Don Bora – Co-Founder & Partner, Eight Bit Studios

Don has been a professional software developer in Chicago since 1990, during which time he has had the great fortune to work at many types of companies, employing varied technologies including bio-informatics, artificial intelligence, and global investment banking, to name a few.

A few years ago, Don decided to give back to the Chicago community. He sought out opportunities to lend his experience to those who might benefit. He began mentoring at the Founder Institute, and then The Code Academy (now The Starter League). In the summer of 2011, Don co-founded The Mobile Makers Academy, and as the lead instructor, ushered much needed iOS development talent into new careers. Don continues to be an active advisor to Uncharted Learning, the current Mobile Makers parent company, including developing high school curriculum as the industry changes. Don also teaches and mentors teachers, and most recently guest lectured at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern.

Don has been an outspoken advocate for women and girls in tech, seeking to bridge the technology gap by exposing the fun and creative side of programming. He frequently mentors both high school and college students who display an interest in technology and coding.

Don is also a partner and co-founder of Eight Bit Studios. He loves meeting new developers, seeing their tremendous potential, and giving them the opportunity to be great. At Eight Bit Studios, Don develops software on various studio projects, careful to learn something new with each one.

How did the concept for Eight Bit Studios come about?
My partner, John Ostler, was the maniac behind the formation of Eight Bit Studios. John, Steve (the third leg of the table), and I were all at a design firm when we met. John was taking notice of team members who always seemed to have a side hustle going on. Throughout my career, I find I am drawn to certain new technologies. I was an early adopter to Java and had been working in that technology for around 10 years when I discovered Ruby on Rails back in 2007 and I started working on a side project. Within a year of that, I met John. John always has something spinning in his mind and Steve just can’t stop ideating and executing concepts that have always delighted me. The three of us had a merry band of side-hustling contributors when the iPhone SDK dropped in 2008, and I jumped on it immediately. Back in the early ’90s, I had been a NeXTStep developer, and as NeXTStep was the progenitor, it was technology I was already familiar with. John, Steve, and I decided to focus all of our energy on iPhone apps within a week and we’ve been unstoppable ever since.

How was the first year in business?
Ha! It was pretty lean! We were very scrappy, to say the least. Our founder story, and what I like to see as our differentiator, was focused on our leadership diversity: John on UX, Steve on design, and me running tech. We weren’t kids; I had 20 years of experience under my belt. John and I took a lot of meetings, and I became the primary salesperson for the first 18 months. For me, that was fun and interesting. I’m good with people, I can talk about pretty much anything, I’m insatiably curious, and I was selling me and my partners so it felt very natural to me. It was a fortuitous beginning for Eight Bit. We started taking on client work in 2009, which turned out to be the year the startup took over the city of Chicago. Northwestern University’s Kellogg and The University of Chicago’s Booth schools both started churning out students from their respective entrepreneurial tracks and technical incubators were forming. The city was booming with startup ideas and capital was beginning to flow. As I look back now, it was a somewhat risky move for us, but we decided that our vertical would be startups. From there, it became a whole lot of fun. That first year, we hired a freelance Ruby on Rails developer and a freelance project manager. We were five people, churning out products and having a great time.

What was your marketing strategy?
During that initial phase, it was all word of mouth, networking, and building relationships. Our unofficial strategy, and it hasn’t really changed, was to be nice to everyone. Chicago is an odd city. It’s a big city, by US standards, but it feels very small. If you spend a few years working and going to events in Chicago, you will likely run into people you know over and over again. It becomes pretty important to cultivate relationships and that’s something we still do to this day. In the long run, it’s all about doing good work, and we believe, delighting the end user.

It’s also worth pointing out that, at the talented hand of John Ostler, we have always had killer SEO. Both Steve and John have always been aggressive and diligent with our online presence. Our website went through a few major evolutions during the first few years of our existence. We were re-tooling as we heard people talk about us and how we presented ourselves.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Eight Bit Studios was, and still is, a privately-held company, bootstrapped with our savings accounts from the beginning. Growth was slow and reactive. After around a year-and-a-half, we hired Brett Mackie, our first operational hire, as sales and accounts manager. Brett is currently a managing partner and has been with us for close to 8 years, nearly our entire run. Outside of that, our first hires were in reaction to developing the products that we were hired to build.

