Eric Berry – Co-Founder & CEO, TripleLift

Eric Berry is the co-founder and CEO of TripleLift, the industry’s leading programmatic native ad platform. Eric has worked in ad tech for almost a decade. He was previously an attorney at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP. Eric received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from MIT and a J.D. from New York University School of Law. He used to do standup comedy, but then he had a baby.

TripleLift overview: TripleLift is a profitable, VC-funded, Inc. 500 company. It was #12 in the Crain’s 50 fastest growing companies in NYC, has been a Crain’s Best Places to Work in NYC for the last 3 years, is on the Inc. 500 and the Deloitte Fast 500, and was a Forbes Most Promising Company in America. TripleLift employs nearly 200 people across nine offices in three countries.

Tell me about your early career.
I had just completed graduate school, studying computer science at MIT – working on the initial sequencing of the human and mouse genomes and simply didn’t know what direction to take my career. Basically, everyone in my family was a lawyer, so I had applied to and been accepted by a number of law schools. But I wasn’t convinced that this was the career direction for me, so I spent a year with AmeriCorps, volunteering to help disabled children in the appeals to receive supplemental social security income. Then, I went to law school, went to the dark side and practiced corporate mergers and acquisitions law for a couple of years. While this was a terrible job, it made me realize the value of having a profession that you’re passionate about. So I did some serious soul-searching and realized my heart was in technology. I studied and relearned material that I hadn’t touched for over six years, and eventually got a job in a quickly-growing tech startup. There, I met the people that I eventually co-founded TripleLift with.

How did the concept for TripleLift come about?
TripleLift is an advertising technology platform. We had previously worked at a company in the same space, but were pretty underwhelmed that banner ads at the time were the predominant form of monetization. So, we simply asked ourselves, “If we could start over, understanding that the web requires advertising, how would we make ads work? We concluded, from a number of discussions with digital publishers, that they wanted control over the advertising experiences, to have them be part of their overall experience. It was from these customer conversations that we eventually hit on our idea, but it wasn’t until well over a year when we founded the business.

How was the first year in business?
The first year in business was hard and stressful. For me, I’d left a relatively secure job as a corporate attorney to join a startup, then left that job to start my own company. So, in a matter of under three years, I’d pretty much overturned my financial situation. Plus, things were getting pretty serious with the girlfriend. We started the company without knowing exactly what we were going to do, and we didn’t even figure out the business plan for over a year. During this time, my now-wife was incredibly supportive, but it was still hard. We kept trying different MVPs of products, which meant all-nighters after all-nighters building out new MVPs to test. I loved it – it was thrilling. But it would have been even better if I were much earlier in my career.

What was your marketing strategy?
We didn’t have a product that year, so there wasn’t much to market. We just spoke to market participants, worked, and iterated.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The first two years we simply ideated and then built the product out. We simply used our instincts that we were building the right product. In advertising technology, to build a product, you have to build something that can scale to billions of ad requests, so MVPs are harder to iterate. After those two years, we were off to the races. We’ve grown at least 3x every year – this will be our first year at less, around 2x, as we near $100 million in revenue. It’s easy now that we’re profitable, nearly 200 people, and having won several awards for growing so quickly (Inc. 500, Deloitte 500, Crain’s Fast 50, etc.), but it took a lot of both technical groundwork and market research to build something that could grow so quickly.

How do you define success?
We’re trying to build a sustainable, profitable company that operates right, treats its employees right, and grows. So profitability is important, and we’re among a handful of quickly-growing tech startups that are actually profitable, but it’s even more important to me that we’ve been in the Crain’s Top 100 Places to Work in New York for the past three years.

What is the key to success?
The key to success is to never be complacent. For as long as we’ve been a company, we’ve kept iterating, questioning everything, and trying to come up with products internally that we think would disrupt our current offerings – and then offer those to the market. We’re in a very competitive industry, and we’re never going to be done, so this attitude is something we simply can’t give up. Unless you get particularly lucky with your offering and your ecosystem, this is something every company can afford to do better, including TripleLift. But we try to hold ourselves to a high standard here.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
I’ve learned an awful lot about management. I can’t say by any means that I’m the perfect manager, and TripleLift – other than my actual baby – is my baby. So I have a tendency to get really stressed if something goes wrong or someone makes a mistake. But the best lesson is that the company is its people, and the people are their motivation. The company, and your leverage as a manager, is simply how motivated your people are. Some people are simply motivated by money, but in general, people are motivated by having a feeling of ownership over their projects, feeling empowered and respected. So when someone makes a mistake, they’re generally not doing it from a bad place – they generally need context and want to do a good job, so as a manager, you should think about how you could have improved their context and helped them do a better job in that situation.

