John Espey was formerly the COO of Amentra, a middleware consulting company that was acquired by Red Hat in 2008. He then helped launch Nexgrid, a Smart Grid company, Reward Summit, a mobile app and credit card marketing platform, and most recently Levvel, a global digital transformation company. Under his leadership as founder and CEO, Levvel grew to over 200 consultants in less than five years and was recognized as the top 6% of all high-growth companies in the Inc. 5000.
How did the concept for Levvel come about?
My co-founder and I started the company as a way to pay some bills while we built out a product we had launched on the App Store earlier. We called it a different name at the time. We started hiring people six months later, and when we got to around twelve people, we decided to re-brand the company. We hired a branding specialist firm, and they identified the core of what we were and helped us with messaging in addition to our brand book.
How was the first year in business?
It was a lot of fun. We were doing really cutting-edge work for great clients and our first ten hires were extremely competent friends. Because of the tight-knit nature of the group, communication was much easier than it would become.
What was your marketing strategy?
Once we defined our messaging and core values, we decided that we would commit to creating a lot of content and automating the distribution of that content. We wanted to make sure that before we called a prospect, they had read our content and that we understood what they needed.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Every year of our existence, we have had more revenue than all prior years combined. We recently placed in the top 6% of the Inc. 5000 list with growth of over 1,500% over a three-year period.
How do you define success?
This is hard. I don’t pre-define goals for success because that limits what we can achieve. To me, I feel successful when a team does more than it ever could have conceived of doing when it formed. I think in the long-run success is measured by the number of lives a person or a team has improved along the way.
What is the key to success?
I think it’s different for everyone. If I had to boil it down to something more generic and generally applicable, I would probably steer it towards understanding what motivates us and then taking the actions necessary to challenge ourselves as fully as we can handle in chasing our goals.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Money and false narratives of success aren’t nearly as important as people think. The closer the narratives we create are to the actual people we are, the happier we will be.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“Great CEOs face the pain. They deal with the sleepless nights, the cold sweats, and what my friend the great Alfred Chuang (legendary cofounder and CEO of BEA Systems) calls “the torture.” Whenever I meet a successful CEO, I ask them how they did it. Mediocre CEOs point to their brilliant strategic moves or their intuitive business sense or a variety of other self-congratulatory explanations. The great CEOs tend to be remarkably consistent in their answers. They all say, “I didn’t quit.” – Ben Horowitz
“The best entrepreneurs know this: every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside. A great company is a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator.” – Peter Thiel
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
There are so many that I hate to boil it down to one single day. I think any time I’ve realized we cannot make the next payroll is hard. But I’ve never not paid payroll so it obviously gets sorted out. Probably, the time a few companies ago, I received a term sheet that was total bullshit when we had been told it would be something completely different, was tough. It was tough because I knew we had relied on raising the money and we could not live with the terms, so we had to completely change our strategy and let people go. That was tough because it was such a punch in the gut and I was completely blindsided by it.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
There’s no other choice, really. You have to burn the boat when you storm the shore.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
I would tell them to get ready to be lonely at times and that they had better be in touch with who they actually are and who they want to be. If they don’t understand both of these, they will really struggle to be happy AND successful.
This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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