Luther Cifers – Founder & President, YakAttack LLC

Luther Cifers is the founder and president of YakAttack LLC; a paddlesports accessory manufacturing company focused primarily on the kayak fishing market. From 2009 to 2014, YakAttack has averaged 156% annual growth, with a 3-year growth of 902% from 2012 to 2014.

A self-described homeschool dropout, Luther started his career in manufacturing with an entry-level position of putting sheet pans into a belt oven that cured carbon brushes. He quickly climbed the ranks at the 3rd tier automotive component manufacturer, acquiring skills in manufacturing, engineering, programming, and management, spending most of his 20-year career designing products and automated manufacturing equipment.

In 2008, Luther took up the hobby of kayak fishing, and as a problem solver by nature, identified some opportunities for new products for outfitting kayaks. A classic “garage startup,” YakAttack was launched in 2009 with a few hundred dollars and has remained organically funded. An unwavering adherence to a set of core values including honesty, creating success for customers, creating opportunity for employees, and manufacturing exclusively in the U.S.A., has propelled YakAttack’s rapid growth and has made it one of the most popular and respected brands in the rapidly-growing kayak fishing market.

1. How do you define success?
I define success as the achievement of one’s goals. Success for individuals, groups, and companies can be very different since goals vary. When you achieve what you set out to accomplish, you’ve succeeded.

2. What is the key to success?
It might be more of a ring of keys to success. When I think of a key, I think of something needed to unlock a door. The path to success has many doors and requires more than one key. I’ll list what I view as the 5 most important ones:

Key #1: Know yourself. Success requires persistence, and too often people set out on impulsive journeys only to find when things get tough, they have embarked on a journey they don’t want to be on. If you don’t truly know yourself, it can be easy to set goals that seem attractive at first, but do not really suit you. Knowing yourself is a prerequisite to the second key: knowing your mission.

Key #2: Know your mission. Too often in business, the defined goal is simply “to make money.” While creating wealth is a worthwhile endeavor, it’s a means, not an end. What will making money help you achieve? What is the thing you really care about? Is it security for yourself or your family? Luxury? Power? Empowering others? Making the world a better place? Leaving a lasting mark on the world? There is intrinsic value in the mission because the act of farming is often greater than the fruit. The road to success is not an easy one, and the water of perseverance is drawn from the well of purpose. A shallow or misplaced purpose doesn’t give you much to draw from. Know what truly motivates you. Know your mission.

Key #3: Know your principles. Your principles should establish your moral and ethical boundaries. Every road has boundaries, and the road to success is no different. Along the way we are tempted by many things, and as the landscape changes, it may become difficult to remember what those boundaries used to look like. Defining your principles up front, and keeping them in your field of view, will keep you from being led astray, chasing results. By definition, to succeed is to achieve results, but if you have to violate your principles to achieve something, it’s not worthy of achieving. This appears, rightly so, to be a moral argument, but has strategic value as well. Short-term achievements gained by violating principles are often acquired at the expense of more substantial, long-term success. We can’t control everything in life, and our shortsightedness often produces unintended consequences. If your principles are well-founded, and you allow them to guide you, letting the chips of success fall where they may, more often than not, will have them falling in your favor.

Key #4: Know your limits. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ambitious, get out of your comfort zone, or test your abilities. It means simply to acknowledge your weaknesses and failures. Weakness is a rock in the path. If you ignore it, you will most likely trip over it again and again. But if you’re willing to acknowledge it exists, you can remove it, find a way around it, or use it as a stepping stone. Failure is tripping over the rock. If you don’t know the weakness exists, failure is the thing that makes it evident to you. We all have inherent weaknesses, and we all fail. One of the primary things that differentiate successful people from unsuccessful people is their level of willingness to acknowledge the rocks in their path, and how they choose to deal with them.

Key #5: Surround yourself with people who have found or are seeking the first four keys. Even if you feel like you can do anything in your business, you cannot do everything. You need good people around you, and finding them is not always an easy task. Hire people who want to go where you are going, who share your mission, and who share the principles that guide you. The easiest and most common thing to do, as a manager, is to build a high maintenance workforce. Forcing people to do what you need them to do will produce mediocre results amid the chaos, but this is stressful and ultimately distracts you from your mission. Hire people who want to help you do what it is you are doing, and your capabilities multiply rather than being subtracted from.

3. Did you always know you would be successful?
No. I attribute a lot of the drive early in my life that led me to discover I had the potential to succeed, to a perceived need to work as hard as possible just to be average. It was through this that I learned I had some unique skills and talents, and the journey of developing those skills and talents led to an understanding of what it takes to succeed.

4. When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?Confidence. Adversity is and should be expected. But the mission doesn’t change just because there are barriers. The thing that enables me, to see adversity as something to be understood and dealt with rather than something that is preventing success, is a confidence that I can overcome whatever comes my way.

5. What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
This one is easy. Do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may.

6. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I love to fish (mostly from a kayak), and besides working, most of my free time is spent with my family. I’m very close with my kids and share different interests with each one. As they grow older, I hope to have opportunities to combine the two things I enjoy most, my work, and my kids, to help them get their own businesses started.

7. What makes a great leader?
By definition, a leader is someone that others willingly follow. To me, a great leader can only be defined as someone who is able to bring out the greatness in others.

8. What advice would you give to college students about entering the workforce?
Specifically to college students, I would say to understand the laws of supply and demand. Our society has changed greatly in the last 50 years, and workers with college degrees are no longer in short supply. Knowledge gained by formal education, while important, is not superior to knowledge gained by any other means. Consider this in the information age, where knowledge on any topic is a click away. A person’s value in the marketplace is increasingly being determined not by credentials, but by an ability to achieve results. I expect this trend to continue as technology enables more and more unconventional methods of becoming educated, and the workforce becomes more and more saturated with college degrees. Start your career with determination, purpose, and humility. List your objectives and then describe, on paper and in detail, how you will go about earning each of them. Society owes nothing to any of us. Regardless of the job you have, always conduct yourself like you need to do a little more to deserve being there. This will keep you challenged, sharpen your skills, and will increase your value greatly to employers, particularly in an age of an increasingly entitlement-minded workforce. Value is relative, so create contrast between yourself and everyone else, not by pointing out their flaws or your strengths, but by simply being the one that is different in a positive, inspiring, and productive way. Do these things faithfully and opportunity will gravitate towards you.

This interview is an excerpt from Never Give Up by Jason Navallo.

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