What are some of your favorite books?
Who: The A Method for Hiring 1st was probably the most informative book in terms of actually having a business impact. Great advice, and relatively concise. Similarly, Start with Why by Simon Sinek was a solid approach to management.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
After we’d been around for about fifteen months, we started to realize that the business we’re running now was the business we should go all in on. That said, we’d spent many months getting customers for our then-current product, and had over a million dollars of revenue in the pipeline for the upcoming year. We had an incredibly hard decision, “Do we turn down this revenue, which would have required diverting our product and sales focus, to go all in on this new product? Or do we stay the course and put a mediocre effort into what we thought would be the future of the business?” Given how high stress the job was already, how much I’d put on the line, and how risky this was, the day the co-founders came to the determination that we would drop all of our current business and go all-in on the new one was probably the single hardest. And I’ve never regretted the decision we made (but of course, with the benefit of hindsight, that’s easy to say).

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
That’s easy. I have a 1-year-old daughter who means everything to me. It’s probably the easiest thing to just think of her and then work twice as hard, no matter what.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
When people think about starting a company, they think about Facebook or Google or whatever. But those are the exceptions to the rule. The real life of an entrepreneur isn’t glamorous. It’s not about going to Davos or being on Bloomberg or whatever. It’s about working nights and weekends, losing touch with a lot of your friends as they go and hang out and you’re working, and slowly growing the company. It’s about celebrating the wins – the right amount – and keeping perspective when there are losses, which there will be. And it’s about understanding that what you’re about to set out to do is something that you should expect to do for ten years. So you need to pick something that excites you, and you need to pick people who you’re confident are good, trustworthy people that you’re comfortable running the business with.

Jeff Snyder – Founder & Chief Inspiration Officer, Inspira Marketing Group

Jeff Snyder is the founder and chief inspiration officer of Inspira Marketing Group, an experiential marketing agency headquartered in Norwalk, Connecticut, with offices in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Jeff is a 25-year industry veteran, having started in experiential marketing with GMR and RedPeg prior to founding Inspira. As a thought leader in the space, Jeff focuses his efforts on developing strategic solutions for clients such as Constellation, Diageo, General Mills, Microsoft, and Nestle, among others.

As many agencies were consolidating and closing in 2008, Jeff launched Inspira Marketing with the intention of disrupting the category. Knowing that experiential marketing allows brands to get closest to the customer, he saw an opportunity to garner valuable insights. From there emerged an agency committed to taking those real-time insights and bringing them to life through meaningful consumer experiences that drove tangible business results.

Today, Inspira is rapidly becoming one of the most recognized agencies in its space for its creative acumen, dedication to measurement and analytics, and award-winning culture. That success stems from creating a place where everyone feels happy to come to work every day — a place where a group with shared values feels empowered to make a difference, both for their clients and for the community at large.

Inspira continues to make a difference in its support of the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer, with a portion of profits donated to fund progressive research and Jeff holding a seat on the Board of Directors for ALSF. Jeff’s daughter, Kennedy, was diagnosed with spinal cord cancer at the age of two, and has been battling the disease ever since. It is through her unwavering optimism that Jeff was inspired to create his own agency.

Tell me about your early career.
Through internships during my time at Ithaca College, you might say that I took a non-traditional “test-drive” approach through a few different careers in order to find out what I did and didn’t like. Whereas, my friends were all targeting careers in accounting or finance, I was just trying to get out there and try several paths to find out what I did and didn’t like. It really wasn’t until after graduation – when I became a nightlife promoter down in Washington, D.C. – that I found my calling. I felt a ton of satisfaction from bringing people together and curating those special experiences. Dollars and cents aside, I really fed off of their energy and found it emotionally-fulfilling. Soon after, I learned that there was a whole career path for that: experiential marketing.

How did the concept for Inspira Marketing Group come about?
From a business perspective, I had started my career in experiential at GMR Marketing, and RedPeg directly after that. As I ascended through the ranks, I began to notice two things that I felt I could do differently. First, from a culture perspective, and taking the lead in opening the Connecticut branch of RedPeg, I couldn’t help but think that things could be done differently under my watch. I really wanted to build an agency culture into a place where everyone at the office felt excited about coming to work every day – creating the same feeling of excitement I got when I found my own calling while being a promoter. After all, when everyone comes to work feeling empowered and part of something bigger, it ends up translating into better work.

