Thursday, June 26, 2008

An Entrepreneur Who's Done It His Way

Bijoy asked me to take my notes from Rick Engel's talk a couple weeks ago and write up a blog. Here it is.

Rick Engel is a serial entrepreneur who currently owns Austin Java, Uncle Billy's, Little Woodrows and Paggi House. I love hearing entrepreneurs speak because there's always something about them that strikes a chord with me, regardless of what industry they have focused on. Listening to Rick was no different. What I enjoyed most was that he wasn't in a particular mold. Hard working...absolutely; focused on the bet. But most of all, he was real. Given where I am in my journey with entrepreneurship and trying to further understand what drives me, Rick's talk was just what the doctor ordered to help kick off my 4 month sabbatical from work.

As many of you know, I am a massive sports fan. I also hate inefficiency in every aspect of what I do. As such, "Moneyball" is one of my favorite books. If you are not familiar with "Moneyball", it is an exploration to understand why the Oakland A's with one of the smallest budgets in baseball has been so successful over the last decade. Baseball is fraught with inefficiencies, especially in player evaluation. Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A's, systematically explored and identified a number of those inefficiencies and exploited them. The sense I got is that Rick Engel does exactly the same thing in his specific industries. Not quite the classic entrepreneur with all of the right business school answers, Rick has identified some formulas for building great businesses and parlayed those formulas into a series of entrepreneurial successes in some of the toughest industries out there.

I've got Bijoy (much like Eddie Murphy in Meet Dave) in my ear saying that this truly is the ESSENCE of bootstrapping. Although the tactics of bootstrapping (e.g., demo/sell/build, Power of 2, MRE, etc.) and the lessons learned from other entrepreneurs are important, the bootstrap entrepreneur embarks on a very different journey, the hero's journey. Rather than following the paths that others have carved before, the bootstrap entrepreneur blazes his/her own path. Rick continues to blaze his unique path.

Like many entrepreneurs, Rick indicated he gets bored real quick. Some highlights from the path he has followed definitely support thist:
  • As an undergrad, transferred to UCLA to chase a music career
  • Jumped to the restaurant/bar industry
  • Started 5+ different concept restaurants in Houston
  • Even though he downplayed it in the talk, Rick sounded like he started the first online trading company
  • Moved to Austin and again eventually re-entered the restaurant/bar business in Austin
  • Created a management company for his restaurant endeavors and treated it like a profit center as he would with any of his other businesses.
  • Now heading into the condo business
Most fascinating was that Rick claims that business isn't his true passion. You often hear entrepreneurs talk about how passionate they are that they can't imagine doing anything else. Rick's true passion appears to be music and he is just trying to make enough money to get to that deep running passion.

This is not to imply that Rick is not passionate about business. Spend 5 minutes talking to the man and his passion for his employees, customers, and businesses are very apparent and very real. I don't think that was made more obvious than in the Q&A session where Bootstrap Austin was treated to his deep knowledge. He rattled off details about traffic percentages, well thought out answers about short vs. long term solutions to his parking challenges, etc.

At SolarMetric, the company I helped found in 2001, I played a lot of different roles from accounting, marketing, general management, sales management, management of legals, business development, etc. I had key partners in the company, mostly in engineering and sales execution. In my first year at SpringSource (formerly Interface21), I operated in a very similar jack-of-all-trades manner. I really related to Rick Engel because of my background. Rick was a highly successful repeat entrepreneur who "did everything" himself in his earlier days in Houston. As he grew his career, he was able to get out of the "do everything" mentality by building a restaurant management business to manage his various restaurants and bars. Even as he built the management company, he went against the stream by treating it as a profit center rather than a pass-through company, the norm in the industry. By building the management company in his image and not taking the route that so many others have followed before him, Rick found a way of taking advantage of the scale that additional employees can bring while ensuring the elements of his personality and management style remained. Maybe there is hope for us-chronic do-it-all-ourselves solution is to share the load but make sure the load is shared in a way that you are comfortable.

Another almost passing comment Rick mentioned really struck home to me: he feels like he has to be in control; he has to be a top level decision maker. He wants to know about every curve ball. The times when he hasn't been in charge (e.g., after he sold his trading company but stayed on), Rick hated the curve balls that were sent his way because he was not the final authority on the given topic. This is another thing I've struggled with a lot. I've really felt impotent in the past when I wasn't in control. So many times I wanted to tell employees that I would take care of them and make sure that I had their backs. When you aren't in charge, you aren't the decision maker and the best you can do is attempt to influence the actual decision-maker.

Rick had some great one-liners during the discussion:
"Don't ever have a partner. If you do have a partner, make it a silent partner."
"There are two really difficult things to do: 1) Partner with another entrepreneur - you'll have 2 different ways of doing the same thing. 2) partner with a non-entrepreneur - they can't relate."
"Don't ever get to a 50-50% situation on decisions unless you can get out of it."
"Bootstrap or die!" and this inspired Kyle Johnson to create a new Bootstrap Bumper Sticker in honor of Rick.
The most interesting question posed to me by Business District's Jason Myers was whether I thought I could use some bootstrapping concepts in VC funded companies. My initial answer was a resounding, "Hell no!" but the more I've thought about it, the more I am not sure. I think another blog may be in order to explore this further.

My personal takeaway from this talk was the reminder that I have to be the entrepreneur that I am. There is only so much I can get from reading books, business school, and even other entrepreneurs. I can learn from others and incorporate things I learn from other sources into my version of the best entrepreneur that I can be, but it is my unique hero's (or goat's) journey to embark on.

Neelan Choksi is currently enjoying a 4-6 month break from his efforts on the SpringSource management team, spending time with his pregnant wife and daughter, trying to get in shape, and knocking of the items on his "honey, to do" list.

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