So often, people who have never started a business get analysis paralysis. They have this great idea. They want the idea to be perfect, they spend all their time, all that extra money they have while they’re doing their day job, trying to get the product off the ground, but they’re not really trying to get the product off the ground.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Nathan Stooke, CEO of Wisper Internet.
Nathan founded Wisper Internet in 2003. Nathan credits his battle with dyslexia and his competitive nature gleaned from hours of intense training, which earned him a spot on the US National Swim Team, as his catalyst for success. His vision is to create standards in the wireless industry, establish Wisper as a household name, and continue to serve exceptional customers in both rural and metropolitan communities. When not at the office, repairing networks or climbing towers, Stooke enjoys swimming and hanging out with his wife and 3 children.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
“Wisper was started because my next-door neighbor needed internet two miles down the road. From our house, we could get cable and DSL, but we couldn’t get anything but an expensive T-one at his office. And I did about six months worth of research and realized, wow, if I can help him get internet, I can help a lot of people get internet. So I convinced my wife it was a good idea to put $36,000 across three of our credit cards, because everybody needs internet. And I was able to pull my first paycheck about three and a half years into starting the business. But that was okay because failure was never an option.”
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
“This was something that I saw was desperately needed in our communities. And I was willing to go out there and solve it and solve a problem like a lot of entrepreneurs do they see a problem and they set out to solve that problem. And that’s what we did. And that’s why we started Wisper.’
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
“The person that influenced me and helped me start my business, I would definitely say it was my parents, but not in a way that you might think. My dad was a career Air Force person, and I always say, I am one good mom out of jail, because I have dyslexia. There’s a disproportion amount of people with dyslexia that end up in jail, and a disproportionate amount of people who end up in entrepreneurship, running a business.
I think their support and their guidance through the years was something I always did. I always had lemonade stands, or I always was making money doing some type of work or doing some kind of business, I just thought that was what everybody did. My parents supported me all along the way. They were very, very supportive and allowed me to have the freedom to start any small businesses. I started in high school, and elementary school, and then on into college, and now Wisper is the combination of trial and error with lots of small little businesses.”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
“What makes Wisper stand out as a company is that we will do things that no one else will do. When you compare us to other internet service providers, we’re in areas they wouldn’t provide service to, or couldn’t figure out how to provide service to. We’re willing to go there and do that. We’re willing to solve that problem in very creative ways. Just because someone says ‘no’ doesn’t mean we’re going to stop trying to get service into these communities. I think that’s really what sets us apart. Instead of running all the numbers and figuring out if we’ll make our return, don’t get me wrong, we have to stay in business in order to provide service, but we look at it more as a higher calling to get people service in these outlying communities.”
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
“I think that’s always been one of my driving factors, because it’s never about the money for me. It has always been about doing something bigger than the money. If we do a good job, the money will come. That higher good that we’re doing is providing connectivity into people’s homes, into our customers’ homes that they’ve never had before. I’ve been preaching it for the last 18 years, and this is super important. We’re trying to solve this problem, this connectivity.
COVID has made the public more aware that lots of people are moving into rural markets. Lots of people want to be at home, but they have to stay connected. We were able to do that with our company, and it just shined a light on how important that internet connectivity is. In the society that we live today, the information that you have through connectivity, through video conferencing and different things, is so important. It was really neat to see that we were able to step up and provide this connectivity even better, as everybody needed it desperately. And that’s our higher calling, is that we want to be able to connect people and make a difference in their lives through connectivity.”
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
“So I think the three character traits that have been instrumental in my success, have been not taking no for an answer. When someone says it can’t be done, I am relentless. I don’t give up. I I talk to lots of different people, and I try to get different perspectives on thing.
I think also, knowing truly who I am, having a strong core and understanding of who I am, that I’m willing to go it alone. While I want to go with people and want to have them come with me, I’m willing to do it alone and willing to say, ‘hey, join me and let’s go conquer the world’.
The final one is integrity. I know a lot of people talk about integrity, but I want to do what’s right for the customer, and what’s right in the situation that we’re in. That is not always easy, but it’s something that I’ve really stood by throughout the entire history of Wisper and my life.
And that integrity is a big, big piece of my characteristics that have allowed us to be successful.”
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
“Everybody’s really good at giving advice, but they don’t really understand the full situation that you’re in. They only understand it from the outside, and they can’t know all the pieces. I think some of the advice I had early on was about teams. I’ve always been trying to build teams and build people and build into them. Then at some point you realize it doesn’t matter how much I want it, if they don’t want it more than me. Then I have to move on and move on to a different team member, or I have to hire somebody else.
And unfortunately, I probably listened to their advice and kept people around longer than I should have. And I think that’s something that stifled Wisper over the years. I’m very understanding, I can be very influenced when people are showing just a glimmer of improvement or growth, and I should not have taken that advice. I should have done what my gut was telling me and made those decisions and then move forward with those decisions.”
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
“There’s all kinds of hard stories from the beginning, the middle, all though the timeline of Wisper, and that’s what makes running a business fun and energetic and hard. At the same time, if it was easy, everybody would do it.
