After receiving his Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of Arkansas in 1979, Coleman Sisson embarked upon a career as a computer programmer at United Gas Pipeline. Over the next 30 years, he occupied managerial and executive roles at a variety of computer and technology companies, including Compaq Computer Corporation, Powersoft, and Liberate Technologies.
Always fascinated with the latest trends in technology, a chance encounter with Jimmy Buffett in 1989 led to serving as Buffett’s unofficial technical advisor on new media projects, including the creation of Jimmy’s online radio station, Radio Margaritaville. In 2004, he made his role official with the founding of his company BubbleUp, Ltd., an award-winning brand development and digital marketing company that has grown to include offices in Texas, New England, and Tennessee. In addition to managing digital media and the online presence for Buffett’s Margaritaville brand, BubbleUp works with a full roster of internationally-recognized musicians and Fortune 500 companies.
Additionally, Sisson holds US Patent 8,046,792 – Multi-channel audio enhancement for television and was awarded the 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year by the Sam M. Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas.
Tell me about your early career.
My first job was working for my dad as a mechanic in the small town I grew up in. The skills I learned there, combined with the work ethic both of my parents gave me, set the stage for everything else. I graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1979 with a degree in computer programming and statistics and my first job was in Houston as a computer programmer. In 1981, I spent all the money I had saved on a Heathkit Personal Computer, which I built from scratch. The IBM PC came out the next year and I had an advantage over my fellow mainframe programmers because many of them resisted the wave that was upon them. From there, I took every opportunity I was presented with and wasn’t afraid to move laterally, rather than up, for a chance to grow my career or learn something new. I worked for great companies including Compaq, Powersoft, and Liberate and I worked for some not so great ones as well and learned valuable lessons at all of them. Plus, I was lucky to work for some incredible leaders along the way. Mitchell Kertzman, Ross Cooley, and Dave Roux are ones who come to mind. And, of course, Jimmy Buffett. I was very lucky to have them mentor me in my career.
How did the concept for BubbleUp come about?
My passions are music and technology, and in 2004, I decided to combine them and build a company that helped musicians monetize their career. Specifically, to have a website where fans could buy a tee shirt, CD, download, ticket, and fan club membership in one transaction direct from the artist. A friend recommended I read Don Passman’s book All You Need to Know About the Music Business, and from that book I drew a chart that had a 99-cent download at the bottom and the artist at the top, with managers, record labels, and distributors in between. I described it by saying “I want more money to bubble up to the artist.” And that’s where the name originated.
How was the first year in business?
We were lucky. We had a customer to begin with and leveraged the work we did with them to help us get more customers. Plus, it didn’t hurt that I was in my late 40’s and had a lot of experience managing people and running large operations in big corporations.
What was your marketing strategy?
Our strategy was to take advantage of our advantages, which were that I knew Jimmy Buffett and I had experience managing technology businesses. We targeted artist management companies because they were interested in the artist’s brand image and long-term career growth. We also were willing to start with anything they’d give us. So, instead of requiring the website, store, and fan club we’d be willing to just do the store and prove ourselves.
We focus on 3 key areas – technology, marketing, and customer service – and we try to be the best that we can at those three. All other areas, we find partners and work with them. We can’t be great at everything, so we picked the things we knew we could be great at. We still operate this way.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We grew steadily, but not too fast. We were more interested in building a great company rather than trying to march toward an exit strategy. After about three years, we started doubling revenue each year and continued to do that for several years.
How do you define success?
If your grown kids still talk to you (and to each other), you love what you do for a living and it makes you enough money to be comfortable, then you’re successful.
What is the key to success?
I created an acronym for that. It’s called DABL, and stands for Drive, Ambition, Brains, and Luck. I’ve seen ambitious people with no drive and I’ve known lucky idiots. Some can find success with just a couple of these but if you have all four, you’ll be successful.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Treat everyone with respect and don’t be afraid of hard work.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“A wise man changes his mind and a fool never will.” – Proverb
“Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.” – George Bernard Shaw
“Keep it simple, stupid.” – Kelly Johnson
“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” – Roy Amara
“Learn to listen. Opportunity sometimes knocks very softly.” – H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
What are some of your favorite books?
I love anything Thomas Friedman writes and, of course, I’m a big fan of Don Passman’s book about the music business. Other books that had a big impact on me were Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Wayne Dyer’s You’ll See It When You Believe It, Ferdinand Fournies’s Coaching for Improved Work Performance, and Jimmy Buffett’s Where Is Joe Merchant? That book changed my life.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
If you’re worried about money, then you don’t have time to focus on customers or products. The toughest days are when you have a shortage of any of those.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I don’t want to let my family or my employees down.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
1) Get the right people in the boat and the wrong people out of the boat. Then, make sure everyone is rowing in the same direction.
2) The product doesn’t matter. If you get the right people together, you’ll figure out what to do.
3) Listen to your employees AND your customers.
4) Foster an open and honest work environment. You never know who may have the best advice you ever heard.
5) Overnight success doesn’t happen overnight.
6) Be prepared to pivot.
7) It’s good to take your job seriously, but don’t take yourself so.
This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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