over matter". Etc. The clichés date back as far as the idea. But they're true. You will not be successful if you don't have your mind in the right place.
What does that mean? I came to understand over time and over a number of startups that it is necessary to communicate with your subconscious. That's coming up with a plan, reviewing it in your own mind, and reaching a deep understanding that it is what you truly want and you won't be denied. It's really just an extension of Self-Awareness (itself a part of Emotional Intelligence - a topic I'll touch upon soon) - because you simply can't fool your subconscious about what you really want. And that's a good thing. Deciding to not start a business is better than failing after starting one.
This next section is largely drawn from a self-help book my wife gave me at one of my lowest entrepreneurial moments. It is called The Ultimate Secrets of Self-Confidence, by Dr. Robert Anthony. The book is worthy reading for many reasons, but key among them is that it facilitates understanding what you actually want.
When I've contemplated something new and major, I always answer these questions, relatively early on, and not just in my mind. I literally type this section and the one that follows into a document I call the "Personal Plan". This stands apart from your business plan, and serves as your personal guidebook going forward.
Why do I want this?
How will I benefit?
Will it help others?
Will it be right legally and ethically?
What are the advantages of making my idea a successful business?
How can I reach my goal?
Where can I get competent information and guidance?
Dates of major phases and the date of intended completion?
When will I review and revise these dates?
What should I do first?
I will keep what mental attitude throughout?
Honestly facing the questions above can help put you at peace with yourself regarding starting a business. In my experience, that's job one.
Because that internal belief breeds self-confidence, which is another requirement for success: if you're not confident about you and your business, why would anyone else? Here are some important thoughts on believing in yourself, also from Ultimate Secrets:
Accept the fact that you are a unique individual, with a place to occupy and a special purpose to fulfill
Expand your awareness, and get rid of the mistaken certainties which are preventing you from releasing your ultimate potential
To release that unlimited potential, choose a goal, make a plan, and present it to your subconscious (as above!)
Look within for the spiritual intelligence and power to solve your largest problems, and make life as you wish it to be
Visualize and affirm whatever it is you want to be, do or have
Give your dominant thoughts to success, not failure
Master time, not vice-versa
Get rid of dependency, guilt, fear, and worry; instead, cultivate self-reliance, love, imagination, enthusiasm, a sense of honor, and the ability to communicate by listening more
Meditate or otherwise shape your mind in calming ways
I will conclude this article with an anecdote about my niece. It's not a story about entrepreneurship, per se, yet it vividly illustrates the power of the mind.
A marketing pro, our niece came up with few advantages, but made it through college and some starter jobs with grit and moxie. A big fan of all things Disney, she set her mind to landing a job with them. Over the course of literally years, she tried everything and was focused like a laser on getting a position there.
Over those same years, I coached her to not give up, and to remember that her dream will come true, but perhaps differently than she's imagining. At the time, she was working in Houston and extremely unhappy as a database marketer at one of the largest restaurant companies in America.
No job at Disney ever came. Rather, my niece landed in the marketing department of Vail Resorts, the owner and operator of some of the world's finest ski and snowboard resorts. She moved from Houston to Denver, has never been happier, and is on her way to achieving her dreams.
The Mindset can be summarized by remembering my niece's story, and by these words from Dr. Anthony's book:
"You have the ability to choose, and the power to accomplish, everything you desire".
THE SPECTRUM OF BEHAVIORS
Thus far, I've shared my belief that entrepreneurs are mostly born and not taught. Next, it was that you must believe - truly believe, down to your subconscious - in what you're doing in order to achieve entrepreneurial success. But beyond a reasonable business idea and good luck (I'll be addressing both in upcoming essays), is that all it takes, instinct and desire? Of course not.
While there's not that much more at first glance, being consistent across the spectrum I define below is not easy. But as a bonus: what follows matters for just about anyone, not only entrepreneurs.
It begins with 3 words, and they all begin with an "R":
If you wish to be an entrepreneur, by definition you're comfortable with getting things done. An entrepreneur that doesn't produce results is at best called "a bullshitter", at worst, "a fraud".
No one can do it alone, not even a sole proprietor. The strength (or weakness) of your personal and professional relationships will be a deal-maker (or deal-breaker). No matter what the business, you're going to need to get comfortable with reaching out, all over.
