Saturday, June 11, 2011

Greg Whisenant on How He Turned a Burglary Into a Business Opportunity and What it Takes to be a Successful Entrepreneur

Greg Whisenant is founder and CEO of Public Engines, which makes the web application. Previously, he was a senior legislative advisor for law firm Hale and Dorr (now Wilmer Hale), where he lobbied the US Congress and Clinton Administration. Greg also worked for several years as a legislative aide to U.S. Senator Robert F. Bennett (R-UT), where he handled law enforcement, technology and telecommunications issues. Greg also served as a consultant in the launch of Unitus, which uses private capital to supercharge successful microfinance institutions throughout the world. He helped create a microfinance bank for a small village in Mali, West Africa.

Recently, Ken Frei sat down to interview Greg.

Have you been an entrepreneur your whole life? What are some of the things you have done that have led you to where you are now?

I have a wide and varied background, and it doesn't have a clear theme to it necessarily. I started out in politics where I worked for
U.S. Senator Bennett in Washington for several years as a legislative aide. Then, I went and got a master's degree and went back and worked as a lobbyist. 

I had a political beginning, but I was always naturally drawn to business. My energy was there. I think it's way too early to declare myself a success, but if I were to point to anything in my past that has led to success, being able to tie together different experiences from across a broad spectrum has been really helpful.

I moved from Washington to Salt Lake in 2000 and joined a dotcom startup that imploded. Then, I started my own little company doing some consulting and some computer work. That first business was really tough. I learned a ton and it was a great way to get my bearings in terms of trying to understand how I would attack the market. I launched Public Engines and with a partner about four years ago.

I read that you majored in English in college.

I did.

That is an interesting background for someone who has started his own business. How has that degree translated to running a business?

It hasn't been perfect, I can tell you that. I certainly feel like I'm at a disadvantage compared to some of my peers and others who are trying to start businesses. I think that having a broad knowledge base and having discipline in other industries has been helpful.

I think I would be in worse shape if I had focused exclusively on business. It has really helped to have a broad understanding of different types of industries and different perspectives that help me know how to run the business.

What are some things that you do to make up for the business training that you didn't get in school? How have you acquired that training yourself?

From the School of Hard Knocks, and there have been plenty, believe me. It's a truly humbling experience to try to create a business and get it going. There have been a lot of fits and starts, and many, many mistakes along the way. It has been an inelegant liftoff.

I've tried to surround myself with people who are knowledgeable, subject matter experts. I'm also naturally a learner and I don't assume that I have all the answers. Maybe that works to my disadvantage sometimes. It helps for me to think, “I really need to beef up on this or on that.” I try to constantly improve my skill-set. That's definitely been part of the process.

Tell me how got started.

I was living in Arlington, Virginia, and I let a burglar into my building on accident. I didn't know he was a burglar, I just figured he was another tenant. From that experience, I got to meet my local police department and I went to a community meeting. Through that dialogue, I came to understand that there was a disconnect between members of the public and law enforcement agencies.

There are 18,000 agencies in the United States, which is a lot. They don't have a lot of resources, and they are really doing things in old ways. I saw that there was an opportunity to use not just web 2.0 tools, but other Internet tools that were out there to create a better, more comprehensive engagement between the public and law enforcement.

Then, it was when Google Maps launched that I started to get really serious about it. That was when the light bulb went off. I was not the pioneer in this regard; there were other people who had created mash-ups of crime data on maps and I saw an opportunity. We had plenty of momentum already and saw an opportunity to serve law enforcement with high quality, easy-to-use products delivered from the cloud that helps prevent, reduce, and solve crime.

Why have you chosen to locate your company here in Utah as opposed to an area like Silicon Valley or like Boston? What about the Utah business environment has been good for you?

I think Utah has the right balance of opportunity and talented people. That's a pretty important thing. There is also a great lifestyle here. There are solid values and people who want to work hard. There is just a culture of wanting to get something done and really make an impact. It is, in many ways, all about the money at some point in time and people definitely care about that, but I think they feel a higher sense of purpose than a lot of people that I've met with. It's just a great culture.