And, that was the second thing; I wanted to treat clients and the work differently. At the time, experiential was being treated as an after-thought — a marketing tactic used for leftover budgets. But, I knew it could be so much more than that. Experiential provided an opportunity to garner consumer insights that couldn’t be found from your standard advertisements. That two-way communication would not only serve as a way for brands to interact with the consumer, but also as a way to adapt their marketing strategy. These learnings would ultimately help us design better, more meaningful experiences – ones that led to an emotional connection between brand and consumer, and began to think about blazing my own path and starting my own company.

Business matters aside, I had never felt the motivation to start my own company. At the same time that this was happening, my wife, Kristy, and I got dealt some terrible news. Our daughter, Kennedy, had been diagnosed with spinal cord cancer, and the outlook was initially pretty bleak. As she was battling for her life, she kept an upbeat attitude and showcased a perseverance that challenged me to evaluate my own life. How was she able to find the motivation, despite the adversity? It is Kennedy who fueled my fire. She was the catalyst, longing to just be a normal kid, that pushed me to create the very company I had been dreaming of, and the inspiration for the name Inspira. Because of her, I would also use a portion of the profits to help find the cure for pediatric cancer.

How was the first year in business?
Launching a business in 2008 meant taking on a difficult new endeavor in the height of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Businesses across the country were closing their doors right as we were opening up shop. As you might imagine, that first year was really tough. In an agency world filled with conglomerates, we were an independent, self-funded group trying to establish ourselves. I ended up cashing out my entire savings and 401(k), and took out a second mortgage just to keep things afloat. Still, as tough as that first year was, it made our team that much more resilient, and that much more appreciative of the good times that have followed.

What was your marketing strategy?
One of the biggest initial challenges was the separation agreement I had with my former company. I had been heading up business development at RedPeg, and with that role comes came a boatload of contacts. The problem? I had to hand over the Rolodex, including past and current clients, as well as any prospects in the pipeline. We were essentially back at ground zero.

Knowing that I couldn’t leverage all of my personal contacts, I decided to target other marketing agencies (advertising, PR, promotional). Many of their campaigns involved an experiential extension, so we would offer ourselves up as partners until Inspira’s name became a household one amongst brand teams. Even more so than other branches of marketing, experiential is a relationship business. By forming those relationships early on, we were able to build something big from the ground up.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
There’s no other way to say it — the first year was pretty tough. Truth be told, we were in the negative after year one. All that struggle paid off in year two, though. We began to hit our stride, picking up one client after another, and that continued to manifest itself in 20-30% year-over-year growth in the years that followed. In 2013, we were lucky enough to be named #44 on the Inc. 500 list, and we’ve been steadily growing ever since.

How do you define success?
In our business, the definition of success will inevitably vary from one person to the next. Experiential marketing agencies are often viewed as executional in nature, but we see ourselves as a group that offers solutions. Each client’s business is our business, so we work to understand their goals and key metrics, and use our resources to make it happen. Our mission is to go above and beyond for them every single day. Honestly, there’s no feeling quite like exceeding expectations.

What happens internally at Inspira, though, is equally important to us. Success at HQ and our satellite offices means creating a place where everyone feels happy to come to work every day — a place where a group with shared values feels empowered to make a difference, both for their clients and for the community at large.

What is the key to success?
In a business world that is constantly changing, there’s no singular recipe for success. More than anything, I’ve learned that the key to success is to never be satisfied. It sounds trite, but it’s true: you either evolve or die. That means we need to be continually evolving our offerings and services in order to meet the changing demands of our clients.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Do not underestimate the impact that toxic employees can have on your business, no matter how high-achieving they might be perceived to be. Those people can undermine your core values and everything that you hold to be true. Though every entrepreneur makes mistakes along the way, the great ones are able to admit when they’re wrong and learn from it.

What are some quotes that you live by? 
“Find something you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
“It’s easier to pull back a stallion than it is to kickstart a mule.”