Nothing will break your heart like starting and operating your own business. Do you mend easily?
But these are just the table stakes for entrepreneurship. Having emotional intelligence is required to win.
There are many components to emotional intelligence, and I heartily recommend the Harvard Business Review book of the same title for a deeper dive. But here are two key aspects.
In even the smallest of businesses, you're going to need to interact with people. You may even have to directly manage them. Regardless, and at every point in between, your ability to put yourself in another's shoes will be instrumental to success as an entrepreneur.
Does your client understand what you're offering? Or perhaps one of your key people has an ailing parent. What if a critical supplier is having a labor dispute? Until you recognize your perspective is not the exclusive take on a situation, you will likely fail.
If you can't be honest with yourself, with whom can you be? One can apply the basic business assessment tool of SWOT. It's not rocket science: what are your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities for improvement, and the threats to your personal success? Self-awareness begins with objective self-assessment.
Just recognize you'll often just flat never be good at certain things as an entrepreneur. Finance has always been my own Achilles - I am not a numbers person, no matter how I may try. You may be the same, with things like design or technology.
But it is self-awareness that allows your weaknesses as an entrepreneur to be managed. It is thus vital to your success to not fool yourself about your abilities (or business idea).
And what about the business itself? Soon, I'll be covering how to translate your idea into something actionable. However, in my experience, it is the mental aspect that gets short-shrift in the canon of entrepreneurial literature. There are plenty of books on how to write a business plan; my next essay will cover dealing with the anxiety, worry, and general stress inherent to nearly every entrepreneurial effort.
THE OLD MAN WAS RIGHT
A reason I'm publishing this monograph on entrepreneurship is to shine a light on resources that many have either forgotten or didn't know about in the first place. Another is to discuss the problems and challenges that all entrepreneurs face. This essay combines the two.
With entrepreneurship, comes anxiety. And while there is almost as much advice out there for controlling anxiety as there are entrepreneurs stressing out, cutting through the noise can be tough. Suffice to say, a lot of fads and self-help books on this subject have come and gone.
But in 1948, Dale Carnegie published a book called "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living". To this day, I have not found more apt advice. Here are the major tenets, and I can confirm both their simplicity and efficacy. The old man indeed was, and is, right.
1. Shut the iron doors on the past and the future: live in “Day-Tight Compartments”
2. When feeling anxiety, always:
What’s the worst that can possibly happen?
Prepare to accept it if you must
Calmly proceed to improve upon the worst
3. Get the facts, analyze the facts, arrive at a decision and then act
4. Keep busy – when your mind is occupied elsewhere, there's no room for anxiety
5. Don’t let trivial things bother you – and most things are actually trivial
6. 99% of what you worry about won’t happen anyway
7. Accept the inevitable
8. How much anxiety is something really worth?
9. Forget the past, but learn from mistakes: don’t saw the sawdust
10. Your life is what your thoughts make it
11. Forget about enemies
12. Expect ingratitude and give for the joy of giving
13. Focus on gratitude – not your problems
14. Do not imitate others – find yourself and be yourself
15. Lemons? Make lemonade
16. Forget yourself by becoming interested in others; put a smile on someone’s face
17. “No one ever kicks a dead dog” - people like to criticize others that are trying
18. Do the very best you can, and then ignore unjust criticism
19. But still ask for unbiased, helpful, and constructive criticism
20. Rest often – before you get tired: relax at work, and relax at home
Trite? Folksy? Cliché-ridden? Guilty as charged, but the fact is these are tried, tested, and true and can help anyone, regardless of their sophistication and entrepreneurial acumen.
PLAYING COMPANY & THE MVP
Do you know why startups go out of business? Bad idea? Bad management? Bad brand? All of the above?
No. Most companies go out of business because they run out of money. And they run out of money because unsuccessful entrepreneurs often forget something simple: until you're generating regular sales of whatever product or service you're selling, nothing else really matters.
Repeat after me: nothing happens until somebody sells something. In fact, it may be the ultimate truth in business. I call activities that aren't directly related to selling something "playing company".
Playing company comes in many guises. It can be you spending hours/days/weeks deciding upon the color of your logo. It can be your team grinding over which invoicing module to use from what cloud accounting service. I recently coached a would-be entrepreneur that his seventy-eight page business plan was mostly wasted effort. It can really be anything that doesn't involve creating, introducing and selling your product or service.
