Jaime Harris – Co-Founder, President & CEO, Hydra-Flex

An entrepreneur with a dedication to innovation, Jaime Harris is the president and CEO of Hydra-Flex, an engineering and manufacturing company he co-founded in 2002. Jaime grew up in a small town in the mountains of Montana before venturing to the Colorado School of Mines where he received his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. Harris’ impressive background in manufacturing includes 20 years of product development experience within a variety of industries. With Harris at the helm of Hydra-Flex, the company has averaged 42% annual growth over the last eight years. Harris is highly-involved with his employees, community, and the manufacturing industry as a whole. Outside of work, Harris is passionate about spending time with his family, coaching sports for his children, and the Carly May Foundation: a non-profit organization he and his wife founded to help children with disabilities.

Tell me about your early career.
My career trajectory is an interesting one in the fact that everything has been a chain reaction from when I was a six-year-old playing with Legos. I realized at this age that I enjoyed designing things in creative ways, and knew then that I wanted to be an engineer. By the time I reached high school, I was firmly set on the idea that I would own a business and never once deviated from my childhood dreams. After receiving my Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines, I began my career in product development. Following many years at various engineering firms, I met my future co-founder, Gary Brown. We worked together at a previous employer where we gained experience in fluid handling equipment development. In 2002, we founded Hydra-Flex, Inc. and since then, Hydra-Flex has experienced tremendous growth and industry expansion. Recently, we have been honored with spots on the 2014-2017 Inc. 5000 and 2015-2016 MSPBJ Fast 50 lists of the fastest-growing private companies, named a Top Inventor by Twin Cities Business Magazine, and won Best in Class at the 2016 Minnesota Manufacturing Awards.

How did the concept for Hydra-Flex come about?
While at my previous employer where I met Gary Brown, we discovered a gap in the vehicle wash marketplace – a gap we knew we could fill. We saw an opportunity and knew we could make a tremendous difference. We founded Hydra-Flex as two men, a beer fridge, and a machine shop, driven by the passion to fight a war on waste in the vehicle wash industry through innovative products such as chemical injectors, chemical dispensing systems, and high-pressure nozzles. Gary and I turned my dream to own a business into a reality.

How was the first year in business?
It was the hardest, and yet one of the most fun years of my life. It was exhausting to work long hours, at two jobs, for what seemed like nothing at the time. Our first year revenue was only $35,000, which was crazy for the number of hours we were putting in. Looking back at these numbers and who I was back then, I realize now that I was just too stubborn to quit. Regardless of this, the first year gave us a sense of freedom that came in simple forms – going to Home Depot and buying the beer fridge, sawhorses, and plywood for tables. We felt a tremendous sense of pride knowing it was all ours. It was an exciting time for us to start as the underdog in the industry, living out the classic “David and Goliath” story. We entered a market full of big-name brands and international companies, but we knew they didn’t have what we did: passion, the will to win, and a product that would revolutionize the way the industry did business.

What was your marketing strategy?
Our vision was pretty well-defined in that the vehicle wash industry wasn’t sophisticated at the time, both technologically and in terms of marketing strategies. Our product positioning was, and continues to be, that Hydra-Flex develops measurably superior products in terms of performance, composition, design, and aesthetics. We made it clear that we had invented something unique; we were never there to imitate what was already on the market. We measured our equipment against our competitors and incorporated this data into our marketing strategy. It’s hard to ignore quantified facts when they’re put in front of you. Being a new company, and as small as we were, we also utilized the “let your customers do the talking for you” strategy. We pride ourselves, still to this day, on our customers who advocate for not only our equipment, but for our people and the way we conduct business.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Like I mentioned before, we really lived out the classic “David and Goliath” story. Our sales were extremely slow in terms of dollars for the first five years. Hydra-Flex was an outsider in this industry and had to scratch, claw, and bite our way in. It took a lot of creative strategies and smart risks to put our name on the map. 2007 was really the defining moment for Hydra-Flex when we started to get traction in the marketplace and we were able to bring on a small team of professionals. It wasn’t just two guys and a beer fridge anymore. We had a team that believed in our mission and worked alongside us to achieve our goals.

