By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner
“My teams have been able to come up with some incredible new technology because we see how technologies are converging before others do. However, ideas cannot grow unless there is 1) capital and 2) a team that knows how to execute them.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kurt Uhlir, repeat founder, CEO, and inventor of disruptive technology in five industries with 16 granted patents. His life experiences span rescue squad triage, stunt work, angel investing, and high-growth leadership. His genuine desire to help others and focus on continued learning would be impressive at any stage in someone’s career, but is refreshing to see in the c-suite. While Kurt has advised on M&A deals, early-stage growth, and IPOs for various technology companies during his career, he’s a born operator that thrives in disruptive environments.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?
I grew up in northern Alabama splitting most of my time between coding and running. I studied biomedical and electrical engineering at Vanderbilt before moving on to a Masters in financial engineering at the University of Alabama, so I have a technical background, but right after college went into the world of business. A retained search firm reached out and convinced me to take an interview with former an R&D house of Philips Electronics, called Navigation Technologies (then NAVTEQ, now HERE) that had just brought in a new CEO and was pushing to make the company profitable.
That single phone call accelerated my career path. Our core product was a spatial database of every road in the world and tons of real-time information. If you think about all the industries and technologies that use spatial data, I was witnessing firsthand the adoption of mobile devices, changes in the automobile ecosystem, expansion of logistics, and disruption in another ten industries. NAVTEQ gave me the freedom to combine my operations experience with my creative side. In addition to being able to work around the world with cutting-edge companies through Europe, China, South Korea, and more, I was able to lead the core of our skunkworks projects and developed some interesting technology in video games, wearables, location-based gaming, data collection and more. I stayed for 10+ years, through their successful $880M IPO in 2004 and later $8.1B sale to Nokia in 2008. Plus, thanks to a handwritten note in my employment agreement, I was blessed with the ability to continue working with my holding company, become an accredited investor in a number of startups, and had founded several outside ventures.
In 2010, I moved to Atlanta to join the small team at Vitrue (later acquired by Oracle for $300+M). Then, Jeremy Haile and I founded Sideqik — one of the first influencer marketing platforms. We bootstrapped the company for almost two years and assembled the initial team. I oversaw the first three years of operations and helped raise the first capital round. I’m currently a Venture Partner, advise several high-growth startups, and serve as the Chairman for The Made in America Movement, which represents 20,000 American made companies.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Sure. It was about ten years ago, and a time when I worked hard to keep my personal life, especially the adrenaline-fueled adventures, separate from my corporate life. I had been moonlighting by training with a group of stunt performers for about three years and had become a certified alligator handler. I’m being introduced to speak about building game environments with spatial data at a large video game conference, and I see a video of me pulling a 10” alligator out of a pond on the screen. I’m still not sure who was more surprised — the audience or me.
Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
One of the startups I work with is building technology around recruiting and helping companies find genuinely qualified candidates. I love where their hearts are. The founders at TopPick started it because when they were hiring managers at previous enterprises, they saw recruiters who were working hard to find great people for the company but continually told they were missing the mark. We’ve seen tremendous changes in technology for marketers, sales, and even product management teams, but very little has changed for most recruiters. Many recruiters are still using outdated Applicant Tracking Systems and sending manual emails or texts. These guys spoke to hundreds of HR execs and recruiters, and I think they’ve found a unique solution and may have even created a new category — Recruitment Acceleration Software (RAS).
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Thank you for asking this question. For years, I was like so many people that thought that they’d start “giving back” when became successful. I had a mentor in my life named Don that helped me adjust that thinking. We’re all stewards of the money, time, and skills we’ve been given. No matter where we are, we all have something to give back.
My wife and I spend a good bit of time with The Made in America Movement (MAM) and on the phone with their founder Margarita Mendoza. MAM represents 20,000 American sourced companies and is now the leading objective, independent, non-partisan, organization dedicated to promoting American businesses and the families that rely on them. We’ve been able to help what was already a large organization with a great heart and transform into a national organization and movement. It’s been great to use my experience building companies and teams around the world to impact so many households.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I became CEO,” and why?
1. Ideas and creativity are great, but execution is what makes your company succeed. I’m often asked to speak at conferences and advise companies on how to thrive when disruption happens. Don’t get me wrong — I love innovation. I’m the geek that stays up at night reading whitepaper after whitepaper on topics from autonomous vehicles, space exploration, machine learning, artificial intelligence in marketing software, and underwater drones. My teams have been able to come up with some incredible new technology because we see how technologies are converging before others do. However, ideas cannot grow unless there is 1) capital and 2) a team that knows how to execute them. I am truly thankful for those that have an idea “for the next big thing”. I’ve been blessed to be that person before, but now, I’ve built enough teams to see that it is the “operators” are the ones that keep the lights on and the company growing. I would have saved several years when I was earlier if someone had help shift my thinking to building out the solution and focusing on scaling before starting on the next idea.
