Innovate don’t copy — If you want to be successful, create and innovate. Most of the companies we think about as successful tech companies are those that innovated. Innovation doesn’t have to mean creating groundbreaking new technology, it can mean taking an existing product/service and figuring out a new way to do it. If you think about Uber and Lyft, those companies didn’t create anything new, they simply created a different way to provide a ‘taxi’ service.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Pratt. He brings over 20 years of senior management and founder experience to his role as Head of Americas for MibeTec U.S. Michael has successfully taken to market a remarkable portfolio of emerging brands and products across a number of consumer industry verticals. In addition, he has provided expert insight and service to SMB and Enterprise clients across North America, Western Europe, Southeast Asia and China, uniquely positioning him to lead MibeTec’s expansion into the United States.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I started college studying computer engineering with an internship right out of high school at Intel Corporation in Folsom, California. I flourished at Intel and did “OK” in my studies. In my second year of college, I had a wonderful academic advisor that encouraged me to step outside of my planned curriculum and take a semester exploring elective courses available to me. After the next semester, I found myself drawn to the liberal arts and pursuing a Social Sciences degree. When I left college in 1998 I found myself in the San Francisco Bay Area during the first dot-com bubble with the opportunity to work at a tech company in which my academic studies provided the background for me to quickly advance on the management side of the company. Through this opportunity I was given a chance to work in Holland, the UK, France, and Germany.
After my initial entry into the tech industry in the Bay Area I found myself moving to Austin, Texas and working with AT&T (formerly “Ma Bell”). I had a great mentor in a co-worker that taught me the basics of product development. I transitioned from there into an opportunity to work for one of the larger national distributors of mobile accessories, where I learned the ins/outs of distribution and the basics of supply chains. I then found myself a father and wanting to earn more, so I jumped to the “front side” of business and learned how to be a salesperson, and the fundamentals of business development. Once I gained these skills, I was able to pursue my entrepreneurial aspirations by starting my first of two companies.
I believe my career path has been nothing short of a blessing. I have had key mentors, and well-intentioned people guide me towards great opportunities and then help me to accomplish my goals and succeed in my endeavors.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Since starting my current role at MibeTec Inc (makers of Bite Away), I have enjoyed many new learnings and experiences. When I was first approached about the opportunity to partner with MibeTec and drive the introduction of our portfolio of products into the North American market, I was initially skeptical of the Bite Away product and whether it was ‘snake oil’ or a fake product, because, “If it was so effective why wasn’t it already available everywhere in the U.S.?!”
In my engagement with our German parent company, they decided to send a large sample box to me to test and prove their claims. When I received them I gave them out to a group of parents associated with one of my children’s soccer team (a perfect environment to test the effectiveness of the Bite Away) and within a week I began receiving feedback from the parents, all positive, all amazed that it worked! Of course, one mom had to tell me that it looks like a pregnancy testing device, but it really works!
Once I received such strong responses, I knew I had a great opportunity in front of me and have been full throttle ever since on growing the market for the Bite Away.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have quite a few mistakes over the years. It’s impossible not to make mistakes. A few years ago I took a trip out of country for a convention and stayed in a fairly nice hotel. I booked a regular room reservation, and at the time I didn’t have a high status with this hotels rewards program. When I checked in I was welcomed and began receiving a level of VIP service through the check in process. I was provided my room keys and took the elevator to my room.
I opened the door to my room and was immediately blown away, it was the penthouse suite! I proceeded to take pictures, text them to my wife and friends and get comfortable. About ten minutes after I got comfortable in MY penthouse, I heard the door open to the suite. A man walks in with his luggage and I immediately challenged him about who he was and why he was in MY suite!?
Well, after a five minute conversation with him and challenges back and forth, I finally asked what his name was. He handed me his business card and he was the CEO of the hosting retailer and we shared the same name!!
I immediately packed up my suitcase and left the room because clearly it was his room not mine! We got a laugh out of it and thankfully the next day at the convention, all the senior managers that visited my booth came by smiling because the CEO shared the story with them the previous night at a shared dinner.