How do you define success?
Success is the journey you take to accomplish something that makes a difference. My journey began while I was growing up in a small “gritty” town in Montana, playing with Legos, and realizing at a young age that I could create something that could change my life and benefit other people. Now, Hydra-Flex is a company that is bigger than me. There is a succession plan that allows this company to grow beyond my limits. From the beginning of my journey to now (which surely isn’t the end), my path has been full of both obstacles and triumphs. How a person perseveres through obstacles and humbles themselves in times of triumph while reaching their goal is ultimately what success is.

What is the key to success?
I believe there are two keys to success: perseverance and optimism. The odds have always been against me, as they are against many entrepreneurs, but these two attributes have gotten me to where I am today. Optimism has been an imperative key to my success because I have always kept the mindset that I will “figure it out” when faced with adversity. I’ve had as many upsets in business as I have personally, but nothing has ever been so bad where I couldn’t fix it. In terms of perseverance, success comes to those who don’t accept any other option but success. When you combine these two attributes, people around you start to notice. My determination and attitude were ultimately what attracted my angel investor. I found someone who trusted me, trusted that I would not fail, and helped fund the company to get to the next level. The odds of all this coming together is still mind boggling to me, but I attribute perseverance and optimism to where I am today.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
If you believe in something and work hard for it, and then find others who believe and will work for it too, everything will fall into place. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Find people with your same determination and drive, but different ideas. Profit is a direct result not only from the product you offer, but also from the people behind that product.

What are some quotes you live by?
1. “Pressure makes diamonds.” – I believe pressure shapes you and leads to good character.

2. “Work hard, play hard.” – I have always lived by this saying, and it is now the essence of Hydra-Flex’s corporate culture.

3. “What gets measured improves.” – Another motto that Hydra-Flex lives by. We’ve even painted it on our facility walls. It forces us to measure and understand where we stand and enables us to always find a better way.

4. “No one remembers how long it took you to do something, they only remember that you got it right.”

What are some of your favorite books?
I’ve always enjoyed business development, leadership, and strategy books. Researching processes and different methods of problem-solving approaches has made me a better leader. One book that stands out is Traction by Gino Wickman. It’s an illustrative, real-world lesson book that has helped me discover simple ways that allow me and my leadership team to apply profitable and creative processes.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I’ve had a lot of tough days that are all sort of the same flavor; not one day or instance in particular sticks out. I think the hardest things entrepreneurs face aren’t defined by one day, it’s a combination of instances that add up to something big. However, tough times are what shape your character, what help you make future decisions, and – ultimately – make you a better leader. All entrepreneurs will face obstacles. It’s what you learn from these times that make tough days worth it.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
The will to win and the urge to accomplish my goals is what keeps me moving forward.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Know yourself and be comfortable with who you are. You can’t lead without being vulnerable and transparent. The quality of self-awareness helps you understand your strengths and weaknesses, what motivates you, and how to improve. Be aware of others as well. Successful teams are made up of people with different ideas who remain vulnerable and transparent with each other. And above all, persevere toward your goals with an optimistic mindset – and don’t forget the beer fridge!

Aaron B. Steed – Co-Founder, President & CEO, Meathead Movers

Aaron B. Steed is co-founder, president & CEO of Meathead Movers. He founded Meathead Movers at 17-years-old in 1997 with his brother, Evan. As CEO, Steed has established an open-door style of management, similar to that of a coach, and is well-known for being happily available to assist employees at their jobs or in their personal lives.

While running full-scale ahead to success, Steed has never let Meathead Movers forget its roots. He has maintained the same mission of assisting student-athletes achieve their goals by providing them with a flexible and educational workplace. He has also maintained the practice of assisting victims of domestic violence by providing moving services at no cost. Meathead Movers has and will continue to partner with local women’s shelters in all of the communities it serves, thanks to Steed’s leadership.