How do you define success?
Success for me is waking up every day and wanting to do what is ahead of me. I don’t focus too much on what some might call “financial success.” Early in my career, I adopted the XXX: do what you love and the money will follow. Saying that, I fully realize that I come from a place of privilege AND I am a coder, the latter meaning, in the year 2019, I will never be without employment opportunities. For most of my career, I drifted aimlessly, and without much focus, in and out of management rolls. The one single-driving force was a pull toward technology. I found myself drawn into new technology. I got the web bug and wrote my first web application in 1993-1994. I found myself drawn to Java when 1.0 was released mostly due to the story behind the team that wrote the language. Ruby on Rails caught my eye one weekend after struggling to get a quick prototype idea off the ground using standard enterprise Java tools. When iOS came out, I finally saw a market for my love of Object-C/Smalltalk. What I now love and appreciate about my career path is that I have always had my hands in the code and I have continually-adopted new skills and THAT has allowed me to thrive in my current role, leading a team of talented creators at Eight Bit Studios.

What is the key to success?
Be passionate. After nearly 9 years of working with clients at Eight Bit, I just only realized a pattern to our selection process. Our best clients love what they do. They’re passionate about their work! Whether it’s gardening or internal brand and marketing tools, we find that all we really need is for our clients to love what they do. If you love what you do, if you’re passionate and tirelessly curious, you’re going to be successful, keeping in mind of course that I do not measure success in terms of how many private helipads you own.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
This is the longest job I’ve ever had and it’s the longest span of time I’ve officially spent in a leadership position. I like to think of myself as a lifelong learner, and as such, I am forever trying to better myself. I recently discovered that my management style is that of a servant leader. It was honestly like a ray of sunshine broke through the gloomy cloud cover and angels sang. I’m all about listening to people and building consensus. Until very recently, I thought I was a weak leader and armed with this new understanding, I’ve been able to get out of my own head and be the leader I am, without some of that nagging fear that I’m screwing it all up.

On the business side, I think one of our biggest company lessons aligns with value. The instant we devalue ourselves through “discounts” or some other conciliatory compensatory move, our clients will fall in line and perceive our value decrease. It took a long time to learn and an even longer time to navigate how to do right by our clients and our teams; do the right thing without setting ourselves up for failure.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” – Ratatouille

That quote for me sums up my personal passion for life, work, and learning. Not everyone can be at the top of their field, certainly. That’s a mathematical certainty. If everyone is at the top of their field, you have to move the top to find the top of the top. So, if you’re not great, how good are you? I’m definitely not a great coder or a great technologist, but I’m ruthlessly persistent. That continuous persistence has fueled my creativity and curiosity. After 30 years, in my case, I have amassed enough experience and historical perspective that my point of view has become extremely valuable to some people. So, not great, but extremely valuable. I’m cool with that.

