Behfar Jahanshahi – President & CEO, InterWorks

Behfar Jahanshahi is the president & CEO of InterWorks – a people-focused tech consultancy headquartered in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He founded InterWorks while attending Oklahoma State University with the idea of addressing a rapidly evolving IT market by doing work he loves. Today, InterWorks delivers expertise in every area of technology for clients around the globe. With an emphasis on having fun and a drive for absolute client satisfaction, they have garnered state, national, and global recognition.

Tell me about your early career.
I feel like I had a pretty good view to some important business lessons from an early age, starting with a paper route I ran as a kid. It sounds like a cliché example, but I really did have one, and it was much more work than people realize. You have to pay for the papers you’re distributing out of your own pocket, collect money yourself and drum up new subscribers by knocking on their doors. It taught the importance of building relationships and how to interact with clients.

Throughout high school and college, I went on to work other jobs, namely at a movie theater and in one of the most popular restaurants in Stillwater, OK – Eskimo Joe’s. My time at Eskimo Joe’s was important in that it taught me the link between business operations and seemingly mundane tasks. For example, on the host stand, I saw how over- or under-delivering on wait times affected customer experience. In the kitchen, I saw how integrated technology and operations were in devices like the ticketing machine and how that tiny machine captured invaluable operational info like COGS.

Finally, while pursuing my MIS degree at Oklahoma State University, I landed my dream job with Creative Labs. In the early days, it was an exciting place to be. They embodied what people define as “startup culture,” and we were doing exciting work that energized everyone. But after a year and a half, I saw this culture vanish as new rules and processes were added. They went too far in the other direction, and the culture became detrimental to those working there. It just wasn’t fun anymore. It was at that point that I decided to go out on my own and start InterWorks.

The lessons I learned from Creative Labs as a company as well as those the numerous businesses I consulted with allowed me to cherry pick what I liked about each and apply them to InterWorks. This early focus on operations and culture, whether good or bad, served as the framework for InterWorks. We had the benefit of learning from the successes and mistakes of others to put ourselves ahead of the curve from the start.

How did the concept for InterWorks come about?
I had always dreamed about running my own IT business on my own terms, but taking that entrepreneurial leap is nothing to balk at. After leaving my corporate tech job and talking it over with a few good friends at the time, we decide to start our own business. We called it InterWorks, and we decided from the start that we would only do work we love and that we would always make sure it was fun. We saw what other IT providers did and asked ourselves, “Why not us? We can do this.” So, we took the leap and began scrounging up local work wherever we could. With every opportunity, we strived to go above and beyond. We knew that the success of our business was contingent upon word of mouth, especially considering we were still in college at the time.

How was the first year in business?
The first year was a whirlwind. We were IT guys, not business operators. Fortunately, Staci Bejcek (who happens to be my wife now and InterWorks’ CFO) had a solid understanding of business and accounting. Together, we figured it out as we went. Most of our clients were local businesses we were familiar with, but we even went across the state in search of business from anyone who would give us a shot. Our reputation spread throughout the region, which if you know Oklahoma, reputation spreads quickly. It wasn’t long before we found new business at every turn. We were hungry and willing to put in whatever work was required to make InterWorks succeed.

What was your marketing strategy?
It was completely word-of-mouth driven. Our primary focus was doing right by the client. This was not only because it was the right thing to do, but because we knew it directly-correlated with our success and the likelihood that they would recommend us to other businesses. Small business owners talk, so we made it a point to be there for the client no matter what. Whatever needed to be done, we would do it. We also weren’t transaction-focused. We didn’t want to hawk our wares and then move onto the next potential dollar signs. We viewed our clients as relationships that we wanted to maintain. Repeat business has been integral to our success over the years. We still take this approach in clients today, and it still serves us well.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Growth was very steady. We’ve had numerous opportunities to pursue explosive growth, but we’ve seen what happens to companies that grow too fast, too soon. With that in mind, we were very selective of the opportunities and partners we chose to align ourselves with. What’s the point in growing if it waters down the quality of your service? We’ve always had a boutique consulting mentality. While we welcome growth, we want to make sure the opportunities presented to us are the right ones that will keep our underlying culture intact.

