Mentors’ Monday: William Fay
It’s time for Mentors’ Monday with today’s focus on William Fay! He is the Chairman of the Board of Partner Software with a lot of business experience. I had the opportunity to talk to him about his views on starting a business and being a mentor.
RC: What field do you work in?
WF: I am a geologist by training, but I have owned my own businesses almost my entire career. I had a construction business which was kind of small, and then I had an environmental monitoring business that was founded in 1982. I sold that business to one of my partners in 1997, and I started Partner Software at that point as a spin-off of a group that was in my other company. Partner Software does field operation software for electric power companies.
RC: What do you enjoy most about your field?
WF: The people. Trying to organize a business with the right people is fun.
RC: What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from your experience?
WF: It is very lonely. I am pretty much self-validated. The only person’s opinion I really care about is my own. If I think I am doing a good job and what I’m doing is valuable, then I’m fine. If you own your business you can have employees, clients, and venders that like you, but they are not really involved in your success. You’re not really part of a team. You are out there by yourself for the most part. I think people underestimate the difficulty of emotionally dealing with the fact that nobody cares. That is something most people don’t expect. If you start your own restaurant, the waiters want tips, the cooks want to get paid, the venders want to get paid, and the customers want a good meal. None of them really care about your business; they care about their own parts in it. You have to be comfortable knowing only you take pride in your business.
RC: How do you think starting founders could benefit from your experience?
WF: I have a lot of experience in what works and what doesn’t work. I have come up with some rules of thumb. Never take a risk you can’t afford to lose. If you’re going to take a risk that would risk the stability of your family, I would not suggest taking that risk. I think people are too confident and too optimistic and need to think hard about what the downsides are. If the business doesn’t fail, people have to think long and hard about whether they really want it or not. You can end up with a marginally successful business that you’re tired of running, but you have too much invested in it to walk away. I’ve taken some big risks, but they were never risks I could never afford to lose.
RC: What advice would you give someone founding their own company?
WF: Another rule of thumb is that too many people think about the money. It’s not all about the money. Rather people need to think about whether or not undertaking the business is a good idea for their life. For example, if somebody graduates from college, and they want to try to write a video game, they probably have a zero percent chance of making money. However, it is still a good idea because they will learn a lot about themselves, computers, and software. They will come away with a good experience and with almost no risk. On the other end of the spectrum, there may be someone who has worked for a university for thirty years and decides to start their own business. They will spend a large chunk of their money to buy a business which has a reasonable opportunity of being successful. However, they have no experience being their own boss and no experience being lonely. It is probably a bad idea even if it makes sense financially. They will be putting their stable lifestyle at risk, and it is unlikely that owning the business will improve the quality of their lives. It’s more about building your life than it is about building a particular business. Some people are suited for it; some people are not.
RC: Have you mentored people in the FourAthens space?
WF: I’ve talked to a few people.
RC: What interested you in becoming a mentor?
WF: I love people who start businesses. It’s fun. I like being around people that do what I do. If I can help somebody avoid aggravations, it seems like a worthwhile thing to do.
RC: What is the most important part of a mentor’s role?
WF: To provide perspective. A mentee can get a mentor’s gut reaction about an idea. Different mentors have different skill sets.
RC: What do you think your skill sets are?
WF: The people part. I can help clarify the risk from the benefits and provide some insight as to what might be successful.
RC: What makes for a good mentee?
WF: It’s tough when you are dealing with somebody that is in a business for the wrong reasons. There are people who are believers, but they are not skeptical enough. It is hard to be a mentor when people believe without realizing they may be risking a substantial part of their lives. Good mentees are the ones that are really thinking it through and are open to new perspectives. They are trying to be their own devil’s advocates and are trying to learn from other peoples’ perspective.
RC: How do you think we could encourage more mentors like you to visit the space?
WF: I’m not sure that having more mentors is a good idea. Mentors can be a pain. You are trying to run a business and there is a limited amount of perspective you want to be given. There are certain people at certain times that could use some feedback, but sometimes you end up thinking about stuff instead of actually doing the work. I think the mentee ought to control it. If mentees want to talk to somebody, then they should have pathways to get to the mentors whether it’s office hours or an email.