Pat Sheridan – Co-Founder & Managing Partner, Modus Create

Pat Sheridan is co-founder and managing partner of Modus Create, a product studio that helps companies turn product development into competitive advantage. Founded in 2011, Modus Create has been recognized by Inc. Magazine as one of the fastest-growing private companies in 2015 and 2016, helping firms such as UNIQLO and Genentech with digital transformation. An active member of the DCTech community, he is a frequent mentor for Lean Startup Machine and Startup Weekend events and co-organizer of the NoVa.JS and NYC.JS Meetups. He received his MBA from Georgetown University, where he is currently an Entrepreneur-in-Residence, and holds a BFA from the Corcoran College of the Arts and Design, where he serves on the strategic advisory council.

Tell me about your early career.
I did a lot of art and design freelancing in my early twenties and focused on large scale out door murals. I ended up working for a design architect for three years before jumping into a design leadership role in a startup in the late 90s. I was fortunate to find myself in roles where I was able to learn and be trusted with a decent amount of responsibility to deliver. I was lucky to have some very accomplished mentors early on who trained me on a way of approaching problems and designing solutions that continues to pay dividends in my career.

How did the concept for Modus Create come about?
After working in startups and consulting firms for ten years, I found myself gravitating towards open source software projects. I wanted to build a company based on the dynamics found in the open source world: outcome-oriented, highly distributed, talent first teams.

I saw many large companies struggling to adapt to a digital first economy and the related business model disruption it caused them. The opportunity existed for us to offer a blend of design thinking, emerging technology, and management consulting to bridge the gap in enterprise digital transformation.

How was the first year in business?
As a bootstrapped firm, our first year was an exciting roller coaster ride. We operated with no overhead and focused on adding one client and one employee at a time. We grew from one to ten employees and did about $1 million in revenue.

What was your marketing strategy?
Our strategy was (and is) to be active, visible, and relevant, in the emerging technology communities that our customer turn to for answers to difficult problems. We published two books, started several meetups on the east coast, and started a very popular engineering blog. We have strong technology channel partners that our services model complements nicely.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Faster than we expected or planned. We’ve grown at about a 50% compounded annual growth rate since founding and have been recognized on the Inc. 5000 every year since we became eligible.

How do you define success?
I used to think success was a finish line, but now I think of it as a “way” – a set of healthy habits and routines that increase your likelihood for growth, both personally and professionally.

What is the key to success?
Willpower, discipline, self-reliance, and a strong peer group.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Sacrifice is good when working on something important, but you have to know when to stop sacrificing and tend to the things you’ve abandoned during the pursuit.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Follow your bliss, most men live lives of quiet desperation.”
“An engineer can do for $1 what any idiot can do for $2.”
“Always make decisions in the best interest of the business.”

What are some of your favorite books?
Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman
Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse
Pyramid – David Macaulay

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
A few years ago, we shut down a software product company we were spinning out of Modus and had two large clients fall way behind on their accounts. In a matter of days, my co-founder and I had to realign our core business for success. This required a series of hard transitions and staff changes that were great for the long-term success of the firm but very challenging to convey to staff on the ground.

All executive compensation and discretionary spending were suspended while we worked to resolve our cash flow and client receivables. Incorporating the learnings from that difficult time have paid huge dividends in the years since.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
How you respond to failure, and anger, dictates a lot about how much success you can achieve. I try to translate the anger or frustration into positive directions. I feel very strongly that you have to approach times of uncertainty very differently than those in which your goal is clear. You must work hard during down times to build strength for when your next opportunity presents itself.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Don’t become a slave to your business – keep a great personal health and wellness routine and protect your time to recharge and stay connected to friends and family jealously.

Join a peer mentorship group to help you work through work/personal challenges and keep you honest.

Never stop learning. Share what you know. Stay open to new ideas.

