With over 40,000 entrepreneurs on the site, we’ve had the chance to hear countless stories from people across the world about their ideas, their companies, and why they decided to become entrepreneurs in the first place. We’ve enjoyed listening to every one of them, too – from the truly inspirational, to the ones that leave us scratching our heads – they serve as a reminder that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition for an entrepreneur. Now, we’ve decided to share some of these stories with you.
This is the first in an ongoing series we’re calling “Entrepreneur Spotlight” where we get the chance to speak with entrepreneurs and listen to their stories. First up is John Reese, CEO of Open Book Ben. You can check out their EquityNet profile here.
Your background is in software and IT. How’d you get your start?
I got out of school in 1968 with a degree in math because there was no such thing as a degree in computer science or anything like that. My first job was working on the Apollo moonshot program as a programmer later that year.
It wasn’t the most exciting job, really. I had to analyze the telemetry data that came back from two heat sensors from the second stage of the Saturn V. It was an incredibly tiny role in the grand scheme of things, but nevertheless, it was an interesting first place to start.
After that, I worked in communication software for a few years, then I got a call to work for Citicorp in 1975. I was very lucky – I think I was 29 or something like that. I was in the right place at the right time and I ran what was called SSBF, or Self-Service Banking Facilities. At the time, there were only a dozen or so ATMs in New York City before we launched our program. In 1977, we launched and put 500 of them in the five boroughs.
It really changed consumer banking because it was the first time that many people were using a computer without realizing that they were doing so. It was before PCs and really the deployment of the commercial internet. It was huge in the sense of viral services because we transformed the “convenience of banking” – you could do it directly wherever you are.
What ignited the spark that started this new business venture? How did the idea for this business come about?
Like many other entrepreneurship stories, Open Book Ben’s story starts with one tenacious entrepreneur, Chris Robbins, who was frustrated when trying to get his job done. Different from other startups, however, he engaged with very senior executives with very deep experience, strong relationships, and a vision and craving to create something better. In our case, it is to create a better way for small businesses and credit issuers to connect to one another and to obtain and exchange data.
Four of the five founders of Open Book Ben come from the credit industry. Van Skilling is the former CEO of Experian. He’s the man who helped create Experian in 1996 in what was a $1.7 billion deal. Harry Gambill is the former CEO of TransUnion. His storied career at TransUnion started when the company was a small regional bureau. Under Harry’s watch TransUnion grew to a $1 billion company. George Stoeckert was President of Dun & Bradstreet, North America. Jim Carr is CEO of Blue Book Services, which has been credit scoring agribusiness firms since 1903.
Van Skilling first introduced me to Open Book Ben last December. Previously, I ran a business unit for him at TRW; and since then he has served on the Board of two of my startups. After several meetings with Chris Robbins I was hooked and joined as CEO on January 19th.
How did Chris get the idea or concept for the business?
It took an outsider to start the avalanche and bring the team together. That was Chris Robbins. Chris is a real estate developer. His niche is office properties. And it was his real life business experience in trying to credit score smaller tenants for smaller buildings that educated him on the idea. For years, Chris struggled with (and was disappointed by) the old credit bureaus’ systems. Those systems are functionally unchanged since the first one was created in 1841. And those systems failed him in his quest to obtain meaningful credit scores and data on small, privately held companies.
Chris knew there was a better way. His hypothesis was that an open and transparent process, crowd-sourced data, better analytics, and a freemium website would potentially bring in the crowd. By early 2014 work began on the development of the Open Book Ben platform. Building a new platform to serve as an alternative to the existing business credit bureaus hasn’t been easy. But we have built it now and initial feedback from small companies, banks, and other credit issuers has been very positive. We’re on a roll.
What was the mission at the outset?
At the outset the mission was tightly focused on the creditworthiness aspect of SMB’s (Small and Mid-Sized Businesses). This is of course where most of the team hails from. Our platform does solve the “long tail” problem of more accurately, transparently, and efficiently credit scoring millions of small companies. But we’ve more recently broadened the mission. This is not the only problem Open Book Ben solves. Small businesses and credit issuers are yearning for a community where they can share all types of data, not just data on credit. So we are rolling out a series of other data products.