It's a great place to be professionally. There is plenty of opportunity. There are a lot of resources for entrepreneurs. There are a lot of really smart people who think at a high level. I just think it's a great place to live and have a business. There is a basic cost structure here that is a little more tolerable for a start-up. It feels like it's a little more manageable. Utah has the right balance and the right key elements that you need to infuse your business with talent.

What do you do personally to be innovative in your company? What are some strategies you use to innovate?

I look for patterns in other industries. I try to look at what other companies and people are doing out there on the Internet and in the broader business ecosystem. I look at that through the filter of law enforcement and say, "When I see what other people are tying together—can I tease together a pattern that makes sense?" 99% of the ideas go by the wayside, but occasionally I get a glimpse of something good.

Something that we've done well at Crime Reports is that we have focused on consumers. That has forced us to have simplicity in our user interface, making it easier for our law enforcement. I'm so pleased with the UI that we've come up with across our product suite. I think our products are naturally intuitive and people understand how to use it just by looking at it. They don't need comprehensive training and it's not tedious. Our users are surprised by the simplicity and that’s a very powerful thing for a government agency. I mean, nobody wants to be tortured in their daily work.

I also read a lot. I really do try to read interesting books that are compelling. I read stuff from people that I respect and people that I don't. I try to fill myself with information in order to get a lot of ideas.

What drives you to be successful?

I can't muster the will to do work that I don't truly enjoy. That is a blessing and a curse. I really have to feel like the work I do has an impact. I want to be able to say, “This does something. It really accomplishes something.” I guess I'm naturally drawn in that way, where I'd rather have some impact or none at all. If I don't genuinely enjoy it, I'm just not going to be good at it. I just won't have my heart and soul in it. That's really the driver.

I also want to continually improve. I always assume that I don't have the answers. I really try to understand what our company can be doing better. We genuinely want to understand our customers and find out from them how we can improve. The more successful you get the harder that gets, but fortunately it has been pretty easy for me.

That whole concept of iterating and validating your business model with customers - at one point in time I think it saved our company. It really did. You have to listen to customers because they’re able to give insights into the direction that your company should go. I was willing to hear that and it kept us from heading down a path that I think would have gotten us in trouble.

What did you do to get back on the right track?

I got on a plane and flew out and talked to customers. I interviewed them. I sat down with a tape recorder like you're doing right now. I said, “This is not a sales process, this is a listening exercise. Tell me about how you do your work. Show me what you do. Tell me what's missing with our product.” Then, we genuinely tried to solve their problems. It was a very rewarding experience for me when we were able to make our customers happy.

Are there any particular books that you would recommend?

Right now I'm reading two books, both of which I'd highly recommend. They're both painful and wonderful. One is called
Rework by the 37Signals founders. It is intensely painful to read for an entrepreneur. The other is called Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost by Steve Blank. It's a collection of all his blog posts and acutely painful as well.

I would have loved to have read these books as I was starting my first business. They're so powerful and infused with wisdom. Neither book is very well known, but they’re both great.

Do you have any other advice that you want to give to entrepreneurs?

Just do it. There are a lot of good ideas and it doesn't take that much to actually start doing some work. You don't have to devote your full time and attention to it. You can start in little ways. Just understand that all of your experiences are going to contribute in some way to how you start, launch, and run a business.

People can get lost in this idea that it's just too hard to start.  I'm no more talented than the next guy, as any number of people in this building would attest. It's just a matter of saying, "Hey, I'm going to go out and do this," and then start doing something.

I would also advise entrepreneurs to keep their costs low. It's always nice to test out the model in the smallest, cheapest way possible. It really helps you to think through where you're trying to go.

If I were to give one other piece of advice it would be to work on networking. Get to know people and genuinely try to help them and also have them help you with what you are trying to do. It’s really valuable to know people and have them know who you are and what you‘re working on. It‘s a good practice.


Anonymous said...

Greg is too humble - he is an extremely hard worker with a brilliant business mind that is literally riddled with great ideas!

kenfrei4 said...

Greg is a great guy, I agree. It was obvious when I was talking with him why he was successful. I'm sure that he will continue to do great things.

Anonymous said...

Great article. Thank you.

kenfrei4 said...

Thanks for reading! A new post will be up soon!