Caleb Arthur – Founder & CEO, Sun Solar

Caleb Arthur founded Missouri Sun Solar in 2012. In its first four years, the company has grown rapidly, recently ranked as the the ninth fastest-growing energy company, and #156 overall, on the “Inc. 500” list of America’s fastest-growing companies, and is also the fastest-growing energy company in Missouri. Sun Solar now has offices in Springfield, Columbia, St. Louis, Olathe (Kansas), and one office in South Carolina, and has over 140 employees nationwide.

Caleb graduated from Houston High School in 2004, and became a local police officer. When a serious injury on the job sidelined him, he began to research alternative energy sources during his recovery. Initially, he was just looking to install solar for his own home, before realizing the serious need for a solar company in the area. He has become an avid lobbyist for the solar industry, and just completed a term as president of the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association (MOSEIA).

Caleb and his wife, Rachel, have four children: Deacon, Delaney, Eden, and Ezra.

Tell me about your early life.
I grew up in a small town called Houston (Missouri). For fifty years, my grandfather, Glenn Arthur, and father, David Arthur, ran a family-owned business called ARPCO Pump that installed water well pumps. This is how I learned to become a businessman. I thought school was boring and enjoyed riding four wheelers on the gravel roads.

How did the concept for Sun Solar come about?
I built a strawbale house in 2010 while I was a law enforcement officer. My wife agreed that I should be in business. I had installed solar panels at my house and my wife encouraged me to do something with solar panels.

What were some of the challenges you initially faced?
No bank would loan me money, so my grandparents loaned me $13,000 to get started.

Did you have a lot of competition?
Not a lot. It’s hard to sell solar in Missouri, compared to the rest of the United States. Our energy laws could be improved, energy costs are low, and our utilities do not like solar companies.

What was your marketing strategy?
To be the company that people dream of doing business with. Superior customer service. We started out writing every customer Christmas and birthday cards. We even sent a nice customer funeral arrangement flowers. The type of caring that blows peoples’ minds. We also donate solar panels to food banks. It saves them money, creates PR, and educates. I use Facebook a lot, to the point that I now have 38,000 followers!

How fast is the business growing?
From a little over $2 million in 2014 to $24.5 million in 2016.

How do you organize your day?
I’m not a typical, big company CEO. I have an executive assistant named Stacey. She’s like a mother figure and always keeps me lined out! 🙂 I like being engaged with my customers and employees. I participate in solar installations, from random homeowners to the huge commercial accounts that we have.

What are some of your daily habits that have contributed to your success?
Sleeping in to 7:00 AM and going to bed by midnight. I eat organic food, and walk three miles everyday (lost 100 lbs doing this). I make sure to spend as much time possible with my lovely wife, Rachel, and four kids. Work/life balance is a must.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” – Thomas Edison

What are some of your favorite books?
Hyper Sales Growth: Street-Proven Systems & Processes. How to Grow Quickly & Profitably. by Jack Daly, anything Tony Robbins, and a little bit by Dave Ramsey. I know, odd selection. I like to challenge my thought processes, daily. I like to live life in other people’s shoes to see how it feels. Sometimes, I pick up new traits that I use in my business.

How do you define success?
Growing 888%, or more like we did. Just kidding. Whatever you tell yourself success is. We all accomplish whatever we actually want to. Some accomplish money, and some people have success with other things. Mine is helping people. As long as I continue helping people, I’m successful. Once I stop putting fellow Americans in front of me, I’ve failed.

What is the key to success?
Never looking down or back. Anyone, even your own family, will sabotage you. Keep moving forward with your eye on the prize. My prize was to make enough money to help the homeless, especially the military veterans. After being a cop for five years, I realized these guys literally sacrifice their lives for a few short years serving our great nation. Half of the U.S. homeless population are military veterans.

Did you always know you would be successful?
Yes, once you believe in yourself, you are unstoppable. I was a certified fire fighter and police officer by the time I was twenty-one. I just kept telling myself I would be successful. It was a big dream that started when I was five or six.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
My close friends and family. Seriously, running a business is hard. Surround yourself with good council.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Don’t go into business with family. So many people told me this, but I didn’t care. My brother helped me out so much, but at some point for some reason, brothers will have a fight. If the family fight isn’t fixed, it goes wrong at some point. My brother wanted a small company, and I want to create “Tesla 2.0”. You know Elon Musk? I’m going to be the solar Elon. Family leaving the business, even on good terms, can be hard. Be careful who you go into business with. Make sure your long term goals are the same. Only hire passionate people. Hiring bodies will burn you so bad. No telling how much money I lost giving people a try who were not passionate about solar. I like to hire military vets. If you want a successful solar company, hire veterans. If you have to ask me why, then you need to hire more veterans and let them be managers. Wow! Great things will happen.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Well, that’s tough. So many times I’ve puked and not slept because of issues from growing so fast. It’s a never-ending battle to stay profitable, keep customer service above everyone else, and have a healthy life.

How did you overcome the challenges at hand?
“Pros and Cons” list. Sharing ideas with my executives. Once they supported it and embraced it, the culture changed for the better.