But selling what? I introduce these concepts here and in this manner because it's when I've seen otherwise promising businesses go awry. Failed companies often spend far too much time tweaking their product or service internally, instead of rapidly defining what they're offering and going to market ASAP.
And that's important because you don't know what you don't know - especially about how your market will react to the new service or product you're introducing. Why would you want to spend a lot of time and money building something no one wants? That's the central idea behind the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept. I define an MVP as the rawest, barest, most simple thing you can introduce to your audience, without damaging your brand or limiting future options.
It is far better to decide what you're going to offer relatively quickly, get it out, and then iterate based on what the market tells you. You may have thought the market wanted it smaller, when they really wanted it bigger. Or you felt strongly your service needed to be available 24 x 7, but you learn after going live that's just not the case. In sum, quickly define, but let the market refine.
In my next essay, I'll review how to organize yourself and your idea into an executable plan.
THE LEAN CANVAS AND THE LEAN BUSINESS PLAN
I have been around long enough where I've seen a lot of roadmaps and methodologies and theories and philosophies. But I'm not sure I've seen any make more sense and prove to be so spot-on as the interconnected concepts of the MVP, The Lean Canvas, and The Lean Business Plan. For me, it's because they dovetail nicely with my bedrock belief which I emphasized in my last essay, that being that nothing happens until somebody sells something.
Many, including investors, now share that belief, and therefore the days of needing to craft a voluminous tome of a business plan are mostly over. You need to present a coherent idea, a plan for executing, and some numbers. The Lean Canvas is a way to organize this information, and The Lean Business Plan provides a more formal structure for its presentation.
None of this is new or original thinking by me. Much of what follows is from Ash Maurya's essential book "Running Lean", a veritable bible on the subject. And the Lean Canvas he himself uses was originally published as "The Business Model Canvas." And an associated company called LEANSTACK flies the flag today, although there are many versions and flavors out there.
With that out of the way, here are the main components of The Lean Canvas as I've practiced them.
I. Customer Problem
What are the top 3 problems your product/service address?
II. Customer Segments
Define your target market
III. Unique Value Proposition
Single, clear, compelling message that states why you are different and what you are offering is worth buying
What are the top 3 features of your product/service?
What are the paths to your Customer Segments?
VI. Revenue Streams
VII. Cost Structure
Customer Acquisition Cost
VIII. Key Metrics
What critical activities/outcomes will you measure?
At this point, if you're not raising money to start your business, fully completing The Lean Canvas as your "business plan" may be enough. As I emphasize, better to put your MVP on the market and start selling and iterating. But you'll need more if you're going to visit a banker or a venture capitalist.
Blow-by-blow details on how to create a business plan is beyond the scope of these essays. Instead, I will present a typical outline for a Lean Business Plan. You will see it builds upon the work done creating The Lean Canvas, and in many cases, simply adds narrative and evidence.
VALUE PROPOSITION AND MARKET ANALYSIS
Business Concept: What is the business idea? (this is also your 10 second "elevator pitch")
Customer Segments: Who will buy your product?
Buyer Persona: Define your perfect user (it may or may not be the same as your customer)
Problem/Value: Define the problem your business solves or the value the customer gets from utilizing your product or service
Solution: Outline the possible solution, i.e. your idea
Unique Value Proposition: Directly from The Lean Canvas; this needs to be a part of your brand
Unfair Advantage: Something your business has that cannot be readily bought or copied
Existing Alternatives: How is the customer's problem already being solved by others?
Market Analysis: How big is your market? Provide the research source behind your numbers
Key Steps for Start-up: What must get done before you can launch your MVP?
Key Metrics: As above - what critical activities/outcomes will you measure?
Price: What is the price of your product/service?
Marketing/Sales Plan: What will you do to attract customers?
Build Plan: If you must build a product or a service before launch, outline the steps
Risk Analysis: Identify the critical risks to success, and outline how they'll be managed
What you present here will vary widely, depending upon several factors. At a minimum, you'll want to have some detailed numbers regarding the costs entailed with getting to market, and then profit/loss projections for a year or more. While no business plan, lean or otherwise, is complete without financial projections, remember that they are educated guesses, no more, no less. Do your homework, but don't play company when it comes to building elaborate financial models, which may or may not reflect reality as you move forward.
