Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ask Wednesday: Coy Pittman on changing the world through entrepreneurship

Burning alive

Edited by Morris Dean

Some of the more interesting people on the planet live right here in my neighborhood, and I’ve interviewed a few of them – most recently Shannon Long of Beyond Measure Barbering Institute and Ministries.
    Another such person is Coy Lee Pittman. If Shannon Long is an enterpreneur – and he assuredly is – Coy Pittman is an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur. And he can build a computer from scratch and is technically very well versed generally in computer software and hardware. He has started two tech businesses, both of which he has sold to move on to what he finds more fun than running a business – starting a new one...and mentoring others who want to start a business. We’re delighted to be able to interview him.

    The second thing I noticed after the two wide-screen computer monitors side-by-side on his desk was the higher math scribbled on his white board:

What’s the math about?
    Oh, I had a bet with a friend last night – he’s my lead developer –to see who could figure out the ejection velocity of a singular neutron star from a paired Black hole event horizon. We just sat our web cams up and went to town [laughs]. I have an insatiable thirst for quantum physics.

Who won the bet? And what is the ejection velocity?
    Naturally I did. He may be able to code better than myself, but I can “math” better than him anyday!!
    Ejection velocity is the rate that a mass is expelled measured against a constant variable(such as gravity).

Tell us about those two businesses you started up and sold.
    The first company I started was a record label. I started the label with $6,000. I slept on couches, ate canned beans and ramen noodles. I sold the company to investors two years later. In those two years I managed to secure distribution through East West/Warner Brothers and I sold the first band I ever signed to Robbie Nevil (you may remember him, he had that huge hit in the 80s titled “C’est La Vie.”)

Uh, never heard of Robbie Nevil, actually....How difficult was it to do that first start-up? Were the obstacles you had to overcome typical of most start-ups?
    My first start-up of course was difficult, as I knew absolutely nothing about the music industry. I was in an interesting position with this as I had “friends” that possessed one or more competencies that I would require to get things rolling.
    $6,000 doesn’t go very far in any business. I signed my first band. We spent $4,000 to record their first EP. I spent $1,000 on a large CD order for them to sell at shows, spent $500 on merchandise, and another $500 on fliers and other promotional material.
    We booked our first show at a brewery a month from the album completion and listed it as a “CD release show.” Every. Single. Day I was out at NC State, UNC, anywhere that I wouldn’t get arrested for trespassing with a backpack full of hand-sized fliers handing them out.
    When the day finally came, we arrived at the venue to see a line wrapped around the building. From that moment on I knew that was my “gig.” I signed on many more bands, some of which fizzled out and became nothing and some of which went on to major labels. I had many interviews and accolades from very respected music publications and even made a name for myself. I was dubbed “The Indie Golden Boy.”
    Two years in I realized I was growing at an alarming rate. I was running the show all by myself, and without more funding I would collapse within myself. Enter three investors. The investors came in and let me continue to run the show for a while longer. After they saw how much money I was generating they became greedy. At which point they decided to try to “oust me.” They tried every trick in the book to get rid of me so they could keep all the money.

What did you do?
    Thankfully, I was meticulous with my books and had (have) a great lawyer. At this point, later in 2008, iTunes really began to take off. I could see the ever so slight decline in our physical sales (Best Buy, For Your Entertainment, etc). This prompted me to really delve into the analytics and do some digging. I came to the conclusion (despite everyone telling me how wrong I was) that the digital distribution age was here to stay. I reformulated, and restructured my marketing approach and physical orders.
    The investors really didn’t like this. They realized we would be taking a 3% hit on our profits for six months. They called a meeting and began to try to “beat me up” again. At that point, I saw my exit, I could see the light. I did some quick math based on my majority share holdings and profit/loss and came up with a very healthy number that I would allow them to buy me out with (upwards of $300,000). They accepted. Within the week, I was at the bank, holding the check that represented my very first successful exit.

How did it go for the investors?
    They ran the label into the ground within two months of my exit.