What is your vision for the future of Sun Solar?
To be a $200 million a year company in three more years and to hire 300 military veterans. We currently have 125 employees, in total.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Being young is actually a benefit to starting a business. We might not have all the experience, but we make up for it with new progressive ideas, and endless energy! By the time we do have the experience, we become an unstoppable force. I have so much business experience from when I started, and I just turned thirty-one. Never slow down, never give up. Most of the older generation thinks different than us. That’s okay, just don’t give in to their valuation of success. My generation has the opportunity to end wars, feed everyone, and create a 100% sustainable plant for every human and animal. We just have to work together and understand we are all a bit different.

Jared Schrieber – Co-Founder & CEO, InfoScout

Jared is a recognized expert in the field of retail data analytics after shaping how over 500 consumer goods companies leverage retail, point of sale (POS) data. Prior to co-founding InfoScout, Jared led product, professional services, customer operations, and business development for Retail Solutions. Jared’s storied past includes a few hacks at MIT, co-founding the Pat Tillman Foundation, throwing the javelin, and playing Australian Rules Football.

Tell me about your early career.
I worked odd jobs throughout college to fund my education. My first job out of high school was for a moving company in Phoenix, Arizona during the summer heat, where I quickly realized first-hand that it’s better to use your brains than your brawn to earn a living. Soon after, I became a shoe salesman at Big 5 Sporting Goods, a door-to-door salesman for a local marketing agency, a clerk, store manager for Blockbuster Video, and finally a non-accredited Physical Education and Algebra teacher at a local Christian school, all while taking classes, playing football, and competing in track & field.

I had been so focused on teaching, taking classes, and competing in track & field that I nearly graduated without even interviewing for a job. Fortunately, a manager at Intel sat in on a class where I presented my capstone project. He promptly grabbed me after the class and offered me an internship on the spot. My five years at Intel were eye-opening to the corporate world and full of personal growth and development, thanks to the excellent training and mentoring the company provided. Unfortunately for Intel, but very fortunately for me personally, the “dot-com bubble” burst in 2000, just as I had been promoted to lead capacity planning for much of Intel’s supply chain. Almost overnight, the company went from being supply-constrained to producing twice as many computer chips as it was shipping, which resulted in overflowing warehouses. Intel promptly shipped me off to Asia to figure out what was going on. The more I interviewed people across different functions to piece a cohesive story together, the more I realized that they were all working off of different sets of data related to forecasts, plans and actual performance related to supply and demand. I immediately started to pull those disparate data sets together, having to teach myself to code in SQL and Visual Basic to wrangle that data into a harmonized view of Intel’s supply chain. In doing so, I created a decision support system that served as the basis for establishing integrated sales & operations planning (S&OP) across Intel’s marketing, sales, customer service, logistics, production scheduling and finance organizations. This work launched my career, while also exposing me to the world of software development and data-driven business intelligence.

I knew this was the kind of work I wanted to do for the rest of my career, but that I would be most satisfied if I could apply it to an entire industry, rather than within just one company. I also had a bit of an entrepreneurial bug, so I sought a master’s program that would best position me to become a software-industry entrepreneur. MIT was the obvious choice. After failing to get into their MBA program, the Master of Engineering program in logistics reached out to me and snuck me into MIT through the back door. I took every entrepreneurship course I could and competed in the MIT $50k (now $100k) start-up competition by founding FantasySeats, a futures market for playoff tickets. Want to see the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the World Series? FantasySeats would sell you a seat in the pre-season. If the Red Sox made it to the World Series, you’d get a ticket to the game. If not, we’d keep your money and throughout the season, you’d have a tradable asset in an open market with a price that fluctuates based on the team’s performance.

That would have been fun to pursue, but the business model was likely to run afoul with gambling laws, so I punted on the idea and looked to join someone else’s startup instead. I had learned so much about what to look for in startups during my year at MIT that I struggled to find one that met all of my criteria: 1) experienced founders who had built a business together before, 2) solid funding from top firms, 3) early traction with industry-leading clients, 4) and huge market potential if they could find product-market fit. Fortunately, I fell into a role at Teradata leading their “go-to-market” for the consumer good vertical that would allow me to learn strategy, marketing, business development, as well as sales and consulting. None of which I had been properly exposed to at Intel. During my short stint at Teradata, I continued to look for a startup to join. I came across a Series A funded company in Silicon Valley called T3Ci that was the early leader in RFID data analytics for retailers and consumer goods manufacturers. I convinced T3Ci to create a job for me leading client services, and when it became clear that RFID had been overhyped (back in 2005), I helped pivot the company into retail POS data analytics under a new name, Retail Solutions. There, we convinced retailers to freely share their POS data with the brands who sold products through them so that both parties could use the same data and analytics to create joint business plans, more accurate sales forecasts, optimized promotions and sufficient inventory. Over the course of six years, we grew the business globally to over 75 retailers and 500 consumer goods manufacturers as clients, earning many accolades along the way.