What are some of your favorite books?
Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie, and Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
We’ve had plenty of great days along the way, but one of the toughest ones came early on. Our business was beginning to hit its stride, with an expanding team to meet the needs of our growing client portfolio. Still, we were far from perfect, and we got stuck in a situation with some really unfavorable payment terms from our clients. Only two days away from payroll, we realized just how dire the situation was. The well was dry, our American Express cards were maxed out, and we were about endure the ultimate nightmare — checks were going to bounce and we were going to be unable to pay our team. I’m not kidding when I say that we had to liquidate anything and everything in order to make sure it didn’t happen. At a company where everyone feels like family, there’s nothing more frightening than the idea of letting everyone down.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
At the beginning of this year, we handed out bracelets to our entire team, each engraved with one word: persevere. These intention bracelets, the brainchild of my daughter, Kennedy, serve as a constant reminder that no matter how bad things might seem, they sure could be a lot worse. When things get hectic around the office — and there’s no avoiding that in our world — it’s nice to look down at the bracelet and keep things in perspective.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
You’ve probably heard this one before, but it rings true: pursue your passions. Be willing to put all of the chips to the center of the table and bet on yourself. That’s what I did, and it’s the greatest investment I’ve ever made.

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.

Sykes Wilford – Founder, Smokingpipes.com

Sykes founded Smokingpipes.com in 2000, while completing his undergraduate degree in history at Vanderbilt University. Some might today assume, like Athena was said to have sprung whole from the head of Zeus, that Sykes sprang wholly-prepared upon the world of pipes. The truth, however, is that he didn’t have any idea what he was getting into. Mostly. He had not then ever written a line of code, and he had no inkling as to how to run a business, even one that was just two guys and a small rented warehouse space in Tennessee. What he did have from his part-time job at a local tobacco shop was an inkling of the sort that in hindsight others would call insight: technology, particularly the World Wide Web, could revolutionize pipe and tobacco retail just as it was transforming so many other industries. Of equal importance was Sykes’s growing interest in pipes as works of functional art that deserved critical discussion. This interest was good enough to get things started; the knowledge needed to run a successful business would develop over time as it does for most of us in our 20s: by doing with enthusiasm. So it was with enthusiasm and two convictions – that the pipe business needed technology and that pipes were serious and beautiful things – that Sykes laid the foundation for what Smokingpipes.com would eventually become. This trinity still largely defines his role in the company today where his primary responsibilities include overseeing finances, operations, and software development, as well as vendor relationships and sales, all things that he has learned a little about in the ensuing years. But even as time has carried on and the company has grown, Sykes is still never more passionate than when working directly with, or teaching others about, pipes.

Tell me about your early career.
I founded Laudisi Enterprises and Smokingpipes.com (which was our only business for the first few years) while I was still in college, so there’s not much early career to speak of outside of the early history of the company.

In early 1999, I went in search of a part-time job during freshman year at Vanderbilt. I didn’t want to work on campus – campus job pay was, I think, $5.45 an hour at the time – but I had to be able to walk to work since I didn’t have a car. I tried a couple of used bookstores and they weren’t interested. Having just left the second failed attempt, I walked across the street to a nearby tobacconist, probably to buy a little pipe tobacco or French cigarettes (I cringe now at how irritatingly pretentious I was at 18). On the way out, I asked if they were hiring. They said they were. They called me the next day for the princely sum of $7.50 an hour. I was delighted.

I fell in love with pipes and pipe tobacco while working at that store. I mean, really in love. My buddies were sick of hearing me talk about it. I spent hours reading about pipes (which was much harder then than it is now) that I should have spent reading Chaucer or doing my economics homework.

At the same time, working for that small shop was a desperately-frustrating experience. They never had the right stuff in stock because they had no real time inventory. We did inventory annually on green ledger paper by walking around the store and counting stuff (not counting against records; just counting stuff). All sales ran through an electronic register. It was, to me at the time, a pipe wonderland and a business nightmare.

I had no business background, though. I majored in history, took a few economics classes, and took a bunch of English lit classes. I didn’t really fancy myself a businessman. I thought I’d apply to graduate schools after Vanderbilt and spend my life as an academic.

But this was also 1999. And in 1999, the Internet was going to change everything. We look back on it now and mock the naiveté of that first Internet bubble – what with measuring ‘eye-balls’ instead of actual sales or, gasp, profits – but we were, collectively, feeling our way into what this Internet thing would become. And, we were sort of right about the Internet changing everything; it just did so mostly in ways that we couldn’t see then.

So, I thought selling pipes on the Internet might be a good idea. The consumer base was diffuse – there just aren’t a whole lot of pipe smokers – and this is a big country. It seemed a good bet.

So, in June 2000, I incorporated, registered the Smokingpipes.com domain, and set to work.