2. Find authentic demand before you invest too much in a solution.
I’ve worked with Flashpoint at Georgia Tech for about five years now on a concept called startup engineering, a business creation and innovation process developed by Merrick Furst and iterated on by some of the brightest minds in business. There is a long list of things that people want but that they’ll never buy. What we’ve uncovered is that people will buy things that they need combined with things that help them be more of who they are. The standard customer discovery process gets you part of the way there, but we think there’s a way to dig even deeper to uncover hidden opportunities. We’ve seen that when you find authentic demand, potential customers will fly across the country or not let you leave the room until you promise to build what you’re talking about.
3. A deliberate innovation culture contributes to unexpected success. I’ve worked with both large public companies and early-stage startups. They both require one thing — growth from new ideas. Sometimes that happens organically or in true “aha! moments”. However, it takes real effort to build a culture that values and allows for consistent innovation.
There is this thought that it’s easier to be innovative at early-stage companies compared to mature companies. That’s partially true. Mature companies grow by executing known business models and iterating on existing products, while early-stage companies are running more experiments to see what works in the market. In the short-term, the early-stage company may find something “new”. However, when they’ve found some traction, most companies fall into the same blindness than typically comes when needing to focus the team on scaling the business.
Long-term consistent growth, real transformative growth year over year, happens when you create a deliberate innovation culture. Leaders have to find ways to make sure their teams are asking questions to connect reality with real needs. That type of company culture leads to unexpected successes that can be built on for the next stage.
4. Don’t follow your passion. Become passionate about what you’re good at. Since the early-90’s, there’s been an increasingly loud piece of advice from many — follow your passion and find a job that you’ll enjoy. Simply telling people to follow your passion has mislead many people because the more you learn and work the more you discover about yourself and what is possible. As I’ve grown in my career, I’ve been able to form deep relationships with hundreds of incredibly successful people — both those that had a single huge success and those high-bandwidth people that consistently have an impact. These are passionate people; people that love what they’re doing. The one piece of advice I’ve heard most frequently from them is that they credit much of their success and joy in life to the decision to work on what they’re good at, rather than what they’re passionate about. Some of these highly accomplished friends had a mission they wanted to see fulfilled, others wanted to make a large amount of money, and yet others simply realized they were blessed with a particular skill that others were not. They acknowledge that their passions have changed over years, and that they are thankful they looked for joy in things outside of their work. They cultivated the ability to get highly passionate about their choices and what they chose to work on.
Personally, I love the companies I’m able to work with, the co-workers I’ve become friends with, and impact we’re able have. As my interests have changed over the years, I’ve changed hobbies, and some of them have even helped my career, but I choose to work on what I’m good at. When I start to tackle a new problem or join a new team, that’s where my focus is, and it’s my love of people and decision to focus on my commitment that fuels my passion.
5. Character is everything. We all want to succeed, but I believe the journey and how you get to the destination is more important than the destination itself. Too many leaders hire for experience and results versus attitude and character. Both when companies are growing really fast and when teams are struggling, there are many decisions being made that you have to trust your team to make wise decisions that are in the company’s best interest, even when they’re not in that individual’s best interest.
It breaks my heart when I hear of companies having issues because of a culture of office gossip, a cofounder that used code belonging to another company, an office affair that broke up a marriage, or even a customer that left because a salesperson lied to get the deal done. Hey, I’ve made poor hiring decisions before and chosen the person that will “close the deal at all costs” before.
I’ve learned that hiring people with a pattern of good character and people that are actively growing wins every time. I’d rather work with people that are growing, that treat others as they’d really want to be treated themselves, and that focus on our joint mission. Character never takes a day off. The small, everyday moments are as important as the big ones. The concept behind the company can be incredible, and the product can be perfect, but that doesn’t matter if the people are not a good fit. I want to be able to look back at the actions my team and I took and know that we’d be proud of everyone knowing how we got there.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
There are a ton of people that would be fun to have a private breakfast with, but the people that get me the most excited are those high-performers that have had a huge change in their life, often after some poor choices, and are are open about their journey and using it help others. Really, it could be anyone from a technology executive to the founder of a 200 person manufacturing company in upstate New York that turned their life around and are having an impact on those in their communities today.
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If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” series in Huffpost, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.