When I was asked to write about my path to entrepreneurship for IEEE-USA InSight, I identified some key experiences and individuals that really led me to start down this path. Now, having been down the path more than a few steps, I’ve had the chance to reflect on the things that keep me going and keep me excited about the next steps for my business, myself and my family, and where the path is leading.
Where I am today is running a small business that designs integrated circuits (ICs) for harsh environments. We’re named after the Ozark Mountain region of Northwest Arkansas — Ozark Integrated Circuits. We’ve gone from one to eight employees in six years, and have tackled everything from automatic soap dispensers to circuits for Venus.
Getting on the Road
When I think about getting on the road to entrepreneurship, I think of my parents. From a young age, my sister and I were encouraged to think creatively, and were never insulated from money and the ways of the world. I recall spending summer vacations from school earning an allowance doing anything, from filling in a dump-truck worth of holes in the yard to building walls and doing yard work. As we got older, this experience was parlayed into mowing yards for neighbors, building fences and decks — with some strategic help from Dad here and there. Before we knew it, we found ourselves running our own small business, and learning how to attract customers — and, importantly, how to keep them happy. We also learned to derive immense satisfaction from a job well done. We learned when we charged too much, or too little, and what the consequences were. But, we learned these in a relatively consequence-free environment (good old mom and dad could always be counted on for free room and board).
No single person will have more influence on your life then your parents — remember this when you become a parent. Find ways to introduce your kids, students, grandkids to the professional world and expose them to as many different facets of it as possible, as early as possible.
As the personal computer revolution went into full-swing in the 1990s, I found my first opportunity to do some high-tech entrepreneurship. I upgraded computers for friends, family and acquaintances”… and acquired a ton of old hardware to play with! I also fixed cars for friends, and I actually had parents of friends paying me to fix their cars.
In high school, I decided that I wanted to learn what it would be like to work for someone else in a bigger group — a “real job.” My lovely sister helped me get a job at our local grocery store, where I worked in the photo lab. I developed (no pun intended) a lifelong love of photography, as well as friends I keep up with to this day. I took great pleasure in working on the complicated developing and printing machines — now a largely lost art. When it came to maintenance time, I would always volunteer to spend a quiet weekend morning cleaning rollers, changing chemicals and calibrating machines. I learned how to work with co-workers (that I was not related to) and, oh boy, did I learn more about dealing with customers.
Many defining events from my “school” years happened “on the job.” Encourage kids to work and gain experience. It’s not about the money (do it for free if you have to).
Through all of these experiences, I learned enough to know that I wanted to build things and work on complicated problems. When it came time for college, I knew I loved computers, I loved electronics and I loved machines. I decided to study engineering at the University of Arkansas, and nearly flipped a coin to decide between mechanical and electrical. Note that I made this decision to study engineering having never really seen an engineer or what they do. I struggled my first years and actually decided to change majors from mechanical to electrical after being invited to IEEE meetings by friends. I joined IEEE before changing majors, and IEEE was an important part of deciding the technical direction of my career.
In college, I had some great experiences that prepared me for entrepreneurship. During all of my undergraduate years, I participated in the Razorback Marching Band, running across campus from the electronics lab to beat a snare drum at rehearsal. My experience in the 300+ member band taught me how to manage time, how to work with a diverse group, and how to accomplish something difficult with a volunteer army. And most importantly, it was there that I met my lovely wife. I also had the chance to serve as an IEEE officer, and as a member of Eta Kappa Nu and Tau Beta Pi — all opportunities that furthered my experience in management and teamwork.
Throughout my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I sought opportunities that would let me see and experience other career paths. I performed research as an undergraduate, which led to my decision to pursue an MSEE and Ph.D. I did co-ops in VLSI at Hewlett Packard and got to experience life in a large, high-tech company. During my graduate school years, I spent a summer at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, giving me perspective on federal research and development. Finally, I had the opportunity to be part of the founding of a high-tech startup, which led to my first full-time job out of college.
Never turn down an opportunity to learn. Dive into every organization, club and job opportunity and never look back. Teamwork is your most valuable skill, and you won’t learn it in just the classroom.