Following viral media coverage in 2015, Steed and the team at Meathead Movers launched the #MoveToEndDV campaign to continue to bring awareness to the cause and encourage other businesses to get involved. Since then, nearly 200 businesses nationwide have pledged to also donate products or services to shelters, victims, and survivors of domestic violence.

Steed’s commitment to student-athletes stems from his personal experience as a high school and college wrestler. He knows many student-athletes might have to choose between a job, working out, and honoring athletic commitments, but at Meathead Movers, they don’t have to. Each Meathead Movers service location offers an on-site gym and also works around employees’ school and athletic schedules.

Steed currently resides in Avila Beach, California with his wife Erin. In his free time, he enjoys taking advantage of living in California’s Wine Country or venturing out and exploring the world with his wife. He also makes time to work out and read as he believes one should never stop learning.

Tell me about your early career.
My brother, Evan Steed, and I started Meathead Movers in 1997, when I was a high school junior and Evan a freshman. Because of our school and athletic commitments, we were having difficulties finding part-time work that fit around our busy schedules. One day, we helped a friend’s parents move — which led to some immediate word of mouth about our labor service. The customary fee back then was usually $20.00 and pizza for a day’s labor. We enjoyed the workout of moving, but we also enjoyed the gratitude we received from our clients after a job well done.

At the time, we didn’t even own trucks! Customers would rent a moving van or truck, pick us up themselves, drive us to their house and we would load their belongings. The client would then drive the moving truck to the new home, and our movers would unload. I asked the clients to pay what they wanted. We were clean-cut, polite, and hard-working. We posted flyers with tear-off strips holding my pager number and soon began getting some response to our flyers that we printed in high school computer class. I would usually get paged during school class time and would return the calls between classes from the school payphone. Word of mouth spread, and within a few years, we were completely supporting ourselves—able to purchase our own cars, clothes, food and rent, as well as employ about 25 of our friends.

Some people told us that they doubted that we could make the transition from labor service to full-fledged business. But our vision of young and energetic student athletes delivering a unique customer service experience kept us relentlessly striving to make it happen. Soon, our fledgling enterprise was fielding as many moving jobs as we could possibly handle, and Meathead Movers, Inc. became a full-time occupation for us.

How did the concept for Meathead Movers come about?
When Evan and I were in high school, the girls’ sports teams would call us “Meatheads” in the locker room. We just started owning that title. To us, a Meathead was a strong, clean-cut student athlete — and that’s what we were. As we started providing moves for our friend’s parents alongside our fellow “Meatheads”, the name just stuck.

What was your marketing strategy?
In the beginning, word of mouth was really out marketing strategy. We developed a reputation in our community and never seized to meet those expectations. As we continued to grow, we started partnering with outside marketing agencies to spread the word about our services, core value and unique differences in an industry that is notoriously shady.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We grew at a very steady pace in the beginning and started to expand pretty rapidly as our business started to outgrow certain service areas. We now have four offices in San Luis Obispo, Ventura County, Fresno, and Orange County. We have been on the Inc. 5000 fastest-growing companies list for the last six years.

How do you define success?
If you’re proud of who you are and what you can do for others.

What is the key to success?
Starting with the end goal of whatever you’re trying to achieve and be diligent and intentional towards working towards that goal.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
You must be credible. Don’t exaggerate, bullshit, or be manipulative. Your words must have credence and substance.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“The journey is the reward.”
“Do common things in an uncommon way and you will get the world’s attention.”

