Atlanta’s Wood-Chopping Entrepreneurs

axe.gifMost businesses fail. Most businesses with solid revenues don’t. Most businesses with traction at least have a fighting chance. You can’t gather around the fireplace and kick your feet up unless you have firewood out back – and you can only get that firewood by chopping.

One of the big catch-phrases of 2006 was “chopping wood,” I phrase I picked up from Rutger’s football coach, Greg Schiano.

Every problem at Rutgers can apparently be solved with a furious cutting motion. Worried about a letdown in next week’s game at Cincinnati? Upset over a low ranking in the Bowl Championship Series standings? Bogged down with homework?

“Keep chopping,” advised Greg Schiano, the Rutgers coach.

Schiano gathered his players in a meeting room and recalled the words of a sports psychologist he once met at the University of Miami who told the team that playing football was like chopping wood.

“We’re in the middle of a forest,” he remembered telling the team. “It’s dark. You have to chop wood. You have to start chopping.”

“It was so simple,” said Ramel Meekins, a defensive lineman. “It made so much sense. Coach ingrained it in our minds. He kept saying it over and over. It’s all we know. It’s all we do. Chopping is a way of life.”

The ax is a logical extension of the chop. The day before each game, players wear shirts emblazoned with axes. Top contributors are awarded an ax affixed to a block of wood. A sign on the front of the practice field includes two painted axes.

If Rutgers did not have a 9-0 record and an outside shot at playing for the national championship, anyone carrying a makeshift ax on campus would probably be apprehended. But because of the circumstances, the ax is a symbol of dedication and perseverance.

“We live by it,” Leonard said. “It might be funny to some people, but it works for anything in your life. Get fired from a job? Keep chopping. Get another offer.”


Invariably, as I deal with a lot of early stage entrepreneurs, I have gotten good mileage out of encouraging them to “keep chopping”, and don’t sweat the small stuff. There are always those companies that despite the odds, continue to chop wood every day and get things done. Here are my current picks.

Established:

If you are an early-stage company that is reaching for the stars, here are a few established companies that are now able to see the forest and the trees quite clearly. And they got there because everyone on the team became a lumberjack.

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MFG.com – The largest online marketplace in the manufacturing space. Until recently, these guys were Atlanta’s biggest sleeper story. Now with Jeff Bezos’ personal investment group behind them, the sky is the limit. They’re profitable, growing, and they have a mandate from Bezos to conquer the world. If you want some deep insights into MFG, check out the podcast we did recently with MFG founder and CEO, Mitch Free. I had dinner and a few beers with Mitch last night, and one of my takeaways (among many) was just how passionate he is about innovation and execution.
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EZ Prints – These guys are easily my “turnaround pick” right now. Formed during the dot com buildup, these guys ran into serious troubles during the bursting of the bubble. The investors were ready to pull the plug and write them off as a loss, but Jamie Bardin (now the CEO, at the time the head of Marketing) put together a plan to salvage the company. The investors bought off on it, and the wood chopping began. The rest is history. Now with strong revenue growth, and a nice outside round led by General Catalyst out of Boston, these guys have cleared a pretty sizable chunk of forest.

Rising Star/Sleeper Pick:

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VendorMate – These guys didn’t need a venture capital infusion, thanks to the earlier successes of founder/CEO Andy Monin (Broadsource), but these guys have built a chopping wood culture like nothing you’ve ever seen. Andy has a sign over his desk that says “ABC = Always Be CEO’ing”. Of course, it may as well say “ABC = Always Be Chopping.” Whenever I walk out of their offices, I leave with a renewed sense of urgency in my own dealings. I like that. They are in the ATDC right now, but my gut tells me that won’t last for long. Their financials are looking solid, and Andy has what it takes to get them to that next critical level. Whether or not they take on a round of outside capital down the road is to be seen, but I can tell you that Vendormate will be driving the terms of that deal should it happen.

Embryonic/Newborn:

It is hard to pick companies at this stage, because they haven’t been in the forest long enough for you to determine whether or not they are going to chop at all. However, I’m going with my gut feeling here.

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Intellection Group – I’m not very high on the name of the company, but they have some cool technology nonetheless. They turn natural language into database queries. “Computer, how many blue widgets did we sell in the northern provinces of China five years ago?” Yeah, cool stuff. These guys are a TAG Top 40 innovative company, and deservedly so – founder Dave Bernard is a first class geek who may very well be on to something with this one. They have a lot of wood to chop yet, but everytime I’ve seen Dave in the past few months, he’s been sharpening his axe.

I have a LOT of early-stage Georgia companies on my radar right now, and over the next few months or so, it will be interesting to see how many of them make the lumberjack roster, and how many of them end up running in circles like these guys instead:

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Cheers.

2 Comments

  1. Emmett Childress · March 7, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    Good stuff!!! Reminds me of the time when my father-in-law told me “Everything works around here.” He said so with conviction in response to my asking about an old tiller he had in his shed. Charles gets up early and is finished by the time most of us are eating lunch. The commitment to working with purpose is what separates the survivors from the losers.

  2. Dave Bernard · March 17, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    Thanks for the plug, Scott. I like the lumberjack metaphor; it’s apt. Sorry to hear you don’t like our name ;)

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