What I learned from it was to not take myself so seriously and don’t show off! I had to explain to everyone that I sent the photos of the room to that I was in the wrong room and had to move out.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I have found that there are hard times at every step in the process of building a business. The most difficult has been around how to fund your business in the early stages.
I have experienced the crunch of attempting to grow my business and meet market demand while not having the cashflow to fully support the demand. The challenge of having my suppliers or partners seeking payments when I don’t have the money to pay them and having to plead and negotiate with them to keep them from ending their services. It’s a humbling experience and one that can really make you ask, “Is this really worth it?”
I’ve always found inspiration to continue through tough times in business by thinking about my children and my desire to ensure I provide them the ability to pursue every one of their dreams.
I also embody the idea of Sankofa, a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates to “Go back and get it.” I dig into my past and recognize the work and hard times that my parents, grandparents and ancestors before me endured to succeed. I stand on their shoulders. I have no excuse to not continue to push forward.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have been fortunate that I have had many people help me get to where I am today. I would love to be able to single out one person, but that would be a disservice to the many people that have lent a helping hand, mentored me or simply ‘stood in the gap’ when I faltered along my career path.
My parents grew up in the Jim Crow South. Their life experiences forged the way they parented my brothers and I, to strive to be ‘two times better’ than those around us. To this day, they stand in my corner as advisors and unfaltering supporters. For about three years as I was involved in building a former business, I found myself on the road almost every week both domestically and internationally. My mother would fly to Texas from California and stay for months at a time to help my wife (who was also working full time pursuing her corporate career) in caring for our three children. Her selflessness enabled me to pursue my entrepreneurial aspirations. I still call my mother and father for guidance on matters that on the surface should be beyond their scope, but their collective life experiences enable them to provide wise, sage advice with just a bit of obvious parental bias.
In addition to my parents, I am forever indebted to my wife. If there has ever been one person that sees my abilities better than myself, it’s my wife, Jessica. Over ten years ago, when I hesitated on going out on my own and starting my first company, it was my wife who stood behind me and pushed me forward through my doubt. We don’t have a perfect marriage, and anyone who has been married for over 20 years knows that there is no such thing. However, we are both each other’s greatest boosters.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There is one quote that I find most relevant to all aspects of my life, “Excuses are tools of incompetence. Those who use them never succeed.” I learned first to hate this quote as it was used many times against me during my time pledging Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. in university.
However, as an adult, I have embraced this quote and applied it to myself in business, as a father, and as a husband. Once you adopt this into how you engage in the world, you see everything differently, and realize that anything can be an excuse to justify not accomplishing something you set out to do. In turn, when you understand and adopt this way of thinking, you hold yourself more accountable. When you get turned down for an opportunity, you can come up with any reason for why you didn’t get it, or you can recognize that reason as an excuse and analyze what you can do better or differently to get right back out to win the opportunity. This is critical when you are involved in business development or sales. There are more “No’s” than “Yeses” and if you can’t evaluate the reason you didn’t get a “Yes,” you will never move forward.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. Briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
As an African American man, who stands on the shoulders of my parents, grandparents, and all those that came before me, while now a father to two young men and my princess daughter; I find myself in a unique position this year as our country has found itself in a perfect storm of events (COVID pandemic, hyper political environment, and the unfortunate, untimely deaths of multiple Black Americans broadcast 24/7 on our news networks). My businesses are continuing to thrive and grow, yet in my personal experience I am anguishing.
I believe as Americans, our country has yet to fully accept its true history. Our institutions were founded with aspirational ideas of equality for all, but in truth, were meant to support only a specific class of people, white, male landowners. If we accept that the country was flawed in its execution of its original intent, we can then begin to understand how it has evolved into where we are today, and then we can understand how to make the changes needed to fix the flaw.