What are some of your favorite books?
The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
Drive by Daniel H. Pink
Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Getting insurance renewals that increased 300% YOY and being faced with insurmountable cash flow issues. It forced us to lay off 75% of our administrative staff and completely restructure our business and renegotiate our agreements with all of our vendors. I went from feeling like a young millionaire to a loser having frequent panic attacks.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Nothing I have faced in business is as grueling as what I experienced wrestling in high school and college. Like everything, its all relative.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
If you have the burning desire to do something, do it, because if you don’t you will be haunted by it. However, you must go all-in and live it, love it, and believe it. There is no work life balance. There is work life integration, and it’s okay if your friends and family don’t understand it or agree with it. There is NOTHING like building a brand and living the American Dream.

Bob Ogdon – Founder, Swiftpage

Bob Ogdon is an entrepreneur and executive technology and business professional with 40 years of experience in the multimedia market. Bob founded Swiftpage, the maker of Act! and a leading provider of software and services that help small and mid-sized businesses grow, and currently serves as chairman of the board for the CRM leader. In total, Bob has founded four different companies in the technology space and is an advocate for technology education and entrepreneurs in Colorado. Bob is a longtime advisor to the board of the Colorado Technology Association (CTA) and acted as the 2008 Board Chair. He was awarded the Bob Newman Lifetime Achievement Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Community in 2005, as well as the Technology Entrepreneur of the Year in 2011 by the CTA.

Tell me about your early career.
I’ve dedicated my career to building a series of companies. Swiftpage is my fourth business. I started by building a video game company back in the early ‘80s. My model has always been to think about what’s going to happen five years down the road, and then build that. Hopefully, I’ll find myself sitting there with all the goods when everybody shows up. It comes down to a few cycles. The first was video gaming. Second, was the CD-ROM industry, building CD products, as technology became a very big deal in the early ‘90s. I eventually sold that business to The Washington Post and became the head of interactive technology for that division. Then, we built technology around web conferencing, sort of like what WebEx is today. I helped pioneer that industry and secured a patent for our technology. The Dotcom Bubble came and disrupted my plans for that business. Then, my next chapter was the company we are in now, Swiftpage.

How did the concept for Swiftpage come about?
We were thinking about the small business market. We really wanted to serve the small business customer, and build products for them. In 2003, there was a law passed by Bush called the CAN-SPAM act and it pretty much set out laws regarding how you can send out marketing emails. So, we wanted to allow small businesses to have the proper technology to run email marketing campaigns. The whole concept of creating an email to be very graphical, almost like a webpage, was all new. So, we built Swiftpage as an email marketing company for the first ten years.

How was the first year in business?
You can ask my wife. She’ll tell you that she didn’t like that I didn’t get a paycheck. In order to start a business, one of the first things you have to do is establish a vision of what you want to build. You really can’t raise capital until you have a product. We also made a decision, my partner and I, that we wanted to hire our children into the business, as we wanted to create an opportunity for them to come and work for us, which affected our ability to raise capital. So, that conscious decision of not raising capital and getting a product built—and wanting our children to come and work for us—forced us to self-fund the business, and led to us going the first two years without paychecks. Those are hard things to do, but that’s how you build a business from scratch in that scenario.

What was your marketing strategy?
One of the things we look at when we create our marketing strategy is that it’s very difficult to reach small businesses. The customer acquisition costs are quite high. If you’re an enterprise or mid-market product, you know your targets, but SMB’s are more like a consumer sale. We decided that we would take an indirect market channel path. We looked at who was the biggest SMB market channel provider we could partner with, and we picked a company called Act! which is a CRM software for small businesses that’s been around for over 30 years now. They had the largest base of small business users, so we chose that as our go-to-market strategy, and we built our solutions to work inside of Act!. Act! is relied on by hundreds of thousands of SMB customers who use it every day to manage their small business sales process. They love it but it was missing an email marketing solution. We eventually got them to white-label us and put our software in every copy of Act!. We achieved significant growth and had really great success with that path. The other path is that they had over 600 resellers, who installed and trained business users on Act!. We gave every reseller a copy of our software for free, allowing them to train with it and incorporate it into their businesses. Soon after, they turned around and said they needed to have it, so they pushed Act! management to put it into the product. It really helped us launch and get some traction. We leveraged their marketing.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Agonizingly slow. We’re a low cost subscription-based model, so it took a long time to build. The nice thing is that it’s recurring, so you keep your customers and they keep paying you, but it is a slow but steady build. Then, something happened that accelerated everything. The company Sage, that owned Act! at the time, chose to sell Act! and we offered to buy it from them, so we went from 30 to 330 employees within a day. So, that was a dramatic growth-spurt to happen all at once.

