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.

John Sammut – President & CEO, Firstronic

Prior to joining Firstronic LLC, an advanced electronics manufacturing services and optimized supply chain solutions company, John served as CEO of Live Sports Radio LLC, a private-equity backed business, for 3 years. He also served as president and CEO of EPIC Technologies, LLC, a multinational EMS company, for nearly 10 years. He led the company’s growth from $3 million (through its predecessor business, CCI) to nearly $300 million in annual revenue, while achieving industry-leading levels of profitability. In 2006, he was the recipient of the “EY Entrepreneur of the Year” award in the technology category for the Midwest region.

Prior to joining EPIC, he was responsible for TMW’s investment platform strategy in electronics manufacturing. He joined TMW’s company Electro-Wire Products in 1990 as manager of market development engineering for the EMP division of Electro-Wire, which achieved revenue growth from $6 million to $30 million by 1992. John was also responsible for European business development from 1993 to 1995, during which Electro-Wire acquired a German electrical distribution system manufacturer with annual revenues of $120 million. Prior to joining Electro-Wire, he held several positions at Ford Motor Company from 1986 to 1990. He holds B.S. degrees in Electrical Engineering and Industrial Management from Lawrence Technological University and an M.B.A. from INSEAD, The European Institute of International Business.

1. How do you define success?
Achieving financial freedom and a balanced life to enjoy the fruits of my labor.

2. What is the key to success?
Doing what you love so that it’s not “work.” So you can pour yourself into it and do whatever it takes to be successful. I also think a key is being “programmed” early on in life to have high expectations, which means an important part of this comes from parents or those raising you as a child to expect great things.

3. Did you always know you would be successful?
Yes, that has always been “programmed” into my mind for as long as I can remember.

4. When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
The fact that failure isn’t an option and knowing that there is always a way. It’s just a matter of finding it!

5. What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
That once you start succeeding, remain focused and don’t get distracted with other opportunities, because with success will come many other competing interests from all directions.

6. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Spending time with family and friends.

7. What makes a great leader?
Someone with vision, drive, motivation, inspiration, and tenacity.

8. What advice would you give to college students about entering the workforce?
Do profile testing to discover all of the options/opportunities out in the world for the type of skills you have to offer. The key early on is to discover what you truly love to do, as soon as possible, so you don’t waste a lot of time discovering what you don’t want!


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

Jim Spadaccini – Founder & CEO, Ideum

Having founded the company in 1999, Jim is the creative director and CEO of Ideum, a multi-touch products and digital interactive company based in Corrales, New Mexico. He helps direct Ideum’s commercial hardware and software initiatives and provides creative direction for custom software and installation projects.

Jim was the principal investigator for the National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored Open Exhibits software and community initiative and a co-PI for the Creating Museum Media for Everyone (CMME) project. In addition, he was co-chair of the NSF-funded Human Computer Interaction in Informal Science Education (HCI+ISE) conference. Additionally, Jim was a principal investigator on the NASA-funded Space Weather Mobile project and co-PI on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)-sponsored project, Hurricanes and Climate Change.

In addition to his responsibilities at Ideum, Jim is active in the community and volunteers as a board member for the Friends of Chaco and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. Before founding Ideum, Jim was the director of Interactive Media at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California. While at the Exploratorium, his department was responsible for developing educational web resources and media exhibits for the museum floor. For his work at the Exploratorium, Jim received a Computerworld “Smithsonian Award,” an Association of Science and Technology Centers “Award for Innovation,” and three consecutive Webby Awards for “Best Science Site.”

Jim taught courses on design and technology at San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) Multimedia Studies program for seven years starting in the mid-90s, and more recently, taught Technology-Enhanced Communication for the Cultural Heritage (TEC-CH) program at the University of Lugano, Switzerland. For more than a decade, he has taught courses on digital media and museums for the Cultural Resource Management program at University of Victoria, British Columbia. Along with his work in informal education, Jim has consulted with Apple and Adobe, and has developed promotional and instructional materials for a number of professional software authoring tools.

1. How do you define success?
I believe a lot of people think of success as something you just acquire or earn over time, and there you are, you’ve arrived! I like to think about being successful at different stages in life, and in our company’s development. I never thought of myself or our company as unsuccessful when there were only a few of us and we were struggling to make ends meet. I thought of us being successful for who we were and what we were at that stage of development.

Success is being able to work on interesting projects or develop interesting products. Success is getting to work with innovative people and partners on great projects. We’ve never really focused on the money, except as a way to do more, to take on bigger and better projects, and to develop new and more exciting products. For us, that has been really important. It has allowed us to grow the company with zero venture capital and debt. Because we don’t have to spend a lot of time or energy with funders, we can focus on the work, the creative process, and on improving our staff and workflow.

2. What is the key to success?
I think a lot of it is hard work and persistence. That is certainly the driving force when you find yourself in a situation when you don’t have a lot of collaborators. For our company, I think finding the right people to work with has been absolutely essential. I’ve been lucky enough to find people who can do things I can’t, and who can bring ideas that I don’t have. I can’t stress that part enough. It is not really about the individual. It is about having a great and diverse team in place. That and hard work makes everything possible.

