The cavnessHR podcast – A talk with Robert Lee
The cavnessHR Podcast can be found at the following places or you can just type in cavnessHR on the respective app.
Google Play: https://cavnesshr.co/eb339
Pocket Casts: https://cavnesshr.co/theca799fd
Social Media links for Robert Below!!
Robert’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobertinSeattle
Robert’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robertleeinseattle/
Robert’s football blog on the behalf of retired players: http://www.footballvets.org/blog/
Robert’s Book Recommendation!!!
“Psycho-Cybernetics: Updated and Expanded Paperback” by Maxwell Maltz
Link to purchase this book is below.
Jason: Hello and welcome to the cavnessHR Podcast. I am your host Jason Cavness. Our guest today is Robert Lee. Robert are you ready to be great today?
Robert: Good to be able to see you today. I've been following your podcast for a little while. You've always got some fascinating guests. So it's an honor.
Jason: Thank you very much. Robert Lee is a career entrepreneur who sometimes refers to himself as the Forrest Gump of high tech. His diverse adventures encompass computer programming and hardware design and electronic payments systems. As a founder and chief strategist behind successful businesses in both the U.S. and Canada. Robert and his companies have received national media exposure that includes coverage in New York Times and the front page of PC Week. In 1998 he founded UTM Systems Corp. the first company to successfully process networks certified pin based debit transactions online. Robert holds several patents in the field of payment transactions and digital imaging. Having witnessed firsthand the remarkable transformation of technology in the last 35 plus years. Lee is known for his unique ability to put high tech concepts into applications. Some of his inventions have included the first color digital scanners for PCs and Macs. PC fax cards and POS terminals for Internet credit and debit transactions. He has founded and built a number of successful businesses in the U.S. and Canada. Robert currently lives and works in the Seattle, Washington area. Robert you have a have a long and storied career.
Robert: It's been fun. I can't think of anything else to do. I love starting businesses. I love entrepreneurship and for the past 30 almost 35 years I've been in high tech and it's been fun. Part of it is the creativity, being able to invent stuff and solve problems. That's really what it comes down to. If you look behind me that's one of my paintings from nearly 30 years ago. I'm also an artist, I paint, I draw, I write. So all of those things come together, to help you become a creative inventor.
Jason: So that brings up a good question. So the stereotype is you know people in tech and startups or young people you know young all of that. After your 35 years in tech and startup space. Why do still enjoy it so much and continue to have so much fun?
Robert: Well, first of all, it keeps you young. It keeps your mind going, keeps you young. You keep the forefront of things and see what's going on. But when you start falling behind, that's when you start getting old and I don't plan on getting old for a long time.
Jason: Yes, I feel exactly the same way. So in your time with startups and tech, there's been a lot of changes, some good some bad. From your point of view what has remained the same.
Robert: That's a good question. Well, the things that stay the same. Basic principles. You know hiring a good team. A lot of these I have just been discussing this past week. I would pick age or experience over youth and enthusiasm any day. I'd like to have all of those features but as I say age and experience are much better. I'd rather have a team of people that know what they're doing and they've got battle scars to show for it just like I did. It means I survived. That's important.
Jason: Robert, when someone talks to you about a startup and they want you to join it. What makes you say yes to joining the startup and what makes you say no to joining a startup.
Robert: Well first of all the product has to solve a problem. It's got to be a broad-based problem and it's got to help people. Some of the ideas that I see today and I think you probably agree with me as do many of my friends. Especially in the Seattle area and down in Silicon Valley. They raised another 15 million dollars for what? Some idea like oh we can help keep your underwear clean. And these guys reached 50 100 million dollars. Then we try to raise a million, two million for a project that's somewhat significant and we got to struggle and fight hard.
Jason: Yes. When someone has a startup and they ask you for advice for their startup journey. What do you tell them?