What are some of your favorite books?
I read all of the time. I’m not exaggerating. I have a strict pattern for reading. Fiction and then non-fiction, and repeat. Right now, I am reading How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie based on a friend’s recommendation. Aside from sometimes sounding like a 1920’s film, it’s got some really good hidden gems in it. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving is one of my all-time favorite fiction books. It changed my perspective on storytelling and blew my young adult mind with its narrative presentation. One of my all-time favorite business books is Give and Take by Adam Grant. Having read this book fairly recently, I am surprised by how much it changed the way I think of myself. I’m a giving servant leader, which, without the proper context, can seem weak in the leadership areas. I’m not comfortable telling someone what to do without first gathering information. Give and Take freed my mind in an amazing way. I also read The Harvard Business Review or MIT’s Technology Review every morning before work.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I’m going to relay one of the hardest realizations I’ve had as an owner. The hard entrepreneur stories are all pretty standard and I think any entrepreneur has lived through them. Frankly, they all tend to sound a bit self-serving after a while. I recently realized, after 8 solid years in leadership, that the bar is set really high for me. Recognition is hard to come by, sometimes. I achieve something that’s really amazing, for me, given all that’s on my plate, and it’s seemingly taken for granted. I realize that’s a good problem, how people have that much trust in me, but at the same time, living with the mental conflict of wanting recognition at the same time has been a hard balance to achieve.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I lean heavily on my leadership team. For several years, it was just me and my two co-founders. We eventually created a managing partner role and have promoted two people to that position: Heather Brown and Brett Mackie. It has diversified our leadership team and given all of us more avenues to seek out help. I am so extremely lucky and grateful to be surrounded by these amazing people. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been having a rough week and one of them will stop me, mid-stride, and ask if there is anything they can do help. This often happens when they are being challenged themselves. I can’t praise my partners enough. I could never do this job alone and I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone but them.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
This is something I get asked a lot from young entrepreneurs. Validate your ideas first. The Lean Startup book and the “Lean Canvas” are excellent tools to begin planning your strategy and what your product looks like once you starting measuring it against revenue and competition. It’s also good to think about the size and scope of the problem you’re trying to solve. Some problems are what we might call aspirin problems, meaning that they address convenience or a minor annoyance. Other problems are what we might call a morpheme-level problem; the pain is excruciating, there is no end in sight, and we would do almost anything for relief. This translates into a market welcome for possibly early adoption.

Do your research and homework. We find it most helpful when a startup comes to us armed with knowledge. It’s very helpful if you understand how products work; how the sausage is made. The more you know going in, the easier time you’re going to have building the trust you’ll need in your team to get things built.

The final piece of advice I love to give: cast aside the obsession with being first to market. It’s okay, even sometimes better, for others to beat you so you can learn from their mistakes. Keep in mind that Google was 5th to the race and the leaders of the historic search engine past are relics to our memory, except for Ask Jeeves…that guy’s got grit!

Bryan Papé – Founder & CEO, MiiR

Having inherited his grandfather’s entrepreneurial spirit, it wasn’t until a life-or-death ski accident at the age of 20 when Bryan Papé fully realized his vision to begin building a legacy of generosity. That clarity, coupled with design opportunity in active lifestyle products, led to MiiR’s launch in 2010.

A Product to Project™ company committed to trackable giving, MiiR gives 3% of revenue to partner organizations with an aim to provide people with access to a better future. Every product we design is built in-house with an emphasis on innovation, timelessness, simplicity, and sustainability.

MiiR partners with some of the most respected nonprofits in the world to create sustainable giving projects in the clean water, health, and food sectors that address both domestic and international issues. To date, we have given over $600,000 and empowered the lives of 100,000+ people worldwide, and invite customers to track the impact of their purchase through our Give Code™ registration process.

Outside of MiiR, Bryan has many passions including teaching his daughter to explore, bird hunting with his vizsla, and building his family’s cabin in the middle of nowhere. He enjoys skiing and mountaineering, and has successfully summited Mount Rainier on four occasions, two of them with his wife, Rebecca. Born and raised in Boise, Idaho, he considers the Pacific Northwest home after having lived in Seattle for close to fifteen years.

In 2016, Bryan was named a 40 Under 40 business leader by the Puget Sound Business Journal, the same publication that named MiiR the third fastest-growing private company in Washington the same year. He received the first “Young Alum of the Year” award from his alma mater Seattle Pacific University in 2009, and in 2015, was awarded the first “Young Alum of the Year” from the SPU School of Business and Economics. Bryan and Rebecca were honored as “Supporters of the Year” by One Day’s Wages in 2013.

How did the concept for MiiR come about?
The idea for MiiR was born out of a desire to find a way to merge business and philanthropy. I had a life or death ski accident in 2006 when I broke my femur. Lying against that tree not knowing if I would live or die, I thought, what would people say about me at my funeral? And that question cut to the core of who I was. I was a living a super selfish life and wanted to change that. I had a successful exit in 2009 with a company I was a minority owner of called Little Hotties Warmers and that allowed me the opportunity to start MiiR.