My efforts with both companies I run right now, is to be intentional in my efforts. I ensure both companies hire with intention, spend with intention, and evaluate how we engage in the market, with the intention of being inclusive.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
As I mentioned earlier, I lead with intention. By this I mean that I am intentional in ensuring my staff, executive team, suppliers, partners, and every area that I have any level of influence, is diverse. I seek diversity in gender, ethnicity, personal preferences and experience. It’s from this diverse pool of unique experiences that the best ideas are born. My Bite Away brand has partnered with an exceptional local PR agency to help build our brand in the U.S. When I sought out a local agency, I met the owner and we had a candid, open conversation that if I were to partner with their agency I needed to see the team that supported my business was diverse. Fortunately, the owner was of like mind and when I see the team she organized for Bite Away, its ethnically diverse, gender diverse and various in experience. I have seen tremendous performance from the team in a year that has been fraught with challenges.
If you want to market and sell to any and everyone, you must have equal representation within your business. How can I honestly think I can speak to the experience of the average American woman as a man?! If I want to connect to a female demographic, the best way to do so, is to have a woman leading that effort. It’s actually quite simple.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo regarding Black Men In Tech in Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I love this question because I am in the midst of trying to make systemic changes right now with my company, Pivet Communications.
Pivet Communications is a two year old consumer electronics brand that I started as a way to bring disruptive, compelling and innovative new technology and ways to do business into a very mono-cultured environment. Pivet is currently the only Black-owned company that supplies mobile accessories into Best Buy stores across the U.S.
I’ve had multiple, fruitful conversations with the leadership of Best Buy including multiple strategic conversations this year with their chief marketing officer (CMO). He and I have had open and frank conversations in which we discussed how we change the status quo. Early in our discussions I advised that the best way to change the current environment is to seek out and nurture Black-owned businesses, then give them the same platform to succeed as other businesses have received. Ensure they receive equal treatment, and access to opportunities, and you will find they will thrive. The CMO and team have worked with Pivet to open the door for the brand to compete on their shelves against other tier 1 brands, and to compete not as a “Black-owned” company, but as a brand with disruptive, unique products.
I believe the blueprint for change is for existing, established businesses like Best Buy, taking a position to be intentional in their efforts to change from the executive level down. Alternatively, outside of the established markets of tech, its imperative that Black men embark down their own paths of entrepreneurship. Create your own products, services and brands. Invest in yourself and invest in your own community if or when you find you don’t have access to the established market.
We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
I currently lead two companies, MibeTec Inc and Pivet. Both companies provide products that address unique pain points in their respective markets.
Bite Away is an FDA-cleared, Class II medical device that provides instant relief for insect bites and stings. This device is a God send for anyone that suffers from mosquito bites, or other annoying insects. The product is helping address a market that until now only offered solutions that prevent bites/stings or attempts to soothe after bite/sting. Some of the solutions include harmful chemicals unsafe for children, pregnant women and others. Others offer weak or ineffective treatment, while the Bite Away can provide instant relief. You apply the device to the affected area and begin to get instant relief from scratching or swelling (the most common reaction). I know as this product continues to expand into the U.S. marketplace with our various retail partners, it will become as common a household item as the band-aid.
In my other business, Pivet, I provide disruptive new technologies to the consumer electronics market. We have just launched the world’s first “Self-Cycle” mobile device case. This case includes an enhanced material that allows our cases to break down and be consumed by nature if they aren’t recycled and instead find themselves in a landfill or as litter. We are focused on making really great products that are truly eco-friendly in a smart, profitable way.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Bite Away stands out because the product development behind it, and the science that supports it is just unmatched. The parent company in Germany has spent years evaluating the science behind how to provide relief to insect bites and stings. I was amazed when I had my first conference call with a few of the scientists involved with the product development of the Bite Away (located in Germany). As they explained to me the science behind how nature has evolved the mosquito to be such an efficient pest I was blown away. Did you know that the mosquito actually lubricates before it bites you? The mosquito saliva allows them to easily break skin, and their saliva is an anticoagulant! It keeps our blood from clotting so that the mosquito can get its fill before flying off! WOW!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am working on quite a few exciting projects. Pivet’s focus on creating new eco-friendly products will help the world because we are focused on attacking the 90% problem not the 10%. By that I mean that, in America the average citizen consumes the equivalent of 3,700 single use plastic bottles each year. We only recycle 10% of that plastic. The other 90% ends up in landfills. While many brands have focused on using plants and recycled plastic to become more eco-friendly, they are really only attacking the 10% problem of plastic. Pivet’s Self-Cycle products are attacking the 90% problem by ensuring when plastic does end up in the landfill or as litter, it will break down and quickly end up as ‘food’ for nature.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
I’ve always enjoyed the beginning of business. Some call it the “hunting” stage. When you are creating markets to sell or introduce your product. Once you have reached maturity, you change to the “farming” stage where you manage your business, and that’s when you find scenarios where the business can stand still or even decline.