At this point, you have what you need to create a plan and then perhaps raise some money. As you embark on starting a business, keep the following in mind: you're going to need a lot of luck to be successful. And luck is the intersection of opportunity and preparation. The Lean Canvas and The Lean Business Plan are the latter, and you must now find the former.
THE ENTREPRENEUR'S TALE
A long-forgotten management consulting company delivered on my and my wife Julie's dream, that being an all-expenses paid relocation to SF, from Houston, in May 1992. I returned the favor by dumping them when Scott Edwards came calling soon thereafter, asking me to be the tech lead in a new business, based on advanced fax technology (it's pre-Internet, folks). This company was called Epigraphx and Scott and I started it from scratch in the summer of 1992. His then-wife, Karen, was also deeply involved in the business.
The details are mostly boring, but while the company succeeded, I didn't, at least in terms of being a human being and civilized in the data center I had built. That's me in the picture above (with my now-departed mother, Jeanne) in the data center. The >= 80 hour work weeks for 2 + years building and supporting the engine room of Epigraphx did the trick: my typical reaction to pretty much anything was either a snarl, a growl, or a scream. Often, it was all 3.
In an effort for more professionalism (and probably also to save me from myself), over time Scott and the investors in Epigraphx justifiably brought in not 1 but 2 different CIO's above me. Upon the arrival of the second, I quit. I had built the company with my own two hands, and I'll show them, I very maturely thought at the time.
I had a few percentage points of equity in the company, and Scott and the other investors bought me out at $50,000 or $60,000. Whatever the number, it was fair, despite some real animosity on my part at the time. This all occurred in 1995.
Now, fast forward - way, way forward - to 2014. What transpired on all fronts in my own life and that of Karen and Scott over the 20 intervening years was . . . breathtaking. It was out of nowhere at this time that I got a call from Scott. He's coming to SF, and wants me to book a table for us at the best restaurant in town.
While I had focused on other parts of the Edwards' story during the years that passed, I did know that Epigraphx had been acquired by a company called Silverpop in 2002, and I also knew Silverpop had just been bought by IBM. Pretty cool, I thought (then and now) - a company I started ended up being purchased by IBM, however circuitous the route and distant my touch.
But let's be clear, it was still with some trepidation that I went to dinner that night with Scott. As usual, though, his charm won me over and before long, it was like old times, with hoots and hollers as we dug into what I rated at the time as at least a 1 Michelin Star meal.
At some point during the dinner, Scott told me why we were there. He confirmed that IBM had purchased Silverpop. But then he dropped the big news: it was this last acquisition of Silverpop that finally gave he and Karen the semi-windfall they hadn't gotten to date as founders of Epigraphx.
Scott didn't share the size of their liquidity event, and I didn't ask. And it didn't matter, because what happened next is An Entrepreneur's Tale. It's what can happen if you put it all out there, like you must if you're an entrepreneur.
Scott told me that he and Karen had agreed they wanted to give me something, in recognition of my contributions at Epigraphx. They felt I deserved a part of what they had just gotten after the sale of Silverpop to IBM. But I had been paid fully and fairly for my equity when I quit in 1995. What did they want to give me now, 20 years later, in 2014?
Scott took out an envelope, and in it, a check and a lot of one hundred dollar bills. It turned out the check and the hundreds were similar: each totaled $17,500. Karen had given me a check for seventeen thousand five hundred dollars, and Scott gave me the same amount in cash. They gave me $35,000 and had no obligation to do so. As a thank you for something that happened 20 years prior.
So while I have no massive liquidity events, I do have that story - and that's more than enough for me.
EPILOGUE: WHAT I SAW
That's me installing a speaker in a client's ceiling while I owned Casa Integration. Here is a description of each entrepreneurial business in which I've been a part, the years I was there, and my major takeaways from each.
Sportnet, 1985 - 1987
This is where it began for me as an entrepreneur. While I did not start Sportnet, it was definitely an entrepreneurial endeavor for the principals involved, and regardless, I became instrumental enough over time that it was I who turned off the lights and closed the door with the founder when the money ran out.