How do you define success?
For us, success has always been about doing work you love and having fun. If you don’t enjoy what you do every day, it’s probably not worth doing. People spend so much of their lives in the workplace. That experience can either be miserable or wildly-fulfilling. We’ve actively chosen the latter, even if it means our bottom line isn’t as big as it could be. For us, monetary success comes after professional fulfillment. We have a lot of the same people at InterWorks as we started with. To me, that’s success. That tells me that even though our business has evolved, who we are on fundamental level has remained unchanged. All the idealism we started InterWorks with persist today. College me would be proud.

What is the key to success?
It’s tough to find any right answer to this. The key is to find what works for you. Discover not only who you are but who you want to be. Reconcile those two things and apply those values in all of your endeavors. If you stick to your guns and your core values, you’ll find that the right opportunities follow. Of course it requires more than just being true to yourself, it also requires an unreal amount of hard work to capitalize on those opportunities. No amount of idealism is a substitute for hard work. Finally, take care of others. Success isn’t just about you and can rarely be achieved in singularly. How far you go depends largely on those you surround yourself with.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that anyone can do most anything with enough persistence and grit. I’m not really any smarter than anyone else around me. I have no unique skill that I can attribute to my success. I simply married my passion with the fact that I don’t give up on certain things.

This determination is ultimately what leads to building a successful business. Some businesses have immediate success, others (like ours) take years of calculated growth. Some businesses are founded by genius Stanford PhDs, but many are founded by people like me who simply put in the work. Regardless of the hand you’re dealt, it’s persistence and hard work that lead to and sustain success.

What are some quotes that you live by? 
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” – Seneca

I’ve never undervalued how lucky I’ve been. I’ve always said this about myself, but whenever I hear it from someone else, it kind of bugs me. After thinking it through, I realized that I am lucky, but I also put myself in that position to a degree. In everything we do at InterWorks, we strive to be as prepared as possible. So, whenever opportunity comes knocking, we’re able to jump on it quickly. Luck may dictate the opportunities that come along, but our preparedness enables us to recognize and take advantage of those opportunities more often.

What are some of your favorite books?
I really enjoy Start with Why by Simon Sinek. It’s an amazing book and concept that drives to what motivates people. It’s a great representation of InterWorks’ “why.” By identifying what inspires our people and aligning that with what we do corporately, we’ve found that we’re more excited and more successful across the board.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Fortunately, few days come to mind. Perhaps “tough” isn’t the right word to describe it, but I have had upsetting days. These days almost always coincide with the departure of an employee. We’ve had scenarios where clients have made offers to our employees to join them. One on hand, this is flattering because it says a lot about the quality of our work. Still, whenever that employee accepts, it’s hard for me not to feel a little betrayed. Even as we continue grow, we’re a tight-knit group.

A good example of this was one of my close, old friends who helped grow a part of our business. We had just opened a new office in a new location, and he led that initiative. Within 90 days of having that office, he accepted an offer from one of our top clients. Though upsetting at the time, it didn’t diminish our client relationship in the long run. If anything, it led to more opportunities with that client. But it’s still difficult not to take that a little hard at the personal level, and it’s resulted in me keeping my guard up just a little more.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
It’s hard to say. If I had to guess, it must be my passion for what I do and my nature to be a problem-solver. There are plenty of days when I’ve come home beaten up or self-reflective. I may be down for a moment, but I wake up the next day or the next week ready to tackle the source of that negative behavior. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that I like challenges and don’t like giving up.

In fact, I struggle with disconnecting from the business, even on vacation. You always read about people who talk about the virtues of disconnecting while on vacation. That’s true to an extent, but I never really disconnect from InterWorks. It’s to the point to where I’ve mandated going somewhere each quarter to recollect myself, but I still check things, schedule calls, and think about the challenges in front of us at the time. My point is that even when I’m “taking a break” from InterWorks, I still feel a draw to the work I’m doing. It’s not out of a sense of responsibility that I do that but out of genuinely loving what I do each day. That’s what keeps me coming back.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Focus on what makes you different. What can you provide that others can’t? This doesn’t have to be something monumental. If you can do something slightly better than someone else, or if your ideas come in at a slightly different angle, that’s all it takes to get your foot in the door. Next, don’t expect success to happen overnight. A lot of people want to enjoy the benefits of being a successful entrepreneur without putting in the work. Most successful entrepreneurs go through a lot of failure and adversity before even getting their head above water. Keep working, stay flexible, but remember why you started in the first place. Finally, whatever you pour your life into, make sure it’s something you’re passionate about. You can only fake passion so long before the cracks start to show. People can tell if you’re not in love with your work. In short: be passionate, be different, and put in the work.

This interview was conducted for research purposes by Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.