By Cheryl Snapp Conner Published in Forbes.com September 22, 2015
I’ve known Will West, one of Utah’s most prolific entrepreneurs, for perhaps 20 years. But I’ve gotten to know him better recently as he’s being inducted on November 2nd to the Utah Technology Council (UTC) Hall of Fame, acknowledging individuals with a tie to Utah who’ve made extraordinary contributions to tech. (I am a trustee and serve on UTC’s Executive Committee. In the past West has served two terms as UTC’s chairman.)
Now 53, West has raised 5 companies to industry leadership including:
• Control4 (which he raised and also took public) – A new line of affordable home automation solutions.
• IBAHN (originally STSN) – A worldwide leader in broadband service for business travelers, serving millions of customers in thousands of hotels.
• PHAST Corporation – High end home automation equipment.
• SilverVue, West’s current venture and his “giving back” mission that provides a software care platform with a provider dashboard to monitor and coordinate patient care, and integrate patient data from wearables and devices when patients leave the hospital.
West knows a great deal about raising capital. In addition to taking Control4 public and raising public investment, he has raised more than $400M in private capital. “Raising capital is becoming a core competency of entrepreneurs (and certainly has been for me),” he says. With at least a small amount of pride he notes that at points in recent history, he personally raised 10-15% of all venture capital over the decade for the entire Utah state (in a region that’s one the nation’s predominant meccas for tech.)
Of all to be learned from this entrepreneurial warrior, four things stand out:
1. Family is his highest priority, but he considers work-life balance his most significant failing.
West is candid about the challenges of work-life balance for a successful founder. One of the pivotal moments of his life occurred as a graduate student at Wharton. An adjunct professor – into his second or third marriage by then —was addressing a group of students that represented the best in the upcoming class. One of those students was West. As he looked around the room, the professor observed that most new businesses fail, but was confident this group of leaders would prevail those odds. He said, “Most of you will find success. But you will pay a domestic price to achieve it.”
His words sent a chill down West’s spine. “I was newly married,” he says. “I can’t recall if we’d had our first baby or were just about to, but I thought, ‘No, I’ve got strong family values that are central to my personal and religious beliefs. I’m not going to have that problem. ”Five ventures later he concedes that his marriage and family has endured, but has done so because he “married someone willing to be a single mom, basically, and to raise our six incredible kids.”
“In some ways it’s not a great thing that you own the company,” he continued. “In actuality, the company owns you. I’d start early, stay at work late and after dinner I’d arrive maybe in time to tuck my children in; maybe not—then I’d work again until 1-2 in the morning and start it again. It’s not only the food on your own table that is at risk, but the 100-200 families depending on you for the food on their tables, too. If the CEO screws up, it affects everyone.”
In one searing moment 13 years ago, West’s oldest daughter, then 13, informed him that he had missed 6 of her last 7 birthdays. “It hit me like a ton of bricks.” Since that point, he’s acknowledged that his family has paid a price for entrepreneurial success. They are happy and by all accounts a success, but he notes that he counts himself fortunate beyond measure for that outcome and attributes it to the hard workand capabilities of his wife Lisa. “I don’t know that everybody gets that lucky,” he said. “I don’t have words of wisdom about the magic of making a business successful other than hard work and bone-headed persistence. But the one thing I would do differently if I could would be to find a way to spend more of my time with my kids. That’s one reason why I love Lake Powell so much. The whole family is together on a houseboat with nowhere to go and no cell phone connectivity. Forced Family Fun that is actually really fun.”
2. He built all five companies with the same cofounder.
West’s younger cofounder, Eric Smith, was a computer science student at Brigham Young University when they met. “We hired him as a contract programmer but didn’t get into true start-up mode until I was in my 30s and he was in his 20s.” Compelled by the opportunity to build companies, Smith abandoned his CS degree and finished it up around halfway through Control4.
“He didn’t need the degree,” West says. “He was making plenty of money and he was more educated than anyone coming out of school. But it was something he wanted to accomplish and I interrupted it.” The strong partnership is a factor West counts as an irreplaceable contribution and blessing in his success. “We’ve had a pretty good run together.”
3. He purposely stepped away from each of his companies as it reached approximately $100M in revenue and 200-400 employees.
I find the smoothness West has displayed in these transitions astonishing as he’s worked through the barrier that has felled countless founders (and stalled or weakened their organizations as well). To his credit, West is an executive with high self-awareness. He knows his skills and is content to apply his greatest talents to the roles he plays best.
“Eric and I are entrepreneurial,” he says. “We’re innovative. Aggressive thinkers. That works well in a small company environment and that’s where we thrive.” As his companies grow, his unbounded enthusiasm for “shaking things up” in the market has needed to be tempered and controlled as the ventures reach critical mass, which he defines by size more than revenue.