Sportnet was a membership organization that offered its members access and discounts to a vetted network of adventure vacation providers. It seems today to be a reasonable idea, but it was a massive, huge flop at the time. From its founding as a class project in the business school at Pepperdine University in 1984 through its shuttering in 1987, at least $4 million - over $10 million in 2021 dollars - was flushed. I guess that's a pittance in today's overly-liquid world, but it was a lot then and to this entrepreneur, still is today.
What I saw:
Hubris and the importance of the minimum viable product (MVP): the lead investor as well as the founder could simply not imagine the idea not working and spent millions before ever even testing the market. They spent seven figures Playing Company, hiring a fancy ad agency to design and produce several hundred thousand direct mail fliers, designed to introduce and sell the concept, as well as an equal number of a stunning companion catalog of the destinations. From those expenditures, I believe we obtained 5 clients, each paying the annual membership fee of $35.
Raising too much money: in a related error, the founder took some of the millions invested and built out lavish office space with the assumption that this thing was going to go over big; but it didn't. It was a humiliating time in the company's history when that space - purpose-built for Sportnet - had to be subdivided and subleased.
Hiring matters: thankfully it didn't work, because the founder was so impressed by the hours I was putting in, he named me "Information Systems Manager", a role for which I was completely unqualified at the time.
Being a first-mover can be risky: ask MySpace.
NTE, 1988 - 1989
"NTE" stood for "Non-Destructive Testing Equipment", the dull name for a woefully misguided start-up. NTE had the North American distribution rights from a Norwegian company for what is called an electronic speckle pattern interferometer (ESPI). About twice the size of a shoebox, it could measure the vibration - in microns - on the surface of an object, using laser light. Precisely knowing and controlling surface deflection was/is critical in the design of things like jet engine turbine blades, loudspeakers, the read/write heads of disc drives, etc. We marketed the product at $100,000 and I am proud to say I made the only sale in the company's mercifully short history, which was from 1987 through 1989.
I again was not a founder per se, but was chosen as the only employee and salesman by the company's founders and investors, two retired Air Force officers, one a major, the other a colonel. Despite them both being obviously accomplished, they were horrible business managers.
What I saw:
Hiring matters: Part 2: I was cheap, eager, smart - but completely wrong for what was needed. They needed a sophisticated engineer that could also sell - that wasn't me, but the founders didn't want to pay what it would have taken to get the right person.
Don't expect a salary as a founder: what really hurt our finances was that one of the founders had no other money or income and was insisting on a salary similar to what he earned as a USAF major. Most actual entrepreneurs know anyone wanting more than sustenance numbers early on is a fake.
Ethics matter: I learned later that it was worse - a lot worse. The major involved was accused by the USAF of a no-no. He was hyping ESPI to the Air Force while still in active service, but after he had secured distribution rights to the product as a private citizen. Clever.
This is the first company I started by myself. A friend at the time was a computer peripheral distributor, and he was convinced the next big thing was to allow people to easily network PC's together. So with his encouragement and with my parents supporting me, I started Metronet.
At the time, the big player in the market was a long-gone company called Novell and their product NetWare. But NetWare was very difficult for non-technicians to install; enter DCA's 10Net peer-to-peer networking solution for connecting MS-DOS PC's, and thus letting them share files and printers easily.
Today, of course, this is all assumed and simple. But that was definitely not the case in 1989 (the only year of Metronet's existence), and I had to build a market from scratch, with essentially no guidance. It didn't last long - I fell in love with my to-be wife and felt it not best to enter an engagement as a starving entrepreneur - but it was still a useful experience.
What I saw:
Cold calling is very difficult: for the better part of 6 months, I would call IT managers of various companies, school systems and hospitals out of the blue and ask for a meeting - that was not fun; it did work, however. I vividly remember reading that famous Tom Hopkins book on selling to try to stay motivated; that worked, too.
You can educate yourself on a complex topic: I spent a lot of time digesting PC Week and the other industry rags of the time, as I (and most nearly everyone else) knew very little about the subject of connecting PC's together. Today, it's even easier, for obvious reasons.
Relationships matter: my jump to hyperspace happened next. Wanting a traditional job with its attendant paycheck going into a marriage, I reached out to a close personal friend, who directly got me a position as a network consultant within Ernst & Young. I was 26.