How was the first year in business?
The first year was filled with discovery, learning, and loneliness. I started MiiR out of our apartment. I grew the business from day one on Facebook. I had some insane conversion metrics which allowed MiiR to start scaling. I say lonely because my wife would come home from her job in the financial world talking to people all day and I would want to talk and chat nonstop. It is funny to think about that first year.

What was your marketing strategy?
My marketing strategy was to target people who liked the outdoors, yoga, and charity to like MiiR on Facebook, as that feature had just rolled out. 100% of content went into the news feed, and from there, I had really high click-through and conversion rates.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We have been growing around 100%, YoY, since inception.

How do you define success?
Success is achieving the goal or purpose you set. For us at MiiR, our mission is to empower people for a better future. On the one hand, we achieve it daily, and yet on the other, it is ongoing.

What is the key to success?
Clarity of mission, hard work, timing, and a little bit of luck!

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Life and business are a marathon, not a sprint. Dennis Madsen, former CEO of REI, was an early advisor and he taught me that as an early founder.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“It’s not what you have, but what you give.” – Unknown

“Have the humility to know you’re not shit while having confidence to know you’re special.” – Gary Vaynerchuck

“Your society values people by how much you have, ours by how much you give away.” – Sitting Bull

What are some of your favorite books?
Essentialism by Greg McKeown
Principles by Ray Dalio
Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
There have been some doozies. What I learned the most from them is that the only constant is change. More specifically, in early 2015, there was a port strike in Seattle and all of our inventory was stuck on a ship or port. Our warehouse was empty and we obviously could not bill our customers for product that had not been shipped. We were pretty close to running out of cash and it hurt our growth that year.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I think about the fact that every entrepreneur faces challenges, some bigger and some smaller, and that I am probably not the first person to experience the current adversity. With that, I challenge myself to respond and think better than those before me. I think about my grandfather a lot during hard times. He built his business from the ground up and faced many recessions, and not just survived, but thrived through it all.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Know why you are starting what you are starting, and don’t do it for the money. The challenge and accomplishment is the reward, and it is far more satisfying.

Alex Melen – Co-Founder, SmartSites

Alex Melen is an award-winning serial entrepreneur and keynote speaker. He is the founder and CEO of web hosting company T35 Hosting (founded 1997) and advertising agency SmartSites (founded 2011). SmartSites now manages over $30 million/year in advertising spend and has six offices worldwide. SmartSites has been featured on the Inc. 5000 for three consecutive years as one of the fastest-growing digital agencies and Alex has been featured in Businessweek‘s “Top 25 Entrepreneurs”, Forbes, NPR, and more.

How did the concept for SmartSites come about?
SmartSites came about as a combination of several other business ventures, forming a single full-service digital agency. The general idea to start the company was to fulfill the digital void for small- and medium-sized businesses. Having worked for three years at Publicis (as a digital manager of the Samsung and Walmart accounts), I noticed the exceptional digital service that big clients received. Smaller companies were mostly left in the dark, not being able to afford the full-service agencies and usually stuck with using a friend or a relative to help them with their digital needs. Even bigger companies who could hire a digital specialist were often lacking since a single person could never cover the entire digital spectrum – website design, development, coding, SEO, PPC, social media, etc. With SmartSites, we set out to offer the same five-star, full-service digital experience that has been offered to the Fortune 500 companies for over a decade, except offering it to SMBs.

How was the first year in business?
The first year in business was dicey. On the one hand, we were scrappy, agile, and a group of very small individuals who could accomplish anything in the digital space. On the other, we were not focused and experimented a lot more than we should have. For example, in our first year, we decided to run a full eCommerce store as part of our operations since we had all of the capabilities to develop and market such a store. In the end, we wound up spending dozens of hours in packaging, customer support, and other things that were obviously not our core competency. After the first year though, we quickly learned what our core competencies were and where we provided the most value to our customers. We dropped all other services (even though they were profitable) to focus on our best value add for our clients: website design/development, SEO, and PPC. As an inside look to the first year, here’s a trailer for a TV show we were being considered for.