How do you ‘restart your engines” when you are in this place? I believe there are a couple of ways to do so. One is to look outside of your existing markets for what is happening in other industries. You might find technology, ideas or partners that can bring innovation and opportunity to your business that you wouldn’t find within.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
My advice on how to create high performing sales teams is to adopt a few simple ways of working:
- Actionable communication — Teach everyone how to communicate in an actionable manner. By this I mean that you ban the use of terms like, “soon,” ‘ASAP,” “quickly,” etc. These types of words don’t provide clarity of action. I always expect my teams to speak in absolutes. “I can get this done by end of day Friday” instead of “I can get this done ASAP.” The first statement sets expectations and allows everyone to continue to focus on all other moving activity while knowing the specific action will be completed by end of day Friday. The second statement leaves both parties in a conundrum. One person’s view of “ASAP” may be three days. The others may be two hours. You can find yourself not communicating right and losing performance. Always communicate in a clear, actionable manner.
- Invest in your employees — I have always found that when an employee or team of people are happy with their job(s), they perform at their highest levels. I like to ensure my team is compensated at a level that keeps them from looking at other opportunities and focused on what I need. I also don’t micro-manage. If I’ve hired a qualified individual, I prefer to work to support their efforts and help clear obstacles to their success. If they are successful, I am successful.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
Actually, I have found some pretty clear methods that are effective regardless of industry. There are two ingredients to success in business, you have to have a good product and you have to be able to build relationships.
It’s a lot easier to build a business when your product does what it is supposed to do. It’s a lot easier to establish a relationship and foster it when you aren’t trying to sell a customer something that doesn’t meet their needs or isn’t unique.
For Bite Away, we’ve focused on establishing our brand through awareness campaigns. In our survey of 2,000 U.S. residents, three in five Americans cited spending more time outdoors, and as a result, half of them reported experiencing an increase in mosquito bites. We’ve been able to reach and engage with people who are likely to benefit from a product that offers relief from insect bites and stings.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
I think at the end of the day, if you don’t focus on your customer you won’t have a long-term business. However, here are a few strategies I would recommend:
1. The customer is almost always right — It’s pretty much a cliché, but I do believe it is the truth. I operate with the goal of making a customer a long-term customer. This means that every once and a while, even if you know the customer may be in the wrong, you placate them and do what they are asking. I would rather have one bad transaction in a string of ten with a single customer versus having one transaction where I was right and they were wrong, and they are no longer going to be my customer.
2. Be honest and transparent — When a customer chooses to buy from you or use your service, it’s because they have determined you fill a need. This means they have decided to trust your marketing, sales pitch, etc. You never want to break that trust! As long as they trust you, they will continue to be your customer. So it’s pretty simple that if you are honest and transparent with a customer you will earn and keep their trust, and their patronage.
3. Mystery shop your business — We’ve seen the TV show where CEO’s go incognito to see how their businesses perform. Everyone should do this with their business, so you know exactly what a real customer receives when they buy from you. Purchase from your brand’s consumer website and see how quickly product is shipped (is it meeting your service-level agreement for delivery?). Call in to your customer service number and see how you are greeted and provided service. Are you happy with the experience? You can quickly fix issues with your customer facing portion of your business if you infrequently test it out yourself.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn?