3. Did you always know you would be successful?
Our company is now getting attention because we are growing and involved in very interesting, cutting-edge technology. While I am proud of what we’ve accomplished and where we are, I think. Unfortunately, our society defines success too narrowly. It is not always about money and the latest startups or new technology.

I have always thought of myself as successful. When I was a poorly paid teacher in San Francisco, California during the early 90s, I thought I was successful at that job. I think success is something you bring with you when you care about the work, and when you want to make a difference and create something meaningful. In that sense, I always knew I would be successful, because I worked hard at a job that was important.

4. When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
You really don’t have a choice. You always move forward. I don’t want that to sound negative, as some people feel that they are trapped in particular situations. I don’t view it that way. When I face adversity, I tend to work harder, try to work more closely with those around me, and try to work with others to constructively solve whatever problems have arisen.

A huge benefit of adversity is that, usually, there are more than a few lessons to be learned in these types of situations. Our products, projects, and processes have all benefited from what we learned over the years from a variety of unforeseen incidents or (unfortunately) self-inflicted mistakes and blunders. Knowing that can also be comforting. You feel like you are getting something positive out of a bad situation. It is also a way to bring closure and close off the negative feelings associated with a bad situation.

5. What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
It is hard to choose one. Persistence and making sure you are always thinking ahead are probably the two greatest lessons I’ve learned.

Persistence is the continuum. It helps you day to day, but also means that you’ll benefit in the future from sticking with things. Our company benefits from relationships and contacts that we made in the early 2000s. We have gained experience through projects, big and small, over more than 15 years. The time spent comes back to you and it can help you find new projects, develop new products, and innovate.

Thinking ahead and planning for multiple futures is something I do every day in some way or another. Things won’t ever work out exactly as you plan, so that’s why I focus on “multiple” futures. In addition, it is not all nuts and bolts kind of thinking. It is not all about staff, space, products, and money. It is also about being the company for which you want to work. What type of work are you interested in pursuing? Who are you going to collaborate with? What new technologies or design challenges are we going to take on? Can we do more for the local community? All of this forward-thinking prepares you for what’s next. It has allowed us to grow organically and take advantage of the opportunities that have presented themselves.

6. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I like to take on activities that are far removed from work. I love spending time with my family. Also, I enjoy gardening and have a vineyard with 135 vines. I’m just starting to make wine. I like to ride my bike and exercise. I think it is important to have some balance. It is easy to get wrapped up in work because I find it so interesting.

7. What makes a great leader?
I think great leaders help assemble great teams, find great talent, and inspire people. I also think a great leader provides the tools, the environment, and the collaborators for others to be successful.

8. What advice would you give to college students about entering the workforce?
The best advice I have ever heard is to find something you are passionate about. Yes, it is a cliché, but it is true (which is also a cliché at this point). However, there are a lot of people who have jobs they don’t like. They do their work just for the money, and that doesn’t lead to long-term happiness. If you find something you love and work at it, if you are good at it, chances are that the money will follow.

The other bit of advice I would give is, when you go to an interview, don’t think about it as a one-way kind of process. Ask the employer questions. Learn about the work environment. Make sure it is a place where you want to work and a place that would allow you to grow. The type of company and work environment can be as important as the job itself when you are starting out.


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

Gary L. Easterling – President & CEO, United Federal Credit Union

Gary L. Easterling has been serving as president and CEO of the United Federal Credit Union since 2007. He has more than 30 years of credit union experience, most recently as CEO of Century Credit Union in Cleveland, Ohio, and Wright-Patt Credit Union in Fairborn, Ohio, where he held leadership roles in almost every functional area. He holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, as well as an M.B.A. from Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana. His certifications include the CUES Institute’s Certified Chief Executive designation and CUNA’s Management School—Part I and Part II.

1. How do you define success?
Success is bringing your best to the game, the meeting, the event, the role, and the mission.

2. What is the key to success?
Aligning your opportunities with your skills. Stretching beyond past performance without stretching beyond your capabilities. Achieving your personal best.

3. Did you always know you would be successful?
There are no guarantees, but I have always been optimistic. Success is the journey. There are as many challenges ahead as there are behind. Making a difference every day is living a successful life.

4. When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I don’t like losing, but more than that I don’t like letting people down. I usually am in roles that impact the lives of others. These people depend upon me. The prospect of letting them down and causing harm to them keeps me pushing forward regardless of the adversity.

5. What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
It can be found in the Serenity Prayer. Learning to discern what I can change from what I can’t change and then summoning the courage to change what I can.

6. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Reading, walking, golf, fishing, and most of all—time with family.

7. What makes a great leader?
Vision and humility. Having the vision to energize others and the humility to allow them to succeed and receive the accolades.

