It was the Summer of 2011 and I had reached my breaking point. I was 10 years into my professional career and up to this point had worked for a series of organizations with claimed business models of commercializing advanced technologies but in reality were nothing more than perpetual R&D machines. My aforementioned breaking point came in the form of feedback from my most recent management team that a management buyout that I was spearheading was dead-on-arrival.
I realized that I could either accept a fate in “middle management” or take the plunge into starting my own business. Later that day I filed the paperwork and secured the domain name for my first startup, i2C Solutions, LLC. The very next day I gave my former employer notice and was gone a few weeks later with only one clear objective – to distance myself from highly dysfunctional technology organizations that look good on the outside but are far from being truly successful businesses on the inside. In hindsight that breaking point turned out to be one of the better days of my professional career.
So why call this blog Entrepreneurial Dysfunction? Because I feel as though I learned how to be an entrepreneur by observing what not to do. By interacting with management teams that possessed a unique blend of arrogance, ignorance, incompetence, risk aversion and short-sited greed, I felt I had earned the equivalent of a PhD in entrepreneurial dysfunction. By 2011, I was fed up and had reached a point in my career where I felt I had achieved the best balance between decent experience and blissful risk ignorance than perhaps at any other point in my career and it was essentially now or never. Perhaps I was also driven by the fact that my career began from a relatively low point, which made me skilled at “climbing out of holes” – another quality that proved highly useful in my new career as an entrepreneur.
I grew up in Albuquerque, NM, which is known more for “Breaking Bad” than for breaking business startup records. I began adulthood after barely earning a high school diploma and with absolutely no college prospects. I worked in restaurants as that was the only thing I was remotely qualified to do and which paid anything close to a living wage. Along the way I rediscovered athletics eventually pursuing a career as a professional cyclist. While my cycling exploits never quite matched my expecations, the discipline and hard work instilled in me as a result of the pursuit has proven invaluable to me throughout my career. I continued my education throughout my cycling career albeit mostly part time.
I had to work my way through community college before I could gain acceptance to a University. I eventually graduated with a degree in civil engineering for no other reason then there are several civil engineers in my family (including my Mom) and so it seemed like a good idea at the time. I opted for graduate school when I realized I had no interest in a career in civil engineering. By the time it was all said-and-done, I was almost 30 by the time I embarked on my professional career – certainly not your typical recipe for entrepreneurial success.
Fast forward to 2013 and it was two years after launching my entrepreneurial journey and I found myself in a very difficult situation as a young entrepreneur. i2C Solutions – my first startup – was struggling. I had grossly underestimated how difficult it was to start a company from zero…so to mitigate risk I opted to start a second startup company from zero called Solid Power. Solid Power was aimed in a very different technology and market direction than i2C Solutions – and if launching one company from zero is hard surely launching two companies from zero has to be easier – right? And just to make things even easier on myself, I also starting working with a few other business colleagues who had launched a third startup called Roccor. That business was aimed in a third, entirely different direction – so what could go wrong? Unfortunately it too was struggling and in its case suffering from a corporate identity crisis due to conflicting interests of the original founders. One might say I was in the eye of an entrepreneur’s “perfect storm”.
The peak of my entrepreneurial angst came that Summer in 2013. For myself and my family, finances were tight and we relied mostly on my wife’s nursing salary and benefits. My own “entrepreneurial dysfunction” turned a corner when I heard that Solid Power was invited to submit a proposal to the Federal Government for a $4M grant to perform “high risk / high return” research on a new battery technology of interest to electric vehicles.
After two years of grinding it out with three startups that couldn’t quite get off the ground I had come perilously close to throwing in the towel. With this particular breakthrough there would finally be a steady paycheck, money to spend, and more than a blind hope to keep me moving forward. There is a decent probability that Solid Power would have never gone anywhere without that initial research funding. And without a steady paycheck from Solid Power, it is highly unlikely that I would have kept “donating” my time to i2C Solutions and Roccor in order to get both companies off the ground and running (something that took a lot longer than I expected). Without this breakthrough I would have eventually punched-out of the entrepreneurial world and gone back to a “real job” in middle management in someone else’s company.
Which brings us to today. . .
i2C Solutions and Roccor have long-since been merged and along with Solid Power have created 100+ jobs (and growing). While I am proud of this success, I do not consider myself successful per se (yet). I have not experienced an exit and I still rely on a paycheck just like everyone else. While I have raised money from investors I have not yet returned on those investments. I am still living in the “entrepreneurial trenches.” My daily life consists of dealing with current investors, pursuing new investors/partners/customers, managing Boards, dealing with employee matters, recruiting, and a lot of other unsexy stuff that as I like to say, “I don’t recall seeing in the CEO job description.” I literally started from Ground Zero and today feel like I am about 50% of the way to the entrepreneurial finish line.
My goal with this platform is to share my thoughts and experiences along the way and to “give back” to the entrepreneurial ecosystem that enabled me: the Colorado Front Range. I make no promises as to the frequency nor theme of my postings, and I give no guarantees that they will be valuable to your business. But I hope you will enjoy.