The second major release contains what we have branded “Vendor Worth” scoring. Our view is that the small business and credit issuer communities want more than just a credit score. They want insight on as many aspects of a company as possible. Whether a company pays on time is important. But wouldn’t you like to know what a company’s customers think of a firm? The quality of their goods and services? Their ability to deliver on time?
Sites like Yelp!, TripAdvisor, and Angie’s List do a good job in various niches answering these questions. But nobody was doing it in the B2B community until now.
Why was the current location chosen?
Ideas usually take root and grow in the communities that spawn them. And the Mountain West is Chris Robin’s home. That’s not to say we are opposed to having offices elsewhere as we grow, but Colorado has been home and it has been good to the Company. It has a very mature technology sector. Our entire engineering team is in Denver.
Does your company help the community where it is located?
Yes, by employing members of the community and paying taxes. We hope to be able to expand on our community involvement as we mature.
Have you ever turned down a client?
The most important for an early stage CEO is knowing when to say no. That includes saying no to prospective clients, as well as to projects. Our plan calls for the creation of a social networking platform that can be used by small businesses nationwide. We are currently getting requests from credit issuers who like and want detailed reports from us right away. We have a number of small banks already on our system. We’d like to have many more, but not before we are ready to handle their requests – responsively and with the depth and professionalism that they expect and deserve. I think they all understand our dilemma. There are no hard feelings, and I think the small credit issuers are among the most excited groups watching our progress and our initial success.
If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
Find your passion and go deep with it. The path with not always be linear, and there will be plenty of hurdles to cross. Perseverance is important, most things worth doing take time and focus.
How did you make your first sale?
Open Book Ben was tested in two sectors last year. One was commercial real estate. The other was community banking. Both have a big appetite for business credit data. Out first customers were all commercial landlords and property managers. The first sale was a $200 order from a Denver property management company screening a tenant. We met them at an industry event in Denver.
What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve made?
Two come to mind, both of which have been rectified.
On the technology side, over a year ago, a key element of the system was built on a well-known and well-regarded database platform. Unfortunately, it turned out that it could not handle the size of BEN’s database and it failed. This was a significant setback.
Another, more minor mistake, has been the premature hiring of some individuals.
What would you have done differently?
My personal opinion is that it would have been beneficial to augment the founder’s significant business skills and domain knowledge sooner with someone with complementary experience in managing and bringing software-intensive transformational applications to the market.
What does your average workday consist of?
A start-up CEO wears a variety of hats, as you know. This is my third start-up, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. My average day starts early, ends late, and covers a lot of territory – sometimes it includes waking up in the middle of the night with some idea that needs to be captured.
Most of my work right now is product-centered. You have to get it right. I am a big believer in what I call ROIT. That’s return on investment of time. New users have limited time and patience. When they visit OpenBookBen.com for the first time, it has to be a productive and efficient experience.
Other than that, my day is focused on fundraising, marketing, human resources, and finance, probably in that order. We have a tremendous CFO coming in on July 1. It’s Dennis Russell who was CFO of Luis Vuitton. And Chairman Chris Robbins is a big help and works full time as well. We are looking for a chief marketing officer.
What kind of culture exists in your organization? How did you establish this tone and why did you institute this particular type of culture?
We have a very informal and fun-loving culture. When you do something this hard, with long hours by everyone, it’s critical to hire the right highly talented and motivated people. When you put a new group together, cultural fit of all new employees is a major consideration.
How do you go about marketing your business? What has been your most successful form of marketing?
The jury is still out on these questions. We are extremely proud of the arrows in our proverbial marketing quiver. But the time to start shooting is not upon us quite yet. We’ll let you know.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
That’s tough – I’ve personally been lucky enough to be involved in developing and deploying numerous transformational services during the last 45 years. I guess designing and putting 500 ATMs throughout NYC back in 1977 would be a highpoint – we forever changed retail banking and set the stage for today’s wide world of self-service systems.
As a child were you exposed to any entrepreneurial influences?
None that I can think of. My parents had very little formal education and were not very ambitious. I was the first in my family to go to college.
How many hours do you work a day on average?
I’d say 8-10 hours a day, plus that many hours over the weekend. My wife would laugh if she heard me say that!
How do you define success?
Being OK with what you accomplish, and more importantly, the values you stick to tenaciously as you go through life.
Editors Note: Are you interested in contributing to our Entrepreneur Spotlight Series? Shoot us an e-mail at email@example.com ATTN: Entrepreneur Spotlight.