What was your marketing strategy?
As a bootstrapped company, our initial marketing was mostly word of mouth. Happy customers referred other happy customers, and so-on. Of course, we eventually reached a scale at which we had to start marketing to keep growing. However, we could have easily continued a much slower growth rate with almost no marketing. Being on the Inc. 5000 for three consecutive years now, we’ve been growing at a steady 100% every three years. Meaning, we doubled in size as a company every three years, and now have over 85 employees.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Starting with just eight people, we tripled in size by the third year to 24 and have now grown to over 85. We’re hoping to end 2019 at over 100.

How do you define success?
Aside from the financial definitions, I think success is best defined by happy customers and employees. In that regard, I think we have been very successful with nothing but five-star reviews on Yelp, Google, Facebook, and even Glassdoor.

What is the key to success?
The key to success is to focus on where your can add the most value for your clients. It took us a few years to really hone in on this, but that really is where the success lies. It’s not about finding out where you have the biggest profits, or where you can get the most publicity. At the end of the day, if you can provide value to your clients, still make money, and keep your employees happy – that’s success for you.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Between both SmartSites and a few other companies I’ve been involved in, I think the greatest lesson I’ve learned is to be very careful with growth. Grow the company too slowly, and you can become irrelevant (especially in the tech space). Grow it too fast, and your quality, employee moral, and much more can drop. There is no one specific formula for this, but my advice to any entrepreneur is to always keep a close eye on growth to make sure you’re not growing too slow, but also not too fast.

What are some quotes that you live by?
My favorite quote, and the one I really try to live by is “Begin, the rest is easy.” There are many parts of starting and running a company that seem very daunting. However, the hardest part is always just starting.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I wouldn’t say any days are necessarily tough, but the toughest part about being an entrepreneur, and one of the founders of the company, is the extra responsibility that it brings. In a corporate job, at the end of the day, people can just go home and not worry about the company. Or when push comes to shove, they know they aren’t really responsible for it. As a founder of a company, you’re always the one responsible. Not to say that it’s a negative per-say, but it’s definitely a tough part of being an entrepreneur that people don’t often realize.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
There is adversity in everything you do. The way to push forward is to be passionate about what you do. I am really passionate about the digital space, about helping small businesses succeed, so much I recently took on public speaking (something I’ve hated and avoided all my life) to help others succeed online. If you’re passionate about what you do and love it day in and day out, no adversity will stop you.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
My biggest advice is to just do it. I was in your shoes. I started my first company at 13 years old. I attended a school for entrepreneurship. I’ve interacted with dozens of young entrepreneurs – many of whom have helped shape the digital space today. The hardest decision, no matter young or old, is to pull the trigger. You’ll never regret pursuing your entrepreneurial dream, but you will always regret not doing it. And let me tell you, it’s a lot easier to do when you’re young (and have less responsibilities) than when you’re older.

Bruce Vaio – Founder & Managing Partner, Crescita Holdings LLC

Bruce A. Vaio is a seasoned, multi-dimensional, executive leader skilled in operational and resource management, acquisitions and divestitures, land optimization, organizational strategy, and financial performance. He is a passionate expert and leader, owning extensive experience working in the building materials and aggregate mining industries. Bruce holds a bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in history from the University of Denver and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Phoenix.

Mr. Vaio possesses 35 years of unique experience having led executive roles in private and public, and national and international companies. These include being named as the youngest CEO, at the age of 35, for one of Redland PLC’s (at the time, a FTSE 100 Top British Companies with over 100 years of longevity) decentralized operating companies, and executive vice president for (NYSE: MLM) Martin Marietta. As president of Martin Marietta Materials West Group, Mr. Vaio was responsible for the executive leadership and financial performance of the company’s Western United States presence, located in 17 states west of the Mississippi River, with an employee base in excess of 1,400 people and total gross revenues exceeding $1.2 billion.