I try to engage with customers when they make their first purchase and then continue to engage with them via channels including newsletters or other follow up communications. Satisfied customers will come back again and again. I honestly don’t worry about customer attrition because if you do a good job in your first engagement, attrition or churn naturally is less likely.
Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
I believe attrition or churn occurs if you haven’t provided a great initial experience. When a customer evaluates a product or service, you have that first opportunity to lure them in by being honest and factual about your product or service. Once they make the decision to purchase or use the product, they then will compare what they were sold to what they have experienced. If they match, the customer is yours. If they don’t, there is no amount of effort you can take to retain them. So, I focus on that initial experience as much as possible.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
I believe the 5 most important things are as follows:
- Take care of yourself first and foremost — You can’t lead if you aren’t in good health and mind. I struggle with this every day in my own life, but I know it’s a key to success.
- Be humble and surround yourself with capable people — I have found success by bringing in people that have a passion to be successful themselves. I then work to enable them to reach their goals of success. Out of their success, I also reap the rewards. My Director of Sales and Marketing for Bite Away has worked for me in three different businesses. I have found him to be of immeasurable value in my businesses. I work hard to do whatever I need to make him successful, because again, when he is successful I am.
- Always be inquisitive and pay attention to trends — In the tech industry everything is always evolving and changing quickly. As soon as you become complacent, both you and your company can spiral downward. I have seen new materials used in the consumer electronics space that have come from the shoe industry. If you are paying attention, you’ll be surprised at what you might find waiting to be adopted into your business.
- Innovate don’t copy — If you want to be successful, create and innovate. Most of the companies we think about as successful tech companies are those that innovated. Innovation doesn’t have to mean creating groundbreaking new technology, it can mean taking an existing product/service and figuring out a new way to do it. If you think about Uber and Lyft, those companies didn’t create anything new, they simply created a different way to provide a ‘taxi’ service.
- I know it sounds corny, but at this stage of my life, I have found it to be true. Have fun. If you don’t wake up and want to go to work, then you are doing the wrong thing and you’re not on the path to success. When you enjoy what you do, and have fun doing it, it’s not work.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
As an African- American that can trace my lineage at least six generations back on this land, and as someone who grew up a military brat (my father served 23 years in the United States Air Force) that has been blessed to travel the world as a youth and adult; I am intimately aware of the impact institutional racism has on all Americans regardless of ethnicity.
If I could inspire a movement to bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, I would work to overhaul our education system to create a curriculum that more accurately teaches children about all the amazing contributions every ethnic group has made to our country. When we teach children at an early age that the technology they use today has been created by a mosaic of talented Americans, and that every ethnic group has had a hand in making America what it is today, we make it really difficult for those children to be taught racist ideals.
A great example of this is with the election of President Barak Obama. Prior to Obama, anyone spreading racist ideology would have been able to leverage the presidency as an example of ‘white supremacy.’ However, after President Obama served that argument is no longer able to be conveyed. In addition, any children born a year or so before President Obama that have grown up with him in office, have a foundational experience that the only President they knew was African American. The generation that grew up under his tenure has had a dramatically different experience that makes the preaching of hate or supremacy really difficult to succeed. Imagine if that was the same foundational experience of our education system? In one generation we would be able to dismantle many of the lies and misinformation that are conveyed by those that preach racist ideas.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love the opportunity to have a private breakfast or lunch with Robert Smith. I have been impressed with his success story and more so with how he has chosen to execute his philanthropy. I love how he wiped out the loan debt of the 2019 graduating class of Morehouse. His one act of benevolence changed the lives of everyone of those graduates, their families and for that matter the country. Each of those graduates is free of debt to be able to start the next stage of their life and I bet they each will “pass it forward” in their own way. That single act may have paved the path for one of those graduates to pursue the next disease cure now instead of after paying their debt! We both are based in Austin, Texas so if he is a reader, I’d love to meet him and maybe get him to be a mentor!
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!