I’m 61 years old. I started my technology career 30 years ago. Part of me looks back now and thinks, “Wow, where did the time go?” Yet another part of me still feels so young and energetic – not much different than when I was 30. As you age you begin to be aware of your mortality. Makes me want to make every day count!
The AZ Technology Council recently nominated me for a lifetime achievement award. That, along with writing the e-book, “10 Keys To Entrepreneurial Success”, made me think back on my career, and what I had learned that seemed important enough to pass on. I’ve been so fortunate to have been a part of some great ventures. So many great memories! And though being nominated for a lifetime achievement award is humbling and an honor, I couldn’t help but think, “that’s really nice BUT I’M NOT DONE YET!!
And I’m not.
Contatta, my current company, isn’t just a big deal. I believe it’s my biggest ever. It is so rare today for a startup to take three years and $8MM of investment to take on something as big as the problem of email—but that’s exactly what we’re doing. Few startups can raise enough money to build something as big and significant as Contatta. If we pull this off, it will easily be the biggest thing I have ever been a part of.
Today most startups have to cobble together enough money to build something pretty simple and then prove they have something worthwhile. Then they can hopefully raise enough money to build what they would have built if they had the money at the start. Venture capitalists today generally only fund proven, later stage startups. It means large segments of the tech space are generally safe from being disrupted. Few startups can get enough money to take on a big category. Think Tesla. Think Workday. Think C3 Energy. All were started by billionaires. I’m not a billionaire but we have been able to raise enough to take on a very big category that has not changed much in 20 years.
From ACT! to Collaborative Email
I am very blessed that over the past 18 years I have had the opportunity to pass on a lot of what I know to my son. He worked at SalesLogix almost from its inception. We work especially close together lately, first at our startup Jigsaw Health and then the past three years at Contatta. It is rare for a father and son team to work together as well as we have. We do have occasional clashes because we have different and strong personalities, but it has been a truly rewarding experience. It makes it easier since he is so talented in his own right. In so many ways, Contatta is his and not just mine since he is the product designer, visionary and chief perfectionist.
People ask me “why do you keep doing this?” I always say, “there is nothing more fun than doing something really hard with a team of very talented people.” The team at Contatta is the most talented I have ever worked with—and I have worked with some really great people in 30 years! It is so much fun to take on a really hard problem and solve it.
One thing that always strikes me when I look back is how seemingly simple decisions can have such a huge impact.
When I was selling microcomputers in the early ‘80s, it was frustrating to me that I personally had no reason to use a personal computer. There was no software for salespeople. I tried lots of software to see if I could find a reason to use them.
The first software I liked was pfs:Write and pfs:File. It was cool because I could write a letter that would automatically address the letter from data in File. That later became a key feature of ACT!. Next I learned Lotus 123 and there I discovered its macro programming language. I wrote a quotation system that allowed me to do in minutes what other salespeople would take hours to do. Quotes were a real pain and could take many hours. I gained several big accounts simply because I could produce a quote in minutes when I was with a customer when my competitors often took a week or so. By the time they got back with a price, my customer was already using the computer I sold them. Now THAT is Sales Automation!
Later Lotus shipped a much more extensive product called Symphony that had a full-fledged programming language. That is when my programming interest really took off. I loved automating virtually all the routine things I did as a salesperson. I hated routine. Still do. Eventually I wrote what would become the prototype of ACT!
I really was the least likely guy to learn how to program. I got a D in the only programming class I took in college, and I only got that because I was turning in the programs a fraternity brother was throwing away. He was a whiz, but I hated programming.
So, the seemingly simple decision to learn how to program ended up changing my life in a huge way (plus the lives of some 6+ million ACT! users). There are so many decisions I can look back on now and see that if I had not made them, my life would be very different today. There is almost a sense of having been “guided.” And yet it seems to me we are all wired a certain way for the most part. That wiring tends to lead us in certain directions. Is that what is meant by destiny? On one hand I made lots of decisions that had certain outcomes. And yet, because I was wired a certain way, I almost could not make any other decision. I felt the same with SalesLogix and feel the same today about Contatta.
