Frederick “Suizo” Mendler is the COO and co-founder of TrueAbility™, a cloud-based technical assessment tool that allows system administrators to demonstrate their skills in a real environment. Spanning a 10-year career in the tech world, he honed his diverse problem solving skills, his ability to take ownership of a business, and building relationships while helping others along the way, and is ready to move to the next phase of his professional portfolio within his own startup, focusing on his passion for service and leadership.
He comes into the startup world with a diverse background which includes television production, aircraft maintenance, retail management and public relations. His education consists of a Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science from Texas State University and the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas in Austin. Forgoing Law School in 2003, he joined Rackspace Hosting as an Account Manager, and worked his way through the ranks to Vice President of Cloud Sales and Marketing before leaving in 2011 to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams.
A true leader, corporate executive and loyal teammate turned entrepreneur, Suizo took the time to talk to the Rackspace Startup Program about what it takes to form a business entity, protect intellectual property, work to obtain investors, and secure a seed round. He has seen from the inside what it takes to build a successful hosting company like Rackspace while pivoting to the cloud. What follows are Suizo’s thoughts on the nuts and bolts of building a startup.
What is the staffing strategy at TrueAbility?
We are a group of leaders who have known each other and worked together for a long time. When it came down to selecting titles (which we only did because of our incorporation documents requiring we do so) we needed very little discussion. We built a team composed of strengths that only slightly overlap and an individual’s value to the company is not only obvious, but implied by being on the team. For example, while Marcus Robertson and Luke Owen are both great leaders, Marcus is very passionate about technology and making things work on the back end, hence his CTO title. Luke, on the other hand, really enjoys product development, business operations (like all the legal and financial stuff) and overall company strategy. In our minds his taking the CEO spot was a no-brainer. Dusty Jones is a developer and code architect, so he fit naturally into his Chief Architect role, and didn’t want or need to be considered otherwise. I have a strong background in customer support, sales and marketing and the COO role seemed like a perfect fit. I think the simplicity of how we fell into our roles is a reflection of the natural cohesiveness we have as a team. Too often, I see a group of similar individuals get together to start something, then struggle over who does what.
What was your biggest lesson learned?
The obvious startup stuff we had to go through and learn for the first time: forming a business entity, protecting our intellectual property, working to obtain investors, and securing our seed round. It’s amazing how much of a business is not developing the product and how much is creating the vehicle through which the product will be sold and marketed. Since we haven’t been around long, we still are learning a lot every day. One thing we recognize is to do as much customer validation as you can. A lot of times you think of something one way, and it seems obvious, but you may be missing peripheral obstacles, company pressures or market trends that you don’t know about but your potential customer does. At conception, we spoke to 50 different potential end users across our target market to get their feedback. We still do customer validation almost daily. Sometimes you have to be creative to get folks to call you back or reply to an email, but I found that ultimately people are glad to help, just be respectful of their time and the fact they have a day job – no matter how cool your new product might be.
What business challenges has TrueAbility faced?
It’s pretty easy to start a business today. The amount of resources needed compared to 20 years ago is paltry. With co-working spaces and incubators plying tenants with low cost office space, hosting companies giving large credits to start-up companies, and cloud-based tools to help you do everything from build websites to marketing, it’s amazing how much the skids are greased in order for entrepreneurs to make a go at building something. Our first real business challenge thus far has been recruiting developers. There is such a demand for top Ruby devs that they can essentially do what they want, where they want, for any amount of money. We want to attract some good ones to be a part of our cause, and we want the first few to be a part of our team physically here in San Antonio. Of course we see the value of telecommuting and remote workers, but at this stage of our company it’s more valuable to us to be on the same page working together in the same office.
What business wins have you achieved?
We have been very fortunate. In July 2012, we won San Antonio Startup Weekend, which was the first time we shared our idea outside of our office. The reaction was great and we took first place. That really motivated us in several ways. First, it proved what we could do as a team in this “new” environment called a startup. We were together for 54 hours straight and achieved so much in that time; from getting our product stripped down to what was most essential, to firming up our business model. Second, winning the event put fuel in our tanks by validating that we were hitting on something that could be real. The judges were smart, talented and successful in their own right, so it meant a lot to get that nod. We then applied for TechStars Cloud, and were accepted into the 2013 Class. It’s an honor to be a company from San Antonio chosen to participate in the TechStars accelerator right here in our home town! In addition to TechStars, we were selected from 500 companies as one of the Top 8 Innovative Web technologies by the SXSW Accelerator. We competed before a large audience at SXSW Interactive and made it to the finals. It was exciting and we got a lot of exposure there.
What were the ‘What to Do’ and ‘What not to Do’ while building TrueAbility?
DO talk to EVERYONE about your Idea: At first we felt like we wanted to protect our idea, build it in a bubble then one day step out with a loud “TA DA!” However, we quickly realized that there was just so much that we didn’t know. In the world of ideas and startups, it’s about who can EXECUTE on something – and without it ideas are just ideas. So, once we were ok with realizing that most people a.) are trustworthy and want to help and b.) not likely to go and execute on our idea, it opened up a new world to us. We were able to speak with folks who could give us advice, and very early on helped to shape our efforts, which got us out the door much faster then what we were trying to do originally.
DON’T let every piece of advice turn into a pivot: Remember, it’s YOUR company. One mistake we caught ourselves on early was getting too excited about a person’s feedback when we were fortunate to get someone we respected to listen to us. We would leave the meeting and be all spun up and eager to get back and make changes immediately to our business plan and product. Sometimes the advice was worthy of our immediate reaction, but other times it’s just a matter of opinion and should be taken as such. The ultimate reaction should be to listen, digest, consider and then implement (or not.)
What was the Good, the Bad & the Ugly of establishing your startup?
We are still very much in the process of establishing our business. Outside of legal paperwork, I wouldn’t say we are “established” yet. We define established as proving value to our customer base, and becoming a tool that they couldn’t imagine doing business without. When we get there, we’ll let you know.
What kind of support would be most helpful in the early days of your startup?
We are part of the Rackspace Startup Program, and by far that has been one of the biggest pieces of support we could have as a startup.
What straight up business advice would give to a startup?
Whittling down your BIG idea into actionable, small pieces that you can get out is important. We once had a guy pitch us his idea for indexing the entire Internet. Where do you start? We have a saying “MVP is key!” MVP is Minimal Viable Product. Ideas are worthless, and execution is everything. Investors don’t fund ideas; they fund people who can execute. So narrow down what you can get out in a reasonable amount of time and get people using it. Also, whatever you think your idea is going to become often changes. These types of pivots happen often, and you have to have flexibility.
The Rackspace Startup Program thanks one of our favorite Rackers, Frederick ‘Suizo” Mendler, for taking the time out of his busy schedule to share his knowledge of business and words of advice for entrepreneurs considering a startup venture. For more insight on hosting your startup on the Rackspace Open Cloud platform backed by Fanatical Support™, contact the Space Cowboys today.
To get more insight from startups, check out previous posts in our Straight Up Startup series.