“Beyond 50 people, the dynamic changes,” he says. “Beyond 200 and 400—there are changes at each level. In every case we’ve been in first place in our industry. I am proud of that. We’ve done a pretty great job identifying great markets and needs and innovating faster than other people; replacing the old way of doing things. But it’s hard to keep that pace of innovation going and as you grow larger, it is important to add operational disciplines. That’s one of the reasons Control4 is so outstanding today—because I got out of the way.”
He has high respect for the individual who’s taken the helm at Control4, Martin Plaehn. “In excess of $100M in revenue is a wonderful place to be,” he says. “For IBAHN and Control4, we grew well in excess. But at that point, the management style is different. I would be too disruptive and wouldn’t operate as well.” (I am imagining most entrepreneurs can relate.)
4. He led an organization that was cataclysmically affected by 9/11.
It only occurred to me when West brought it up that IBAHN (STSN), as the worldwide leader of broadband service for business travelers, was a sitting duck for the devastation of 9/11.“It was a tough time to be an Internet company or a hospitality company and we were both,” he recalls. “There was no travel for about three months. It felt like a perfect storm. We feared it would be decades before anyone would care about a hospitality Internet company again.”
Whether or not it would have been true, West and his team decided to convert the firm to a telecom and sell it to an AT&T or a Swiss Com, perhaps. “But I’d never even worked at a telecom company before,” he concedes. “I was the wrong guy to turn this fast growth tech company into a “stodgy commodity.” So they spent a year stabilizing the company and getting it profitable while finding someone with appropriate background to accomplish the pivot. It was a tough time. Probably the hardest of West’s professional life. At one time they had to lay off 250 people, right before Christmas. “I was waking up in cold sweats and was physically struggling, but we did it,” West recalls. “We came out the other end of the crisis in solid shape and once we found my successor we could turn over the keys feeling good about where we’d left things.” At that point West stepped aside to begin Control4.
“Vivint is an amazing company,” he says, acknowledging his regional and industry neighbor. “But they don’t’ automate a whole house. Mostly they automate security. But in the higher end space—audio, video, lighting, temperature, security and everything else—we drove Control4 to this level and it remains the unquestioned leader in its space.”
Will West’s most memorable day in PR
Now for my favorite part of the story (of course). West is no stranger to PR of every variety. But his most memorable experience in crafting a story was the presentation his team provided for Marriott to show them the promise of high speed Internet in a box.
“We automated the suite next to Marriott’s headquarters,” he recalls. “We had a little box on the table. The execs walked in and asked ‘what’s in that little box?’ It was our high speed Internet box, which we told them we couldn’t demonstrate because there was no Internet to the hotel.” As it turns out, the box was the only thing in the entire room that was fake. “We’d taken an empty black box, glued RJ-45 connectors (Ethernet) on, and put weights in it.”
It was the box the executives kept asking about. “Can you provide that solution for us?” “And with a fake box in our hands for a product—nine competitors for their business, including AT&T—we said ‘Sure, absolutely.’ Bear in mind that the DSL technology necessary to pull it off didn’t exist at the time. It would require six months to invent a solution to provide good quality high-speed service.”
Much like Ascend founder Rob Ryan describes the process of winning customers’ minds before building a product—which was sure in its first version to be held together by “a whole lot of baling wire and blarney”—West’s team won their critical contract with Marriott with “coat hangers, baling wire and a very good façade” to capture the imagination of their customer. Their ability to tell—and show—a story that had captivated the Marriott customer audience saved the day and changed their company’s history. (Go, Will!)
What’s next? West is currently passionate about his current and presumably final company, SilverVue. The project emerged by accident, and West and his wife developed a healthcare software platform that could support eldercare with technology solutions as a way to “do some good in the world.” Now the emerging product is addressing an evolving and very fast growing area of healthcare and may present the opportunity “to do something bigger than we’ve ever done before” during the time he had hoped and intended to be quietly slowing down and retiring.
He has retired in 2014 as the chairman of the Utah Capital Investment Corporation (Utah’s “Fund of Funds”) where he had served for close to 10 years. He’s also served two terms as Chairman of the Board of UTC as well as serving on the Governor’s Economic Council, multiple terms as the chairman of the Leonardo Museum and helps with multiple other state and private initiatives. Not surprisingly, he’s been a regional Ernst & Young Winner, has twice been named Utah Valley Entrepreneur of the Year and Utah Business names him repeatedly to its list of the 100 Most Influential People in the State.
But, as I reminded him as we concluded our interview, the eventual opportunity to be a grandparent is a wonderful thing. I am fairly certain I heard his eyes lighting up from the other end of the phone. His most important work is still ahead of him, it seems, and it is not at the office.
Cheryl Snapp Conner is author of the Forbes eBook Beyond PR: Communicate Like a Champ In The Digital World. Do you have a great entrepreneurial PR story that others could learn from? If you do, reach out to Cheryl Conner via Forbes with your thoughts.