Local entrepreneur Chuck Witkowski devoted the past 10+ years of his life to living the promise of the “technopreneurial” program – come get an MBA degree and leave with a company.
The concept was launched in 2001 by Lee Martin, a well-known businessman and engineer who was working with the University of Tennessee (UT). It captured the imagination of Chuck Witkowski, a second-year MBA student from Johnson City, who had tasted corporate America while working for a few years at Motorola. The experience convinced him that his career path was in a different direction, and he established Protein Discovery. In November 2011, Protein Discovery merged with Expedeon Ltd., a global provider of protein research products on whose board of directors Witkowski currently serves.
In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, Witkowski shared his thoughts on the decade-long journey, as well as some advice for aspiring technology entrepreneurs. This is the second article of a two-part interview. In the first article, Witkowski reflected on the impact that Martin, his mentor and friend, had on him.
Teknovation: If you were mentoring a budding entrepreneur today, what key principles would you instill in him or her from the “lessons learned” book?
Witkowski: In addition to the principles mentioned previously, I think you have to be passionate about what you’re doing. That’s the single trait that I’ve seen from every successful entrepreneur I’ve ever met. If you don’t have a deep passion for what you’re doing, I just don’t think you will be able to overcome all of the hurdles that will likely come your way. I recently spoke at an event and shared with the audience some startling facts about being an entrepreneur. The most well-known is of course that chances are that you will fail. Less well documented is that being an entrepreneur is exceptionally difficult on your marriage and your physical and emotional health. And the reason is pretty simple: the hours are long, the stress is high, you can never “leave the stress at work,” and your venture has to consume a great deal of your mindshare. So, the only acceptable reason why anyone should choose to be an entrepreneur is that they have a passion. Whether it’s a passion around a single technology, a passion to make a difference, whatever it is, it comes down to passion. And that’s #1 – you’ve got to be passionate about whatever, and that’s especially true if you’re going to pursue the hard road that is technology entrepreneurship.
I would also try to share some lessons learned. These are hard-fought lessons that were learned through, as Lee (Martin) says, bad judgment. I could write a book on these, but let me just share a couple.
First, I would encourage any new tech entrepreneur to interact with the market early and often. What do I mean by that? What I mean is you need to be out talking to real potential customers for your product or service very early on and you need to let those discussions guide your product development plan. Too often I have seen entrepreneurs, including myself, spend a lot of time and resources building a product that they think the market will buy without really testing their hypothesis. I don’t want to stereotype, but you really see it a lot with engineers and scientists. The intentions are good – they don’t want to show the market a poorly developed product that’s not quite “done” – but the outcome is bad. What I have found is that you have to deeply engage with the market very early on. And, I’m not talking about market surveys or hypothetical discussions like “would you buy a product if it looked like X.” I’m talking about taking a very early stage prototype and trying to actually sell it. Taking a potential service and trying to get a purchase order. I believe, and again – I’ve learned this the hard way – a buying decision is an emotional decision and there’s no way to really test your product concept unless you actually ask someone to part ways with their cash. Now, you can offer the prototype at a discount. You can offer to provide free upgrades, etc. But you’ve got to interact with the market early. And then, the feedback that you get – that’s the real value. You take that feedback, incorporate it into your product, and repeat the cycle over again. You want to go through this cycle really fast, in a highly efficient manner and that’s how you get to a great product that customers really love.
So you’ve built a great product. Fantastic. However, I would suggest that a great product only gets you into the game. Now the real key is figuring out how to distribute your product in a way that is efficient and economical. In a way, this is hard to accept, because the fact is that it’s unbelievably hard to build a truly innovative, great product that the market wants and customers love. But the reality is, without a means to efficiently and economically reach the market, a great product is irrelevant. Here’s the rub – it’s very expensive to build out a direct sales force with your own sales people. And while a lot of products can be economically distributed via the internet, many products still require that an actual person interact with a customer to get a sale. So, I would implore any entrepreneur who would listen to spend a lot of time thinking about creative ways to distribute your product. What you want to find is the least expensive way to get your product in front of as many potential customers as possible. Often that means finding a way to leverage someone else’s existing distribution channels, someone else’s sales force. What you’re often looking for is a partner who can put your product in front of thousands or even millions of customers for a share in the upside, a share of the revenue. If you’re an entrepreneur building a great product, think about this one long and hard and have a distribution strategy. Otherwise, your company will fail or your competition will eat your lunch, even if you have developed a wonderful new product.
Lastly, I would just say, focus on your team. The fact is that you absolutely have to have the very best team of individuals possible. And I’m talking about real “A-players”. For me an A-player is one that is highly proficient at their skill or trade, be it engineering, finance, whatever. That’s the first part. However, an A-player also has the integrity, the personal communication skills, a mindset for excellent – the whole package. These are the people you have to have and you can’t settle for anything less. Furthermore, although it’s a nuance, I also feel that the opposite is equally true – you simply cannot afford to have B-players. They will destroy your organization’s culture and drive away other A-players. A-players only if you really want to succeed because, in the end, it’s all about the people.
Teknovation: What’s now and in the future for Chuck?
Witkowski: I have recently joined a venture capital firm, MB Venture Partners, as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence. MB Venture Partners was Protein Discovery’s first venture capital investor. I’ve developed a great relationship with and a deep respect for the team at MB. The firm invests exclusively in life sciences companies, with a specific focus on Tennessee-based medical device and biotech companies. Through my role with MB Venture Partners, I am acting as CEO of one of their portfolio companies, Hubble Telemedical. Hubble is a company based on proprietary technology licensed from ORNL and UT that has the potential to truly revolutionize the diagnosis and management of debilitating eye diseases like diabetic retinopathy. We’re really excited about the prospects for Hubble. In addition, I’m also working with some friends at a business development firm called 3 Degrees which is helping a local start-up called MedInteract, which has a nice product for the early diagnosis of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Both Hubble and MedInteract address significant clinical problems by enabling early screening and diagnosis of disease, when treatments are most effective. Expect to hear more about these companies in the future.