How did the concept for InfoScout come about?
Given that I was not a founder of Retail Solutions, I was continuously looking for opportunities to start my own venture. Fortunately, I didn’t have to look very far, as my customers brought the idea to me. As the head of products & services, they kept bringing me business questions that required access to the retailers’ shopper-level data, but they were only willing to share aggregate store-level sales data (e.g., Store Number 917 sold five boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios on May 20th, 2017), with no breakouts for how many boxes each shopper bought, or any information about who the shoppers were. After failing to convince any retailers to share shopper-level data, I began to wonder why clients such as Kraft and Procter & Gamble were coming to me with these questions, instead of getting their answer from the billion-dollar incumbents, such as Nielsen and dunnhumby. The more I researched how those companies sourced their shopper data, the more I realized how limited their data was and how challenged they were to answer incredibly valuable business questions such as, “Did the Tide promotion at Target last month truly drive incremental profits or did existing buyers of Tide stuff their pantries at a big discount?”

With retailers unwilling to share their shopper-level data in a meaningful way, it became clear that the data had to be sourced directly from hundreds of thousands of shoppers. Since 1979, Nielsen has incentivized shoppers to use an in-home barcode scanner connected to their modem/router to scan the barcode on every product they buy. Then, they have to use this clunky device to thumb in the regular price for the item and the price they actually paid, resulting in a cumbersome experience and questionable data quality. There’s simply no way to get hundreds of thousands of Americans to consistently report all of their purchases through such a process.

Smartphones to the rescue. Back in 2011, the year that I co-founded InfoScout with Jon Brelig, one-third of American households owned a smartphone and our simple bet was that nearly everyone would own a smartphone within five years. Believe it or not, many smart people weren’t convinced of this bet at the time. Smartphones would allow us to appify, gamify, and most importantly, simplify the experience for people willing to participate in our panel. Our idea for simplifying the panelist experience was to allow them to simply take a picture of their receipt, instead of scanning the barcode on each product and thumbing in its price. This meant that someone who had just bought thirty items at the grocery store could report their item-level purchases via a picture of their receipt in fifteen seconds, rather than spending fifteen minutes scanning in barcodes and thumbing in prices.

To get the products and their prices off of the receipt pictures, we’ve built technology to harness both computer vision and crowdsourcing to transcribe the receipt contents. We then built machine learning technology to match the short descriptions of products on receipts to information about the real-world products they represent.

How was the first year in business?
InfoScout’s first year (2012) was the single most challenging year of my adult life. I had moved my wife and kids into her parents’ home in Budapest, Hungary in part so that we could afford for me to go without a salary. The company and my co-founder, however, were based in San Francisco, California. I spent weeks at a time sleeping on my co-founders couch and working from his dining table as we tried to go from zero to one, and secure funding. Given the fact that he had already founded two start-ups with successful exits, and that I had built a reasonably large business in an adjacent market space, we thought it would be easy to secure initial seed or Series A funding. As it turned out, a PowerPoint presentation about how awesome InfoScout was, wasn’t enough.  If we wanted to raise money, we had to show traction, yet no one could tell us what traction actually meant. Was it clients using our product? Was it revenue? Was it shoppers uploading their receipts? How many of them? How often? What would the investor consider enough ‘traction’ for us to be worthy of their investment?

In April 2012, after dozens of failed pitches to angel investors and VCs accompanied by tense, silent drives with my co-founder from Sand Hill Road (where most of the VCs were located in Menlo Park) back up to his apartment in San Francisco, I finally broke down. I literally sat in my co-founder’s hallway and cried like a baby. I might’ve been fine if I had truly understood why we weren’t getting funded, but I really was clueless and therefore had no idea how best to proceed. I was also exhausted from giving up a very comfortable lifestyle to sleep on a couch for weeks at a time, thousands of miles away from my family, without a salary and dwindling cash in the bank.

Thank goodness my CTO and co-founder just started to build something, anything, that could start to show a semblance of whatever traction was. It was to be our first mobile app that would pay people to upload pictures of their receipts after every shopping trip. I was pretty much worthless as the business guy, up until the point where I proposed that we call the app Receipt Hog and add some gamifcation, instead of just simply paying the users directly for each receipt. Instead, new users would be adopting a virtual runt and feeding it pictures of their grocery receipts, leveling up to a fat and happy hog. Each receipt earned coins in a piggy bank from which users could cash out via PayPal. That first version is laughable now, but as a minimum viable product (MVP), it worked. People used it, and more importantly, they invited their friends to use it as well. Before we even knew what was happening, we had traction and landed our first angel investors!

We used the seed money to grow Receipt Hog’s user base and to build another complementary app called Shoparoo, which turns receipt pictures into school donations (akin to Box Tops for Education, but better). Unilever signed on as Shoparoo’s launch partner and Procter & Gamble paid to evaluate the potential of our technology to scale. And as both Receipt Hog and Shoparoo rapidly scaled towards capturing as many shopping trips a day as the largest incumbent, Nielsen, we were able to secure $4.5 million in Series A funding at the close of our first year, in December 2012.

What was your marketing strategy?
We have always erred on the side of a direct sales strategy, as opposed to marketing as a way to reach prospects. We have twenty-five salespeople and just one person in marketing who oversees our website and coordinates our presence at industry events where our sales reps can interface directly with prospects. Ours is a complex sale that can only result from having a direct conversation with the prospect, and it’s my belief that the most cost-effective way to make those conversations happen is to hire a sales rep and give them a dozen accounts to service.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We had slightly over $200,000 of revenue in 2012, and again 2013, before breaking out in 2014 with over $2 million, after licensing access to our data (via a SaaS business intelligence interface) to several major consumer packaged goods (CPG) clients. We have more than doubled our revenue every year since, and have just started to turn a profit. At the end of 2015, the San Francisco Business Times named InfoScout the #1 fastest-growing software company in Silicon Valley over the prior three-year period. “Inc. 500” also placed us at #3.

