Mac Lackey is one of Startup Southerner’s newest contributors. Based in Charlotte, North Carolina, he’s founded and sold five startups, including his latest venture, KYCK, which was sold to NBC Sports. We’re excited to share his startup wisdom and been-there-done-that tips with our readers. But before we do, we sat down with Lackey to find out more about his entrepreneurial journey. Here’s what he had to say.
Q: These days there are plenty of college programs that teach entrepreneurship and then, of course, there’s the MBA. But you’re sort of proof that you don’t have to go that route to be successful. How did your major in psychology and experience as a soccer player influence you in your early days as an entrepreneur? And is it a good thing to have a background that’s not grounded in how businesses are supposed to work?
A: Some of the most valuable lessons I learned, the things that really shaped me, I learned on the soccer field. Soccer, or sports in general, are rooted in competition. They teach you to how to compete, how to have the drive to get better, the will to win, and to some degree the feeling of accomplishment. After you’ve worked really hard to master a new skill or work through a challenge you are having in your sport, then you get to go out and test it in a real game. If it works well you feel the rush of pride and accomplishment. If it didn’t work, you analyze your mistakes and go back to practice with the resolve to improve. That is startups. You have to have a will to win. It doesn’t matter if it’s raising money, building a new product, trying to land a key client or just surviving another 6 weeks on limited cash… the WILL TO WIN differentiates those who make it from those who don’t. The sports field is a great educator for entrepreneurs.
In terms of degrees, I don’t believe you need a degree in entrepreneurship or certainly an MBA. Actually I was meeting with a current MBA student recently who was asking how I valued an MBA and I warned him that I was opinionated and I may convince him to leave the program. Obviously there are certainly careers that require specific degrees and majors. You absolutely want your doctor or lawyer to have the appropriate classes, hours and degrees for example. However, for an entrepreneur, the value of school is much different in my opinion. Entrepreneurs learn best through experience. I often tell people the best way to learn is just to start. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, just focus on learning quickly, iterating on things that didn’t work well and repeat things that do. To me college is about learning independence, learning to love learning (which means you need to choose and study things you are interested in), learning to be flexible, learning discipline (getting the paper done when your soccer team has an out-of-town match and you have a party you want to go to) and getting exposed to new things outside of your comfort zone. But to be an entrepreneur you have to just jump in.
Q: Having started five companies (and sold all of them) you’ve undoubtedly had your fair share of experiences, good and bad. Can you talk about one or two of the highlights of your career as an entrepreneur?
A: I’ve had some amazing experiences personally and professionally as an entrepreneur. It ranges from bucket list things (I’ve had the freedom to travel to over 15 countries in the past two years for example) to meeting my childhood heroes to never missing my daughter’s dance recitals or school events. So being an entrepreneur for me has meant “freedom” and control of time as much as anything.
In terms of specific highlights, my favorite was in 2000. My company at the time The iSoccer Network (or “internetsoccer.com” as most people knew us) was growing very quickly. We were the largest producer of non-TV soccer content in the world. We had a term sheet for a BIG investment from a NY-based VC group… Then the bubble burst in March of 2000. Nasdaq crashed, our company had virtually no cash in the bank and the prospect of raising capital was now bleak. With less than two weeks of payroll left in the bank I boarded a plane to Europe where three of our larger competitors were based. I had no scheduled meetings but knew if I didn’t get a deal done with one of them we would be finished. I landed in London and called the CEO of one of the companies, noted I was there and would be meeting with a few of his competitors but would be happy to stop by while in town. He confirmed a meeting. I called the others saying I had a confirmed meeting with X company but would be happy to talk to him before we sold the company. Long story short, I created a bidding war and sold the company for $15 million… and we had $8,000 left in the bank.
Q: Undoubtedly many of our readers will look at you and say, “Wow, he’s really successful,” but we’re suspecting that it wasn’t all roses and sunshine all of the time. If you’re going to build five companies, there are going to be mistakes made and lessons learned more than a few times, right? Can you talk about one or two of the biggest, dumbest, and/or most costly mistakes you have made as an entrepreneur? And what is your advice to budding entrepreneurs as they make their own mistakes?
A: It’s interesting… I often think of myself as having only one or two talents and many weaknesses. Similarly, I have had 20+ years of mistakes and challenges, but a few good decisions. So to me being an entrepreneur is about taking smart risks, where you know there will be stumbles and mistakes but they will really be chances to learn more and faster, not disasters. So calculated risks… controlled experiments.
In terms of specific stumbles, one (of many) is worth noting. We had started an apparel company called Mountain Khakis and were working on our first product samples. They looked great. Our marketing looked great. Our brand was dialed in. And we sent our first pairs out to potential retailers and some early customers. The next day we got a call that after washing the pants were very wrinkled. We all rushed home and threw our pants in the washer and dryer and wrinkled was an understatement. They turned into a ball of fabric. We obviously had a panic attack (or more accurately, completely freaked out). In the end we made some changes to the fabric and everything was great… Mountain Khakis went on to be a fantastic company and the fabric was one of the real highlights, but we learned the value and importance of “thorough testing” from that experience. Now I try to imagine every possible use of a product or technology and stress test it before I show it to the world.
Q: From what we can tell on your website, you’ve sort of mastered the art of making journalists’ jobs very easy. What benefit has that provided to you? And what is your advice to other entrepreneurs who are trying to position themselves as thought-leaders, perhaps not in as broad a stroke as entrepreneurship, but at least in their industry or community?
A: One thing to realize early in your career is that journalists NEED YOU. They have a job to do, which is to consistently get out good news and information—interesting things, timely things, etc. This is not easy so they rely on others to inform them, educate them and make their lives easier. So it’s a perception shift… Instead of “I need your help, please… would like you write about my company” you should be saying “I have some really interesting information on new trends your readers would be interested in. I can send you some charts/info or answer any questions you have.” Once they realize you can help them, you become a great resource.
Learn more about Lackey and find his resources for entrepreneurs at MacLackey.com.