How was the first year in business?
A pretty dismal effort in figuring out that I knew even less than I thought I had. The first couple of years were marked by pretty terrible revenue and us just figuring out the complexities of all of it. The following three years were very high growth – we grew eight fold in three years then – but that posed its own set of managerial and cash-flow problems.

I spent pretty much every minute of every day working in those years. I discovered that I had a physical limit of about a 95 hour workweek and that, beyond that, I was sort of useless. It was rough.

The first five years were about iterative learning, though. We did stuff; it went well or badly; we kept doing the good stuff and stopped doing the bad stuff. It sounds simple, but it was excruciating and exhausting, and absolutely not glamorous.

What was your marketing strategy?
Early on, it was more about figuring out how to properly merchandise pipes and pipe tobacco on the Internet. There were no good templates and it’s a small industry. We didn’t start to think about marketing in a more sophisticated way until much later, 2008 or 2009, perhaps. Some of this is a function of what the Internet, and Internet retail, was like in the early 2000s. Some of it was a function of being the first company to do what we were doing successfully.

How do you define success?
Running an operation I can be proud of, where employees are happy, customers are loyal and happy, and we get the details right. I figure that if those things are satisfied, the dollars will follow. I like building things. I like institutions. I like ideas. I like tinkering. I’m less motivated by money than I am by other things. So, yeah, the P&L keeps score, but there are things that are more interesting, and more important, to me.

What is the key to success?
The key? As in, just one? I don’t think it works that way. A big one is trying to hire people with skills different from your own. That sounds obvious, but I think a lot of people get it wrong. Be alright with – or, even better, relish – disagreement over ideas. Be receptive to those differing viewpoints.

And try to understand the operational aspects of the business well enough to speak intelligently, make competent decisions, and help resolve problems as they arise. There’s so much discussion about networking and dealmaking and the like. It’s not that those things aren’t important, but they sort of presuppose that you’re already operating a really tight ship. My bias is definitely towards good internal execution and letting the other stuff be secondary. Other than that, it’s just a whole lot of hard work.

Oh, and own your failures. And maybe other people’s failures too. Blaming things on the wider environment or other people might make us feel better about ourselves, but it’s a totally useless exercise if relentless improvement in the organization is the goal.

What are some quotes that you live by?
It’s probably dangerous to reduce a personal philosophy to a handful of quotes.

What are some of your favorite books?
I read maybe fifty books a year, ranging from serious literature to academic history to public policy to pulp science fiction (since we all need airplane reading). I don’t read a whole lot of business books. Picking favorites is tough; we’re back to boiling down a whole lot of complexity to a handful of titles on a shelf, and I don’t really think my favorites have much of anything directly to do with business. I generally think that being broadly well-read is a good thing, and useful to whatever I’m doing.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I’ve had a lot of tough days, but by and large, I thrive on the chaos associated with them. Like any organization of size, we’ve had our fair share of bad news over the years, but those are opportunities to reflect and consider.

Maybe my toughest days, or perhaps months, have been little existential crises I have every few years when I realize that the work I’m doing, and the identity I’ve cultivated for and within myself, no longer fits what the company needs. It usually happens when work I enjoy and I’m deeply attached to doing needs to be surrendered to someone else, or when I realize that I’m failing to properly lead the organization because the role I’d conceived for myself had become inappropriate or insufficient. But that old role is invariably
comfortable. The most difficult ones have involved transitions away from solitary work, writing copy or software, towards collaborative work and from one abstraction layer to another (from doing the work to designing the processes that do the work to managing the designers of the processes, etc). I’m sort of temperamentally ill-suited to entrepreneurship, so while for some of these transitions would likely be liberating, for me, they’ve been painful.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Figuring out what the values for yourself, and the organization, is also a good first step. Protect those values, and then be flexible with everything else. Be willing to try lots of different things and discard the bad ideas and keep the good ideas, but know where your lines are. You don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel every day, so have some guideposts that you set out in advance, and just play within those. And I do mean play: experiment, fiddle, tinker. Make it better in lots and lots of little iterative steps. But know in advance what you want the organization to be and what you want it to do. And I don’t mean quantifiable goals like $10 million in net income per year or $100 million in revenue a quarter. I mean, what sort of institution do you want to create? Who does the organization serve? Why does it do what it does? If you have a handle on those things, lots of difficult questions just resolve themselves and you can focus on just making it better. And in that process of incremental betterment, the quantitative goals just sort of take care of themselves.

Jason Wilson – Founder & CEO, Back Forty Beer Company

Tell me about your early career.
I have a degree in supply chain management from Auburn University. I spent the first seven years of my career working for the largest privately-held company in the world, before moving back to my hometown of Gadsden to build our brewery.