Robert: Well number one absolutely, passion. Passion is the most important component. You've got to be passionate about your project. You've got to love it and you've got to follow through to the very end until it's over. I always describe what we do launching startups very much like what I do with art and painting or being artistic. Why. Because you have to go through certain processes that are a bit boring but are atypical. In other words like with a canvas, you stretch the canvas and over time we start painting and bit by bit you work in the broad strokes. It's like you don't see much but then you focus on certain things. OK let's work on details and bit by bit, you orchestrate all so this all the pieces come together. Eventually, a painting comes out of it and you have to also be willing to accept the fact that the painting. May not come out the way you originally thought it was going to come out. But that it's still going to be a masterpiece. But you have to be open-minded enough to allow this thing to create itself and evolve to become the painting that it is. That's how I describe launching startups. Just like art, you've got to be flexible and open and you've got to work broad strokes and they're working with the details over time. This is something I've seen a lot of younger startups and I do mentor a lot of a lot of startups. Trying to keep them focused on what they should be doing. Working together to keep working in the painting. To get this masterpiece done. Like I said a lot of the time. Your startup may not even at the end, resemble anything close which you first came up with, because you were originally working on solving a problem. That problem evolves and the problem becomes clearer or shifts. You have to be able to adapt to it. Adaptation is key.
Jason: Robert, I understand you're looking at either starting an incubator pretty soon or you've already started one.
Robert: Yes, in fact, that was one of the reasons I ended up at this meetup yesterday. I talked to a couple of Co-working spaces and the folks at WeWork ended up wanting to talk about some of the stuff too. Because they're all over the world and in some locations that got what they call incubators. But most incubators have a different kind of model. I've just recently started to try to put this idea together with a different approach toward an incubator or at least for myself. I'm one of those guys that I've got a lot of patents a lot of ideas and projects that I have done.
Robert: But I have more ideas than I can actually launch or fund myself. It's a lack of resources or time. But on the other hand,10 years later you have this great idea. You see this idea launch. Oh my god, I had that idea 10 years ago. I should have done it. But some people have those that other people don't. So I thought and again the emphasis is on the fact that I realized. 99 out of 100 people don't have startup ideas. They just don't. One person will come up with a great idea and the team will make this thing happen. I thought why not start an incubator. Where you got 10 12 15 ideas. Very unique. Everybody signs on with a non-disclosure, no compete.
Jason: Then basically start having meetups and talking about the ideas. Then somebody in the back says, I'd like to work in that project or I'm a software guy specializing in this. I want to work on this project. Then different people form basic groups and spin of startups talking and discussing these projects together. Over time, 1O-12 projects are starting to start evolving and becoming reality. Of course, over time you know it starts attracting more and more people who want to join find an opportunity to work on. The next thing you know you've got 10 12 startups and I would be more than happy to mentor each of them. Get them going create the ideas and keep pushing them along and helping them all. My model is that I'll probably end up just keeping you know a few points in each one. I'm not being greedy about it. For me it's more of having the ideas becoming reality.
Jason: That's a great idea. So Robert, when you're looking at startups teams. What makes you think to yourself. This team has it, they are going to make it. Or what is this team even doing here. They are wasting everyone’s time. They need to go do something else.
Robert: That's a great question. Some of the people that you run into you know I'm sure you run into a few. It's unfortunate. You know a lot of the kids, a lot of the younger people have never launched a startup. So they don't know how to put teams together. Unfortunately it just happens to be that, oh we are all BFFs. So you bring in a bunch of buddies. Not necessarily any particular skills and over time, ok why don't you be the HR guy. None of them have the skills to do this and sometimes that's a recipe for disaster. If you're lucky a lot of those people evolve and they learn and learn and learn. But in most cases you really want to bring in expertise. You want the best of the best that you can attract. What it also does is makes it a proving ground. Because of your ideas that damn good you will attract people.
Jason: Robert as you know, San Francisco is considered the Mecca of Venture Capital and startups. How does Seattle get to this level? Or does Seattle even want to get to this level?