How do you define success?
For me, a key measure of success is providing something that people will use and build their businesses with. Developing tools that will help small business grow and expand their businesses was our target. Doing that is very satisfying. The next chapter is creating value for our shareholders. They measure success in how much you have increased the value of their investment. In the middle of that, success for all entrepreneurs is building their employee base and getting people to involve themselves in the business over the long-run, allowing them to build long-term relationships. Even though some people may move on, you still have built that successful part of their lives and you played an important role in their career.

What is the key to achieving success?
You’ve got to be people-oriented to be an entrepreneur because you can’t do it alone. So, you have to build a team and be a leader, and people have to believe in you. There are times when things aren’t obvious to everybody, difficult times, and you have to get through it. You have to be persistent and consistent and not give up and have people believe that you’re never going to lose and that you’re going to lead them into something that’s better for them. That’s the key. That people component.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Timing. When you’re building businesses, so much depends on timing. Your company can be worth a significant amount and you can have a successful exit or you can have a valuable role but the market can be tremendously different than where you are. You have to move fast and have successful transactions, like my sale to The Washington Post. I’m also a recipient of the crash in 2009. I had a few hundred people working for me and we had two offers to buy us. We had value-creation and growth, but then the market crashed and it took that opportunity away for that particular business at the level we were anticipating.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Persistence” and “never giving up.” You have to just hang in there when it gets hard. I live on the optimistic of the side of the equation. The glass is half full and not half empty.

What are some of your favorite books?
I read a lot of fiction. I don’t read a lot of business books. I like the break, because I’m in business all day, every day. I read a lot of adventure and thriller books. Grisham, Baldacci, and Corben are a few of the thriller authors I like.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
There’s no question, that, for me, the hardest day was when I had one of my businesses and we had a big company approve a large financing for us all the way to the board and then it was cancelled at the board because of public issues they had. At that point in time, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to grow, so I had to lay off a group of people in my business. So, just that whole issue of hiring people, growing people, and then getting into a position where you had to go back to some of your team and tell them you don’t have a job for them anymore.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I’m blessed to have a very supportive family, and I’ve always built businesses with partners. The business partner and the family have to believe in you, and you have to seek a balance when you work so hard and when you get into these difficult situations—that’s how you tough through it. You should not be an entrepreneur if you don’t believe you’re always going to come through it, no matter what. You always have to have that mindset, even if it’s tough, that you’re going to come through it and be better for it.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Probably the most important advice is don’t run out of cash. Entrepreneurs often start doing things too quickly. You need to really think things through, as far as how you’re going to finance your way from Point A to Point B. That’s hard to understand until you’ve been through it. Young entrepreneurs just think that the invention is going to work and they’re going to rock and roll and they won’t have delays or setbacks. That’s just not the case.

Mike Thompson – CEO, Groupware Technology

Mike Thompson is the CEO of Groupware Technology, a Silicon Valley-based data center solution provider. He provides the leadership and strategy to propel company-wide success. He has over a decade of leadership experience at Groupware, where he has led the company to profitable growth, from $2 million to over $300 million in revenue, and has earned recognition from Inc. Magazine, CRN, Silicon Valley Business Journal, and many other business and industry publications.

