The Inspiring Backstory of Jim Fowler, CEO of Owler
“I pay myself a minimum wage salary in accordance with the laws of Washington State, where I live”
I had the distinct pleasure to interview Jim Fowler. Jim is the founder and CEO of Owler — the free competitive intelligence platform business professionals use to outsmart their competition, gain competitive insights and uncover the latest industry news and alerts. Prior to Owler, Fowler founded Jigsaw in 2003 and was CEO there until it was acquired by Salesforce in 2010.
Yitzi: Hi Jim. Thank you so much for being with us. What is your “backstory”?
Jim: I have a very different and varied background compared to most tech entrepreneurs. I graduated from the University of Colorado with an ROTC scholarship, then upon graduation I paid Uncle Sam back by serving as a U.S. Navy diving and salvage officer. From there I went on to become a ski farmer; I owned and operated Lookout Pass, a ski resort. After that, I left the mountains for Silicon Valley, where I joined the tech circus in the early 90s. And what do you do if you want to get in on the tech scene with a background in the Navy salvage diving and ski resort operation? You go into sales. So, that’s what I did. I quickly rose through the ranks, ultimately serving as VP of Sales at three companies before founding my own company, Jigsaw. In 2003, I founded Jigsaw and lead the company as CEO until its $175 million acquisition by Salesforce in 2010. Jigsaw is best known for pioneering crowdsourcing in the B2B information industry and for creating the business category of Data-as-a-Service (DaaS). Then in 2011, I went on to found Owler, the world’s largest community-based business insights platform. (Accompanying story, if you want it). I’ve been an entrepreneur from a young age. When I was a young kid, my mom enjoyed gardening and she grew pumpkins in our backyard. I gathered up her harvest and sold home-grown pumpkins on the corner of our street. At some point during my day of pumpkin salesmanship, a man approached me he asked whether I was making a profit. That day, I learned the definition of a profit.. The following Sunday, my Sunday school teacher posed a question to our class of 8 year olds. “Who can tell me what a prophet is?” My arm shot up without hesitation. I knew the answer to this question, and I was excited to share my wisdom. “It’s when you sell something for more than you bought it for,” I knowledgeably explained to my fellow second graders. She quickly corrected me, and the minister shared that amusing anecdote with the whole congregation.
Yitzi: Which person or which company do you most admire and why?
Jim: I really admire Amazon and Jeff Bezos. I think it’s obvious that Bezos’ prominence continues to grow; after all, he’s the richest guy in the world. Even though he’s known as a difficult guy to work for, he’s stuck to his guns from the beginning and he’s done what he thought was best in sticking to his vision and building the best business for the long haul. Amazon has continued to execute so unbelievably well, and I enjoy using them daily. You’ve gotta love companies with ideas that everyone originally thinks are so laughably far-fetched, and then actually executing on those ideas. I think Amazon has been smart about changing the rules: they’ve innovated the concept of drone delivery along with the robotics company they bought to automate warehouse processes. Now, with their recent Whole Foods acquisition, I’m excited to see how they take a beloved brand and inject their own logistical expertise.
Jim with some of his team
Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Jim: At Owler, I didn’t pay myself a salary for many years. These days, I pay myself a minimum wage salary in accordance with the laws of Washington State, where I live. I was fortunate to make life-changing money with the sale of Jigsaw to Salesforce; more money than I could ever need. This time around, I’ll be donating any money that I potentially make from Owler from a future liquidity event. I’m looking forward to making a lasting impact on the world through donations to causes I’m passionate about, like education and Doctors Without Borders.
Yitzi: What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
- Really understanding your cash. When I ran Lookout Pass, my partners and I were young, stupid, and overly optimistic. It was a constant struggle to make payroll and pay vendors. Overall, it was a really scary, stressful time. Ultimately, the business failed, I lost money, and left with credit card debt. The problem was that we learned the hard lesson of not planning for the worst case scenario. When you run a business, you can see your cash problems coming from a mile away. But seeing those signs makes no difference if you’re not paying attention to them. You need to face the brutal facts and you can’t base your financial decisions on the not-yet-materialized hopes for the future — that you’ll have good quarter or good ski season. At neither Jigsaw nor Owler have we ever been in a cash-distressed position — we operated frugally and we haven’t over-hired.
- Set the DNA for your company early on and be thoughtful about it. Once it’s set, it’s hard to change. At Jigsaw, I was a feature fanatic — I wanted product built with every feature and I didn’t consider speed and simplicity. For me, it was the more features, the better. Once I managed to wrap my mind about the real power and value in speed and simplicity, it was already too late — it’s harder to take ornaments off the Christmas Tree. It’s harder to undo features that have already been created, marketed, and used. The product and engineering teams had been trained on feature, feature, feature, and it was hard to change that mindset. So it’s vital that you know what you value from the get-go and that you think about it carefully, because it’s hard to change those things once they’ve been set. At Owler (QPSS), quality, personality, simplicity, and speed is built into every pixel of our product.
- Stay laser-focused. The number one reason startups fail — well, the technical reason, anyway — is that they run out of cash. But I think that happens because what they really lack is focus. During the first VP of sales position that I held, I worked for two co-presidents. Each held a PhD, and each came from consulting. Consultants often times have trouble keeping their hands off of a problem. A lack of focus on solving one problem lead to the company’s eventual failure. As a CEO, you just have to stay laser focused on what want to do, and don’t let things distract you. As I like to say, don’t take another bite if your mouth is already full.
- I wish that I had this advice: you will live and die by own decisions, no matter what. In the early days of Jigsaw, an investor wanted us to do something, and I was agonizing over it. I consulted another entrepreneur, who told me that if you do what they want and it doesn’t work, you’ll get shot anyway. As a CEO, you need to stick to your gut and follow your own instincts, even if it’s coming from the board.
- You figure out what’s truly motivating you. And, it’s never about the money. This time around, I’ll be giving my future earnings to charity. Entrepreneurs do what they do because we enjoy, relish, and even love the creative process. Once you’ve had a positive liquidity event, you realize that you aren’t really doing it for the money at all. If I were to meet my younger self, I would tell him to stress less and enjoy the ride. The best thing about life as an entrepreneur is that, for the most part, you are in control of your own destiny. Whether things go wrong or right, at the end of the day, you’re the only one who’s in charge. So make sure that you enjoy the creative process as you go through it, and know that the people you work with and the relationships you form are critical. When Owler celebrated reaching 1 million active users, our party was filled with former Jigsaw employees. People still tell me that Jigsaw was the most fun company, with the best culture. For me, that’s the most gratifying piece of the whole experience.
Yitzi: Jim, thank you so much for your valuable insights!