In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, the entrepreneur reviewed his professional pursuits that recently culminated with his decision to leave his sales position with Claris Networks to launch his new venture.
“I was a government contractor kid,” Strong says, explaining that his father worked for U. S. Department of Energy contractors in Paducah; Livermore, CA; and Oak Ridge. This diversity of geographic locations made an impression on him when the family arrived in East Tennessee and Strong enrolled as a freshman at Farragut High School.
“I wanted to get in and out of college as fast as I could,” Strong said. “”I wanted to have control of my own life” which led him to two years at Pellissippi State Community College and two years at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville where he earned a B.S. degree in finance.
Strong knew that he did not want to work in a bank or become a financial planner. Instead, he decided to go into sales where his first job was selling railroad materials. Eighteen months later, he was selling automotive chemicals and later joined a telecommunications company because he saw an opportunity for a mentor “to help me really learn how to sell.”
Strong says his first entrepreneurial endeavor in 2004 was an “epic failure.” He was buying houses and renting them which he describes as “a lot of debt for a little return.” In 2005, Strong was considering buying a marina building company when he received a “call out of the blue” from RM Technologies, a company that changed its name to Claris Networks in 2008.
He decided to accept the sales job offer that he received, explaining that information technology “intrigued me.” He humorously notes that he went from his first sales job with one of the nation’s oldest industries – railroads – to one of its newest selling cloud computing services for Claris.
While Strong really enjoyed working for Claris, he says that his desire to own his own company was always a goal. “It had to be really, really special . . . not just another sales job,” he explained.
Strong became intrigued with a software program that someone showed him. It had been developed for the construction industry to help simplify and expedite the bidding process. With his previous ownership of houses and the consideration of the marina construction company, he decided to explore the possibilities.
“People thought it was a good idea, but said they would not pursue it,” Strong said. Undeterred, he connected with Jill Van Beke, now with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, and later with Knox County Purchasing Director Hugh Holt. Those initial conversations led him to believe that there was a need for an electronic means that would make the procurement process easier for local governments and those wanting to submit bids to cities and counties.
Strong connected next with Van Beke’s husband, Chris, who had been involved in several local start-ups, most recently Will Overstreet’s Voices Heard Media. Chris Van Beke was planning to leave Voices Heard, but quickly said that he was not interested in doing another start-up. Yet, as he heard the concept for an online vendor registration service, Strong recalls that Chris Van Beke became very interested.
Today, the two are partners in Vendor Registry, one of two local companies recently selected for specialized mentoring services through the East Tennessee Regional Accelerator Coalition (ETRAC). The other company is Stall Talk. ETRAC management has deemed both start-ups as meeting two requirements – “quick to market” and “high growth potential.”
Strong, who will serve as Vendor Registry’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and head of sales, describes the company as a “LinkedIn” for vendors. Its software is being developed by Wintellect whose President and CEO – Lewis Frazer – is the third partner in Vendor Registry.
About two months into development, Strong is projecting a “fast to market” ramp-up with commercial use occurring in July, starting with East Tennessee local governments. He says the software will meet the needs of companies seeking to do business with local governments and cities and counties that need to broaden their access to more vendors.
“We will not be qualifying vendors, only allowing them to register,” Strong says. “We will finalize our pricing strategy during the upcoming beta test.”
He says Vendor Registry’s “secret sauce” will be the fact that cities and counties will not have to adopt standardized commodity coding schemes. They can use their own unique codes, and Vendor Registry will be able to do the translations needed to match-up with prospective vendors.
“It is also a very effective reporting tool,” Strong says.
For Strong, Vendor Registry meets his life-long goal. “I’m getting to do what I did before, but with my own company,” he says. He and his partners are the sole investors, so they do notneed additional investment capital to launch the service, but will be exploring all options during their growth stage.
Their long-term strategy remains open. Strong says they could grow it and run it or they can grow it to a point where Vendor Registry would be sold. “The jury is still out” on the best option, he says.