Posted April 4, 2013. Interview by Howie Rhee
Tell us about yourselves
John: I started my first business to check on the real world applicability of what I was learning in an undergraduate small business course. Much of what we were taught was valid, but I found that the real world diverges from academia in many ways. The business, a small on-demand retail business, ended up being a moderate success at best, but was profitable after only a couple of months due to careful planning and tight control of overhead.
Robert: I’m a Christian, husband, father, avid Duke fan, and a lifelong entrepreneur. I started my first business in kindergarten selling paper airplanes. Several years later in junior high, a partner and I started a multi-school candy and baseball card distribution company. We raised capital and had multiple employees. After being shut down for “contributing to littering” I devoted the rest of my school years to more traditional ventures with some occasional side ventures that are better described in person. As an adult, I’ve had two primary careers. The first was as a do-what-needs-to-be-done scientist/engineer/business developer/accountant/leader in a startup advanced technology defense contracting company. In my second (and current) career, I’m a management consultant focusing on helping new companies become established and established companies do something new.
All three of us decided to, instead of going for jobs at established companies, take a chance on a startup after leaving school. Robert Ross formed Brightleaf Consulting Group shortly before graduation from Fuqua's Weekend Executive MBA (WEMBA) program in 2009 in order to help small and medium sized businesses with strategy and business planning. Nicolai joined shortly afterwards and John came on board in 2010. We certainly could have earned more money early on with larger companies, but we felt a sense of adventure at taking a chance on building something while helping other businesses grow and succeed. As challenging as it is, it's been rewarding as well, especially when our clients have that 'Eureka!' moment and understand something we've found.
Tell us about your time at Duke, what were you involved in?
As we were all part of the Weekend Executive program at the Fuqua School of Business, there was less opportunity to become involved in clubs and social events. We were involved in various programs, though, some of which we were instrumental in forming.
Robert Ross served on the board of an investment fund formed by the WEMBA class of 2009 and opened to later classes. The fund, comprised of and managed by students, allowed the members to invest in business ideas presented by the classmates and their connections. John Thrush was also an investor.
Robert also helped organized grad student camp out for our WEMBA class and twice served as the commissioner for our ticket draft.
John Thrush was elected by his fellow students to the Technical Advisory Committee. He worked with other members of this group to evaluate the online learning platform and other tools provided by Fuqua to its students. He also acted as a representative for his class and provided their feedback to staff on what was working and what needed improvement.
Both Nicolai and John received certificates for the Health Sector Management (HSM) Program in 2010. Nicolai took it concurrent with his studies and John starting during his second year and finishing the year after he earned his MBA.
Robert and John traveled to China as part of Fuqua's GATE program.
Robert and Nicolai both graduated as Fuqua Scholars.
Robert also attended Duke for undergraduate school and was active in the Wesley Fellowship. Additionally, he participated in campus life enjoying hanging out with friends, camping out, and bonfires.
What's your major/program and when will you be graduating? Tell us something about your educational experience at Duke.
All three of us graduated from Fuqua's Executive program before concentrations were established; however, all three of us took multiple strategy classes.
John: I've spoken on several alumni panels to prospective students and let them know that my experience was absolutely transformative - it rewired my brain and changed the way I think. I now understand concepts that used to make very little sense. I also ask far better questions and can see more layers to issues than I had, something I attribute to the lively discussions in class. I also communicate more effectively than I used to primarily due to the emphasis placed on team learning and projects. As much as the subject matter continues to fascinate me, it was the approach to doing things that has had the largest impact on my life. I'm far more effective at accomplishing goals as well as more interested in how and why things work the way they do as a result of having experienced Fuqua.
Robert: I graduated with a BSE in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Mathematics (‘99) and a MBA (‘09). My two experiences were very different, but both helped form the person that I am today. As an undergraduate my focus was on learning engineering, mathematical and economic principles and fundamentals that I could apply in the real world. I had the good fortune of working with Dr. John H. L. Hansen’s Robust Speech Processing Lab, and through this experience developed a niche and marketable skill set and knowledge base. When I returned to Duke for my MBA, I entered as a professional with a very diverse set of business experiences, but without any formal business training. I’ve described Fuqua as providing the skeleton to the body that I already had. Similar to John, concepts clicked very fast as I applied my life and business experiences to the theories and frameworks taught in the classroom.
Tell us about your idea.