I didn’t take my first paycheck for three and a half years. And then we got Wisper going, and we had 17 families relying on me to make good decisions. Then there was a stretch where I didn’t take most paychecks and I was not happy with it. My wife for sure was not happy. I kept telling her, “It’s Okay dear. I we own the company”. I can’t pay the bills with ownership.
I didn’t ever want one of my employees to miss a paycheck, but there were large stretches of time, like one year, our take home pay that we got was $9,000. This is after Wisper was a multi-million-dollar company. I didn’t realize at the time that it didn’t matter how big we got, we would always be in that situation, unless we started managing those finances better. “
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
“I was an ultra distance swimmer, I swam 25 kilometers, 15 and a half miles. Before my first 25 kilometer race, my coach pulled me aside and said, ‘all of you have trained the same, you’re all the same skill level, it’s going to come down to the mental battle. You’re going to hit a wall, and what you have to do is be willing to work through that.’ So my question to him was, how many wall am I going to hit? What am I going to do? I think in business, knowing you’re going to hit those walls, as long as you know that I just have to figure out a way around it, helps you push through. I think being able to see the outcome of what I wanted allowed me to persevere and push through that wall.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
“For me, it comes down to my struggles through elementary school and through high school and even into college. I have dyslexia, so I spell at a third grade level and read it a sixth grade level. School was not easy for me, I struggled, my mom made me do all my homework, when I got home from school, it took me two or three times as long to do that homework. By the time I was ready to go out and play with all my friends, they were all in for dinner. It was a struggle, it was very difficult. I had to learn how to do things differently. My mom would read some of my books into a little tape recorder, and then I would listen to them while I was driving to swim practice. In school, when you have dyslexia, they grade you on everything you’re not good at, my handwriting, my reading, my spelling, and all of those are very integral to school. That perseverance that I learned through there, translating into the business world, business became easy. The problem solving that I learned in elementary school in high school, allowed me to get through college and then also go into business. There’s a lot of ups and downs in dyslexia and in business, but you learn how to navigate them and continue working towards your goal.”
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
“I think one of the big challenges that that startups have is access to capital funding, right? We used credit cards. We put $36,000 across three of our credit cards to start Wisper. Funding has always been a challenge. It’s amazing that if you have a really good idea, then you go into a financial institution, and they say to come back when it’s vetted and working. It’s a real struggle.
Some people can get loans from their family members, some people will have to go down the venture capital or private equity path. We were very fortunate that we used our credit cards to get things going, and we were able to lease a lot of the equipment. Even recently, 18 years into this, I had to talk to 196 financial institutions and only two of them said yes, they were interested in the funding package that we needed. It doesn’t necessarily become easier as you as you develop the company, but I think it’s key because not having funding can slow you down.
A lot of people say, ‘I don’t have the funding, therefore I can’t do that.’ Our first 12 acquisitions of other wireless providers were all seller financed, meaning that we bought them, and then we paid them over time with their own revenue. When I met my business advisor, he said nobody does seller finance, how in the world did you come up with that idea? For me, that was our only solution. All the banks had told us no, but if someone really wants to sell to me, I am going to solve how to do that. That was our way of solving the financing. I didn’t have any financing, therefore, the only people that could finance the deal, were the people who were selling it to me.
I think financing is something where you can look at thinking outside the box. Just because people tell you no, keep pushing until you can solve. Solve for Yes.”
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need to Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- So often, people who have never started a business get analysis paralysis. They have this great idea. They want the idea to be perfect, they spend all their time, all that extra money they have while they’re doing their day job, trying to get the product off the ground, but they’re not really trying to get the product off the ground. They’re trying to make it perfect for what they think the world needs. I think the first thing they need to think about is, what is the product? How fast can I get it out? I’ve worked with so many people who just failed the launch, they never were able to launch a product. They need to focus more on building a good team and a good process to launch that product.
- Speaking of teams, you have to build a strong team. You have to find people who share your vision and are determined to help you built it. Sometimes you find people that are great business people, great employees, but they don’t share your vision, and they start to take your idea in a direction you don’t want it to go. You need your team to always be on the same page.
- Another key factor is being in the right place at the right time. If you were in the middle of the Midwest, trying to start a high-tech company back when Silicon Valley was just getting started as well, it would have been very difficult. Whereas if you were in Silicon Valley, and you ran into a really technical person at a party who got to talking, and then you put everything together, you have a better chance of getting started. Being at the right place at the right time, there is a little bit of luck involved with that. You have to say, I know I don’t have everything figured out, but I’m going to allow myself to be lucky. Jump on an opportunity that’s out there when you see it.
- I mentioned that people have a failure to launch where they spend too much time analyzing their product and trying to get it out. The other thing I’ve seen happen is people quit their day job too soon. Starting a business is hard, working 120 hours a week, whatever it takes to start that business. You have to have money to put food on the table for your family, to be able to provide for your family. I’ve seen several people where they think they have this amazing idea, and they quit their day jobs, spend all of their savings too soon. Everything takes longer than you think, or takes more money than you think. So all sudden, now they’re in a bad position, they have to make short sighted decisions as opposed to long-term decisions. I would encourage them, if you have a day job that you can run while you’re starting your business, keep going until you get to a point where then you just got to jump and go into it with both feet.
