OwlSpark | Rice University Startup Accelerator | PeopleWise: Chris Church
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PeopleWise: Chris Church

What’s more American than the side hustle?

That was the environment that Chris Church, Founder and CEO of MacroFab, grew up in. As part of a military family, Chris moved around quite a bit and money at times could be scarce. His family built several businesses to provide for themselves, ranging from the buying and resale of consumer goods to rebuilding vehicles. From a young age Chris’s entrepreneurial spirit was strong as he sought to create his own opportunities.

Learning to program at the age of thirteen, Chris was quite precocious in his software skill development. In fact, after getting in trouble in his middle school shop class, he was reassigned to the computer lab, and given an ultimatum: to pass shop class, he needed to win a contest at the state science fair. He won three.

After high school, Chris attended film school for a semester as he planned to go into a career of video production, but soon learned that school was not worth the money to pursue his career. Returning to his childhood passion for  software development, 19 year-old Chris founded a consulting business. With no formal business plan or model, his sole focus was customer acquisition. Though this was hardly a successful strategy in the long run, it taught Chris some very important lessons.

The best way to validate your product is to get someone to pay for it.

Earlier this week, Chris joined us for an installment of our weekly Startup Founders Series. As Chris talked to our cohort, the key point he repeatedly stressed was the importance of customer acquisition and satisfaction.

Leveraging his previous experience, Chris followed his own advice and launched his first startup, Alert Logic, accordingly. After two acquaintances, Misha Govshteyn and Matt Harkrider came to him with an idea for a network security software, Chris immediately saw the potential. Combining their network security solution with an automated decision making process he had developed, Alert Logic was formed. Alert Logic was one of the first to offer a software-as-a-service model (Saas)—years later, SaaS became the industry standard.

One of the challenges that Chris faced with this model was that it was a new concept to most consumers. However, at the same time he found it much easier to charge a lower monthly rate than to bill a $200,000 licensing fee right away. Another challenge Alert Logic faced was finding their customer. It was unclear whether they should target companies with cloud data, or if they should target the data storage centers that served those companies. At first, data storage companies were not convinced that such security features were necessary, leaving Alert Logic to funnel all their efforts into hard-selling directly to businesses. Fortunately for them, the market demand for these security services later exploded, and data centers were forced to incorporate these services, that they suddenly grew to be Alert Logic’s biggest client.

Chris worked as the company’s chief architect for nine years, however, his love for the side hustle never faltered. Having spent decades writing software, Chris shifted into the hardware realm, and left Alert Logic to pursue his next venture: Dynamic Perception. Developing open-source, open-software photographic motion control products, he was able to provide solutions that ranged from $800 – $2,000, a significantly cheaper alternative to his competitors’ $15,000 – $20,000 solutions. Despite the quality of the products he was producing, Chris began to resent his managerial duties within the company–he wanted to get back to his roots and do more for the customer. Through his work with manufacturers, production and operations, he identified key pain points in the manufacturing process. Wanting to develop a solution to alleviate these pain points, Chris left Dynamic Solutions in 2013 to found his third startup, MacroFab.

Today, Chris’ cloud-based infrastructure-as-a-service solution gives manufacturers the tools to outsource and manage the manufacturing and production process. MacroFab empowers entrepreneurs founding their own startups with the opportunities and resources to manage their supply chain on a centralized platform.

A seasoned entrepreneur, Chris has used his experiences to help others as a mentor for startups, most recently as a mentor for TechStars. In his time working with startups, Chris has seen what helps teams succeed and what ultimately leads to their failure. First, focus on measurable, reachable goals that ensure sustainability. Next, to be successful, a startup must understand the pain of their customers, and be unwaveringly committed to their idea.

Trying to solve a problem you don’t experience, is very superficial. How can you be passionate about something if you have never experienced it in your life?

Chris also pointed out several behaviors that usually lead to failure. The first, most prevalent of which is a tendency to pivot frequently.

We’re often told, ‘Pivot, pivot, pivot,’ but that can often be a sign of weakness amongst the team, a lack of vision, and a lack of commitment.

Second, the infatuation with the idea of being an entrepreneur will almost certainly lead to failure. It’s easy to look at founders at big conferences getting interviewed, and glamorize the process in your head. At the end of the day, it is a difficult journey that rewards only those with a steadfast resolution to solving a real problem.

Finally, Chris left founders with some surprising advice.

Don’t spend too much time listening to people like me. Spend your time building products, talking to customers, spend 10x as much time talking to customers as you do listening to people like me. We can give you general advice, we can talk about our experiences, but our experiences are almost never going to be your experiences.