Epigraphx, 1992 - 1995
Everyone involved laughs about it now, but my experience as a co-founder of this privately-funded venture was excruciating and almost ruined my life. From the day I co-founded Epigraphx in a San Mateo living room in 1992 until I quit in disgust and exhaustion in late 1995, I had never worked as hard or had as many frustrations fighting with technology.
Epigraphx was a pioneer in the now-laughable industry of fax services - fax on demand and fax broadcasting. Hard to imagine now, but this was pre-Internet and were useful technologies for distributing information at scale using phone lines and fax machines. I've described what happened previously in The Entrepreneur's Tale, but here is more of what I saw:
You can only work so much: I learned the very hard way that 2+ years of >=80 hour weeks doesn't work for anyone. I will admit it took me almost 25 more years for that to truly sink in, but it was instrumental in successfully managing people and projects later.
Technology has its limits: my co-founder and our investors became extremely enamored with a particular aspect of the services we offered - except the technology for it didn't work, but they would never accept that fact. It nearly sunk the business, as we had to manually deal with what the technology couldn't (for the record, the technology was optical character recognition - which was in its infancy in 1995).
Getting too close to someone at work is risky: I nearly blew my marriage in a consensual infatuation I had with a female colleague with whom I was working intensely.
Don't miss the obvious: Epigraphx had a data center, a huge (for the time) telecommunications infrastructure, and a lot of servers. We could have been an early Internet Service Provider, or a web hosting company - but we were too focused on fax and blind to all of the opportunities enabled by the dawn of the Internet age.
Majestic Consulting Group, 1995
This was a short-lived IT consulting firm. But it is important because it brought me together with a partner I'd have in the next business, too - and that one took me to Asia and Europe extensively as a consultant.
What I saw:
Good karma and positive energy matter: when I departed Epigraphx, and as told in The Entrepreneur's Tale, I had received a cash buyout for the 3% of the company I owned. That gave me some breathing room, and thus I was in a great frame of mind when I volunteered over coffee with a friend to help her at her company, Wells Fargo Bank. My friend needed some database work done, and that is literally how I came into being an owner of an IT consulting firm. But I vividly remember being at peace with myself and not even trying to find this opportunity.
Partners matter: I was off to the races, but we had one problem. There were 3 partners, and one just wasn't getting it done, and in fact, was stopping us from attracting a 4th partner, one that had, as you'll see, unique access to the CIO of a General Electric subsidiary.
WestConnect Technologies, 1996 - 1999
Of any of the several dynamic periods of my professional career, this was where I made the biggest jump, personally, professionally, and financially. We dumped the ill-fitting Majestic Consulting Group partner, likewise, the name. At the eager encouragement of my remaining partner, we were now able to bring onboard a skilled 3rd partner. He'd been working with her for a few months and was very impressed. The 3 of us became equal partners in WestConnect; over time, we came to employ 20 employees.
What was new to me was the access we had to a variety of big, enterprise-grade projects. How did we have that access?
There's no delicate way to put this: my business partner was having an affair with the CIO of a division of General Electric. That allowed us to be the firm chosen to write their 1997 IT Strategic Plan, which led to us getting some amazing international projects that we had spelled out in the plan. It didn't last - when I returned triumphantly from London, the disfunction in the relationship among the 3 partners was obvious. Among that and other reasons, I executed our buy-sell agreement and left.
What I saw:
Partners matter, Part 2: when we had our initial discussions with our to-be female partner, I point-blank asked her if she was having an affair with our client, as had been whispered by some. She was offended and lied when she said "no". Partnerships are similar to a marriage in several ways, paramount among them the requirement for trust and respect among those involved. We lost that as a group, and not just because of the affair by a partner with a client. Be sure to have a buy-sell agreement in place with any form of partnership.
International business travel is fun and rewarding: there may not be a better perk professionally. I negotiated having our client pay for me to live in London to direct a large international program from there in 1998, and it was easily one of the highlights of my career.
Relationships matter, part 2: I was successful during this time because I came to understand even more that the quality and depth of your professional relationships matter, and matter a lot. The success I experienced directing the program from London is fully attributable to the effort I made in winning over my British colleagues; many of those relationships remain in place today.