How did the concept for Back Forty Beer Company come about?
It was almost twenty years ago. My brother always spent his winter semester working in Crested Butte, Colorado. I was twenty-one at the time, and I always spent my winter break from college with him. I would ski for free, and crash on his couch for free, and usually eat all of his food…for free. One time, he took me to the Crested Butte Brewery and I had the best beer I had ever tasted. It was the CBB Red Lady Amber Ale. I looked at my brother and said, “This beer is amazing.” A guy stuck his head out from behind a tank and said, “Thanks!” I was blown away that this was the guy who made the beer I was drinking and I stayed there in the back with the brewer until well into the morning hours. I left to go back to college, and my mind was made up. A few years of saving money and about 300 brewery tours later, I opened Back Forty Beer Company.

How was the first year in business?
It was stressful, but exciting. The craft beer business was in its infancy and there was a lot of potential. I still had major issues to deal with, but they were all what I call first world problems, “Are we growing too fast? Where will I get the capital for this next expansion? Is this distribution partner going to be mad when I tell him we aren’t ready to expand into their market yet?”

What was your marketing strategy?
Interactions, and establishing ourselves as a brand. We focused heavily on charitable donations as a way to have a positive impact on our community while also gaining exposure to key leaders and strategic connectors. When you are a young entrepreneur, the single best thing you can do is get in front of as many people as you can. Entrepreneurs are passionate about what they do, and it shows. They will talk all night to a brick wall about whatever it is they have been consumed by (no pun intended). The energy is infectious and it really drives people to your product.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We experienced triple-digit growth for five consecutive years, and reached #1111 on the Inc. 5000 list. Of course, it’s easy to triple $1, but by year five, it was becoming an organization that was larger and more complex than I ever imagined.

How do you define success?
Ultimately, success is defined by profits. Like it or not, that’s why we are all here. As a CEO, I focus more on the things that don’t necessarily show up on a balance sheet. I consider it success every time one of my employees shows up with a new car, or buys a new house, or gets to take their family on a vacation. If my staff is happy, and my investors are happy, I’m happy.

What is the key to success?
Hard work and understanding the game. In today’s society, there is a tremendous amount of wealth and influence at the top of just about every industry. It’s critical that you understand who the real players are in your market, and who you need to know to keep your finger on the pulse. The hard work comes when you have to establish yourself as the new guy. Pick up the phone, call the CEO of that major company in your industry, and ask to speak to them. They probably won’t call you back right away. You may have to leave a few messages over time. You would be surprised how many of them will return your call and answer questions that you didn’t even know you needed to be asking.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Never sign a contract without fully understanding your commitments. Plan for the worst case scenario with any contract.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principals unto death.” – Thomas Paine

“I understand there’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons and old movies. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy.” – Anthony Bourdain

“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” – C.S. Lewis

“No such thing as spare time, no such thing as free time, no such thing as down time. All you got is life time. Go.” – Henry Rollins

What are some of your favorite books?
Anything by Malcom Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers), Fanatical Prospecting by Jeb Blount, Microtrends by Mark J. Penn, Drunk Tank Pink by Adam Alter, and the collective writings of Hunter S. Thompson.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I’ve had a lot. Every entrepreneur has. From learning that you aren’t getting that investment you were expecting, to seeing negative trends in your market. The toughest thing for me was having to lay off employees. That never gets easy, and I blame myself for putting those individuals in that situation. Never hire someone unless you know that you can sustain that position in your organization.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I think it was Henry Ford who said, “There is no man that cannot do more than he thinks he can do.”

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that when you really believe in something, nothing can stop you. I know that sounds cheesy, but I wish people could just realize that they have another gear inside of them that most have never accessed. There is something really peaceful about sitting in that big meeting with the bank and thinking to yourself, “I don’t even care if these guys say ‘no.’ There are a million banks out there and hundreds of millions of private investors. I’m not going to stop until I raise the capital or find a bank to close this loan.”

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Here’s an excerpt from a letter written by Hunter S. Thompson. This sentiment was the driving force behind my entrepreneurial adventure. In summary, he says you should pick a lifestyle that makes you happy, and then find a profession that allows you to succeed within that lifestyle. Don’t pick the profession first and then change your lifestyle. You’re an entrepreneur. You can literally do whatever you want. Just make sure you love it.

“We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid.

When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective…So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES…But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors— but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal…As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important.”