Tony Safoian – President & CEO, SADA Systems

As President and CEO of SADA Systems, Tony Safoian firmly believes that technology can empower people to transform their world. To this end, he places innovation at the core of the business model, coupled with exceptional customer support and managed services. Under Safoian’s guidance, SADA has differentiated itself by proactively addressing a rapidly evolving market across enterprise, SMB, government and education sectors, while creating transformational value for customers.

Safoian has transformed SADA Systems from a small, family-owned business into one of the world’s top business and technology consultancy and cloud services brokerage firms. Joining a prestigious list of Microsoft National Solutions Providers in 2013 and becoming a Google Cloud Premier Partner in 2014, SADA enhanced its suite of product offerings, solutions and services providing consultative, deployment, change management and cloud managed services. Safoian’s continuous drive for innovation and growth has led SADA Systems to develop cutting-edge applications such as Atom, providing asset management and analytics capabilities for transportation departments and related agencies.

Tony earned his BA in Philosophy and Management from University of California at Irvine, and an MBA from the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.

Tell me about your early career.
My first job out of college was with a startup technology company that sold event tickets, like to ballgames and concerts, online. I worked in the marketing department but always had an interest in technology. After a year at the startup, I decided to join the business my parents had recently founded. The company, SADA Systems, was helping organizations find and use the latest and greatest technology systems. Culturally and otherwise, helping the family business was always the right thing to do in my heart and mind.

How did the concept for SADA Systems come about?
Growing up in Los Angeles, we always had high-tech computers and printers in our home. As a child, I spent countless hours tinkering with them, taking them apart and putting them back together, over and over again. I recall teaching my mother how to use a graphic design application, which she would turn into a career, eventually founding a company called Grafxworx.

In the late 1990s, my father was working as the head of IT for a business management firm he had started with a partner. Meanwhile, my mother was running her graphic design firm. Sensing an opportunity to build something bigger for himself and his family, my father split with his partner and founded SADA in 2000. The company was focused on writing customer software for small businesses. I joined about six months later, fixing computers and setting up basic networks for clients. In 2003, SADA and Grafxworx merged, creating SADA Systems. I was named president and CEO.

How was the first year in business?
Our first year in business was full of trial and error. What we lacked in experience, we would make up for in hard work and a commitment to customer success. From the start, we were firm believers in the notion that technology could transform every aspect of a company. However, in order to help our clients leverage the latest computer systems, we knew we had to become experts in the technology itself, as well as the processes by which companies find, buy, and adopt technology solutions. We anticipated a wild ride ahead, and we set our minds and resources to overcoming obstacles.

What was your marketing strategy?
“Strategy” is the wrong word. We were relentless, persistent. We knocked on every door and turned over every rock. We made sure that every project we took on became a success story, which inevitably led to referrals. Initially, we focused on the local market in and around Los Angeles. We got to know the people at the Chamber of Commerce, and made sure they were aware of the great work we were doing for clients. We delivered great customer service and referral business reflected that, and we still continue make exceptional service a top priority.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Our growth was slow and steady in the early years. We took risks but they were calculated. We watched every penny and reinvested in the business. In 2006/2007, we became acutely aware of the paradigm shift in technology to cloud computing. We recognized immediately the opportunity to establish SADA as a leader in this space, and followed up by training our people on the model and establishing partnerships with cloud computing pioneers, like Google and Microsoft. Over the past decade, with cloud technology as the wind in our sails, SADA has grown more than 40 percent every year.

How do you define success?
I’ve always said that we will only be as successful as our clients. When they achieve their business goals with our help, everyone wins. This goes back to my belief that technology has the power to transform organizations and truly improve people’s lives. This isn’t a marketing slogan: We’ve literally worked on projects for clients that have enabled people to live happier, healthier and more productive lives. We’re also proud of the business we’ve created, and the positive impact that our employees continue to have on our community.

