Partners don’t leave.
In the realm of legal practice, making partner at a large firm is like reaching the Promised Land. Lawyers drudge through long hours for years in hopes of reaching that point, where they can pull back a bit, and let associates take on the bulk of the work.
And, once they’ve made it there, most of them stay put.
At least that is what Steve Brooks, former partner at Friday Eldredge & Clark LLP, always heard. But that didn’t stop him from leaving Arkansas’ largest law practice last year in favor of a foray into entrepreneurship.
At some point, “It lost its spark,” Brooks, 41, said of his work at the law firm. He liked the people with whom he worked and appreciated the fact that the position afforded him the epitome of job security, but he wanted more.
“Sometimes you have to give up the ultimate in comfort and stability to do what you’re supposed to do,” Brooks said. “I had an awakening of who I wanted to be. It wasn’t about the money or the job. It was about doing something meaningful.”
In co-founding business investment firm NewRoad Ventures LLC of Bentonville, Brooks teamed up with longtime business-development magnate Clete Brewer, known for exponentially growing companies like StaffMark and Sports Clips Inc., retired Wal-Mart Stores Inc. executive Doug Degn, and Walmart and Rockfish Interactive Inc. veteran Jeremy Wilson, 42, who also deviated from a successful career path to go out on his own.
In fact, instances of professionals leaving steady jobs to delve into entrepreneurial endeavors are fairly common. There are many examples in Northwest Arkansas.
John James is well-known for giving up his residency in a family medical practice to found Fayetteville-based e-commerce company Acumen Brands Inc. in 2009. Former Procter & Gamble senior executives Rick West and Henry Ho left the corporate world in 2010 to start Field Agent LLC.
Stan Zylowski, former vice president of Spectrum Brands, founded Movista LLC in 2010, and Joe Saumweber and Michael Paladino left jobs at Rockfish to found RevUnit LLC in 2012.
These company founders don’t fit the mold of the image some have of the modern-day entrepreneur, but that is because the stereotype is inaccurate, said Jeff Amerine, startup guru and director of technology ventures at the University of Arkansas.
The word entrepreneur might evoke images of a natural-born salesman in his 20s or late teens — a genius computer coder, possibly an Ivy League dropout — holed up in a basement or garage, with nothing to lose and a billion-dollar goal.
“It’s what gets the most press — the wunderkinds,” Amerine said, “but they are outliers, statistically.”
Company founders tend to be middle-aged, well-educated, and most of them have worked for another employer for several years before starting their own business.
The average age is 40, according to a study called “The Anatomy of an Entrepreneur,” published by The Kauffman Foundation in July 2009.
The study looked at 549 company founders in a variety of industries including aerospace, electronics, health care and services.
It showed 75.4 percent of entrepreneurs worked at other companies for six years or more before launching their own, and close to half waited to gain more than 10 years’ experience.
No Substitute for Experience
Fayetteville-based Grandslam Performance Associates LLC founder and CEO Adam Arroyos, 39, said he learned invaluable lessons working for Fortune 500 companies like Walmart and J.C. Penney Co. before going out on his own in 2012.
Business leaders say, in addition to industry knowledge and insight into how businesses are run, it’s good to have some life experience under your belt before taking on ownership of a company.
“There is a certain wisdom that can only come from making mistakes and also from making good choices,” said Wilson, president and CEO of NewRoad Ventures.
Amerine, 51, put it this way: “You don’t know what you don’t know when you’re young.”
And a good dose of real-life know-how, coupled with a solid foundation of corporate training, is very helpful in starting a business, he said.
However, it’s also essential “to have that agitation, to be uncomfortable, and to have a desire to challenge the status quo,” he added.
To Amerine, who comes from a military family all the way back to the Revolutionary War, entrepreneurship engages a “maverick, go-take-on-the-world” impulse that could not be satisfied with his career as an ICBM missile launch officer in the U.S. Air Force.
He launched his first startup at age 32 and has opened eight more through the years.
Regardless of how late in life people like Amerine discover their passion for entrepreneurship, the propensity was likely always there.
Part of it is having an “‘I’ve got it’ attitude,” Brooks said, “the willingness to do whatever it takes to make it work, even when it’s not glamorous or pretty.”
Even when employed by others, “entrepreneurs often push the envelope,” he added. “When I was at Friday [law firm], I was consumed with building a better firm and was always moving forward. Now, I wake up every day and come to a place with like-minded people.”
Brooks is the chief financial officer and general counsel for the venture capitalist company.
Arroyos also fits the bill of a risk-taker who believes he can reach any goal if he is passionate about it. “I never want to do the easy thing,” he said. “Ask my friends. If it’s not a big, hairy problem, I don’t want to tackle it.”
But, growing up, the scope through which he saw his potential was narrow.
Raised in a humble family in west Texas, he looked up to his uncles, who owned tortilla production and brick laying companies.
At the time, that was the highest level of success he could envision, on-par with getting a job in farming or at a gas station, making just enough to support his family.
It wasn’t until he was able to pursue higher education that he could broaden his view for the future, drawing upon encouragement from his father, who always told him he was a born leader.
Purpose Over Profit
Although he, too, did not act on it until later in life, Chris Gilreath, 38, was fulfilling a lifelong dream to be self-employed when in January he quit his career in the food service industry to focus full-time on his company, Recycled Hydro Solutions in Rogers.
He feels a deep conviction about its mission to conserve water in restaurants through inventions like his Rinsewell dipper well.
“I’m Christian, and I believe we need to be good stewards of our resources,” he said.
As someone who was a single dad for seven years, Gilreath said he had to adjust to the realization that the family could survive on his wife’s paycheck, and he could be freed up to pursue his initiative.
And, for those business founders who feel they are answering a calling, it’s worth the innate financial risk.
For Arroyos, it’s about seeing the potential in others and helping them engage their talents, while also helping clients like Walmart, Tyson Foods Inc. and Zappos.com Inc. gain access to well-suited employees.
Arroyos not only gave up his job as president of the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting to start GPA, he also invested only his own money in the company.
He and the other entrepreneurs say they would not have been able to take the leap of faith without family support.
“You can be the most successful executive in the world, but no advice or encouragement is ever as powerful as the support from those you care about most,” Arroyos said.
And his teenage daughters are looking to follow in his enterprising footsteps.
At this point, Arroyos is looking to give back. “We have to contribute to an ecosystem that creates and cultivates startups and drives the economy,” he said.
The team at NewRoad Ventures aims to make a difference by creating jobs, developing the economy and growing talent.
And there’s no shortage of ideas. Brooks said NewRoad Ventures has looked at more than 50 deals so far this year, and the only area in which Northwest Arkansas falls short is in the amount of capital being invested in local companies.
“I think people underestimate what a player Northwest Arkansas is. We have a retail scene here that is regarded as very valuable by the outside world,” he added. “Northwest Arkansas shouldn’t sell itself short.”