Presently, Mr. Vaio serves as the founder and managing partner of Crescita Holdings LLC and majority owner of D&B Precision Cutting and Manufacturing LLC. D&B Precision Cutting and Manufacturing, operating as SaniSafe Products Company, is a leading supplier of plastic and acrylic merchandising products and displays for the grocery and retail industries. It is also a leader in the manufacturing of merchandise security cabinets and has a proprietary, key-less locking system capable of generating unique marketing and asset protection data. Inc. Magazine recognized D&B Precision Cutting and Manufacturing as being one of 2017’s 5000 fastest-growing private companies in America.

Mr. Vaio is an avid seeker of knowledge who shares a great passion for executive management and leadership. Bruce is an accomplished public speaker who works tirelessly to motivate, encourage, and empower teams and leaders in the quest of achieving levels of success never seen before. Bruce serves as an ambassador of Strategic Business Operations and is inspired by the drive to nurture the business leaders of today and tomorrow, and is at a point where he would like to actively engage and utilize his skills for the betterment of an organization seeking a highly-skilled mentor.

How did the concept for SaniSafe come about?
After a very successful 35-year career in the construction aggregates and building materials industries, culminating in the advancement to executive vice president for Martin Marietta Materials (NYSE: MLM), I was afforded the opportunity of early retirement. At heart, my passion and leadership style mirrors that of an entrepreneur and my dream has always been to take an incubator company with start-up traits to a level of excellence and growth never envisioned by the founders. After a year of exploring various acquisition opportunities, I ran across SaniSafe Products located in San Antonio, Texas. Although I was enamored with the manufacturing aspects of the business, I was captivated by the customer list that the founders had assembled. The partners SaniSafe had established was like a “Who’s Who” of admirable companies: Walmart, Valero, Whole Foods, and the southwest’s largest privately-held grocer, HEB, were but a few of the companies that SaniSafe had developed as consistent customers.

From the onset of due diligence, it was apparent that several changes could be implemented to improve the business processes and value proposition. Improved technology, equipment, and personnel were easy answers to the many challenges plaguing SaniSafe. More importantly, the vision to grow drove the acquisition and development of SaniSafe under new ownership. Simply put, “Despite raw business skills and acumen, the founders established a concept and idea that clearly was valued by many highly-regarded grocery and retail businesses. Surely, if the scale and offering was expanded, while quality significantly improved, the opportunity to deliver a new value proposition would be even more attractive.” From there, we were in business, and now we’re five years down the road.

How was the first year in business?
In one word, “CHALLENGING.” Simple items like assuring all the computers in the company were networked and working off the same operating system took time and resources. Culling through the workforce to assure that staff was capable of delivering the vision and mission of the company required effort and non-biased evaluation. Although “revolution” certainly could have been deployed, I am a strong believer in evolution. Taking the time to implement cultural change required effort and commitment. Getting the team to believe in a very admirable game plan was accomplished, but it took a full year to get everyone to realize that “our world” was about to get a whole lot bigger.

What was your marketing strategy?
One of the first elements we did was identify the cells or buckets that our products and services fulfilled. SaniSafe Products is in business to create, evolve, and construct plastic and acrylic products for the merchandising or protection of assets in the grocery and retail industries. Although there are others who compete in this arena, we are not a B2B business. Our products are generally specific to a marketing scheme or store essential. Therefore, our ability to listen, interact, and create a product from a customer’s vision generally directs a sale. To this end, we invested in a higher level of CAD software and combined these tools with a more competent and creative design team. With added investment in new CNC machines and other essentials, we immediately began a customer diversification strategy. In other words, with a whole new toolkit, our sales team worked feverishly to expand the awareness of SaniSafe’s capabilities. Fortunately, the receptiveness has been outstanding, culminating in us being named by Inc. Magazine as one of the 5000 fastest-growing companies in America.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Actually, the first two years can be divided into two segments: “Taxi and Takeoff.” Year 1, we shall call the taxiing stage. There is no doubt that we had rebuilt the company and positioned it on the “runway” for takeoff. Although revenue improved, it was incremental. So much time was spent assuring that the platform was sound and airworthy for the journey forward that increased sales really didn’t evolve. During the “Takeoff” phase (Year 2), we felt much like Charles Lindbergh must have experienced when getting ready to takeoff for his journey across the Atlantic. Our infrastructure was loaded and fortified as we headed down the runway. Our tail may have bounced a couple of times, but before we knew it, we were off and soaring. From Year 2 forward, our annual growth rate has exceeded 50%. We are working right now on diversifying our customer base while positioning the company for growth consistent with what we experienced after Year 2.

