A startup is just a set of difficult problems. Building a successful business is about solving such problems day in and day out.
Jim Fowler is founder and CEO of Owler, the free competitive intelligence platform business professionals use to outsmart their competition (http://blog.owler.com/), gain competitive insights, and uncover the latest industry news and alerts. Prior to Owler, Jim founded Jigsaw in 2003 and was CEO until it was acquired by Salesforce in 2010 for $175 million. Jigsaw is best known for pioneering crowdsourcing in the B2B information industry and for creating the business category of Data-as-a-Service (DaaS).
Before his career in technology, Jim was owner and operator of Lookout Pass, a ski resort in Idaho, and served in the U.S. Navy as a diving and salvage officer. Jim is a graduate of the University of Colorado.
What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?
I wake up at 6 a.m. every day and hop in the shower. This early morning time is my most important time of the day because it’s when I get my most creative thinking in. My most productive time is the first half of the day, so I block off that time for strategic thinking; often, this is my shut-door time so I can focus my mental energy.
I firmly believe that the more you touch your phone, the less productive you are. That’s why I use my phone sparingly during my most productive hours. I schedule operational meetings in the afternoon, as those require less mental energy. I also work using a stand-up desk because I can walk around to stay energized.
I’m also a big believer in recharging and clearing your mind, and I think getting out in nature is key. Activities I enjoy on weekends include kiteboarding, snowboarding, and backpacking. I love the mountains and spending time in the water; it helps me clear my mind and get so much more done. Working seven days a week often means you lose more than you gain. When you turn your brain off from work, you come back recharged with new ideas.
How do you bring ideas to life?
When I came up with the idea for Jigsaw, my previous company, I had a demanding job as the vice president of sales at a public company. My family told me I was never going to be happy until I started my own business. But I was in my mid-30s, had a young child and financial responsibilities, and didn’t know how I could make that happen.
I started by figuring out that my most creative window is in the morning, as my brain is rested and ready for it. So as soon as I got to work, I shut my office door from 7 to 8 a.m. every morning, blocked out my calendar, put my phone down, got on my whiteboard, and thought.
Once I had an idea with legs, I would take the time during those mornings to explore it. When you want to create an idea for a new company or a bring an idea to life at an existing company, it requires disciplined creativity, which requires two things. First, you have figure out your creative time. Second, you must be disciplined about reserving this time to work through your ideas. It’s not just one eureka moment that brings ideas to life.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
Robotics is the next big wave that will impact our lives incredibly — and it already is. Drones and artificial intelligence are both related to robotics. As some of these technologies come together, they will really transform the quality of our lives — from robots pouring us a martini or making our beds to self-driving cars transporting us. This confluence of AI and manufacturing is becoming less expensive, and it, combined with the Internet of Things, is an important next wave of technology.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
The No. 1 job of a manager and leader is to make decisions. If you’re efficient at making decisions, your company is going to run more efficiently. The longer a decision hangs, the more it becomes inefficient and hurtful to a company. I make hard decisions quickly and easy decisions really quickly. Meanwhile, I’m also the first to admit when I’m wrong. An example of this is when Owler had a pivot and I quickly made it public. It’s better to admit that you’re wrong publicly than to hold onto something that’s not working just to save face.
What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?
In high school, I was a dishwasher, which — as you can imagine — is a dirty, sweaty job that I didn’t particularly enjoy. However, I am so grateful for that experience because I learned to have compassion for everyone. It made me realize how hard many people work to provide for themselves and their families. As an entrepreneur, it’s gratifying to create jobs that people love. Your employees depend on you to take care of them. And by rolling up your sleeves and doing dirty work, you stay grounded and respect everyone.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I would have taken everything a lot less seriously. I started practicing yoga four years ago, which has helped me mellow out. Rarely do any of us have jobs that involve life and death (with the exception of doctors, nurses, etc.), yet I was guilty of treating things that way. I’ve learned that you can bring the same passion and drive while being a bit more chilled out.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
A CEO is responsible for setting the strategy and culture of his organization. What’s helped Owler grow is demanding constant and relentless improvement from everyone on the team. There are companies that take a long time before releasing technology. But we release technology, measure the results from real user interactions, and are constant and relentless in improving our product to deliver an even better user experience. That’s how we’ve built a product that members of Owler’s community love and recommend to their colleagues.
What is one failure you’ve experienced, and how did you overcome it?
When I founded Info Army, it wasn’t my first rodeo, and my vision was to build a company that would go long. Once I realized Info Army didn’t have the legs to go long, I had to make a change. It wasn’t just my vision at that point; I had employees who depended on me.
The two hardest, most incredibly painful years of my career were in 2013 and 2014, as I was trying to figure out how to pivot Info Army into something that could be really big.
I believe success in business is 98 percent persistence and planning for the worst-case scenario. I’ve always run cash-efficient organizations, so with money left in the bank and determination, we were able to pivot our business model and launch Owler in 2014. We were able to turn some of the hardest times into some of the best. We landed on a business model that works and is growing into something huge.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Why can you only get a CAT scan at a hospital? Why isn’t there a big bank of them in some central location? It feels like big, expensive machines should be run 24/7 from a central location. If you applied airline-style fees, it would reduce the cost and create huge efficiencies.
What is the best $100 you recently spent?
I bought a Therm-a-Rest ground pad for backpacking, which makes my cherished time in the mountains more comfortable.
What software and web services do you use?
A startup is just a set of difficult problems. Building a successful business is about solving such problems day in and day out. Here at Owler, we’ve learned that open communication is an essential part of the solution. Slack relies on public channels, which means all information is openly broadcasted to the entire company.
Did we learn a hard lesson after launching a certain feature? Did everything go as expected? Either way, that takeaway is shared with all relevant stakeholders in a transparent and honest manner. As a CEO, I love being able to check the pulse on everything that’s happening at Owler at all times.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
For people who are trying to disrupt, reading “The Innovator’s Dilemma” is absolutely critical.
Which people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
“Coach” Bill Campbell gave the best management advice I’ve ever received. I also utilize a lot of the tips Tim Ferriss outlines in his writing.