What is the key to success?
For me, there are three things. First, I believe it’s important to be critical of oneself. In business, especially when you’ve had a little success, it’s easy to get a big head. I make it a point to evaluate my interactions with people and the contributions I’ve made in order to understand how I can be more helpful and thoughtful. Second, never lose sight of what a customer or partner wants – and then over-deliver. We know that our clients and partners have options when it comes to technology services vendors. Success for us is making sure they never feel the need to consider anyone else. And finally, success is about doing something you love, for which there is great demand, day in and day out.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Surround yourself with the best people you can find. And don’t be afraid to delegate – that’s why you hired great people! Also, don’t let people who are not in your shoes determine what is best for you. When the outcome of a decision has the ability to impact your career or livelihood, take control. At the end of the day, make sure that you are in charge of your destiny.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Stay hungry, stay humble” and “Luck equals opportunity plus preparedness.”

What are some of your favorite books?
Softwar: An Intimate Portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle by Larry Ellison and Matthew Symonds

Tribal Leadership
by Dave Logan

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
by Stephen R. Covey

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
When I was just beginning in business, I had a tendency to take things too personally. If a client, partner, or employee was disappointed, I felt personally responsible, even if I wasn’t. Over the years, I’ve learned that “tough” days are really just opportunities to learn. How can we, as an organization, improve the situation? By taking the approach that most problems can be solved through teamwork, knowledge, and persistence, I’ve been able to power through many challenging business situations.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I am obsessed with the art of what’s possible. To me, that means shoot for the stars in everything I do, and approach every situation with an open mind. I feel a deep sense of accountability to our clients, partners and employees, and I strive everyday to deliver on SADA’s commitment to helping them achieve their goals – both professionally and personally. It sounds cliche, but as an organization, we take very seriously the notion of “pushing the envelope.” We are constantly trying to figure out what is over that next hill, and how to get there as quickly and thoughtfully as possible.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Do something you’re passionate about, with a keen eye toward what the market needs. Then, be consistent. To be successful in business, you must be committed to the process. Work hard and enjoy the journey, because being the best takes time.

Erika Flora – Founder & President, BEYOND20

Erika started her career as a microbiologist turned project manager and has always had a passion for improving how companies manage work and serve their customers. She founded BEYOND20 in 2006.

Through the company’s growth, Erika has given back to the community as an adjunct professor of project management at San Diego State University (SDSU) as well as a board member and volunteer with a number of professional and charitable organizations. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Florida and is a prolific writer and presenter on a variety of technical and business topics. When she’s not at work, you’re likely to find Erika at improv class.

Tell me about your early career.
I grew up in Florida and studied microbiology at the University of Florida (go Gators!). I worked as a microbiologist for a few years and decided it wasn’t for me. Through some happy accidents, I ended up working as a project manager in the pharmaceutical industry and absolutely loved it. While working as a PM, I got the opportunity to lead an enterprise-wide software initiative and organizational transformation effort. It was a huge success, and I was hooked. Since that time, I’ve worked with several companies to change and improve the way they work.

How did the concept for BEYOND20 come about?
The name BEYOND20 came from a Gartner research study that looked at root cause when mission-critical IT systems failed. What they found was that 20% of the time, it was due to failures in hardware, software, and natural disasters. A surprising 80% of the time, it was due to failures in people and process. That’s what we are passionate about – fixing the people and the process issues. Essentially, going beyond the 20%. We do that through training, consulting, and technology.

How was the first year in business?
The first year of a business is always a bit bumpy. It was spent figuring out our products, services, pricing, and messaging, and convincing our first few customers to take a chance on us.

What was your marketing strategy?
Since the beginning, we have always set ourselves up as the thought leaders in IT service management and project management. We have done this through lots of writing and speaking, and we continue to do so today. The reason is that, ultimately, people do business with those they know, like, and trust; and we find lots of different ways for people get to know us, whether it be with our podcast, YouTube videos, or our blog.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
In a small company, things never happen as quickly as we would like. However, each year since our inception, we have grown in revenue. Recently, we have experienced rapid growth and have made Inc. 5000’s list of fastest-growing private companies for the last three years.