My experiences in graduate school and in my first startup were invaluable. At my first startup, I was able to learn from experts with decades of experience. I learned how to organize projects; how to scale up an idea and then build it. I learned how to turn research into product. I learned what a budget was! The business was not successful, but this was just as important. I learned some things not to do and what to prioritize.
If you envision a startup in your future, it’s not a bad idea to work for one first. There is no such thing as too much experience or too many internships.
When I decided (with some strong encouragement) to start my own business, I understood the risks, the likelihood of failure, but was as prepared for success (or failure) as I could be. We began as small as small could be — just me in my spare room, while I worked another job at the University. I was blessed to have local entrepreneurs and several of my former professors help form the company and advise me. We decided to draw on our expertise in high-tech R&D and go after federal small business research grants to fund our vision for high-reliability/harsh environment ICs. I wrote proposal after proposal to any R&D topic I could find. I was able to bring in a key person in that first year, first as a consultant and later as our first employee. Jim and I were able to write proposals together, do small jobs for local companies and, by the end of that first tumultuous year, we had won our first “big” project for NASA, and my wife and I had also been blessed with our first child!
Don’t do it all alone — get the right people on your team. Surround yourself with quality people who love to solve problems, not say — it can’t be done.
Winning the first project did not mean we had it made. That project ultimately did not go to the next “phase,” but in the meantime I had continued writing proposal after proposal — and several of those did pan out. We had several false starts, but through the process we started to learn the real business part — identifying the market, how large it is, who the customers are, and how to serve them. We learned to be strategic, learning about the economics of mass production of integrated circuits, and how we might be able to fit a narrowly focused R&D project into a mass-produced success. Most importantly, we learned economics drives everything — you can’t just make a better mousetrap. We slowly built a repository of intellectual property, learned how patents work, and grew our team (from two to eight) by adding key team members as new projects allowed.
Never give up, but learn to adapt. Weigh the input of customers, clients and advisors with verifiable facts.
Have we “made it” yet? Well, we’ve transitioned to having commercial design customers in a number of markets, and we’re winning the key grants and research awards we need to further our R& D objectives. We haven’t yet released our first product (serious R&D takes time!), but we have our potential customers lining up, giving us specifications — and our product ideas are no longer the hard sell they were when we first started.
Have a business model “now” (survive) and a business model “then” (thrive) and plan to get from now to then.
Starting a company, or even just being involved in one, is not easy. But, it is extremely rewarding. When people ask me why I chose this path and continue down it, I always come to a single idea: freedom. In a small business, you have the freedom to try anything — any crazy idea you’ve ever had. You can hire anyone you’d like, you can work with anyone you want to (or who wants to work with you). You don’t have the idea-killing bureaucracy that comes with large organizations. But, with that freedom, comes the freedom to fail — those ideas might not pan out, those customers might not manifest, the market might not be real — and you’re operating without a safety net. That danger always exists in any job or position; the difference at a small company is that you deal with the danger and the struggle every day. Embracing that reality is not for everyone, but in my experience the rewards far outweigh the worries.
What can we do to encourage young entrepreneurs and engineers?
For us, as parents, we need to encourage our children to not only experience STEM/STEAM activities and other extracurricular activities, but also help them experience the real world, understand money, and get experience earning it.
For IEEE, I think the most important thing we can do is to give the next generation exposure to engineering. We need to show more and more younger students what engineering looks like, and how rewarding it can be. We need to get into our local schools, cub scouts, girl scouts, 4H — anyone we can find who needs an event or experience. Volunteer your time to get those kids into the office and show them what you do. Offer co-ops and internships, so the next generation can see what working in a startup, a large business or a research/University environment looks like. Relate what you do to why you love engineering, because nothing will take you farther in life than a passion for what you do.
Keep in mind that startups aren’t for everyone. In our colleges, we need to offer as many opportunities as possible for students to get exposure to multiple career paths; to see what day-to-day engineering looks like. And there are important skills we can impart, like communication (and how to relate what you do to anyone) and how to solve real-world problems that will let students succeed no matter what career path they take.
And, even if starting a business isn’t for everyone, giving students the chance to experience “the rest” of being in business — budgets, overhead, customers, planning — might just give a student that little extra bit of courage to say “yes, I can do that.” Because that, more than anything, is what got my own small business started; somebody planted that seed that I could, in fact, “do it.”