Founders’ Friday: Kelly Storm, Black Box Operations/Black Box Software

Hi, Brandon here again. Today’s featured Friday founder is  Kelly Storm from Black Box Operations/Black Box Software.  I got the chance to sit down and talk to him about his company and his passion for what he does. Enjoy.

Founder: Kelly Storm

Company: Black Box Operations/Black Box Software

BC: Tell me a little bit about your company:

KS: I started Black Box Operations back in 2007, then Douglas Brewer, a lifelong friend who came up in the ranks in Computer Science at UGA with me, and I joined forces in 2010 to create Black Box Software.

We lovingly refer to our company as “The Box”, but in reality it’s two different companies that offer their own distinct services and products. Sparing you the marketing spiel, Black Box Operations is the R&D extension of The Box where the vast majority of our ideas are born and raised, and Black Box Software is the big brother that handles all the heavy lifting, such as contractual development, concept implementation, infrastructure development, etc.

BC: Where did the idea come from?

KS: A black box doesn’t tell you how it works, you have no idea how it’s producing results. You can hypothesize and slowly figure out what the box is doing internally, but you’ll never be able to open it and check for yourself. It’s a lot like the human mind, in that we’re not entirely sure how our personalities spring from a collection of memories existing in some mysterious way within a pink, squishy organ.

The idea for Black Box Operations started with this concept, and was then strengthened through my desire to help people by being a technology translator of sorts. Most people don’t care about the programming languages you use, the frameworks you employ, the operating systems you stand on, or the toolkits you’ve built. They care about solutions. They have a problem, they present it to you, they want a solution. With that in mind, “Black Box Operations” are essentially our actions. They are us, they are what we do. You may not know how we do it, but that doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you know we will do it.

BC: How would you rate your company’s progress so far?

KS: On a scale of 1 to lucky? About three points past lucky. I’ve been putting myself and my own business out there for quite some time, and I fully believe that luck has a great deal to do with our progress. Another version of me, for example, that was presented with the same opportunities, and shook the same hands and met the same people, may have ended up elsewhere with a failed business. There’s simply no telling.

In the end, we’ve accomplished in two years what we had projected would take more than five. Almost everything we’ve done has worked out for us, from basic consulting to product development, and I’d honestly be lying if I said that luck and timing had absolutely nothing to do with it.

BC: What is your biggest strength? Weakness?

KS: My biggest strength could easily serve as my greatest weakness. I’m honest. Brutally honest. I care more about the truth, more about refining ideas, and more about succeeding genuinely and objectively, than about making money. I want to provide more to my customers than just a service or a product that’s temporarily useful or neat. I want to make sure they succeed; I want to make sure they last. In order to do that, though, I have to sideline the pleasantries and tell them what they need, not what they want, to hear.

My biggest weakness is my inability to let go. It’s extremely hard for me to walk away from something unless it’s finished, perfect, and cannot be improved in any way on any level. It’s a bit of OCD mixed with a perfectionist mindset, piled on top of a scientist’s mentality. It’s vicious, and incredibly hard to combat.

BC: What has been the high point in your journey of building your company?

KS: The high point of my journey thus far has been building teams based on individual skills and collective goals and needs. When I find myself steering some ship built by a group of people who are consciously, willingly on board, it’s one of the best feelings in the world. Leading is an incredibly taxing task, and requires more humility and compassion than anything else, but I’ve found that I’m at my best when at the wheel driving home my team’s idea.

BC: What has been the low point in your journey of building your company?

KS: The low point came shortly after Doug and I left UGA and were faced with the difficult decision of whether to go to work in the corporate world of salary men, or go out on our own immediately. I’m glad we decided not to take the corporate jobs, but my personal decision was eclipsed by my understanding that someone else would also be making this sacrifice. Failing myself is one thing, but failing someone else who fully believes in me and what I’m trying to do is a wholly different beast. It’s something I swore right then I’d never do, so I’m constantly making sure that if the ship goes down, no one but me goes with it.

BC: What is the best thing about being the founder of your own company?

KS: If there’s a project I disagree with ethically, a toxic client I understand will do us more harm than good, or an unhealthy relationship between us and another business, I can shut it down immediately. I have to make the decision as to whether or not it’s best for us in the end to endure, but the best thing about being the founder is that it’s a conversation, not an ultimatum. I can understand that saying no will hurt us, but still have the ability to do so, and there’s something very empowering and satisfying about that.

BC: What particular quality do you bring to your company that makes you stand out as a founder and leader?

KS: I refuse to view anything in a negative light, even when knee-deep in strategy and risk management. Nothing is “bad” for me, not even failure. In my opinion, leaders don’t have the luxury of blame. They must first, and always, isolate and improve what’s working and drop everything that’s not. Coldly, coolly, calmly, and impartially.

BC: What is your favorite thing to do when you are not working?

KS: I know it’s unhealthy, but I program when I’m not programming. It’s a difficult concept to explain to those who’ve never programmed before, but I liken it to professional baseball. When you play because you love the game, then being paid to play is all the more sweeter. Sometimes, though, you don’t want to play when and how you’re told to play, you just want to play.

Programming is like that for me. If I’m programming for a client, I’m just as happy as I’ll ever be, but when work’s done and the day’s over I find myself still programming, just on something I personally want to create or understand.

BC: What would you say to someone who is considering starting their own company? Any advice?

KS: When asked to lead, if you’re able, take the wheel. If you’ve established yourself as an authority, do your job, people are relying on you whether you believe it or not. The rest of the time, follow. If someone else has authority over you, do your job, because they’re relying on you whether you believe it or not.

Also assume others know more than you do. You can’t, and won’t, be right all the time. It’s also terribly exhausting and unrewarding to suppress your own intellectual curiosity, so if you don’t know something, then admit it, say it, learn, and evolve. Egos bruise too easily. Check it at the door with your coat and hat.

Brandon Clayton
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