Was the second start-up easier, or just different?
    UGHHH…the second start-up…let's say audacious? This was about a year and a half later. I decided I was going to create my 9th Symphony here. I was going to change the world of retail.
    Drunkenly in a bar one night – I was having a great time with friends – I wanted to share this great time with Facebook. Guess what, the phone was dead!
    This started my gears turning. Over the next few weeks I had ideas and various applications of said ideas pouring out of my ears. I finally honed in on exactly what I was going to do. I was going to “make shopping social again.” I knew squat about retail, I knew absolutely zero industry experts. I did, however, have an IQ of over 150 and perfect SAT scores, so figuring this out was as simple as 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon mixed with a little math.
    I had a friend of great means that I had met playing video games. He was located in Cleveland, Ohio. I finally got around to tossing the idea out to him, and he “knew a guy.” Enter DJ Rutherford. DJ was the best/worst human being I had ever crossed paths with. DJ was very knowledgeable with regard to business, and DJ seemed to know everyone or someone who knew everyone. I had always been a lone wolf in my business dealings, and he made me realize that I would have to build a team for this venture.
    Through many lunches and phone conversations and introductions I met Douglas Rammel. Doug was the VP of Adidas. Yes, the one who brokered the deal to buy out Reebok. Doug and I became very close and he sort of took me under his wing and began mentoring me and “teaching me the ropes.”
    Over the next two years I developed the idea, built my team, and began the ever so taxing process of pitching to investors. Let me just say there is nothing more humbling than having hundreds of doors slammed in your face despite how passionate you are and how much potential your idea has. I just wasn’t ready.

So…what happened?
    Over the next few months, I was introduced to Sean O’leary and Olivier Terrian. Both are juggernaughts in the Research Triangle Park area [RTP: Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill]. They both took active rolls in mentoring me and developing me as an entrepreneur. Leap forward a few more months and I was ready!
    However, before I was even able to get in front of another investor I was contacted by Sun Capital, a private equity group that buys and sells retailers. To this day I’m still not sure how they got wind of what I was doing, but they did. So I quickly filed for a patent on the business process I had developed and got my application number. Let the negotiations begin! The negotiations are still going on, but let me just say, this is panning out to be the payday that entrepreneurs dream about.

Could you briefly summarize what’s involved in your patent?
    Very briefly, I developed interactive modules for shopping with social network participation. They include:
• The ability to have your body scanned, creating a 3-D avatar on which you can see how clothes will fit you online or on your phone or tablet via an e-wardrobe.
• Real-time peer opinions of a particular article or articles of clothing.
• A brand new process for merchants to obtain analytics for targeted marketing.
That’s the condensed version. [laughs]

When did you realize that you wanted to be an entrepreneur? Were there models in your family?
    My father owned his own company, a construction company. While I like to believe that he had something to do with it, I honestly think my Attention Defficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and my inability to give 100% to something that I am not passionate about played a far greater roll.

Where was your father’s business? Was that where you grew up?
    We were in a small town in eastern North Carolina. But I’ve lived in Manhattan, Chicago, Hollywood, Miami, and Raleigh.

Did you go to business school with the idea of becoming an entrepreneur?
    If you talk to any of my friends, they will all tell you that I love to learn. I get intellectually bored very easily and need to sate my thirst in new and exciting things, constantly. However, I decided to pursue an MBA in some misguided self-affirming boredom-induced lapse of judgment. While, sure, I learned some of the basics, I think the legal side is really the only thing that had value. Everything else I learned by trial and error coupled with amazing mentors.

I get the impression that running a business per se isn’t that interesting to you. Is that correct? Please tell us what you do find interesting about business.
    You definitely hit the proverbial nail on the head there. I have zero interest in opening a chain of McDonalds, or opening a store that sells shower heads. I am far more interested in solving deep-rooted problems in the world. I want to change the world. I want people to have an easier, more enriching experience doing X because of me, because of an idea that I had drunkenly in a bar or in the shower. I love doing the impossible, I love inspiring people that I’ve brought on my team and seeing the fire in their eyes and the passion that drives them. Some people start charities, some people tie themselves to trees to prevent deforestation, some people start a business as a means to provide a solution to a huge problem or gaping hole in a global market. But at the end of the day, these people simply want to make an impact. They want to change the world. I’m one of those people.

You’re already been inspiring me, and I’ve only known you for a week….You’ve told me that you spend a lot of time mentoring young entrepreneurs. Do you consider doing that a business, or is it more volunteer work (unpaid)? Could it be a business? Would that appeal to you?
    No, I don’t consider doing that a business as much as being of service. I see these kids and young men struggling to find an ear, or someone with any sort of experience that will give them the time of day. I know how rough it is to have “very notable” people tell you that your idea is stupid, or this will never work, or just simply laugh at you (yes, that has happened to me). I would never take payment for helping a dreamer out.