Robert: The Seattle area and especially where I live on East Side in Bellevue is evolving very quickly especially in the startup scene and high tech scene. It's a funny kind of establishment because if you really look at it. This is where Microsoft started and Microsoft is about as basic as it gets. This is the operating system that started in Redmond nearby with Bill Gates. Then when me and my two kids and I drove all the way from Florida. We left Florida in 97 drove all the way across the country in the 25 foot moving truck with everything we own and we landed in Bellevue. At the time, Amazon was launching, eBay was launching, PayPal was launching. Things really escalated fast. In fact a lot of people don't know that Jeff Bezos launched Amazon here in the east side in Bellevue first. Out of a garage and eventually move it over to Seattle. So Bellevue has been kind of an interesting place. Seattle on the other hand, the politics are different. Seattle can be a lot more liberal. The east side and Bellevue tend to be a lot more conservative. That makes for some interesting politics as well. So it's an interesting ecosystem. I will tell you that in many ways the venture capital scene here and I am probably shooting myself in the back. But the venture capital scene here in Seattle is not that much different from Silicon Valley. Most of my friends agree with me and again this is back to even some common stereotypes that the high tech industry as well.
Robert: A vast majority of the venture capital industry is run by what I describe as the white Ivy League Frat Boy club. They're all the frat boy buddies. They know each other and they've gone to school together. They hang out, they party and they all got money. Maybe come from rich families. They've done well by gambling on high tech. You know when you're in an area where you've got lots of success, of course you can make a lot of money. So of course they become bigger and bigger venture capital firms. I find that unfortunately I walk into venture capital groups and before I even open my mouth. They look at me and see an Asian and right away they expect me to speak broken English. Those preconceived notions are still here. I sense that I walk in the room I can feel it and a lot of my friends who are Asian or black whatever non-white. Have run into in the same situations. These days thank goodness women are finally starting to get attention. But they're also telling me similar experiences. You know it's a white frat boys Ivy League club. So those things are starting to break and drop and change. My hope is that in the next 5 10 years that will help Seattle evolve better. Unfortunately, as you probably see Silicon Valley still very much locked into that mentality.
Jason: Yes it is a challenge and is a big problem that we all need to solve.
Robert: Yeah I mean I'm in my 60s and in my later 60s. They were like wow an Asian dude and he's old. Colonel Sanders didn't become a millionaire with Kentucky Fried Chicken until he was 60. Age has nothing to do with it. It really doesn't. The minute you leave that stuff behind. I think the better things will be.
Jason: Whenever I talk to startup founders in the Seattle area. They always say that the Seattle area VCs are too conservative and that they have to go to San Francisco for funding. Well the Seattle VCs will say that they only fund companies that deserve to be funded. So their is an obvious disconnect there.
Robert: That's the most common and most common attitude. You know we only invest in companies that deserve the money. But t's a very narrow attitude of who deserves the money.
Jason: I would be interested in seeing the stat that shows how many Seattle startup receive a no from Seattle VCs and then receive funding from someplace else.
Robert: So would I. What I can tell you on a general sense in meeting people and talking with people. I've got a lot of people that have gone out of town. Not just to Silicon Valley, but to many many other cities and they come back with funding. Then all of a sudden they come to the back door and say are you still raising money. I'd like to put money in now. It's like you know sorry the back doors over there. See it later. That's very typical up here. It's like it's something they also described about the Seattle area, passive/aggressive and they tend to lay back and watch something else take off. I guess now I'll jump into this thing. Well that is why it is called risk capital. You take a risk because you know return is high.
Jason: Yes I agree completely. Robert next, can you talk about a time you were successful in the past. What you learned from this success and what we can learn.
Robert: The success is always all about tenacity and sticking things out no matter what. All the way back to the late 60s. I actually launched the T-shirt industry. I was the first guy to get into the T-shirt business. Had a partner and eventually sold it to him. Next thing you know I started another T-shirt factory. I got approached by this German couple literally around the corner from my factory. They actually had me sign a thing called the nondisclosure. Never heard of a non-compete. I signed it. They're manufacturing t-shirts. They want me to print something on them wrap them up and then ship send them back. They were going to distribute them nationally. Once they told me what it was all I could do is scratch my head. That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard. Who the hell would do that. But what it was, you are not going to believe this. We printed the Adidas logo on the front and back of 8 different color of t shirts and different sizes.
