Erik Severinghaus is a Chicago based entrepreneur and business leader. As a student at the University of North Carolina, he founded a successful consulting company, helped launch iContact (a leading and fast-growing email marketing company) and ran a K-12 education software infrastructure company that he later sold.
In 2004, Erik accepted a position with IBM’s business consulting services. In his 6 years at IBM he rose quickly through consulting, intra-preneurship, product management and sales roles to a position as a Partner in IBM’s IT Optimization Practice. In 2011 he left IBM to lead KoalaDeal, a consumer based online personal shopper – similar to Pandora for e-commerce.
In addition to a variety of business interests, Severinghaus has a passion for mountain climbing, skiing, water polo, and other adventure sports. He is currently finishing his part time MBA at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and volunteers with Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Chicago.
[quote style=”boxed”]I have a real bias towards action. As soon as something sticks in my head as a solution to a problem, I start thinking; “Do I want to solve this?” “Can I solve this?” And then I usually start working on a prototype to prove the viability.[/quote]
What are you working on right now?
Building KoalaDeal with the goal of making the site your personal shopper on the internet.
What does your typical day look like?
If only there was a “typical day.” My days are generally a combination of product management meetings, conversations with investors, discussions with media, and strategy/execution of our customer acquisition efforts. More recently, I have been spending increasing amounts of time with potential strategic partners as well. All of this, on top of MBA classes at Kellogg and training for marathons, triathlons and bicycle races, keeps me pretty busy.
What is the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
A software testing job for a government agency. The application was in maintenance mode which meant that there was no innovation. Even optimizations to the testing process were frowned upon as disruptions to the status quo and my management had little to no interest in finding me anything
more challenging or useful.
I learned the importance of being proactive in my career. I’m the kind of person who has to be constantly coming up with new and interesting things, so it’s essential that I work in environments that support that type of opportunity.
3 trends that excite you?
The opening up of APIs on the internet so that services can increasingly be linked together.
The fusion of human and machine intelligence – everything becoming increasingly personalized to make life easier.
The ability of quality providers to service customers in more specialized niches. For me in Chicago, it’s about finding fantastic craft-brewed IPAs, watching UNC Tar Heel Sports and listening to Texas Country music live – all far from their critical mass of support.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I have a real bias towards action. As soon as something sticks in my head as a solution to a problem, I start thinking; “Do I want to solve this?” “Can I solve this?” And then I usually start working on a prototype to prove the viability.
What inspires you?
I love pushing the envelope to solve problems. Breaking down seemingly intractable challenges, creating a plan, and then executing to get to a solution is very inspiring to me. As the great Chicagoan Daniel Burnham said, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”
What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?
About 13 years ago, while I was in high school, I had an idea for a stationary device to sit on the counter of a business. Users would be able to communicate with that device via the IR port on a Palm Pilot in order to get information about area specials to save money, etc. In essence, we were creating something akin to foursquare but lacking the social component (the “social” internet didn’t really exist at that time.)
I shut it down in 2002 since I didn’t really know how to go from prototype to a product and revenue.
I learned a couple things. First, good products are useless if you can’t sell them and make money. I spent too much time figuring out how to solve the need and not nearly enough on how to actually generate revenue. Second – I learned the need to be persistent. The idea was good and the execution to a point was even pretty sound. Had I kept at it, I still believe it could have been something great.
Alas, I gave up too early.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Network nearby. Location based social networking in a business context. Basically, if I’m at a business networking event, help me find the people that are one degree of separation from me via Linkedin/Facebook, people I follow on twitter, or anyone else I generally might be interested in meeting.
What do you read every day, and why?
I skim all of the following since if I can just get the headlines, I am probably reasonably up to date with what’s happening in the world: NYTimes, WSJ, TechCrunch, espn.com
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read, and why?
“The Sun Also Rises” by Hemmingway. I’m assuming your readers have already read most of the business books (Crossing the Chasm, Innovator’s Dilemma, etc.) so I figured I would suggest a piece of classic fiction.
What is your favorite gadget, app or piece of software that helps you every day?
I love Pandora. I use it to find music all the time.
Three people we should follow on Twitter, and why?
Three fellow Chicago startups that are shaking up their industries in big ways (and are run by awesome entrepreneurs.)
Who would you love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch?
Tim O’Reilly – I don’t think there is anyone better at spotting new trends in the technology world. I have been following him for almost 15 years.
When is the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it.
Playing with my two nieces here in Chicago. I’m not sure exactly what it was, but kids say the funniest, most honest things.
Why leave a successful professional career for something as risky as an Internet startup?
My passion is really in creating new value. I found, as I was moving up the food chain in the corporate world, I was spending more and more time on internal politicking, and less time creating value for my clients. The cool thing about a startup is if I have an interesting idea in the morning, we can implement it by the afternoon, as opposed to being mired in endless internal meetings. Being able to create that type of value, quickly, was more valuable to me than the stability of a more traditional career.
How do you deal with the stress of entrepreneurship?
Building a business from scratch is tough – no doubt about it. But, some of my other hobbies (like mountain climbing) can be far more stressful. No matter how bad my day is at the office, I still know I have a bed and warm meal at the end of it (it may be Raman noodles – but that’s ok!) Planning and leading a trip to climb some of the tallest, most challenging and dangerous mountains in the world helps put the day-to-day ups and downs into perspective.
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