Lots of things come to mind when we hear the word entrepreneur. Innovator, disrupter, creative, risk-taker, daring, and crazy. While this might be the picture that forms in our heads initially, it is always a great experience to speak directly with an entrepreneur to hear their story.
This past week I had the chance to speak with the CEO of VizworX, Jeff LaFrenz. Jeff has had an exciting journey from working on software that processes remote sensing data from satellites, to building software to detect underwater mines, and dropping out of a Ph.D. program to run a company. I wanted to speak with Jeff to learn more about the entrepreneurial journey, specifically, how to get started and what it looks like in the first few years. I got to learn a lot and I am thrilled to share my findings with others here on Compound Confidence.
What’s your story?
Let’s start from the beginning. Jeff did his Bachelors and Masters in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Calgary (he went back for his Masters because he graduated into a recession). Jeff started his first company shortly after graduating from university, but it failed because Yahoo came out with a similar product for free. A very good learning experience though.
After graduation, he was hired by MDA, where he worked as a systems engineer for 8 years. This is where he did work on satellite ground stations, underwater mine detection, and the air traffic control system for Switzerland. When I asked Jeff his biggest take away from this job he said, “I learned a lot of the fundamentals of project management that I still use today.”
I was a little surprised he was at one company for so long. Many people have this idea that people work somewhere for a year or two and they are ready to create the next Amazon. While this can be true for some entrepreneurs, Jeff said the time he spent at MDA allowed him to develop deep technical knowledge of the systems he built and the processes involved in doing so. This proved to be a vital skill for later in his career.
He then moved to Sierra Wireless, where he led the global sales support division. This greatly improved his sales and marketing skills, which he noted is often something technical founders lack. I feel the same way, as someone who has completed degrees in engineering and computer science. Yet, without sales and marketing, you can have the best product but no one will probably ever know about it. Over the next 5 years of his career, Jeff traveled constantly to visit different clients which he described as, “brutal, but I learned a lot”.
Back in 2002, Jeff took a complete step out of his comfort zone and started his Ph.D. in bio-nano technology, but didn’t finish because he left to run a company he started with his friend in the area of industrial surge protection. He ran the company for a year and then sold it to a competitor. Returning back to the University of Calgary he helped with building some of the foundational work that eventually resulted in the current integrated entrepreneurial education programs provided at the University of Calgary. One of our teammates has actually participated in the programs Jeff started almost 20 years ago.
In 2009 he joined a NSERC funded cross-Canada research network headquartered at the University of Calgary called SurfNet, as operations manager. The focus of SurfNet was on the advancement of human engagement technologies and in particular touch screen applications. At the time it was not physically possible to make a large touch screen, and now they are in every shopping mall. As he put it, “Obscurity to ubiquity in less than ten years! Such is the pace of innovation.”
His purpose in joining SurfNet was to find opportunities to spin out technologies into new enterprises, which directly led to the spin out of his current company, VizworX, in 2012. This company creates high-value enterprise solutions to address the critical business needs of its clients, through the appropriate application of advanced technologies such as AR, VR, AI, data visualization and so forth. VizworX itself is also an incubator for new products and is in the process of spinning out new companies as well.
What a journey.
Why do you enjoy being an entrepreneur?
“Creativity,” says Jeff. While there are many other reasons, this was the first one that came to mind. He said that you can be creative at a large company, but it is often easier at a smaller company as you have less constraints.
“Sense of ownership, which is pretty awesome,” was his second reason. I asked the classic question: Are you in it for the money? Jeff assured me it is not about the money. It is about what you want to achieve. That is the driving force that gets you through the countless long nights.
When did you know you were an entrepreneur?
This is a question I find I ask myself often. How do you know you are an entrepreneur? Is it when:
- You have a product shipped?
- A certain number of customers?
- A target amount of money in the bank?
“It is a mindset,” says Jeff. “Your attitude, your drive to make a difference” is what makes you an entrepreneur. While I have heard this before, and know it to be true, hearing it from someone who has done it helps drive home the message.
He also mentioned how you can still be entrepreneurial while working at a company by being an intrapreneur. An intrapreneur allows you to start a project within a company and use their resources to make it. While you don’t have complete independence, you get the security of working with a company.
How long did it take until people took you seriously?
When starting, you will often have people question your decision. They might say,
Why are you leaving a great job?
Don't you want to move up the ladder?
Most entrepreneurs fail.
Even once you have decided to start, many people might look at your business as cute or a nice hobby. However, that’s not how you feel, this is your business, your passion, your life! I was eager to know how long it took until the people around him started to realize his business was a business.
“A lesson from a mentor I had,” Jeff says, “[was that] it ultimately comes down to credibility. When we started VizworX, we had zero as a company. The credibility was based on the founders and our network.” However, Jeff mentioned a powerful idea that made complete sense.
“A way to fix this issue,” Jeff recalled, “is to borrow credibility”. This means if you align yourself with someone or some organization that has credibility, and they take you along, in the eyes of the client you get to borrow their credibility. Of course, you need to execute your vision to turn that credibility into your own, but it is a powerful way to get started when building your business. He also exclaimed that building a business, “is a team sport!” acknowledging that it is a necessity to work with others, whether it be co-founders or other businesses.
Any big lessons before getting started?
“Too many entrepreneurs come along and say, ‘I have a great solution, does anyone have a problem?’ The highest chance of success comes from building a solution that addresses a proven need, not the other way around”, says Jeff.
It is crucial to make sure you are building a solution that people actually need, not that you think they need. I found the best way to do this is once you have an idea, ask people what they think of it. I also like the lean startup approach where you continually test your product while building it.
From going back to school because of a recession to being the CEO of a successful technology company, Jeff has done a lot. I am thrilled I got to:
- Hear his story
- Learn how he became an entrepreneur
- Learn about the idea of “borrowing credibility”
- Learn his lessons for fellow entrepreneurs
His journey shows a path from being an intrapreneur to being an entrepreneur. It was exciting to hear about his past and I look forward to seeing what awesome products Jeff and his team continue to build in the future.
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Disclaimer: Jeff LaFrenz was involved in the making of this article and approved all content written. Thank you, Jeff!