Alumni Spotlight with Ken Sawyer, MEng, MED, PMP, CISSP (and there are more…)
You can tell by the list of certifications after Ken Sawyer’s name that he has a passion for knowledge. As a 2009 IEM graduate Ken still says it is the best thing in his professional life that’s ever happened to him. So what has Ken been up to since he graduated the program? We caught up with him following his delivery of a beta product to a pretty big client:
Q: What has changed for you following IEM?
Ken: When I came out of the program I was working for a company called Valmont Industries and I knew that was coming to an end. While my wife and I already had one business in place, Sawyer Systems, I had a friend come to me and ask me to write some inspection and compliance software. I talked with my son, who shares my entrepreneurial spirit and we formed Sawyer Solutions, LLC with our family and then Blue-Sky-Innovations, LLC with my friend’s company. The product is now in beta and it really wasn’t until last month we started to build some steam. The product is being field tested at the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) and will be in a couple of other locations by the end of December. It’s been a long, slow process, but any start-up is a slow process.
Q: What is your best advice for anyone wanting to launch a tech startup?
Ken: Build trust in your network. For example, the guy I’m working with now knew me. He had an idea, and brought it to me because he trusted me. We built the product around his need. My network is what I got out of IEM. I used to build towers of influence in my job, but I made a resolution when I was in IEM to build bridges.
Q: You work with your family, how does that work? [No pun intended.]
Ken: I’ve worked with my wife and sons for years – we enjoy working together. But it’s not for everyone. My wife and I decided a long time ago that we wanted to spend time with each other and time as a family. My sons grew up in this atmosphere of entrepreneurship and now one of my sons has married into another family of entrepreneurs. It doesn’t yield a big bank account, but we enjoy it.
Entrepreneurship is not for everyone though. And, what you learn in IEM is not for the timid. To be an entrepreneur you have to thrive on risk, but the reward is getting to work in your passion. However, passion is not enough. You have to have a mix of vision and being realistic – grounded. Finding the right mix for your venture is important. My wife and I did accounting for small business for years and saw this first hand. The businesses that had the right mix in their organizations were the ones that survived.
Q: What’s next?
Ken: We see a large potential for this product that is in beta right now, but there are others in the pipeline. We do websites and teambuilding -- basically help businesses grow. We see possibilities where others may see problems. I love it when a company comes to us with an idea or a problem and we look at how to make it work – make sense. Other than that, I don’t have to know what’s next. In 2011, I got really sick all of a sudden. My family came to my side, and I wasn’t really sure what was next. That experience helped me refocus on what is really important. I thank God everyday for the ability to put my feet on the floor. I view life as a celebration – I’m a lot happier that way.
Q: What is your best piece of advice to others starting up a business?
Ken: Be careful of focus. Most companies by the end of year three end up with a different product than what they started with. And, that is okay, as long as you are still doing what the customer wants.
Q: Any parting thoughts?
Ken: I recently flew from Omaha to Memphis and happened to be seated next to Senator John McCain. Regardless of your politics you can always tell when someone is a person of character. We talked about our sons being in the military [one of Ken’s sons is in the Navy]. He thanked me for my son’s service and I did the same. We talked about how important character is. You can teach skills, but you can’t teach character. I have a lot of degrees, but I’m most proud of being an Eagle Scout, because of the integrity it requires. I’m a firm believer that integrity in business is extremely important.