You can get what you want: this is where I came to believe in The Mind Set, and the ability to obtain your dreams. When I was flying repeatedly in first-class nonstop between SFO and London, and living in South Kensington, my fantasies had become reality. You must dream it before you can live it.
The power of Program Management: up until this time, I had always considered myself a project manager. I had never heard the term program manager, but during this time, I came to understand that I was providing program management services to our clients. I define the term "program" as a set of related projects selected to accomplish one or more strategic objectives, managed in a unified manner.
Nothing happens until someone sells something: when I triumphantly returned from London, I was tasked to be our lead salesperson. I failed miserably and was not able to land a single meaningful project for our company during 1999. I look back and I can easily see a different outcome if I had sold one or more significant gigs.
Casa Integration 1.0, 2001 - 2017
You can read most of the background of what I call "Casa 1.0" in the first chapter, Born or Learned. It is here where the rest of my realistic dreams came true; indeed, the success I had during this time allowed me to mostly retire at age 56.
What I saw:
Being naïve can be good: you don't know what you don't know, and you might not have the fortitude if you did. That was absolutely the case for me here. I would never have had the courage to push the proverbial rock up the hill if I had known how truly steep that hill was going to be. But make no mistake: without external assistance, not knowing what you don't know is one of the hardest things about starting a business in an unproven market.
Guerilla marketing and the newsletter: a very long time ago, a close friend recommended to me the indispensable and now-classic book "Guerilla Marketing", by Jay Conrad Levinson. It is that book that motivated to me to try everything to get customers, from direct mail to putting flyers on cars to writing a newsletter and mailing it out monthly. It was the last item, the newsletter (self-produced and printed on glossy brochure paper on my feeble inkjet printer at home) that was the breakthrough. Here's a link to the very first newsletter I ever published.
The 10,000 hour thing is true: to become an expert in something, it takes at least that long. I know from the humiliating experience of being tossed off of jobs for not knowing what I was doing. After about 5 years, I began to be competent.
Jeez, there's nothing wrong with $250,000: I watch with great amusement entrepreneurs hell-bent on raising a ton of money and becoming the next billionaire. I am here to say that making a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year over many years is not a bad thing.
Leaving money on the table is smart: my approach of applying professional consulting and project management techniques in my industry eventually worked. In fact, it seemed to attract among the most successful and wealthy people in America. I learned quickly just how critical building trust was with this audience. Most of my competitors saw dollar signs in their clients' eyes - "oh you have to have such and such in a place like this" - forgetting about understanding what the customer wanted or needed. Here was a market used to having every last penny extracted from their wallet by service providers. I did the opposite and it worked to the point I essentially could stop marketing - apart from the newsletter - and rely upon existing customers and referrals only by about 2007.
To hire or not to hire, that is the question: I made a very conscious decision to go it essentially alone with Casa Integration. I had an assistant that I engaged as an independent contractor, and that was it. That's because after years of managing large teams and dealing with the inherent frustrations, I wanted it simple and organic. It was the right decision for me and my business - but it may not be for you and yours.
Know when to say when: by 2016, after an amazing run, I could do a lot of my projects on auto-pilot and was getting bored. I had also grown very weary of fighting with the technology I was implementing into homes and had honestly stopped believing. I was done and I knew it. Here is the very last newsletter I ever published, explaining to my clients why I was shuttering my business.
Casa Integration 2.0, 2017
I had one last trick up my sleeve, or so I thought. As I outlined in that last newsletter, I had the idea of creating a recommendation engine, with the inputs being the technology a person wants in a new home, and the outputs being the products and cabling required. The idea was to simplify the technology, and outright eliminate the need for the role I performed in the 1.0 incarnation.
It didn't work, although I believe even today the core idea has merit, and could serve as the foundation for a company that could "own" home technology in America - with relatively few employees. You can see what my investors and I created here in this video. Here is my vision for a to-be built Casa Integration 3.0, based on what I learned from 2.0's MVP.
What I saw:
Raise enough money: full-stop. I simply didn't raise the money to sustain the business long enough to get any traction. We had a great MVP and had enough money for one major campaign. That wasn't enough for introducing a brand new concept around getting technology into homes.
Don't quit your existing job too soon: I was so personally fed up with the work required for Casa 1.0 that I shut it down (and the quite steady stream of income) ridiculously early, for no reason other than will. And that was that.