How do you define success?
Success for me is achieving my potential in a way that positively impacts the lives of others. If my actions only benefited me, I don’t think I would be proud of myself, especially later in life when I have an opportunity to reflect on everything I have and haven’t done. I would like to be known as someone who continuously strove to make himself a better person and in doing so, led others to do the same. I would like to be remembered for having applied my talent and energy to touch the lives of many people, rather than having done so to accumulate wealth or fame.

What is the key to success?
You must have some concept of what success looks like and have the discipline to continuously plod forward in its direction. Behaviors and choices that don’t advance you in that direction may as well be taking you in the wrong direction. If you’re truly serious about being successful, you’ll be very conscious about how your thoughts and actions actively advance you towards your vision of success on an almost daily basis.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
There will always be people more talented that you are. More intelligent, more clever, more persuasive, better networked. You name it. Focus on being the best you that you can be. Continuously improve yourself. Focus on what you can control, which are your actions and efforts, not on what may or may not happen or what others may or may not be doing. Work as smart as you can, but absolutely don’t ever let anyone work harder towards the same goal.

What are some of your favorite books?
A couple of my favorite entrepreneurship books are Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future and The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers. I also really love books that help explain how the world works in some fundamental way, like The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn (scientific discovery), Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life by Albert-laszlo Barabasi (systems), and The Rules of the Game: International Money and Exchange Rates by Ronald I. McKinnon (money).

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Besides the day when I broke down, I’ll never forget turning down our first Series A term sheet. After a year of trying to raise a Series A, we finally got our first term sheet in late 2012. The terms weren’t great, but in the absence of an alternative, they were acceptable. If finally earning a paycheck meant a lower valuation and giving up two board seats instead of just one, then so be it. But then another VC firm, Bain Capital Ventures, was suddenly interested in funding us. There was just one catch. They could get us in to pitch their partners on Monday, after which they would make a decision to invest or not.   Meanwhile, the first term sheet we had finally gotten after a year of effort would expire on Friday, three days before we could pitch Bain’s partners. Ajay Agarwal of Bain convinced me that the firm that had already given us the term sheet and would still want to invest in us on Monday, even if we let their offer expire. It was a nerve-wracking decision. I agreed to let the competing term sheet expire, in hopes that our pitch to Bain’s partners would go well the following Monday. Why? Because I asked Ajay to commit to a better set of terms (with a higher valuation and just one board seat) if his partners decided to invest in InfoScout. He made that commitment and kept his word and we’ve had an excellent partnership ever since.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I had the privilege of befriending the late, great Pat Tillman. The man was driven to continuously improve himself seemingly at all times and in every possible way that a person can improve. He was an overachieving underdog throughout his career. Someone who always found a way to achieve more than others thought he was capable of. When I face adversity, I often think of Pat. I imagine him relishing the challenge and taking it head on with full force. I imagine him by my side, encouraging me to push ahead. To push myself beyond those false barriers that seem to hold us all back.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s your ability to execute against an idea that matters. Don’t be afraid to share your idea with others and get their feedback. Their feedback and your refinement of the idea is more valuable than the risk of someone stealing your idea. If your idea can be stolen, then it probably isn’t that good anyway. That’s a sign that it’s not very defensible and/or that you’re not uniquely positioned to execute on the idea.

Don’t worry about maximizing your slice of the pie. Focus on making the pie as large as possible. Tiny fractions of big pies are much larger and more valuable than large fractions of tiny pies.

Scott Everett – Co-Founder & Managing Partner, S2 Capital

Scott Everett started his real estate career in 2007, after receiving his broker’s license. He formed Royal Ventures, LLC in 2008 to provide brokerage, asset management, and development services for multifamily and commercial investors. In 2012, he founded S2 Capital to acquire and redevelop multifamily real estate with his partner, Skip Bird. In the past five years as co-founder and managing partner of S2 Capital, they have built a real estate investment company that has acquired over $900 million of multifamily assets and three operating companies that generate annual revenues in excess of $75 million, with over 150 employees. Scott is also an active investor and board member for multiple early-stage companies and enjoys being involved in the growth of early-stage ventures. Scott also contributes significant time and resources to Jonathan’s Place, a local emergency shelter for at-risk children. Scott is married with three children and lives in Plano, Texas.