How do you define success?
For me, success is continuing to learn and grow individually and as a company. However, success is not permanent. You must always continue to chase after it.

What is the key to success?
The key to success is to always move forward. Be open to failure, move past it quickly, and figure out how to improve.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
I’ve learned so many lessons along the way. Here are a few that are top of mind:
• Culture beats strategy every time. If you foster a great environment, your people will kick butt.
• With a bit of creativity and resourcefulness, you can and will beat much larger, better-funded companies.

What are some quotes that you live by?
I’m a devourer of quotes and books. Here are a few of my current favorites:
“One becomes bold by doing bold things.” – Anonymous
“Obstacles are not the barriers to the path, they are the path.” – via @marissalevin

What are some of your favorite books?
I like these books on networking: Debra Fine’s The Fine Art of Small Talk, Keith Ferazzi’s book Never Eat Alone, and Harvey Mackay’s Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty. A good leader reads, a lot.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
There’s a lot of tough days. It would be hard to pick just one. However, whenever I face a tough day, I have to remind myself that the bad always comes with the good. You learn not to get too excited with the good or get too discouraged with the bad because it’s an ebb and flow. You must, however, be sure to celebrate accomplishments within your organization. Most companies don’t do that enough. We actually have champagne on hand and take time to celebrate our achievements with the entire team.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
What keeps me going is the fact that we do work that matters. We change lives – we train people to be far better at their jobs and give them tools to improve. We help companies see the forest, not just the trees, come up with an actionable strategic plan, and solve some of their most nagging problems. We give leadership teams – many times for the first time – visibility into their organization and the ability to make decisions based on data they can trust. When you lose sight of your “why,” it’s easy to get discouraged.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
If you’re starting out as an entrepreneur, you’re going to get a lot of advice on what to do and what not to do, but remember: you are the one risking it all, no one else. You certainly want to listen to other entrepreneurs who have “been there and done that,” but you must find your own way. The best advice I heard when starting out is this: in business, think of it like walking down a long hall with lots of doors on both sides. The temptation is always to turn, open a door, and walk through it. You can, but when you do, your business fundamentally changes, and you must make sure you’re okay with doing so.

Jeffrey Meltzer – Founder & President, Applied Ergonomics

Jeffrey Meltzer is founder and president of Applied Ergonomics, a Chicago-based leader in ergonomic office solutions, specializing in design and consultative services. With more than 30 years in the ergonomic furniture industry, Meltzer has redefined traditional contract furniture dealerships and created a full-service concept in Applied Ergonomics, the only U.S.-based contract furniture dealership that also provides ergonomic product specialization (ErgoVAR) and consultancy.

Tell me about your early career.
I entered the world of ergonomic furniture 30 years ago. After graduating from Michigan with an undergraduate major in Business Administration, I had a few different careers as I looked to find the right fit. I spent 5 years as a market maker on the CBOE. I worked for my family in our large retail business, which has since gone out of business, and also did residential rehabbing and commercial contracting. At that point in my life, I was looking to shift my focus into something that combined all of these skills but also dealt with wellness and made a difference in people’s lives, and it just so happened that one of my brother’s best friends was a doctor who was funding a startup called Back Care Incorporated. I started working with them doing ergonomic furniture design and sales, something that was fairly unheard of 30 years ago. We were selling ergonomic furniture, primarily chairs and computer accessories, and my work there allowed me the experience of getting versed in ergonomic furniture, while also utilizing my business background.

How did the concept for Applied Ergonomics come about?
As Back Care Incorporated started to fail from management errors, I decided to go into business for myself. That decision also gave me an opportunity to expand into entire office design. My first project was a whopper – furnishing the corporate offices of Boston Chicken, aka Boston Market, which was moving from Naperville, Illinois to a new campus in Golden, Colorado. They were a very dynamic organization, moving people and furniture at a very high rate each year. They wanted a product with revolutionary capabilities and I had their solution. This project, and a few others in our early years, catapulted Applied Ergonomics into the limelight as a top-tier furniture dealer. We’ve continued to embrace revolutionary practices and product lines to maintain our spot atop of that list.

