Overcoming Adversity and Building 4 Companies, with Scott Abel, CEO of Umuse

“Scott, you have Acute Myeloid Leukemia.” Without treatment, you’re dead in 6-9 months. With treatment, you have a 1-in-5 chance of being alive in five years."

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Q. What is your elevator speech on your professional career: Who are you, what have you done and how does that translate into value for your customers?

Like any long-term entrepreneur, I’ve evolved over time.

Developing and delivering innovation is still essential, but mentoring is now equally important, if not more so. That said, finding simple solutions to complex problems has been a running theme in my career, from working with Steve Jobs on object-oriented operating systems at NeXT, to reinventing network monitoring for IT professionals at Spiceworks.

Any time you can help a customer do something better with less effort, that’s a win for them… and a win for you. Now I’m on to the next big challenge at Umuse: how to improve communications at work. Stay tuned 🙂

Q. Let’s show everyone you’re a normal human being. What’s your personality, hobbies, favorite places to visit, pet peeve? Tell us about YOU.

I love being around smart people, but I don’t need to be the one talking. I’m just as happy to listen and learn.

Related to that, I’ve studied martial arts for over 40 years and am currently on my third style (Wing Tsun). I also love cars; to me they’re the perfect blend of art and engineering. My wife and I love going to the wine country and the beach.

Both are relaxing, but in different ways.

The wine country is about the process, the environment and the shared experiences; the beach is quieter and more contemplative. I love watching the surf come in while reading a good book.

My pet peeve is whiners and complainers. I just can’t listen to it. If you don’t like something, then do something about it, but I’ve got no time for complaining.

Q. What are your “3 Lessons I Learned from My Most Memorable Failure”?

  1. Culture. 
  2. Culture.
  3. Culture.

It’s everything. How you do what you do matters as much, if not more, than what you do. Get it right and your company can damn near manage itself. Get it wrong and all the “management” in the world won’t help you.

You’ll be continually battling bad apples, bad behavior and bad outcomes.

And culture comes down to character.

You have to decide what behavior you will and will not accept and be willing to pay the price when the time comes. It’s easy to say you won’t tolerate bad behavior – until you have to fire your #1 sales person for it.

Think hard about what matters to you most, and then don’t compromise.

Q. What is the best lesson you learned from your worst boss?

That people matter more than the product or the business. Without them, you have nothing.

Make the time to listen to them, hear them out, get to know them. This is the only way for you to know what really motivates them. And if you don’t understand that, you can never help them achieve great things at work.

Q. What are two daily habits you never break, no matter where you are?

1) My “coffee time” in the morning. I’m up almost every day at 6:00 and I spend that first hour alone – just me and my cup of coffee. Any early morning meetings come after that. Gives me time to reflect on the day ahead of me, and trust me it’s better for the world.

2) I never go home with more than five messages in my Inbox. I just can’t do it. I’m religious about following the three D’s: deal with it, delegate it, or delete it. No exceptions. This forces me to understand the differences between what needs to get done, and what I need to do. They are not the same.

Q. Many people say success correlates with the people you meet in your life. Describe two that most impacted your success?

This is tough because I totally agree. You’re a product of all the people you’ve worked with over your career.

Steve Jobs. Hands down he was the most impactful business influence on the person I am today.

But maybe not in the way you think.

It’s true, there were many positive things I learned from him, such as the importance of aesthetics, the importance of vision in leadership, and the pursuit of perfection in your products.

But I learned as much about what not to do, in particular, when it comes to managing people. He was not the kindest manager in the world. And as I reflected on who I wanted to be, that style just didn’t enter into the equation.

Eric Jones. Eric was a prominent venture capitalist in Austin and an investor in my very first company. You could think of him as the godfather of the Austin venture community.

His values of honesty, integrity and hard work stood out. He would often say “what value are you adding to … (that product, that customer, the company, etc.)”. And, he was a huge believer in taking care of the team first, before management. Quite the contrary to what you see in our industry today.

Q. What types of books do you read and why, and what one title do you recommend?

I read a mix of science fiction, action adventures, technology and business books, although truth be told the ratio is probably 30 / 30 / 30 / 10. Sci-fi because I’m a geek (degree in physics), but also because it helps us imagine what can be done. Action adventures because they’re fun (and because of the closet martial artist in me :-). Technology and business books keep me updated on what’s going on in the industry.


· Technology: James Barrat’s Our Final Invention. Not quite as in-depth as Bostrom’s book, but it lays out in simpler terms how Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) could come to pass. Very scary.

· Business: Clayton M. Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. A must-read if you run a start-up. It explains why the little guy actually wins against all odds.

· Science Fiction: William Hertling’s Avogadro Corp Series. A fun, fast paced story, but more importantly it shows how we could accidentally unleash AGI on the world.

· Action Adventure: Alex Lukeman’s The Ajax Protocol. A fast-paced fun book that’s a great mix of action, whodunit, and technology. Pure relaxation 🙂

Q. Think back in your career to a tough time or moment. How did you handle the emotional part of failure? What was the pep talk you gave yourself?

With all the ups and downs of my career, my toughest challenge / moment was personal. On May 21st, 2001 at 2:15pm, I got “the call” from my oncologist. He said “Scott, you have Acute Myeloid Leukemia.” Without treatment, you’re dead in 6-9 months. With treatment, you have a 1-in-5 chance of being alive in five years.

The news was shocking. You’re completely unprepared. The fear is overwhelming, and to make matters worse, you’re thrust into a new world full of confusing jargon, choices and decisions. You go from zero to chemo in less than 10 days. Emotional barely describes it.

But after the initial shock wore off there was only one thing to do – get to work. Wallowing in my misfortune wouldn’t help me. I learned everything I could about the disease, understood all facets of the treatment, and actively focused on my day-to-day treatment. Who knows why I survived. Maybe it was the protocol. Maybe it was luck. But I’ll always think that focus and discipline had just a tad to do with it.

Now you know why I’m not a big fan of whiners J

Q. What one piece of advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs or business owners looking to catch their big opportunity?

Nobody likes to admit it, but start-ups involve a HUGE amount of luck. It’s critical to your success, but sadly you can’t control it. However, you can prepare for it. Chance favors the well-prepared, so make sure you know everything about your space, your competitors, your product and your market.

That won’t guarantee success; 9 out of 10 companies fail. But it will maximize your chance of capitalizing on Lady Luck when she shows up on your doorstep.

Q. Looking back, what was the most non- conventional way you landed a memorable deal that made your success turn in the right direction (have fun with this one)?

In my first company, one of our target lighthouse customers was Netscape.

This was back in 1997/98 and they were going to be a huge win for us. We were selling to the support team and they really wanted to give us a shot, but they didn’t have the $50K in their budget. We went back and forth on discounts, etc. but I just didn’t want to lower the price.

So, we came up with a creative solution: they’d pay us $25K plus and fully-loaded Sun Solaris Server.

The deal closed, we got our high-profile launch customer, and I promptly forgot all about the Sun server. 

Then, about three months later a huge box showed up at our office, addressed to the Austin office of Netscape (there was no Austin office of Netscape J). In it was a fully loaded Sun Server worth approx. $30,000.

That support manager was a man of his word!

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