How do you define success?
As an ex-collegiate baseball player, I am someone who thrives on statistics. For me, the definition of success is easy. Achieving continuously-improving goals commensurate with the opportunity resource afforded is the key measure of success. As a leader, I find my primary function to be unifying the organization and its resources to achieve levels of performance never considered to be possible. Although improved profitability is essential, I gain more satisfaction orchestrating the vision and realization of taking teams to championship caliber level.

What is the key to success?
The key to success is being able to transform your personal passion into a vision and mission that a team aspires. This means assuring that you are able to assemble the right team members and put them in the right position to effectively play at a consistently-winning level. Continuous evaluation, measurement, and improvement relative to the daily, weekly, quarterly, and annual challenges determines if you will do more than just survive. Remember, “If you are not passionate, excited, and clear minded about what you do, then you can’t expect your team to deliver outstanding results.”

What is the greatest lesson that you have ever learned?
There are really three “Aha” moments that have resonated with me in my career. Early on, I found myself quick to the trigger when the need for change appeared obvious. Although deploying immediate or spontaneous actions may seem necessary, and very much entrepreneurial, swift reaction can appear knee-jerk and tactical to the organization. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes instantaneous action is necessary, but only when weighed against the middle and long-term implications to the company. In a strategic sense, “More evolution and less revolution” seems to benefit the organization strategically. The second element I learned over time was the value of looking beyond the evident when assessing personnel. Over the years, in both private and publicly-held organizations, I have observed how some employees make a career of being “smart rats.” Smart rats are people who know all the “buzzwords” and company lingo and effectively seem to be able to sell themselves as useful just by their continued appearance and demeanor. Smart rats are experts in being able to tell you what can’t be done but don’t effectively know how to achieve change or improvement. I have learned to focus extensively on identifying the “doers” in the organization and rely heavily on them to lead change. Knowing who can truly get things done is essential if you aspire excellence. Finally, what gets measured gets managed and what gets managed gets done. The importance of measuring performance is invaluable in moving a company forward.

What are some of your favorite books?
Still high on my list is Jim Collins’ Good to Great. In my mind, Collins’ book is a bible for how to evolve an organization. Knowing your “hedgehog principle” while getting the right individuals on the bus in the right seat are essential elements in running a business. Although Collins’ book was written in the early 2000’s, the message still resonates today. The current book I am reading is Measure What Matters by John Doerr. In this text, Doerr takes time introducing the concept of OKR (Objectives and Key Results) and exploring how to implement OKR as a key to exceptional performance. This is a must read for anyone concerned about organizational performance. Finally, an old mainstay that I still find as an organizational behavior guide is Lou Holtz’s Wins, Losses, and Lessons. Lou is one of most inspirational speakers I have had the opportunity to hear and meet. He is a wizard of motivation and genuinely gets how to unify a team towards a consistent objective.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Unfortunately, in my prior career as an executive in both the private and public sectors, I have experienced workplace fatalities. The construction mining and material supply industries are inherently dangerous. From drilling, blasting, crushing, and stockpiling tons of material to transporting heavy loads of aggregate, concrete, and asphalt, the industry is embedded with constant dangers. Knowing that you have lost a valued team member as the result of an industrial accident is something you will never forget. Telling a loved one that their spouse isn’t coming home is something you will memorialize forever. Having dealt with this situation multiple times, I cherish the fact that our employees are “real people” who deserve the commitment and pledge that assures their safe return to their families daily. To this day, I make “World Class Safety” a priority for any organization I am affiliated with.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Two things: 1) experience and 2) the payoff. With over 35 years as an executive leader, I realize that any challenge will face adversity. Keeping focused on the payoff helps to navigate the stress and turmoil of adversity. In every case, the ecstasy that comes from a win more than offsets those gut-wrenching moments of turbulence.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Aim big, shoot small! Dreams and aspirations are achievable when you master the road map to success. It is okay to have the dream as a vision, but you must be able to align your guns and take the right shots to ultimately succeed in the mission. Planning and measurement are key.

