Taking Charge / Entrepreneurs in pursuit of innovation

Many of the qualities that help corporate executives rise to the top of their organizations are the same qualities that push many entrepreneurs out of the corner office and into their own ventures

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Working with one of the world's largest tech companies in 2005, John Feghali had hit the career jackpot. Living in the heart of Manhattan, where wall-to-wall NYC taxis and subway stops make car owners seem extravagant, the IBM strategy consultant was swept to appointments via the company limousine. That five-star lifestyle extended to lodging, restaurants and access to the tech and financial sector's brightest shining stars, all in the name of business.

For all the good corporate America had brought Mr. Feghali it couldn't give him what he desired most: his own business, operated his way. So at the peak of his success in 2008, he stepped away from IBM and joined Carnegie Mellon University student Sarjoun Skaff in Pittsburgh for a new life as full-time co-founder of robotics company Bossa Nova Robotics.

Today, sitting inside the former Oakland shoe store that serves as headquarters for Mr. Feghali's mobile media company Walking Thumbs, the surroundings are notably less posh than his former life allowed.

The office, located above a GNC store and a Chinese restaurant, sends stir-fry scented drafts into the central workspace when the front door opens. A storage area crammed with promotional stickers, fliers and 8-foot banners that will transform storefront windows into billboards is the heart of the company's marketing operations. The 16 employees work side by side at borderless stations that allow for maximum collaboration and zero privacy.

Looking around the room, comparing what he was given in his corporate career to what he had created on his own, Mr. Feghali said there was no other place he would rather be.

"I was staying in the most fancy hotels. They paid for my meals. Everywhere was open bar. I was pretty well paid. But that's not what I wanted," he said. "I wanted to build something, to basically see how far I can go."

In retrospect, Mr. Feghali's exodus from corporate culture shouldn't have been much of a surprise.

Self-motivation, resilience and infectious enthusiasm -- many of the qualities that help corporate executives rise to the top of their organizations -- are the same qualities that push many of them out of the corner office and into their own ventures. However, one of the biggest contrasts between corporate leaders and those who excel as entrepreneurs is an attitude of exploration and risk-taking that isn't always the first course of action for traditional corporate leaders.

Susan Foley, managing partner of Boston-based management consulting firm Corporate Entrepreneurs LLC, is working to change that attitude. The company's core mission is to help corporate executives grow their companies by helping them see the businesses with the fresh eyes of someone seeking to build something from the ground up.

"The issue is that many of the things you need to do to manage the core business are just the opposite of what it takes to build a new business. Traditional leaders may only have experience leading the core business. The key difference between both types of leaders is that the entrepreneurial leader can do both -- he can simultaneously lead a company at the same time he is building a new one," she said in an email statement.

For financial reasons, that course is often the one entrepreneurs follow when deciding to set off on their own.

Chuck Fluharty, founder and CEO of Atlasburg-based machine tools manufacturing company Apex CNC Swiss, found himself as dissatisfied with corporate life as Mr. Feghali when he stepped down as a director at Bayer in 2001.

Tired of the constant travel that came with his position and wanting more time with his newborn son in Pittsburgh, Mr. Fluharty took high level positions at three other companies before stepping out of the corporate arena altogether. For an entire decade, between budget meetings and monthly trips to Mexico, he worked to build a business during his few off hours.

"I worked 50- to 60-plus hours a week in my corporate job and worked 30 to 40 hours a week part-time to build the business," he said. "Fortunately, I'm one of those people who only needs about five hours of sleep. I have a high metabolism."

Sleep deprivation aside, Mr. Fluharty's strategy gave him several advantages.

When the time came to purchase a Swiss CNC Machine, which is used to create component parts for other manufacturing machines, Mr. Fluharty used a home equity loan to pay the $200,000 expense and used his salary to pay off the loan. Second, he was able to build a customer base through word of mouth over the course of several years without struggling through a period of insolvency that most entrepreneurs face.

After the purchased of that first machine in 2003, the business has expanded to seven machines today and Mr. Fluharty is considering a move into the former Atlasburg School building to accommodate his company's growth. Apex has four full-time employees and five part-time employees.

As for Mr. Feghali, the path toward success couldn't have been more different. The transition from consulting to technology manufacturing took him to school in Carnegie Mellon University's Computer Science department, to robotics factories in China and Hong Kong and back to Pittsburgh, with a pledge to "build the company or go home," within a year.

With only a $10,000 initial investment and support from CMU's Robotics Institute, Bossa Nova would grow to become one of the largest players in the entertainment robotics space by the time Mr. Feghali left in 2009.

From there, he went on to found WatchMe, a silicon watch company that sells regularly on QVC.

With Walking Thumbs, he hopes to revolutionize text messaging through smartphone applications such as BlabCake. BlabCake turns a smartphone's contacts into interactive characters and lets users blow text kisses by blowing into a phone or send angry scratch marks across a friend's screen by scratching their phone's surface. Mr. Feghali expects to officially launch BlabCake on iPhone and Android as a free app and will launch two other companies out of Walking Thumbs this year.

Although they took divergent paths, Mr. Feghali and Mr. Fluharty share traits that would inevitably send them toward the world of small business. Both came from families with generations of business owners and both had dreamed of owning their own business since childhood.

But the most important feature -- the burning desire to chart your own course, build a legacy, lead a new initiative -- comes from neither heredity or heritage. That quality, both said, can be invoked in anyone with the right idea and the convictions to see it through to reality.

"You have to have a positive attitude, the ability to work long hours, the ability to multitask. Most importantly, you need to understand the needs of your customers and anticipate those needs," Mr. Fluharty said.

Following that advice will get individuals a lot farther than even they can imagine, added Mr. Feghali.

"We were trying to take $50,000 robots and turn them into a $50 toy. And we were just a group of passionate people, no experience, no money, no background in the industry or in general," he said.

"But we were dreamers and we were willing to dream far even if we knew maybe we shouldn't dream that far," he said.


-- Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652


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