Born in Michigan and raised in Illinois, Thomas Kivisto is a man with dual passions for sports and entrepreneurship. A high school and college basketball star, he competed on the national level in his high school senior year, earning a full scholarship to the University of Kansas, where he competed in the Academic All-America program. He set basketball records at the University of Kansas, some of which still stand, before graduating with honors and a degree in Psychology in 1974. He remained active at the University of Kansas as head of the Williams Fund and head tennis coach until 1979, and later in his career, he made significant contributions to the university’s athletic program, such as the Thomas Kivisto Football Field, named in his honor.
From 1979 until 1993, he worked for the Koch Oil Company, rising to the position of Executive Vice President and overseeing more than 15 acquisitions as the leader of their oil acquisitions program. He then founded his own oil company in Kansas, which he led until the economic downturn in 2008. Throughout his career, he has served on many banks and university boards and has been involved with several non-profit organizations. He now heads his startup company called Lakeshore Energy Capital in California, that specializes in investing in startups in the oil and gas equipment, real estate, and technology sectors.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
It came mostly from the disappointment of working for other people who didn’t manage expectations for compensation for contributions to the company. That’s a frustration many people experience, feeling underappreciated and underpaid. After a certain period, you feel you’ve learned from many people with a lot of great traits, but it’s not satisfactory, so you take that leap. And it’s a scary leap, but it’s one that I’ve taken at several stages in my life.
Probably the most important leap I took was back in 1993. I left a job that I put fourteen years into and went back at ground zero. Now, for anybody contemplating taking that leap, my advice is that you’ve got to understand what it is you want to do differently, how your product differentiates itself from the competition, and whether you’ve got the capital to make it happen. I would say that I wasn’t quite there with regard to those variables in 1993, but I had a bit of luck and a bit of help, and that went a long way.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
It starts off on the phone, discussing capital and making sure that we have enough resources to make the pivots in the industry that keep us current and desirable to consumers. That’s fifty percent of my day. Then I try to prioritize my least favorite, but most productive thing I can do in a given day, and I try to get that done early.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I rely on the expertise and experiences of the people I work with. We use a term called the ‘collective IQ’. Right now we’re doing a lot of conference calls, often four or five per day. We work seven days per week, and we get everyone’s input and continue to encourage ideas. We look at other industries to see what they’re building, because they often have ideas we can borrow from or build on in our own contexts. It’s intellectual teamwork.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The most exciting trend going on today, in terms of technology, is blockchain. For the first time, we can send things of value to each other, and strangers can send things of value to each other, with total trust and without the involvement of a third-party intermediary.
Often today, in the financial world, those intermediaries are the source of most of the problems in our society. Our imbalances, our inequalities. Our banking system, for example, excludes people from participating fully in our society. If you don’t have an approved bank giving you a credit card, you can’t check into a hotel. You can’t rent a car. You can’t get cell phone service. It’s exclusionary, and these major banking systems have paid over $200 billion in fines from trying to illegally corral every market you can imagine. They seek to manipulate everything from metals to interest rates, and yet we rely on these intermediaries and have seemingly no choice but to trust them to move our capital around.
What blockchain does is it allows people to exchange value using only their cell phones and the internet. If you have those two things, you can set up an account without even a bank, and you can send money to anybody in the world instantaneously. It’s completely trusted, because the system is built in such a way that you can’t send something you’re not in possession of.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Getting after my workday, regardless of how I feel, and getting it done every day. I once asked Dr. J what separated him from other basketball players in the NBA, and he said that he got up every single day and he practiced and played even on days that he didn’t feel like it. That’s the key, plain and simple.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t work for a living. Look at your skill set, and the resources around you, and find a way to make a living by producing a service or product that you and your team are in control of, not under the whims of the political forces of the world or bosses that don’t manage expectations properly and don’t have your best interests at heart.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
One of my favorite authors is a woman named Marianne Williamson. She once started one of her books with an idea that I think many people never thought about prior to reading it. It went along the lines of “Never underestimate the power of an uninvestigated belief.”