Tell me about your early career.
I have always had an obsession with entrepreneurs, business, and money. While in high school, I started multiple online companies, from a nightclub website to building gaming computers that I sold on eBay, all of which taught me valuable lessons in business, but ultimately failed or weren’t profitable enough. While reading a Forbes article about Blackstone and Steve Schwarzman about a pending IPO in detention during my senior year, I became obsessed with private equity and the business model of buying distressed companies and other assets. I set out to learn as much as I could through books and online classes, and ultimately realized I wasn’t smart enough for hedge funds and private equity, so I settled on real estate! The year I graduated from high school, I went out to raise a $100,000 fund to buy and flip single family homes. In the Fall of 2007, it was becoming clear a financial crisis was pending and I had no luck attracting capital or good deals. I had the benefit of seeing how bad markets can get and was up every morning at 5:00 AM to watch CNBC and learn from the failures, all while raising a family. My girlfriend (now wife) at the time was pregnant in high school at eighteen years old. In 2009, I decided to drop out of college and start a full-time commercial real estate company while I waited tables at night for a Mexican restaurant. It took eighteen months of failures before I finally put a deal together that had merit. I had sourced an off-market opportunity at a historically low price and also found a capable equity group to partner with me out of New York. We contracted, went through due diligence, and I had negotiated a 3% acquisition fee and 20% ownership after we closed the deal. That fee would’ve been $150,000 to me at closing and would’ve changed my life and validated the decision to drop out of school to become an “entrepreneur.” After four weeks of due diligence, we scheduled a call to review everything with the seller and out of left field, my partner, who had all the control and power, stated they needed a price reduction of $500,000 or they would drop the deal. The seller immediately responded they would give nothing, so my partner terminated the contract on the call and ignored my phone call, thereafter. It felt like my world had collapsed in thirty seconds! My heart was in my feet, as I vividly remember putting my server uniform on that night to go wait tables and felt like crying. I spent the next few days panicking and trying to revive the deal, but both parties ignored me. By the end of the week I remember telling myself, “Move forward and make this the story you tell about never quitting when you are successful one day.” The search started over for new deals and a new partner. It took another twelve months before I sourced both once again, spent six months of my life thereafter, only to have another deal fall apart at the finish line. It was crushing and truly made me re-evaluate everything I was doing and every decision I had made to that point in my life. I was now twenty-three years old, watching friends graduate college and get good jobs, while I raised my 4-year-old son with his mom I couldn’t yet afford to marry, lived at home with my parents, and was still waiting tables. I decided I’d come too far, and with every failure, I had learned very valuable lessons, made great contacts in the industry, and was picking up momentum, but not quite yet making money. In 2012, at twenty-three years old, I started S2 Capital with my partner Skip Bird, who had thirty years of real estate experience, but like me, had a few setbacks over the past year. We were both starting from scratch and determined to make it happen. We made a great team, since he had the experience and equity contacts, while I had built a network of deal contacts and underwriting knowledge, and was willing to commit sweat equity pursuing deals. In October 2012, we finally closed our first deal for an acquisition of $6 million and 184 units, and nearly lost our ass since we had no idea what we we were doing. I was onsite 10 hours a day managing the project and learning from the ground-up, trying to save the project as well as our infant company. Five years later, we built a company with over 150 employees, reached #14 on the “Inc. 500” list, reached #1 for the fastest-growing real estate company in the U.S. in 2016, and #1 fastest-growing company in Texas. We have built a portfolio approaching $1 billion in value, totaling over 12,000 units, and it’s been the most exciting times of my life. I owe so much to the people that supported me for the first five years while I failed many times, and the last five years as they’ve guided and supported me through our growth. I would need a full book just to thank my wife who believed in me and supported me through all the tough times, and who I now have three wonderful children with, and to all my family, mentors, partners, and friends who have guided me through all the success we’ve enjoyed today.

How did the concept for S2 Capital come about?
I had initially been working on multifamily development projects and was frustrated with the amount of time it took before you could make any money and reap the rewards of your risk and work. I had read about a company called Knightvest and Conti and their growth back in 2011 and decided to shift gears into multifamily acquisition/rehab-based on the metrics they were describing. It was the best decision I ever made.

How did you initially fund the business?
We had to borrow a lot of money in the beginning and I aligned myself with a wealthy entrepreneur who received a large stake in our first few deals for putting up the capital and signing on the loan guarantees, since me and my partner’s balance sheets weren’t big enough. I always tell people to worry about putting together good deals first, because if it’s good enough, you will attract the capital.

How did you come up with the name S2 Capital?
My partners name is Skip, so Skip and Scott became S2.

How was the first year in business?
We almost blew up our first deal. I spent 12 hours a day onsite firing, hiring, and firing again until I finally pushed everything across the finish line. It was very touch and go the first year before we really figured out what we were doing. The market definitely bailed us out and was a huge lesson for what not to do, which if you can survive, are the best types of lessons.

What were some of the challenges you initially faced?
For me, it was competing in an ultra-competitive environment against a lot of people with a lot of money. We had to be very creative in how we found and structured our deals in the beginning, and once acquired, we had to be the best operating partner in our market to continue to attract equity and debt. After the first four to five deals, we had finally built a brand known for executing and doing what we say we are going to do, which goes a long way in business.

Did you have a lot of competition?
It’s highly competitive. After five years, and being the fastest-growing real estate company in the nation for the 2012 to 2016 period, we are finally large enough and well-capitalized to compete with anyone in the business. For the first two to three years, we were always the bridesmaid, at best, and final competitions or in the broker network for new deals, equity, and debt.

What was your marketing strategy?
As a company, we chose to fly under the radar. Sometimes, it’s best not to draw attention to yourself, especially in the commercial real estate business. We launched a year of public relations just to boost our brand, mainly to assist us in attracting top talent, but you don’t want to be negotiating deals and have the other side of the table feel they are getting screwed because of an article they read about how great you are doing.

