J. Christopher Mizer

Founder of Vivaris Capital

J. Christopher Mizer is the President and CEO of Vivaris Capital, which he founded in June 1998. Mizer serves as the chairman of each of Vivaris Capital’s portfolio companies and guides key strategic decisions and their execution. He also serves as the operating president on an interim basis when companies are going through periods of ownership succession and new management team members are being assembled.

Mizer is a former Vice President and Officer of the investment banking division of Key Capital Markets, where he focused on merger, acquisition, and financing projects for Fortune 500 clients, private companies, and successful entrepreneurs. Prior to joining Key Corp., he was a consultant in the Capital Markets practice with Ernst & Young. He began his career as a Research Assistant with The Center for Economic Issues, a think-tank focused on economic development. He earned the Bachelor of Science (biology, applied math), Bachelor of Arts (economics), Master of Science (biology – neurogenetics) and MBA (finance, accounting) degrees from Case Western Reserve University.
Mizer has taught business strategy, finance and entrepreneurship at the graduate level at Case Western Reserve University, John Carroll University, and the University of California, San Diego and at the undergraduate at San Diego State University.

Where did the idea for Vivaris Capital come from?

The idea for Vivaris Capital was born about 20 years ago. I retired in my early thirties after realizing a couple of successful exits. I spent about a year travelling, playing golf, and enjoying life after working 80 to 100-hour weeks for ten years. In that process, I realized that I enjoyed building businesses more than goofing off. I decided to build a career by partnering with entrepreneurs to build enduring, great companies.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I’m not too fond of routines but I’m a maniac at time management and prioritization. I keep track of the most important action items I need to do in each area of my life and use them to schedule my entire day. As long as I’m making continuous progress on the handful of items that really make a difference, I feel productive. I also spend about two hours a day meditating and in contemplative practices, which I have found to be the foundation for transforming stress and neurosis into peace and connection.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I am intuitive and creative so I have a lot more ideas than time to develop them. Of course, not all ideas are good ones! After I have a brainstorm, I reality test it rigorously to see if there is an unmet need in the marketplace. I poll my friends who are experts in the area and ask them to tell me all the reasons why it’s a bad idea.

Once I decide to launch a business around an idea, me and my business partner give it a life of its own. We create vivid mission and vision statements, build plans and functional models. We create a real and a virtual team to nurture it. At some point, it seems like the process runs its course or the business launches quite organically with a handful of customers.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I’m excited about all of the innovation in the fintech space right now. We are seeing an explosion of new technologies that are driving down costs, providing personalized solutions, and disintermediating the status quo. I am particularly passionate about a new product my firm has developed that lets investors establish the level of risk they want to assume when making a private equity investment. This is going to “democratize” access to the alternative asset class, which has historically been better than traditional investment like stocks and bonds.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

The biggest productivity tool I use is systems-based thinking. As quickly as possible, I try to make decisions about execution as automatic as possible. I set up principles and guidelines then empower people to operate within them. This lets me manage major issues by exception and allows me to focus on the areas where I can make the biggest impact: strategy, key people, and capital formation.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would encourage my younger self to have more balance in my life. When I was younger, I was maniacally focused on business and financial success. My personal relationships and my health suffered as a result.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

David Bohm was right about the connected wholeness and implicate order of the world.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I read a lot on a wide variety of topics. Business, science, biographies, personal development, I am interested in it all. I am obsessed with figuring out how the machine works, regardless if that machine is the global economy, a human body, or my own psychology. It also gives me a perspective for understanding opportunities and challenges. I think the business with the highest collective IQ is most likely to thrive over time.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

I’m a big fan of Jim Collins and “Good to Great.” One strategy we use over and over again in our businesses is his hedgehog concept. We hone a sharp edge on strategy by sharpening world-class execution, unmet market needs, the economics of value creation, and team passion. Miracles occur at that intersection.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I bought a business years ago because one of my mentors said it was “the best business in the world.” He had been very successful building a unicorn company in the same industry. I didn’t know the space well and didn’t do enough research on my own to understand the competitive dynamics. The company proceeded to lose about 300 customers over the next few years as the megatrend of outsourcing to China took hold. Eventually, we were able to save the business by taking the same infrastructure and fundamentally changing the focus from serving middle-market companies in the US to the defense and aerospace industry on a global scale. It was a gut wrenching transition.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I’m excited about AI right now. I actually studied expert systems, neural networks, and other applications of machine learning back in college, nearly 30 years ago. It’s exciting to see large data sets, robust algorithms, and incredible computing power converge to create insightful and useful applications for everything from drug development to entertainment. I think we underestimate the impact AI will have on our everyday lives in the near future. It holds the potential to automate or enhance so many knowledge-based tasks. The broadest applications such as healthcare, accounting, law, personal finance, etc will likely be dominated by well-funded companies with deep domain expertise. There will be a lot of companies, however, that will need to learn how to use these systems or will need to apply the techniques of AI to their business on a customized basis. As a business idea, I encourage readers to investigate providing AI as a product development and support service to middle-market companies.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

My partner became a US citizen a couple of weeks ago. I just spent $100 on her passport application. I’ve been to 45 countries so far and I’m looking forward to adding 100 more with her!

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I’ve become a Google Keep junkie. It’s basically a task list that I can share with a lot of other people on a project or company basis. It’s much easier to set up and maintain than a project management program. It keeps me really well organized and it works with our teams in real time.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead” by Brené Brown. Leadership is the rarest of commodities. Much of our training as leaders is based on technical competence, skill development, and personality traits. The way to accomplish big, crazy, audacious, risky missions with a team, however, is to build a deep sense of community and personal commitment. That requires trust which is created by being ever more vulnerable with one another.

What is your favorite quote?

“I looked away for a moment and it became my life.” -Buddhist proverb

Key Learnings:

  • To achieve productivity, keep track of the most important action items that need to be accomplished in all areas of life and schedule your day around those. Making progress on a handful of those important items makes all the difference.
  • The ingredients to successfully growing a business are world-class execution, unmet market needs, the economics of value creation, and team passion.
  • The business with the highest collective IQ is most likely to thrive over time.
  • To accomplish big, crazy, audacious, risky missions with a team, it’s essential to build a deep sense of community and personal commitment, through trust and vulnerability.