Tell me about your early career.
Starting as an inside sales representative proved to be the perfect position for me as I quickly gained valuable experience in supporting the efforts of the sales team. I also had the good fortune, while in this position, to learn the mechanics of a strong operational system experiencing the entire business cycle, from the initial quote all the way through the collections process. As I continued to grow as an inside sales representative, the chance to move into a new role as an account manager presented itself and I jumped at the opportunity. Within a short period of rapid advancement as a top account manager, and after just four years on the job, the prospect of an even greater opportunity opened. During my time as an account manager, I began to understand how building strong relationships with business partners would be the foundation for continued success. Shortly thereafter, I found myself within the management circle as the Vice President of Sales and later as Executive Vice President of Sales and Operations. The company experienced excellent growth with revenues from around $18 million accelerating to $120 million at its peak.

During this period in the VAR world, many companies were building out their infrastructures and Sun Microsystems, a multi-billion dollar corporation, was the main provider of hardware for all these businesses. Realizing my business venture with this company may produce a highly lucrative outcome, I committed myself to increasing my business acumen and enrolled in an online MBA program. This investment would help propel my career by providing me with real life work experience and book knowledge simultaneously. And indeed this proved to be the case, though, what happened next is not what I had anticipated.

Though filled with good ideas, intentions, and cutting edge technologies, business operates on the simple premise of making more money than one spends. The company found itself vulnerable to the dramatic shift in the misfortunes of others and to my knowledge no one came out of this unscathed. I felt fortunate at this time because at my age I felt I could weather the storms ahead as long as I stayed focused on the task at hand. This meant having those hard conversations no one else wanted to manage, with our customers and, unfortunately, later with the employees.

All through this time I reflected on the simple, powerful things I had learned up to this point in my career and the one most relevant seemed to come from the opening of a Kipling poem, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” It goes on, but the advice in the poem was clear: stay focused and avoid being distracted by those wanting to cast blame. I still had a career to build and considering the time invested and experienced gained I believed my future held great promise. In spite of having gone through the tortuous experience of seeing this company through its Chapter 11 and later Chapter 7 filings, I believed there were still tremendous opportunities in the technology industry. I also felt the experiences of managing an organization, through good times and bad, increased my value within the VAR community. My instincts were confirmed as other companies reached out offering me a position.

After much counsel and careful consideration I accepted a position with a smaller company with a business model similar to that of my previous employer. Having built strong relationships with industry manufacturers and distributors, the decision to remain in the VAR world came naturally.

Remaining in the technology space felt right, and at this stage of my career, I believed I had accumulated enough sweat equity and experience to, at the very least, explore new possibilities. Having now worked for two companies in various roles of responsibility and having experienced the positive and negative effects of leadership, I decided my next move had to carry more promise. If I can point to one strategic benefit garnered from my two previous employment experiences in the VAR world it’s understanding the importance of building and maintaining strong relationships with all touch points in the industry – manufacturers, distributors, and fellow employees.

How did the concept for Groupware Technology come about?
During this time period in the VAR business world, Sun Microsystems controlled much of the client-server market share; definitely the business relationship you needed if you wanted to experience any success. Rigid would best describe the reseller requirements for selling their product line. Chief among them – having a medallion (re-sell rights). If you wanted to sell Sun Microsystems products you had to have one, period. My resources (peers) informed me a company with a medallion might be going on the market and should I have an interest they recommended seizing the opportunity.

Conversations with colleagues and friends seemed to generate the momentum needed to complete the transaction while simultaneously attracting a team of dedicated individuals. I believe the word best describing the moment is serendipitous. Fortunately, during this time in the VAR business world, companies were heavily committed to building their infrastructures to maintain a competitive advantage. We were in the right place at the right time with the right attitude. But there still remained one vital factor needed in order for our business venture to thrive and not merely survive – support.