Our idea for Wastewater and Sewer Solutions is about improving the operations of a critical yet underappreciated piece of infrastructure found in nearly every community. We want to ensure that the damage and expense from sewer overflows becomes eradicated as a problem by simply replacing the cleaning chemical used in a procedure that's already regularly performed. Using our cleaner will make this procedure more effective, safer, and will deliver a lower total cost of treatment. Municipalities will benefit because it will decrease the time sewer techs spend responding to problems so that they can start preventing problems from occurring in the first place. The reduction in overflows will financially benefit municipalities by reducing costs to repair the damage from sewage contamination, driving down any fines paid to state and federal agencies, and requiring less overtime and third party cleaning fees for emergency clean up. Since traditional cleaning methods tend to be corrosive and damaging to the environment; municipalities will also benefit by extending the lifespan of sewer lines, greatly reducing the risk of environmental damage, having fewer sick or injured workers due to a safer product, lowering the cleaning and treatment needed in the wastewater plant, and having a better ability to manage their limited budgets with fewer unexpected expenses due to overflows.
FOG-Off has been tested in real world environments and works better than the traditional cleaning chemicals and the environmentally safe alternatives. Our solution breaks down fat, oil, and grease by spreading it apart and cutting the bonds that hold it together, then eating it as it drifts down the line. The product is covered by both a patent and trade secret. The salespeople are experienced at selling to government and municipalities. And we've outsourced the production of the cleaning chemical to a company that can do it cheaper than we can and make as much as we'll ever be able to order, meaning far lower capital expenses, less risk, and no inventory. Yes, we're honestly excited about cleaning sewers!
How did you come up with your idea? When did you come up with it?
We came across a client in August 2012 looking for help with their company. They've been selling an incredibly effective and environmentally friendly industrial cleaner for several years, but haven't gotten the success they desired. We figured out a way to help them by designing a sales organization that will provide focus in a new market on a larger scale. For the parent company, this means increased sales without requiring the current ownership to pay for a new sales team. This decreases their risk while increasing their sales.
How did you meet your team members?
All three of us met at the Fuqua School of Business. John and Robert met as part of the Fuqua WEMBA Class of 2009. John met Nicolai through the HSM program. Robert and Nicolai met through a mutual friend and early investor in Brightleaf Consulting Group.
How has the Duke Start-Up Challenge been helpful to you?
The Duke Start-up Challenge helped focus our ideas, more clearly express our concepts, and explore how to explain a complicated problem to an uninformed public. We were forced to think about things from a different perspective in order to allow our idea and presentation to be absorbed by a larger audience.
The video was probably the most intimidating requirement and, in many ways, the most rewarding. Now we can get the basic idea of what we're doing across in under 3 minutes. Sure, it took dozens of hours on our part to put that 3 minutes together, but a lot more people understand why this is a problem and how we're trying to solve it.
The Duke Start-Up Challenge provides a lot of feedback from over 100 judges. Can you talk about that experience of reviewing the feedback?
There were so many great comments from experienced professionals. We took the feedback extremely seriously, read through their comments, and made a lengthy to do list to make sure their questions and concerns were addressed in the business plan. This helped us expand where we were lacking, cut back where we'd overdone things, and in general made a good business plan a better one. Having such a wide variety of judges helped, too: we were forced to look at some facets from a different angle in order to both understand their perspective and address their concerns.
Did you connect with any judges for advice, and if so, who were they and was it helpful?
After the initial pass, we reached out to several judges to thank them for their time and valuable suggestions. While some of the feedback directed us to research aspects of our plan more thoroughly, we didn't ask any judge's to contribute further, but plan to do so in the future.
What advice do you have for Duke alumni / faculty / staff entrepreneurs that are thinking of starting a company?
#1: Make sure that you have the support of your family. Starting a company is awesome and difficult for you, but it is often just difficult for your family. Make sure that are behind you in your venture so that they will still be there independent of the outcome.
#2: Plan it out and think about the numbers. We've spoken to dozens of people who have ideas for businesses who start spending money and putting the pieces together before they've thought about the strategy and what's required to turn it into a business.
How many customers do you need to have the necessary revenue to support the business? How many customers can you support before you need to expand? How much does it cost to sell your product? How much will it cost to grow? How will you react when things change? These are questions that almost every single business needs to be able to answer.
#3: It also makes sense to talk to someone who's started their own business. A lot of people seem to think that being your own boss will be like a dream come true... the truth is that it's one of the hardest jobs you'll ever have in your life and, while rewarding, it may not be all that fun.
That said, we think everyone should form their own business, even if it's incredibly small. It's an incredible learning experience and you gain an appreciation for how things work. It also makes you realize what an achievement it is when a company makes everything work out right.
Want more? Watch the videos and read the other interviews for all of the Round 3 teams in the Duke Start-Up Challenge
And join us for the Grand Finale with David Cummings ’02 for the 14th Annual Duke Start-Up Challenge on Thursday, April 11th, 2013 at 7:30pm ET at Fuqua’s Geneen Auditorium. RSVP on Facebook
Not able to attend in person? Watch the livestream on Duke’s YouTube channel.