What was an average workweek like for you back then?
The first few years was definitely 12 to 14 hours a day. As I have scaled the company to over 150 employees, it’s actually freed up my time to do other things that I love, like spend time with my family, work out, travel, and play golf. I still work 60 to 70 hours a week, but it’s not non-stop anymore.

Were you profitable by the end of year one?
No. It took eighteen months before we finally started to see some net income. But the next forty-eight months after that blew away our wildest dreams in terms of cash flow, asset values, and net income.

How fast did the company grow during the first couple of years?
It was very slow the first two years. We acquired 400 units the first twenty-four months, totaling $8 million in portfolio value. Over the next 36 months, we acquired another 11,000 units, totaling over $1 billion in portfolio value. After the end of year two, we had three employees, and by year five, it was 150. It’s been a lot of crazy fun.

If so, what do you think caused that high spike in growth?
It was mainly building our foundation and attracting capital. That takes the longest in the beginning, but if you focus on it daily and plan for it, you can look up and be astonished at how fast things can take off. It never really hit me how fast we were growing until years later. I was always chasing the company ahead of us, even though they were leading the nation in real estate growth prior to us. You have to stay focused, motivated, and not get caught up in your own success. Just keep your head down and work as if every day the company could fail, because in your infancy, it really is that fragile.

Did you ever feel you had to sacrifice a lot of personal time for the business?
Absolutely. In the first four years before S2 Capital, I made no money and spent my days working on my first real estate company, while bartending and waiting tables at night. My son was four years old before S2 started and I pretty much only got to see him on weekend mornings and afternoons for the first six years of his life. Today, I have three kids and, for the most part, I’m fortunate enough to be home for dinner most nights, put them to bed, and spend time with them on the weekends.

Fast-forward to today. How fast is the business growing?
2017 has been our best year on all fronts, from operations, asset management, acquisitions, to dispositions. We’ve done more in the first five months of 2017 than all of 2016, and we’re excited to see what the second half of the year brings us. It also is our first time expanding outside of Texas markets and into Florida, which I am very excited about.

How do you organize your day?
I start with highest priorities and try to knock those out as early as possible. For our business, deals can die within an hour and you can lose thousands, if not millions of dollars. After I’ve put out fires, I usually spend a few hours a day in meetings but try to avoid “meeting for the sake of meeting,” and I almost never let a meeting run longer for more than one hour. Towards the end of the day, I will check on our operational performance for the day and work my way through emails. I always try to get some sort of response out to every email by end of day, even if it’s just a, “Thanks, will send tomorrow.”

What are some of your daily habits that have contributed to your success?
I keep a pretty strict schedule. I am usually up at 5:30 AM. I go to the gym in the morning, read Bloomberg and the WSJ, as well as some local news publications to make sure I am aware of key items in the markets, and then arrive at the office around 7:00 AM/7:30 AM. I believe having a pretty consistent schedule allows you to not miss things or get behind. I also am a huge believer in working out in the morning, as it really helps get the brain going, and is a big mood booster. It’s also a great stress reliever for a busy and mentally-tired entrepreneur.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Complaining isn’t a strategy” is a favorite of mine. It’s posted in our office kitchen.

What are some of your favorite books?
I read a ton, and attribute a lot of my early success to reading. I would spend hours at Barnes and Noble reading entire books because I couldn’t afford to buy them. The Peebles Principles: Tales and Tactics from an Entrepreneur’s Life of Winning Deals, Succeeding in Business, and Creating a Fortune from Scratch is a favorite of mine. King of Capital: The Remarkable Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Steve Schwarzman and Blackstone, Rich Dad Poor Dad: What The Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!, Raising The Bar: The Life and Work of Gerald D. HinesThe Real Estate Entrepreneur: Everything You Need to Know to Grow Your Own Brokerage, Gerald Hines’ biography, and The Education of an American Dreamer: How a Son of Greek Immigrants Learned His Way from a Nebraska Diner to Washington, Wall Street, and Beyond by Peter G. Peterson. I have an obsession with studying successful people who have accomplished what I hope to accomplish.

How do you define success?
I think living with a purpose and happily is success. That purpose may include being an excellent mother to three children or running a charity for starving children in third-world countries. Money will not bring happiness, but if you love what you do and see money as a means of supporting your purpose, it can be very fulfilling. I am a big believer in giving back to your community, family, and loved ones. You didn’t get here all by yourself. That I am sure of.

What is the key to success?
Perseverance is the most important quality. No matter the endeavor, you can’t be an excuse maker, and you just can’t quit. You can pivot, adapt, change your strategy, and even fail, but you can never quit.

Did you always know you would be successful?
I always felt deep down I would be successful. For me, success was building a great company and a great life for my family. I always had set a goal of being a millionaire by age thirty, and got there at twenty-five. The number becomes a way for me to keep score of how successful I have been at building a great company, so I continue to set it higher, and stay focused and motivated.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Failure was never an option in my mind. It may have taken five years, ten years, twenty years, but I was going to get where I wanted to go. My family deserves it, and it would be a waste of my immense blessings to just settle. I was born to great parents, in America, and had access to a good education. I was already ahead of 98% of children in the world. I had no reason to not give it my all and achieve whatever it was I wanted.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Money truly doesn’t buy happiness. When I was eighteen, I always thought how cool it would be to have fast cars and big houses, but I ultimately learned life is all about the relationships you form – romantic, friendship, or family. It took me a while to figure that out, but once I did, life and work are much more enjoyable.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I have three kids, so they take up most of my free time. Otherwise, I enjoy golfing and hanging out with friends and family. I am a big foodie, so we are always going out to dinner.