Robert: It was the first branded t-shirt company. Who would pay money to wear somebody’s logo in a T-shirt. Sometimes things come in from out of the woodwork out of the blue. You go now that'll never work. But if you stay open to it. Wow it really happened. It's the same in high tech, it really is.
Jason: Robert, next talk about a time you failed. What you learned from this and what we can learn from this.
Robert: Over the years has always been about people. I tend to be an empath. I tend to be very open. I can be very trusting. I trust people. I think that's a good way to live life. But for better or worse. There are always people in every corner in every industry and every market that are bad people. That may end up also being a little bit of this conversation later. When I first launched in high tech in 1983 and invented the first color scanners for PCs. I ended up having a partner and he was basically my fundraiser and I misjudged. First of all I didn't know any better. I'd never raised money before and I trusted him. I thought OK this guy knows what he's doing and he's going help raise money. He's got clients through the Midwest who can bring in investments. I ended up giving him an equal block an equal share of my company.
Robert: He and I each own something like 46 47 percent of the company. The other six to eight percent of the company we sold off to investors. You got to understand most of those investors were his investors. So he had enough voting block to control and manipulate my company. I ended up developing the color scanner and we raised about a million dollars back in 83 84. You can't begin to imagine how hard it was raising a million dollars. But we did and it was all right.
Jason: Tell us something about yourself that most people don't about you. Your close friends and family know this. But the people who deal with you day to day do not know this about you.
Jason: I don't wear underwear. No just kidding. Well like I said for better or for worse I tend to trust people. I tend to be very open and I think in the long run it does help. The bad side is that you leave yourself open very vulnerable at times and bad people can take advantage of it and that has happened. Both on a personal level as well as a business level. There are a lot of gold diggers out there. That's not a good thing either. But like I said for better or worse I think that's what made me who I am. Being an open sensitive person.
Jason: Robert, I understand you have a book to recommend to our listeners.
Robert: Yes I mentioned this earlier when we were having our offline conversation. My lifetime book is a book called Psychocybernetics and it's by a doctor Maxwell Moltz. I read that book when I was 12 years old and it's affected my life. He was a plastic surgeon. That's how he started and he realized he had patients that kept coming back to him saying oh I don't like this. I need to have my face worked on more. He realized that no matter what. No matter how much money these people spent they would never be happy with themselves. It wasn't good enough. So what he started to do was to prepare people for surgery. He would have people laid back in an armchair. Close their eyes visualize yourself relax take a deep breath and look at your face. You've just finished surgery. Your cheeks are perfect, your eyelids are clean and fine and have them visualize this. He found the success rate for plastic surgery was much higher when he did this. So he wondered can you use these techniques with other people. So then he started taking for example a high school basketball team and divided the team in half. Half the team would be sitting in the gym with coach and they would practice shooting hoops.
Jason: The other half would sit in a crowded room with a light staring down. Kick back in the armchair and he'd have them close their eyes. Take a deep breath relax, now you're standing at the line. You've got the basketball you bounce it a couple of times. You put the ball in your hand. You feel the ball leaving your fingertips. Look the ball is going through the hoop. It goes right into the hoop and it goes through. He had those boys practicing visually in their brains to envision success. To his surprise, the boys inside the darkened room actually did better than the boys that were out in the court. So he started to think what if he takes this to another level. He started training other people and to use creative visualization. The success rate was incredible. So that's how he ended coming up with this concept
Jason: Robert can you provide your social medial links so people can reach out to you?
Robert: Well most people find me under Robert in Seattle.
Jason: For our listeners we will have the links to his social media and his book recommendation on our show notes. You can find the show notes at www.cavnessHRblog.com. Robert we are coming to the end of our talk. Can you provide us any last minute wisdom or advice?
Robert: Well two pieces of advice. One is never give up. Number two, don't believe everything you read online.
Jason: Robert thank you for your time today. I really appreciate it..
Robert: Thanks Jason.
To our listeners thanks for your time as well and remember to be great every day.