Bo Brustkern – Co-Founder & CEO, LendIt Fintech

Bo Brustkern is co-founder and CEO of LendIt Fintech, the world’s largest event series that provides context to the rapidly-changing universe of technology’s impact on financial services.

For over 20 years, Mr. Brustkern has set himself apart as a leader in understanding, funding, and leading cutting-edge developments in fintech and financial services. Mr. Brustkern’s experience includes private equity, venture capital, fixed income, asset management, and investment research. In addition to co-founding LendIt Fintech, Mr. Brustkern co-founded Arcstone Valuation (2006), Arcstone Equity Research (2010), Cardinal Rose Group (2013), and NSR Invest (2013).

Previously, he was a venture capitalist at Rustic Canyon Partners in Silicon Valley, and a private equity investor at BACE Industries in Denver, Colorado. Prior to his career as a private equity investor, Mr. Brustkern was a senior analyst at Wellsford Residential Property Trust (NYSE: WRP), where he focused on acquisitions and development for the fifth-largest residential REIT in the country.

Education

Masters of Business Administration, concentration in Finance, the Anderson School at UCLA, with distinction as a Deutschman Venture Fellow (2001)

Bachelor of Arts, Dartmouth College (1995)

How did the concept for LendIt Fintech come about?
We started the company by accident. We were fintech entrepreneurs and investors and we were looking for a conference to attend so we could get a better feel for the industry in which we were operating. There was none. So we decided to invite the leaders of our little segment of the alternative-lending industry to join us for a day and to contribute to panels and presentations. We sold tickets and a few sponsorships and we hoped to break 200 attendees. The day of the conference, we had to shut the doors when we broke the fire code at more than 350 attendees!

Everyone had a great time, learned a lot, and begged us to do it again. Plus, we turned a small profit and figured maybe we could do even better next year.

How was the first year in business?
That was 2013. It was pretty simple times, as far as the conference was concerned. But we weren’t conference people, so we had no idea what we were getting into. The next year we went to San Francisco and drew a crowd of nearly 1000 people. By the time the 2014 conference kicked off, we were dead with exhaustion and knew we had to hire a professional team with real event experience. That year, we sort of deceived ourselves into succeeding.

What was your marketing strategy?
Our stroke of genius was to invite the voice of the industry, Peter Renton, to join us as a co-founder. He was our entire marketing strategy. He had a blog and a mailing list and a common desire to host a conference. That’s all we needed to reach our community.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Attendance:
2013: 350
2014: 900
2015: 2500
2016: 3500
2017: 5000

How do you define success?
If we could, we would define success by the impact on the improvement of our global economic fabric and financial wellness, but we can’t. So we measure NPS and EBITDA.

What is the key to success?
There is no single key to that door, but if there is one thing that has kept me from failure, it has been perseverance.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
There are so many great lessons I’ve learned over time. Too many to recount. But there was one lesson that really impacted me, and it was relatively recently when I learned it. I’ve been an entrepreneur for over 13 years now, and it took over a decade for me to understand that business is a game. It is a noble game, and it is fun. It is fun to play and it is even more fun to win. And if one is doing good work for the world, it is also *necessary* to win. But to win one must love the game, love the practice, and love the work. That is the noble path to success.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all.” – Robert M. Pirsig

What are some of your favorite books?
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Henry V by William Shakespeare
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Endurance by Alfred Lansing
The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff

A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
Miguel Street by V. S. Naipaul
Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Long story, but it’s easily the day I took all my work frustrations and failures out on my kids. I unleashed fury on them. The beautiful part of the story is that they got it…they took the (verbal) abuse, turned to me and said, “Dad, you can do this. We believe in you.” And in the end, I won by relying on their strength, their resilience.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Faith that my mission is good, and that I can achieve it.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Whatever game you’re playing, learn to love it. Have faith in the practice. Your work ethic will be a critical component of your success. Don’t just do the work, do the hard.