GA Startup Profile: MFG.com

persistence_smaller.gifWelcome to the first installment of “Georgia Startup Profiles“, a new series here at The Pothole that will focus on providing snapshot profiles of technology startups and emerging companies in Georgia. First up? A bootstrapping success story like none other … MFG.com!

Part One: The Profile

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Company Name: MFG.com
Founded: 2000
Founder: Mitch Free, CEO

About the company: MFG.com is the largest online community for the manufacturing industry.

About the CEO: Mitch Free fervently believed in an idea that struck others as crazy, impossible or worse. Why would someone create an online marketplace at a time when all others were crashing and burning and why do it in an industry as slow to adopt and as fractured as manufacturing? The answer – passion.

Mitch Free has over 20 years of experience and has spent much of the time solving problems and not listening to conventional thinking. Mitch founded and now serves as the President and CEO of MFG.com. Since founding the company, Mitch has followed his original business plan and has created a company that is continuing to change the way that manufacturers do business. Through his vision, creativity and persistence, Mitch has grown MFG.com to a company that services thousands of buyers and suppliers. Under his leadership, the company has experienced a tremendous amount of growth in a market segment he is continuing to help define.

Prior to founding MFG.com, Mitch was founder and CEO of 3DATUM, a provider of technology solutions for the manufacturing and engineering communities. In addition to these roles, Mitch has held a variety of senior management positions with Northwest Airlines where he managed aircraft engineering, technical procurement and aircraft acquisition projects.

Mitch, an Atlanta-native, began his career on the shop floor and has worked his way to the top of the manufacturing industry. He holds two patents and is recognized among his peers for his strategic vision, domain expertise and creative management style. Inc. Magazine named him an “Entrepreneur of the Year” finalist in 2005, and under his leadership MFG.com was ranked by Deloitte and Touche as one of the top technology growth companies in the U.S., and in the top 10 technology growth companies in Georgia.

Mitch is an avid speaker at technology forums and conferences, including recent presentations to the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. Mitch belongs to the Atlanta Technology Angels, a private group that actively seeks investments in early stage technology companies based in Atlanta.

Funding: Boot strapped until September 2005….it was tough, but it was the best thing for the business. Boot strapping forced us to focus on delivering value and loving our customers. Series A investment by Bezos Expeditions, a private investment company founded by Jeff Bezos in September 2005.

Why Georgia?: I am from Georgia originally and I had just returned to Atlanta from spending several years in Montreal when the idea for MFG.com came to me. I didn’t really put a lot of thought into whether or not Atlanta was the best place to start such a business, it just happened.

Part Two: The Interview!

And now, some questions for Mitch, inspired by Bernard Pivot and James Lipton:

SB: What is your favorite business or technology-related buzzword?

Community.


SB: What is your least favorite business or technology-related buzzword?

Web 2.0.


SB: What is it about your business, industry, or job that turns you on these days?

What excites me is hearing the stories from our users around the globe about how we enabled them to bring new products to market, improve their bottom line and gain new customers they could never have connected with previously. For others, we have helped them keep their business open and put food on the table. That makes me feel like we are doing something worthy every day.


SB: What is it about your business, industry, or job that turns you off?

The U.S. manufacturing industry has a fear of globalization and instead of embracing it and learning to play in a global economy they waste a ton of energy trying to promote protectionist policies.


SB: What business or professional “phrase” do you love?

We are in an “experience economy.”


SB: What business or professional “phrase” do you hate?

Any phrase that involves the use of the word “functionality.”


SB: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

I can’t imagine doing anything else right now.


SB: What profession would you not like to do?

Lifeguard. I’m a terrible swimmer.


SB: If you could say one thing to Georgia entrepreneurs, what would it be?

Chase your passion and not the money. If you are passionate about something, you will do it well and the money will find you.


SB: If an IPO exists for your startup, what would you like to hear the bell ringer say when you arrive at the stock exchange?

MFG.com revolutionized an industry and has helped make the world a better place.


Mitch – thanks for playing along :) Good stuff.

2cents.gifPart Three: My Two Cents

I have followed MFG’s progress for the past few years, and I can tell you that this outfit ranks in my top 5 post-bubble Atlanta startups.

First, I like the fact that Mitch started what equated to a B2B marketplace play during the height of the bubble bursting. Exchange and marketplace plays were no longer en vogue then (I know, at the time, I was working for one that was slip-slidin’ away). Yet, he stuck to his guns. Why? He believed in what he was doing, and saw value to the customer. Ya gotta love that. Passion. Persistence. Chutzpah. When you spend some time with Mitch, and listen to him for a while, you’ll see this passion shine through early and often.

I’ve never met a successful entrepreneur that wasn’t passionate about what he or she was doing. There is a lesson there.

Next, you have to love the bootstrapping success story – founded in 2000, and bootstrapped for five years. Mitch and his wife sat at our table at the TechBridge Digital Ball this past year (a fantastic black tie charity event, by the way). Listening to he and his wife sharing some of their “bootstrapping war stories” was inspiration in and of itself. If I could have recorded that conversation, it would have made for great required listening in any course on entrepreneurship.

Mitch told me that MFG was a free service in the beginning, and that later, he made the crucial switch to a pay model. I asked him what the attrition rate was when he “made the plunge.” He told me that only something like 2% of his original users made the initial plunge to the pay version of MFG.com. That’s a 98% attrition rate! Making the switch from free-to-pay is a tough decision for any entrepreneur. Folks, that’s called “betting the farm.” Nevertheless, he knew it was the right thing to do in order to grow the business, and he stuck to his guns. Again, chutzpah. And of course, over time, many of those 98% drifted back in and converted.

So how well is MFG doing now? To date, their online marketplace has sourced over $4B in manufacturing/machining orders. They have nearly 100K members, and are averaging well over 5 quotes per RFQ. Nice.

I’ve gotten to know Mitch over the past year and I can tell you that he is perhaps one of the most approachable, down-to-earth success stories you’ll ever meet. He is always willing to share his knowledge to help other entrepreneurs in their quests for excellence, and that is something that we can always use more of.

What more evidence? Just ask his employees what they think. After Jeff Bezos invested a sizable chunk ‘o change into MFG, and made Mitch a small fortune in the process, Mitch immediately turned around and began writing checks to his employees (the folks who had given their all for MFG.) What’s not to like? Leadership. Inspiration.

Finally, I like the fact that Mitch has joined the ATA (Atlanta Technology Angels.) It is always good to see local success stories getting back into the fold from an investment standpoint. This is the type of thing we need more of in order to avoid the linear entrepreneurship sandtrap.

Good job, Mitch, and may you have continued success with MFG!

Note: If your Georgia-based firm qualifies as a “startup” or “emerging” technology company, and you think your story would be of interest (and more importantly, value) to other Georgia entrepreneurs, I want to hear from you.

Cheers.

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