How was the first year in business?
Winning that first project with Boston Chicken was a huge boost for us. At the time, I was still operating the business out of my house. The corporate relocation took over three years and included designing office space and workstations for more than 1,100 employees. From there, we went on to win a major succession of large corporate projects and just kept moving the company forward. We experienced some major growth in that first year and continue to do so.

What was your marketing strategy?
We’ve always had two sides to our business, the ergonomic consultancy and the contract furniture dealership. We partnered with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, a division of Northwestern Memorial, and other occupational therapists to serve their patients. These referrals often lead to working with the organization on all of their furniture needs, whether ergonomic in nature or not. We were also early adopters of online search engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
From nothing to what we’ve become; it all happened right away. All while I was working out of my basement with only one employee. Not long after, we added our second employee.

What is special about your business and industry?
I love that our business has an impact on our clients in so many ways. With ergonomic interventions, I can literally take someone out of pain. I have even kept people out of invasive surgery. That’s a very immediate and direct impact that we have on improving people’s lives. But, in our primary business of designing and furnishing spaces, we make a significant impact as well. We help organizations define and enhance their corporate culture, lifting attitudes both within and outside the organization. We improve productivity, collaboration and space utilization. And, we do it while helping to improve the environment with sustainable and recycled content, using vendors that employ green manufacturing practices. Of course, we use ergonomic principles and products to improve everyone’s health and well being whenever possible.

How do you define success?
I define success in a couple of ways, both interim and long term. Ultimately, I define financial success as building a company that is saleable, that can survive without me. I haven’t achieved that yet but we’re well on the way to doing so. Interimly, I define success as supporting my family and taking care of my employees generously. I also define success from our clients’ perspective. We are in a business that is fraught with opportunities to make mistakes that impact our clients; the fact that we have so many long-term customers who entrust us with their businesses is a testament to our success.

What is the key to success?
What’s been the key for us so far really comes down to the care that we put into each project. Each client is entrusting us with not only a large sum of money but also the ability of their organization to function, and function well. If a client is moving and we don’t perform, it’s not pretty. There are no second chances to get it right. So we treat each customer with the care and concern that we would for our best friends. We go through every detail multiple times, and when mistakes do happen, we get them corrected quickly.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
You only have one name, and we live in a very small community, so be the best version of yourself.

What are some quotes that you live by?
I live by the quote “live and let live” every day. No one has the right to impose their morality on others and most who try to are hypocritical.

What are some of your favorite books?
I read a combination of business, personal growth books and novels. I’m especially fond of Daniel Silva’s fictional character, Gabriel Allon, an Israeli assassin/spy who was recruited to avenge the Munich Olympics massacre. He goes on to work on many complex assignments that are well-researched and written and are very quick reads.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
When I first went into business, I aligned my company with a revolutionary young manufacturer, Teknion, and grew to be doing 25 percent of their Midwest volume while still operating out of my home office. I soon moved into a new office and filled it with Teknion furniture as display, at which time they decided to change their distribution model exclusive to only larger firms and cut us as a dealer. My entire customer base was filled with furniture that I could no longer sell. I lost almost all of my business overnight. That was the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Rolling over and quitting has never been an option. I started Applied Ergonomics the year my wife gave birth to our first daughter. Failure was never in my mind.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
I love the business that I’m in but I would advise a young entrepreneur to invest in a business that has two specific features, which of course, mine does not. First, while we have many repeat customers, they don’t need us with any frequency. Start a business that has longevity working with the same people, where new sales mean that you are adding accounts that will maintain a consistent revenue stream; so sales wins are accretive rather than transactional. Second, try to find a business that is somewhat insulated from recessions. No business is entirely, but ours is the first to get cut and among the last to get re-budgeted.