What makes a great leader?
I think calmness under pressure is critical. Nothing ruins a company faster than an emotional leader who feels the need to bully and tear down employees. We are here to build people up and absorb the pressures of running a company, not exert our fear and lack of confidence on everyone around you.

What is your vision for the future of S2 Capital?
I want to continue doing what we are doing and look up in another five years and be amazed at all that we’ve accomplished. I’ve never set hard and fast goals for us. We stick to what we’re good at, guard our culture, hire good people, and try to have a lot of fun while we’re working. If you keep your head down and focus on those things, you will be amazed at what your team can accomplish.

What do you think is the most common mistake entrepreneurs make?
Failing to relinquish control and delegate. I see it all the time and it is the biggest impediment to any company. You have to empower your people, align everyones’ interests, and get out of their way.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Dream big and never quit. Life doesn’t owe you anything. It’s up to you to make it happen, and when it’s not going right, don’t stop to complain and make excuses for why you failed. Move on and keep telling yourself it’s going to happen. Also, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” There is nothing worse than hearing people brag about how great their company is going to be or how much money they will make when they get going. No one cares. Just make it happen, and the results will speak for themselves.

Rich Mavrogeanes – Founder, President & CEO, Discover Video

Rich Mavrogeanes has been a leader in the communication technology industry for more than forty years. Prior to starting Discover Video, Rich was the founder of VBrick Systems, Inc., where he served for twelve years as President and CEO, and later as Chief Technology Officer. He led VBrick from a start-up to a market leader. He was also founding executive at SNT and Avidia.

With modern technology for the education, corporate, government, and related spaces, Rich founded Discover Video in 2008 where he drives innovation and growth as President and CEO.

Tell me about your early career.
After serving my country in the Air Force in Europe, I stayed in Europe for a while and took various jobs in Germany, including as a bus driver and in radio repair. I decided to make a film and left for East Africa, where I stayed for many months in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, mostly living out of my Land Rover. These are my young adventure days. Returning to the U.S., I got a job in my hometown as an electronics technician at a medium-sized company that sold to the Department of Defense. I had thought this would be for maybe six months, some time to make enough money and move on. I ended up working there for fifteen years.

During this time, I had almost every job that one could want: technician, design engineer, quality control manager, supervisor, customer service manager, salesman, and director of my own internal business. I became an “intrepreneur,” and learned about accounting and running a business. I traveled the world for the U.S. government, had an office in the Pentagon, and carried the highest security clearance. When that company changed and merged, I left and worked for a large telecom equipment company as director of product marketing. Again, I traveled the world and helped the company evolve from traditional, phone data technology to the new world of packet switching, ATM, and IP.

This was during the “dot-com bubble” days, and VCs were dropping bags of money into my type of tech, so I left and joined my first startup. We were making ATM switches, which if you believed the tech headlines, was going to cure for cancer and could win the war. Within a year, we were featured on the cover of the top tech magazines, so things were going well. But then I sensed ATM was losing its luster and we pivoted to build “DSL Mux” (which was based on the same technology) and partnered with PairGain Technologies. A few months later, we sold the company to them for $95 million, right at the tail of the bubble. Our investors did well, and the other guys did quite well too. I was not sophisticated enough to know any better and did not become wealthy, but I learned a lot for next time.

Next I joined another start-up, this time in Minnesota. Again, doing ATM technology but with a different spin. I formed a partnership with Microsoft, who had a new system called “Netshow Theater Server”, which delivered video on demand, but required a good network and ATM was the way to go. Spending a lot of time in Redmond, Washington, I saw how the market for such video systems could grow, but was lacking a means to deliver live video over the network. This was an important insight. The Minnesota company was sold to a large telecommunications firm that really just bought the engineers, so no one did well.

In late 1997, I started my own company called VBrick Systems. My experience allowed me to operate, as we were building both hardware and software. Initially funded by me, then scraping up money from suppliers and trading equity for services, we raised enough to hire a few people, working from my own home. You can imagine the stories!

We sold our first VBrick to Sprint in 1998. Then we raised our first $4 million venture round and we were off to a growth path. Another round a year or so later added $7 million to the war chest. By 2000, we had sales of over $5 million and were growing fast. The VCs turned out to be dysfunctional and insisted on unnatural acts. One even insisted on interviewing our engineers and wanted to fire some people based on their fingernails, which was crazy and stressful.

We hired a CEO to help me out, who became a life-long friend. Together, we raised another $21 million in another VC round, and brought in Morgan Stanley and other professional investors. This was hard because we closed the round in March 2002, during the “9/11 freeze.”

The VBrick board was still dysfunctional and consisted of money managers with no vision or interest in what we did. While we were growing at around 50%, they wanted more than 100% growth, and purged the CEO and brought in a “friend” of one of the investors. He turned out to be a disaster and revenue fell, people left, and I was watching my baby die. There was nothing I could do about it. Eventually, I left and they hired another overpaid friend of an investor as CEO. That did not work well either, and I was watching from the sidelines as they fired everyone with intuitional memory or experience, and the revenue fell to half of its peak. Eventually, another CEO was hired, and then another. While I’m still a major shareholder and wish they would do well, they were not heading in the right direction.

