Douglas Campbell | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Douglas Campbell

Background:  

Roccor is a Longmont, Colo.-based space and military products company that makes satellite structure and component parts. Douglas Campbell co-founded Roccor in 2011.

Campbell also serves as the CEO of Solid Power Inc., a Louisville, Colo.-based developer of advanced battery systems for electric vehicles that he also co-founded in 2011.

The Mistake:

I regret not becoming an entrepreneur sooner.

As I jokingly like to say, I spent a decade-plus learning how not to run companies. I figured I could do it better. But in reality, it’s a somewhat daunting endeavor to just jump into the abyss of the unknown, both from a career standpoint and a financial risk standpoint.

When I left school, I was much more focused on academics. My field was material mechanics, structural mechanics — very technical stuff. Everyone has advanced degrees; at one point I toyed with the idea of getting a Ph.D.

From there, a transition slowly occurred over time. Most engineers are passionate about the question, “How?” In other words, here is an engineering problem, your job is to figure out how to solve it. I could appreciate that, but my passions shifted to the question, “Why?”

Over the course of several years, it was like a switch flipped in my head. I was less interested in various mathematical models and derivations and being able to solve really hard technical problems, and more focused on big strategic questions: Why are we doing this? What’s our end goal? How do we get there?

That shift brought me into conflict with the leadership of the two small companies where I worked. I wasn’t the best engineer in the world, but I was passionate about the strategic thinking. It became a case of my talent and aspirations surpassing theirs.

To be perfectly blunt, they weren’t the most effective leaders, and my aspirations became a threat. I hit the limits of my leaders.

That’s what ultimately pushed me into the entrepreneurship world. It’s been more difficult in some ways and less difficult in others than what I imagined. At the end of the day, all of it’s been immensely rewarding.

To be perfectly blunt, they weren’t the most effective leaders, and my aspirations became a threat.

The Lesson:

Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur. You’ve got to have the right balance of conviction, experience, and capacity for risk.

As you go through your career, you gain experience. You learn from mistakes and success. Also over time, your tolerance for risk generally goes down. Your ability and drive to work long hours goes down too.

I’m still an engineer at heart so I’ll describe it in those terms. If you put entrepreneurship ability on the vertical axis and age on the horizontal axis, it would look like a bell curve. In other words, early on you probably don’t know what you’re doing. Then that entrepreneurship ability goes up and reaches a maximum before tapering off as you slow down and become less willing to make substantial changes.

To me, the sweet spot is that 35- to 45-year-old range. I’m 44, and I’m starting to sense that fatigue coming on a little bit, but back in 2011 I was right in that sweet spot.

One other thing: In my transition to entrepreneurship, I learned an important lesson about incentives. I was doing business development work at this company, and I was bringing a lot of money through the door. This was not a Lockheed Martin-type company. There was no pension waiting for me at the end of the rainbow. This was very much an eventual commercialization-driven organization. The what’s-in-it-for-me was undefined. I was bringing in a lot of revenue, but I had no ownership stake. Things like that became major issues.

I learned that if you are going to have an organization where its power is in the brainpower of its people, you better treat those people quite well. You better give them skin in the game and show them how they contribute. If they are going to work nights and weekends, there has to be some kind of payoff. It can be financial, but sometimes equally important can be career growth, career recognition, and things like that.

Roccor is on Twitter at @RoccorAerospace and Solid Power is at @SolidPowerInc.

Photo courtesy of Roccor.

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email cberman@crain.com.

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain's Denver.