Matt Valiollahi – Co-Founder & CEO, Southern Marsh Collection, LLC

Matthew Valiollahi serves as the CEO of Southern Marsh Collection, LLC and has done so since co-founding the Southern Marsh brand in 2008, while still an undergrad at LSU. Following graduation from Tulane Law School, Valiollahi briefly worked as a legislative draft aid for the Louisiana Senate before working for Southern Marsh full-time in 2011.

Tell me about your early career.
Southern Marsh was actually started while I was in college, and while my business partner was working as a graphic designer. We started it as a side business, while focusing on school. I remember the months when we were ecstatic if we sold five shirts. I ultimately decided to go to law school at Tulane. I am extremely grateful that during those years, Stephen focused on scaling up the company. A silver lining of the 2008 financial crisis was that it left a ton of recent graduates, including myself, without a job or in grad school so there was ample, on-demand flexible labor that could be used to help out with running the business. I used to work on the business during the weekends and in-between classes.

How did the concept for Southern Marsh Collection come about?
Southern Marsh Collection started in 2008 when my business partner and I saw a need for lifestyle and aspirational clothing geared towards an audience that has an appreciation for conservation, the outdoors, and fun.

How was the first year in business?
The first year was an experiment. We just thought our idea would be a great way to be entrepreneurs. I had hoped that it would provide some extra financial stability and that it would grow to be as big as it is today, but I never had expectations of what it should be. After a few months of selling a handful of shirts through our online website, the company started gaining steam with the support of our friends, family, and LSU’s student base. I remember, one day, we received an inquiry from a brick and mortar store requesting to sell our products. That was the next big step for us, going from a B2C to a B2B business model.

What was your marketing strategy?
Grassroots marketing is the only way to go when you are starting a business. We were investing so much into the products that little was left for advertising. Besides, its difficult to advertise for a product or brand that no one has heard of before. So, we relied heavily on our friends to spread the word, and we gave out some products so people could test them out, and so we could receive feedback on quality of design and comfort.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
That first year, we were lucky that local and state stores contacted us via our website asking to become vendors. From there, we started exploring how to tap into other markets and reach retailers in the nearby surrounding states. We went to our first couple of apparel markets and grew from there. We started out with only five graphic t-shirt designs, and eventually started adding more t-shirt colors and designs. It wasn’t until a few years later when we advanced to adding a wider array of products to our brand.

How do you define success?
Success is different for each individual. For one person, it may be financial, and for another, it could be fulfilling the needs in a niche. For me, it’s constantly showing growth in our industry, while still trying to have a balance of social and home life.

What is the key to success?
Perseverance and rolling with the punches. You just can’t quit when you hit a roadblock.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The most important thing I have learned is to keep soaking up information from others. I am constantly learning, and when I feel I’m in a state of stagnation, I become frustrated. You may not have a degree in a certain area, but the more knowledge you acquire about different things, the more you are able to adapt and apply to any scenario you are presented with.

What are some of your favorite books?
One of my favorite, recent reads is Shoe Dog, which is by Phil Knight about his experience building Nike. I am also a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell and his book, Outliers.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I can’t think of a specific day that has been the toughest for me as an entrepreneur, but I can think of several days when I felt defeated. Of course, not every day is going to be perfect. I wish that I could get back to the days when Stephen and I were involved in every aspect of the business. These days, my time is spent on putting out fires and the effort that I spend is hardly realized in a day’s or a month’s time. A lot of times, you work really hard for months and only see it paying off several months later. It’s incredibly frustrating.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
We are faced with adversity all the time. It’s incredibly difficult to be in retail right now. I know there is always going to be a solution, and at the end of the day, we are all sailing into the same waters together. The difference is the creativity you approach the problem with. Sometimes, you just have to be creative about how you think about it.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Finished is better than perfect. Technical is more important than ideas – ideas aren’t worth much. People have great ideas and see a need for a product or service. The most important thing is to have a complete business plan. Too many times, someone comes with an idea but they don’t come up with the steps to execute.