Most people do not do their own research and trust the word that’s seen in magazines and newspapers or the voice from the TV. We have to understand the whole idea of ‘follow the money’, and remember that all news today and all politicians are driven by principles that are not really lined up with our own interests. For example, every politician has one thing in common, and that is the desire to be re-elected. Every newscaster has one thing in common, and that is the goal of getting a pay raise next year and to not get fired. News isn’t facts. News is what sells. Politicians don’t do what is efficient and necessary, they do what they need to do to protect their votes and keep themselves in power. When you realize that and you do your research on it, you learn not to trust anything or anybody.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Surround yourself with good people, and put your hours in. There’s a whole notion that it takes 10,000 hours to create a marketable and perfected skill, whether that’s a tennis player or a pool player or maybe even becoming a great chef. You’ve got to find enjoyment in putting that work in, and when you do that, you no longer consider it work.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Making myself available in our business focus, which is energy and technology and the like, to network with other people in that space, to share and listen to ideas, and to try to understand which companies in this space are successful and why they’re successful. Then I try to borrow and build on those observations.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
My biggest failure was probably becoming over-leveraged in a business that relied on the major banking system, when we know their interests don’t always align with the interests of their customers. To overcome that, I’ve worked more with private equity rather than with bank debt that can change with the whims of the Federal Reserve.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Technology, in the last fifty years has changed our world exponentially. It is, by far, the fastest growing space, and it will continue to be. With COVID coming along in 2020, people began using that technology in incredible ways that many didn’t know they could. Staying home, working from their computer at home, using online services to get their food delivered. If those technologies hadn’t been around, millions of people wouldn’t have been able to tap into it to survive in the way that they did. The future is cell phones, software, and technologies we haven’t seen yet changing our lives and changing our children’s lives. It’s important that everybody spends time understanding these technologies, and understanding the nuances of the computer hardware and software in their phones. You don’t need to understand how the internet works, but you need a phone to utilize the internet to better your life, and make more time for yourself. Without the use of those technologies, we’re busy doing tasks every day in inefficient ways.
Here’s an example that I find kind of funny. I was in New York, and I got a phone call from a teammate of mine that a coach I had worked with in my younger years had passed away. I was on a plane from New York, just about to land in Chicago, and he wanted to know if I was going to make it to the wake that night. It was in a city that was 200 miles away.
Now I look back at that day, and I look at how technology pulled that day together for me. I checked out of my hotel on my cell phone, got a car service on my cell phone, and checked in to a flight and got my boarding pass on my cell phone. As I got on the plane, I was texting my friend and telling him I was pretty sure I’d get to the wake. Upon landing, I reserved an airport rental car on my cell phone. I got in the car, got on my GPS, stopped at a place for quick food and water, texted back and forth, and made a reservation at the restaurant that night on my cell phone. I then made a reservation at the hotel that night, in a city I hadn’t been to in 30 years, on my cell phone.
Technology saves us so much time, and time is one of the most valuable resources we have. The best thing you can do for yourself is to go about your day in a more efficient way.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
There’s a new restaurant in my local area that I went to with my girlfriend. We sat down and had an amazing dinner and conversation, and I left a nice tip for someone who was really excited that we were excited about the food and location. Interacting with our fellow man doesn’t get any better than that.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
That would be the email system that allows me to print, scan, sign, and send. I can read documents, file documents, store documents, send documents, execute documents, all on the couch while I’m watching Monday night football with the volume off. That software is amazing for creating free time for me, and there is simply no way to measure the value of that.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I’m not sure it’s in circulation anymore, but you might be able to find it online. It’s by James P. Carse, and it’s called Finite and Infinite Games. I think it helps to address the understanding of human interaction, of the difference between games that end with winners and losers, and games that are open-ended or that have no end.
What we love about sports is that at the end of the game, whether you like it or not, the outcome is determined, the winner is rewarded, all participants have to agree on what the rules are, and at the end, the winners and losers all have to agree on the outcome.
In life and business, it’s a whole different set of rules. Things aren’t easily measured. Not everybody agrees on when the game is finished. Many things in history never finish. A war may end, but its impact on society never does. I think the book has a great insight into the way we look at the world and the way we look at our personal lives.
What is your favorite quote?
“Somewhere, someplace, someone is practicing, and when he meets you, he’s gonna beat you.”
- When making the leap into entrepreneurship, you must understand not only what makes your product distinct from the competition, but also how you can maintain that distinction.
- Learn to rely on the people around you. A group working together is stronger and smarter than any one member.
- Embrace technology and modernization, and use it to improve your efficiency.
- There is no substitute for putting in the time and hard work needed to reach your goals.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.