8. What advice would you give to college students about entering the workforce?
Take people with you on your journey. Help them succeed and let your contributions highlight themselves. Don’t get overly focused on getting credit. Don’t be lured into a battle for the spotlight. Those who can be the greatest positive influence in your life will see the truth; they don’t need your help. Stay true to your faith and values. No shortcut is worth it. There is no right way to do a wrong thing.


This interview is an excerpt from Success: 30 Interviews with Entrepreneurs & Executives by Jason Navallo.

Usama Fayyad – CEO, Open Insights

Usama Fayyad, Ph.D. is the chief data officer and group managing director at Barclays PLC. He also leads Oasis500, a tech startup investment fund, following his appointment as executive chairman in 2010 by King Abdullah II of Jordan. He was also chairman, co-founder, and chief technology officer of ChoozOn Corporation/Blue Kangaroo, a mobile search engine service based in Silicon Valley.

In 2008, Usama founded Open Insights, a U.S.-based data strategy, technology, and consulting firm that helps enterprises to deploy data-driven solutions that effectively and dramatically grow revenue and competitive advantage. Prior to this, he served as Yahoo!’s chief data officer and executive vice president where he was responsible for Yahoo!’s global data strategy, architecting its data policies and systems, and managing its data analytics and data processing infrastructure. The data teams he built at Yahoo! collected, managed, and processed over 25 terabytes of data per day, and drove a major part of ad targeting revenue and data insights businesses globally.

In 2003, Usama co-founded and led the DMX Group, a data mining and data strategy consulting and technology company that specializes in big data analytics for Fortune 500 clients. DMX Group was acquired by Yahoo! in 2004. Prior to 2003, he co-founded and served as CEO of Audience Science. He also has experience at Microsoft, where he led the data mining and exploration group at Microsoft Research and also headed the data mining products group for Microsoft’s server division.

From 1989 to 1996, Usama held a leadership role at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where his work garnered him the Lew Allen Award for Excellence in Research from Caltech, as well as a U.S. Government medal from NASA.

Usama has published over 100 technical articles on data mining, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and databases. He holds over 30 patents, is a fellow of the Association for Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, and a fellow of the Association of Computing Machinery. He has edited two influential books on data mining and served as editor-in-chief on two key industry journals.

Usama earned his Ph.D. in Engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is active in the academic community with several adjunct professor posts and is the only person to receive both the ACM’s SIGKDD Innovation Award (2007) and Service Award (2003).

1. How do you define success?
To me, success is about learning and gaining knowledge, so as long as you are learning (with depth of experience), you are succeeding.

2. What is the key to success?
Being clear and focused on what you are doing, always observing and understanding what is happening, as well as reacting deliberately and thoughtfully, because that allows you to evaluate if a situation is good or bad. Many people reach the wrong conclusion because they did not evaluate properly. Give it your all and a serious effort, and you will succeed. Most fail to succeed because they never try hard enough.

3. Did you always know you would be successful?
I am always maximizing learning, and by my definition, success then becomes easily attainable. How much you learn and how much you choose to analyze, understand, explain, and then reach insight, is all under your control. In my model, it is very difficult to fail. You fail when you don’t try hard enough. Life is too precious to waste my time on things I am not willing to try hard enough to achieve.

4. When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
The certainty of two things: 1) things will always get better, especially if you are trying honestly and seriously, and 2) things can always be so much worse. People sometimes let things get to them and depress them. I try not to take it seriously. It is rare that your physical survival is at risk—compared to that, any situation is trivial.

5. What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Life is filled with so many great lessons. It is hard for me to choose a greatest or best. I never understand when people ask what is your favorite book or song, or “What have you…” Some great lessons include, in science for example, that simple theories and simple explanations are truly more likely to be correct. It can be demonstrated mathematically! Also, more generally, that the deepest and most elegant of learnings or theories can be found in the most mundane situations. So, always get your hands dirty with work and you will uncover amazing gems.

6. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
These days, I truly enjoy sleep. I thoroughly enjoy “work,” and I hate to call it “work.” So, I have no spare time. Work is pleasure. Family and kids are pleasure. Being with good friends and companions is pleasure. Overcoming problems is pleasure. Skiing is pleasure. Chess is pleasure. Teaching others is pleasure. Teaching my kids is pleasure. Reading is pleasure. I wish I still had time to do science. I miss deep research in science. But then there is only so much time, and we choose what to prioritize. Come to think of it, I need to start exercising again.

7. What makes a great leader?
A great leader is a leader who leads by example. Great leaders understand that they are about enabling their team members to succeed. Hence, leadership is service, not glory and visibility. When people understand that, they realize that leading means sacrificing achieving their own goals for the sake of helping their team achieve theirs.

8. What advice would you give to college students about entering the workforce?
I loved being a student. I did five degrees in university and I wanted to stay a student forever. Thankfully, I grew up. All of education is a beginning and not an end. It is preparation for what you are about to do. Find something that people really need and make sure you truly enjoy it. Passion at work will change your life, and passion will make work feel like pleasure. Work hard, give it your all, and great things will unfold.


This interview is an excerpt from Success: 30 Interviews with Entrepreneurs & Executives by Jason Navallo.