- You also need a huge hunger for learning. Not learning as in I’m going to take your advice, and when you tell me can’t happen, then I’m going to believe you. I mean a learning like, let me inquisitive, let me ask questions, let me ask lots and lots of questions. When I was looking at starting Wisper, going into the internet business, everybody I talked to said, ‘why in the world, would you go up against the cable company? Why would you go up against the phone company? There’s no business there? That’s crazy. Why would you want to do that?’ And I took their advice. I listened to them and heard what they were saying, but the nice thing about advice is, I can choose whether I follow your advice or not. I’m not asking for your advice so I know what to do. I’m asking for your advice to understand your experiences so I can form my own conclusions. I think as a successful startup person, you have to be willing to do that.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
“I think early on in a startup, a common mistake is being the one wearing all the hats, you’re doing all the jobs, you hire your first employee, and pass a hat on to them. Then you come back two or three months later, and they aren’t doing what you wanted them to do. You abdicated the responsibility for what they were doing, you didn’t take the time to train them and make sure they were doing it the way you wanted. That becomes a problem, because now the brand you’re creating suffers. I’ve even seen some owners and founders, say, ‘I just can’t have any employees, I’m going to go back to being just me because I can get the job done better.’ Well, you can, but you really need to scale past just you. You have to be able to train those employees that are coming in. I’ve seen a lot of CEOs and a lot of a lot of founders not spend the time on their training.
I’ve also seen a lot of CEOs not spend their time on their vision. And this was me early on, I didn’t realize that I set the company culture. It’s not that I didn’t know this, but I never thought about it. I worked for other companies, I never knew any of the CEOs I actually worked for, I only knew my direct bosses. When I started Wisper, it was just me for a while. Then it was some family members. I didn’t realize that I set the corporate culture, so someone else was setting it and it wasn’t me. I realized they weren’t setting the culture that I wanted, and it took me a long time to get that culture back. I think a lot of CEOs and founders don’t realize how important that culture is, and they leave it to somebody else.”
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
“As an entrepreneur, you always have this roller coaster ride where some days and some months and hopefully years, it’s going great. Then sometimes it’s not going so well. It is a lot of lot of work to start a business, because everything revolves around you making those decisions.
The way I dealt with that is learning that Wisper didn’t define who I was as a person. Wisper was an idea. Wisper was what I was working on, but it didn’t define who I was. So if Wisper failed, which ultimately wasn’t an option, but if it did, it wasn’t going to bring me down completely. I had several failed businesses before, so I was willing to say, I see the vision, I know where I want to go, and I’m going to get there.
Yes, you have to take breaks every once in a while. As a founder, you normally don’t get a lot of vacation, and I didn’t either. My wife is from South Africa, and we would go back every so many years for about 30 days. I would normally have to work while I was there, but that recharging of my batteries was definitely worth it.
Also seeing our customers, knowing that we’re doing something more than just providing internet, we’re providing a connection to the world for these customers. We’re doing something that no one else is willing to do. That floats my boat. That gets me really excited knowing that we’re out there solving people’s problems. I always try to look forward when I’m during one of the very challenging times.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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.
“I could start a movement, it would be two.
One is that people with dyslexia would be proud of their dyslexia and actually put it on their resume. My dyslexia sets me apart from other wireless operators, from other business owners. It’s how I’ve solved the problems that I have. I would hope that other children are excited that they have dyslexia, they understand how hard it’s going to be in school, but they look forward to what they will accomplish in real life. I think that would be one movement I’d love to help get started, people embracing the fact they have dyslexia.
Another movement that I’d like to start is swimming pools. My whole family are swimmers. I was a swimmer, my wife was a swimmer, and I think one of the reasons why we have so few swimmers on the US National swim team is that we have a lack of pool space. There really aren’t a lot of indoor pools. If they do exist, they’re much older. There aren’t even a lot of outdoor pools. There are a lot of outdoor pools in people’s backyards, but that isn’t for competition. I would want to be able to start an organization that builds swimming pools for communities, gets them out there, gets people in the water. For one they should be water safe, and then hopefully we can get those that love swimming, competing, and continue all the way up to the Olympics and represent the us on the swimming side.”
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
“I think it would be Gino Wickman. He’s the person who wrote EOS and Traction, and came up with the EOS model. I was doing a lot of the same things he was doing. I was reading the books, I was cherry picking the best things, and then I was implementing them with my leadership team. One of my friends turned me on to Gina Whitman’s book called Traction about the EOS model. I read that book, and I said, wow, he’s cherry picked all the same things out of the same books I was, except he’s 20 years ahead of me. He knows what the rest of the story is, which I didn’t. I think it would be great to sit down with him and talk about his journey, and where it’s taken him, and how the EOS model was created. I think he’d be somebody I would love to sit down and have a meal with.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
People can follow Wisper on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube as Wisper ISP. You can also follow me, Nathan Stooke, on LinkedIn.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!