I think there are many successful entrepreneurs who have been wired differently. There isn’t one personality type that becomes an entrepreneur. The Meyers Briggs test does identify two distinct types that tend to do best as entrepreneurs. If you have never taken this test I would encourage you to do so. Self-knowledge can be very empowering. Cooperating with how you are wired is much easier than fighting against it.
Leadership, Loneliness and My Lizard Brain
Because of the ventures I have led, I have also become very aware of the things in my personality that are not good and that I am not particularly proud of.
I have what I call my “lizard brain.” There are times, particularly when under stress, when a switch flips and I simply react without thinking. And the reaction is never pleasant. I usually am over it very quickly, but others aren’t. One of the things that really gets me is when people state the obvious over and over. Once, I had a marketing person say a several times, “well you know that is going to cost money.” I lost it. Recently the CEO of a PR firm who was pitching us for our business kept saying “it is really important you don’t ship with bugs.” I lost it.
On the other hand, impatience can also be a valuable quality of a good entrepreneur. I’m impatient with the status quo. Things can always be better! Steve Jobs is the most obvious example, but there are many more entrepreneurs and CEOs who simply don’t handle certain things that are done or said as well as they should. Being a good leader is different than being a good manager. A manager tends to filter things thoughtfully through their reasonable brain. I think leaders tend to have problems with a lizard brain. It is hard to change but I work on keeping the lizard in it’s cage.
There is also a certain truth to the saying “it’s lonely at the top.” Being a leader often means simply having to make a tough call, even when no one else agrees. I always prefer to have consensus rather than simply demanding it, but I agree with John Chambers of Cisco when he says, “if we have no data and only have opinions, let’s go with my mine.” My opinion can certainly be wrong, but if I don’t have consensus, I am most comfortable trusting my own opinion, instincts and experience. That can feel lonely, but if you are the leader sometimes you just have to lead.
Healthy, Wealthy and Wise Enough to Still Seek Wisdom
I also think about the fact that much of my career I struggled with poor health. In 2006 I wrote the book “Wellness Piece by Piece.” It is the saga of my 37-year effort to piece together the puzzle of why I would suffer long recurring periods of debilitating chronic fatigue. This was accompanied by insomnia, depression, and very weird feelings of anxiousness. It would come and go but mostly it was always there as something I just had to deal with. I gradually pieced together my health puzzle and finally found the main missing piece several years ago. A severe whiplash car accident in college had caused me to have what is now known as a TBI – Traumatic Brain Injury. A couple of simple meds finally addressed 95% of my issues.
I sometimes feel this long struggle represented a huge “lost period,” and yet there are numerous positive character qualities I had to develop to cope. Qualities I would never have, had I not struggled so much. On the bright side, I have been able to help a lot of people through sharing my story. I like to feel I turned the worst thing that happened to me into the best possible thing for others. However, that injury might also have contributed to my “lizard brain.” I don’t know.
Overall, I look back on my life with an incredibly strong feeling of gratitude for what I have had the opportunity to do. I have worked with many extremely talented people and many of them have become millionaires in the process. It is extremely gratifying to realize that simple decisions I made in my life have helped the lives of others. And them, me. It’s a feeling of “making a difference,” and I believe everyone can make a difference if they work at it. I think it comes a little easier when people learn how they are wired, then learn to use that knowledge to benefit both themselves and others.
I am conscious of the fact that Contatta may very well be my last company, but like I said earlier, I’m not done yet. I’ve lived a great life, a blessed life, but I’m not done yet. My hope now is that all that has come before will prove stepping-stones for what’s to come. Something I believe is about to make a bigger dent in the universe than anything I’ve done before.
Yep, I’m not done yet, and I couldn’t be more excited to see what’s going to happen next!