So I started Discover Video after my non-compete expired. With no VCs, Discover Video is able to do sensible things and keep focused on delivering the best visual communications platform for enterprises in the market. While it is more challenging to drive a business organically, we’ve managed to become one of the “fastest-growing companies” in the U.S., according to Inc. Magazine.

How did the concept for Discover Video come about?
The concept came from a confluence of technology, market knowledge, and experience. The competition did not really offer a complete video ecosystem, so we set out to remedy that. Underserved market segments in higher education, K-12, and corporate represents an opportunity.

How was the first year in business?
During the first year, we were restricted in the markets we could serve based on my non-compete agreement. So we served one market segment heavily and were profitable from the start.

What was your marketing strategy?
Leverage the name-brand of the founders, be 50% better and 50% cheaper, sell through channels and provide superior discounts.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
800%.

How do you define success?
Success is making a living by doing what you enjoy.

What is the key to success?
Make your customer a hero.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
When you buy a mutual fund, you probably have no idea what companies that mutual fund manager invests in, right? You only want money, and you are okay with that. Same with VCs or most investors. It’s normal. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially the future.”

What are some of your favorite books?
For nonfiction, I like reading Malcom Gladwell, Geoffrey More, and Fareed Zakaria’s books. I also like to read science fiction.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Standing on the Interop Tradeshow floor in Atlanta, Georgia on Sept 11, 2001 at 9:00am and watching the world change in a few seconds. I had planned a major product launch, press briefings, etc. Also, knowing that we may not be able to pay the bills if we could not grow.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward
Knowing that we all end up in the same place. Life is a journey, and it is overcoming obstacles that gives one joy.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
1) Don’t do it for the money. That’s only how we keep score.
2) Be kind to everyone. You never know who you will need in the future.
3) Karma is real.
4) Be sure there’s a market for your product. Everything else can be fixed.
5) The “Internet” is not the only thing. Mobile apps are not the only thing.
6) Plan for what you will be doing in ten years.
7) Hire sales professionals. Although this can be expensive, having a business without sales is not a business.

Jason Cardiff – Founder, President & CEO, Redwood Scientific Technologies, Inc.

Jason Cardiff started his career in sales management at Mercedes Benz USA. After leaving the automotive business, he founded First Choice Media, a private consulting company that provided marketing services for national non-profit organizations, while simultaneously finding success with his own national, infomercial businesses and products. As the founder of Redwood Scientific Technologies, Inc., Jason provides the leadership and vision for the success of the company. He is not only responsible for product development, but also for negotiating with business partners, from merchant banks to retail business executives and prospective investors. More importantly, Jason is responsible for constituting and executing the strategies for Redwood to compete effectively in the marketplace and ensure long-term profitability and sustainability of its brand. With his background in sales and marketing, Jason oversees all advertising efforts of the company, from planning to directing infomercials. Jason has successfully launched several products nationwide. Under his leadership, Redwood has experienced 650% compounded growth during its first four years in business. Jason has three small children – ages three, eleven and thirteen – and enjoys spending his free time engaged in outdoor activities with his wife and children.

Tell me about your early career.
My early career started with my first company being on the servicing side of products for sale in the “As Seen on TV” space. I built the company into a worldwide presence with offices and staff spanning four countries. I quickly realized that if I am going to do all the work, then I should start launching and making my own products.

How did the concept for Redwood Scientific Technologies come about?
The idea was, “How do we make a better version of the pill?” I like experience-based products that can do something people have always done, but in a better way. It seemed like the timing was right to create a new and better delivery method for over-the-counter (OTC) drugs.

How was the first year in business?
Our first year in business was a very exciting time. We went from concept to market with our first OTC, thin film product and, like all things, we waited to see what the market reaction would be to the idea of a thin film mouth strip as a delivery mechanism. We then started to prove our model and numbers.

What was your marketing strategy?
My go-to-market strategy is very simple. First, we look for a product that can be used by more than 25% of the adult population. Then, we bring that product to market with national television and a very compelling story that we develop through solution marketing. And with a little luck, we have a go-to-market and national roll-out.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
As a company, our growth was very explosive over the first few years. However, growth is not always good, unless it’s healthy growth.

How do you define success?
Success is defined when you have a vision for what you want to achieve, and you execute your vision into reality. At Redwood, we back up our vision with our core values, and when that is achieved, then we’re successful.

What is the key to success?
Have a plan. Stick to the plan, and always, always, always finish what you start.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The greatest lesson I’ve ever learned, that most entrepreneurs never learn, is that things only happen if people want them to happen. For example, if someone is not calling you back, or if a buyer is not buying what you are selling, it is simply because they don’t want to. They would if they want to.

What are some of your favorite books?
For business, I love Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins for running a company. I also love Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman, and for fun, I love to read Stuart Woods.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
The toughest day I have had as an entrepreneur would be the day that I learned it was just me, standing alone, either making it or not.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
When times get tough, and we all have those days, I stay focused on the vision of what we are working towards, and press on.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Keep looking forward! The past is over. Yesterday is gone. Stay focused on the goal.