How was the first year in business?
I remember the first day I walked into the office located in a strip mall behind a Mexican restaurant – exhilarating, scary and challenging best describes the emotions I felt. But then the team (six of us) rolled up their sleeves, jumped in on the tasks at hand and I knew we were on to something special. When our distribution partner came by to visit, their eyes lit up as they looked at the team and said, “It’s about time you did this. Let’s get to work.” I confess, this felt really good, not just for me but for the team as well. Because of the limited office space, we had to work on some tables outside the office. With business beginning to show signs of growth, we knew we had to move not just for more work space but also because there had been a seriously bad odor in the office, which we discovered were dead rats in the walls. Apparently their presence had some connection with the restaurant. The move to our new office coincided with a shift in the technology business, chiefly in the area of data center management. The days of being the “middle-man” and pushing boxes out to customers were rapidly coming to an end. At this early stage of the company, we decided to take the team to an off-site we called “The Contender” where we gave out boxing gloves, which, of course, we would use to knock out the competition. We had essentially served notice that we were here to win. We grew the business from under $2 million to $30 million in revenue our first year.

What was your marketing strategy?
We developed a two-tiered marketing strategy: first to add value and establish our relevance with our customers and vendors by improving the value-added reseller experience and second, by establishing Mike Thompson (me) as the face of the company and how in doing so it can influence the company’s success. To achieve our set marketing goals, we first rebranded the company by changing the name from Groupware Technology & Computing to a more easily-stated Groupware Technology. Then, we held an off-site strategy planning session to determine what kind of company we wanted to be, and how we were going to get there. Since many of us (all six of us) had already developed close relationships from past experiences, we knew the basics of the industry and were mostly looking for differentiators. Considering how small we were in numbers, this hurdle would not be easily overcome. During a particularly engaging exchange, one of the team members phone rang, and rather than ignore the call and let it go to voicemail, he answered the phone and headed toward the door. Looking at him with perplexed expressions, we asked why he was taking the call in the midst of this important strategy session. His response, while seemingly in passing, resonated with everyone in the room,”We answer the call.” Needless to say, during his absence, the discussion in the room quickly turned to those four words, and we soon realized the power behind his statement. Right then and there, we knew we had a serious differentiator. From this statement, we decided whenever anyone called our company a living, breathing person would answer the phone and manage the caller’s inquiry. No voicemail, “Dial 1 for sales, or 2 for finance”; ad nauseam. The conversation for the rest of the strategy session revolved around this statement. Now, “We answer the call” had a much more significant meaning. It gave us a better understanding of how we were going to operate as a company and we knew then this would be the differentiator in both adding value to our customers and establishing relevance with vendors.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We quickly grew the company from under $2 million in revenue at acquisition to $30 million in our first year of new leadership, and the community began to take notice. Especially when in 2007 Inc. Magazine listed us as the #1 fastest-growing IT services company. We grew the business to $100 million in our fourth year and now we are $300+ million in revenue on our way to $500 million.

How do you define success?
Every time I come into the office, I see careers being built, families growing, and a culture of caring for each other. While having financial success is critical to the success of a company, the positive impact our success has on our employees makes one appreciate and understand the true meaning of success.

What is the key to success?
Creating a culture centered around core values. At Groupware, our core values of excellence, customer service, fun, and giving back, along with building and maintaining strong relationships, have been the driving force behind our successes. People like to do business with people they like.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
“Seek to understand before asking to be understood.” The power of listening is the lesson learned from the experience of our first off-site strategy session, which led to establishing our tagline, “We answer the call.”

What are some quotes that you live by?
“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one who gets the people to do the greatest things.” – Ronald Reagan

“In times of change those who are prepared to learn will inherit the land…While those who think they know will find themselves wonderfully equipped to face a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer

“I never wake up in the morning and tell myself, ‘Today, I think I’ll be mediocre.’” – Mike Thompson

What are some of your favorite books?
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
Leading Change by John P. Kotter
The One Minute Manager by Kenneth H. Blanchard

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
The “Great Recession” served as a reality check. After many conversations with our customers, we realized our customers were on the verge of a major shift in their data centers. So, instead of dialing back the business, we saw an opportunity to take marketshare and doubled down on expanding our integration, proof-of-concept, and testing labs. Our motto at the time was, “We refuse to participate in the recession!” This offered our customers who were looking to update their data centers an opportunity to essentially “try before you buy.” Of course, this also meant creating a new model centered around engineering prowess. Fortunately, the recession availed us with an excellent engineering team and we were able to support the investment. Lots of sweat equity during this time.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Belief in what you’re doing and trust in your team to execute the plan. Support from business partners, but more importantly, from family and friends. I also reflect on those who faced adversity much more dire than I.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
1) Lead by example but know where you’re leading your team.
2) Business is truly about people – surround yourself with good people and empower them. When you let your people do what they do best, they will both amaze and surprise you.
3) Stay curious – every day is an opportunity to learn and share something new.
4) Establish your company’s core values and stay true to them. They will determine your company’s culture and provide you with direction during difficult times.

David Lanxner – Founder & CEO, Maison Drake

David Lanxner is the founder and CEO of Maison Drake, a Florida-based retail company. David is a graduate of the University of Michigan (GO BLUE!) and has propelled the company from a small startup in 2007 to a leader in the retail industry. His dedication and unique blend of transparency and accountability sets the tone for Maison Drake. David is a proud husband to his beautiful wife, Ashley, and proud father to their three kids – Ari, Levi, and Nava.

Tell me about your early career.
I’ve always been drawn to entrepreneurship from my days in college. During the summers, I operated and managed M&L Sealcoating, an asphalt seal coating business, along with a dear childhood friend of mine. It was a very dirty line of work but one that taught me valuable life and business lessons that I still value today. We sold the business after our senior year as we both felt we needed to concentrate more on continuing our education. From there, I obtained my real estate license and quickly became a top selling agent my first year in the business. I was fortunate to learn from the best in the business and was hungry for success. In 2005, I came into a great opportunity to manage a financial analysis company based in Orlando, FL. Along with my business partner, we grew the company exponentially and sold it two years later. After some research and analyzing different markets and opportunities, I then founded Maison Drake. I do have to give a tremendous amount of credit to my beautiful wife as she was, and still is, instrumental in growing and developing the business from a one-man show operating out of our house and garage to where we are now.

How did the concept for Maison Drake come about?
After we had our first child, we noticed that there was a lack of resources locally for guidance and direction on baby products. There were the big box stores around and the ability to purchase online. However, we could not find a place that provided the personalized customer service new parents need when purchasing baby gear or products. Maison Drake was created to fulfill that need locally and then expanded online.

What was your marketing strategy?
Our first year in business was great, overall. Not very lucrative, although we learned a tremendous amount and kept moving forward. Our marketing strategy in our first year relied on word-of-mouth and referrals. As we expanded online, our philosophy was to provide a personalized customer experience through excellent customer service and communication, while investing in fulfillment services to deliver orders quickly.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The company grew steadily the first two years and then we invested heavily in some new technologies that helped us continue to grow from one level to the next over the years.

How do you define success?
I think of success as feeling good about what you are doing and getting a sense of fulfillment with what you are working towards. The one thing I love the most about the position I am in is that my company provides jobs and supports not only my family but all of my employees and their families as well. To me, that is what’s most important. It gives me a great sense of accomplishment, but at the same time, provides with the motivation to keep improving and growing. I don’t think there is a single key to success. For me, surrounding myself with a great team has been instrumental to the company’s success.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The greatest lesson I’ve learned is to stay true to your values. There have been many times where opportunities have presented themselves, that would have required us to veer off on a somewhat different path. However, I have learned that in the long run, staying true to yourself, business relationships, and commitments will always prevail.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“The team, the team, the team.”
“99% right is 100% wrong.”

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Every day as a business owner is tough. Ultimately, everything that happens or doesn’t happen is on you. I learn from it and better myself and my team from whatever challenges the day brings along.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
My family and my employees push me every day to keep moving forward, and to push harder.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Accept the fact that you don’t know everything and there is always someone that can offer a different perspective on things. Also, learn from other leaders and surround yourself with quality people.