You’ve also mentioned that you help “incubate young entrepreneurs for executive rolls”? What does that mean, “incubate them”?
    Incubation is a term in the business world for helping someone or a business grow. Stepping in and applying what you know, preparing a start-up or even someone with “a good idea” for the shark-infested waters yet to come. Not everyone has the mental and emotional fortuity to be beaten down and trash-talked, get up, dust himself off, pull the proverbial daggers out of his back, and get back in the ring for the next beating. I’m here to help get them prepared for that, or if at all possible avoid that altogether with knowledge and preparation offered through my experience.

You seem to be talking about male entrepreneurs. Have you helped any women who want to do something to change the world with a new idea?
    I have not helped any female entrepreneurs, but I would love to! One of my biggest role models is a local female entrepreneur, Dana Dorroh.

What about a person makes him or her entrepreneur material? Would you attempt to mentor someone who really doesn’t have what it takes? How do you find out that they don’t have it? Do you have a set of questions you will ask candidates before you commit to help them?
    If you ran into me in the parking lot of Walmart, you wouldn’t think I’ve done anything more than the next guy. You’d more often than not catch me in gym shorts and a v-neck with a hat on. There are no “tell-tale signs” upon first meeting someone to know if they have “it.” True entrepreneurs do nothing but sacrifice, claw their way into a face-to-face situation with someone that could help them, think about their venture 24/7, sleep with their ringer on high. I slept on friends’ couches and ate ramen noodles for almost a year when I was starting the record label. If someone approaches me with “an idea” or business proposal, I always have a meeting with them. I’ve never turned anyone away before having a lengthy conversation with them. After that initial conversation, I generally know. They either are, or they are not willing to do what needs to be done to make their idea a reality.

How do such people know to look for you?
    RTP is a very tight knit group of people. There are a lot of people that try to reach out to the community. There are lots of start-up programs, websites, and publications through which people can network. through.

Do you have a 5- or 10-year plan when it comes to entrepreneuring? What is it?
    With my latest venture I have created an umbrella company. There are about five ideas that I have milling about in my head right now. With my first start-up within the umbrella we have just about finished our seed capital raise of $50,000 and will be looking into our Series A-round funding very soon. I have more passion for this idea than for any other that I have ever had for a start-up, or for anything really. With this we really are putting our footprint on the world.

How much are you willing to tell us about this first umbrella venture? What is “Series A-round funding”? And who are “we”?
    I'm playing this venture close to the chest! [laughs] But Series A refers to the stage of funding we’re in. You have Seed, Series A, B, and C. They're all contingent on the company's valuation and stage.
    “WE are Anonymous, We are Legion, Expect us.”

What question did you hope we’d ask but didn’t, or what would you like to talk about that didn’t happen to come up?
    One thing you can take to the bank with regards to me is that I will never take myself too seriously. I am as honest as they come. (Don’t ask for the truth if you can’t handle it.) I am huge into any charity that I can help hands-on and will give anyone the shirt off my back. With that said, I don’t offer myself up to many people past helping them out where I can, from an emotional standpoint, as I tend to believe that the human race is inherently agenda-based, misguided by indoctrination, and dishonest.
    Before you offer me up to the chopping block, I’d like to point out that I am aware there are exceptions to the rule. I have met some really great people, having lived in most of the major cities in the US and traveled all around the world.
    But you’ll have to wait till my book comes out to hear about that, I suppose. Look for it late next year. Ready for the best autobiography title in the history of autobiographies?...The Pros & Cons of Burning Alive: The Story of Coy Pittman.
Copyright © 2014 by Coy Pittman

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  1. Coy, it's the simple, honest truth that I have indeed been inspired to meet the latest one of the more interesting people on the planet who live right here in my neighborhood, and to learn some of what you're passionate about. Thanks for the interview and the promise of friendship.

  2. Morris, I truly enjoyed that interview. You know Fred Smith pitched the idea of moving small packages by air to a friend. He wanted a $500. investment. My friend thought he was crazy and past.

    Coy sounds like a fun guy to have a beer with. Although, I'm sure at some point in the conversation he would completely lose me.

    1. I forgot to add they were in a bar drinking at the time.[smile]

  3. Not married!! Yet at least! haha, @Ed I like to think the best conversations are had when inhibitions are ever so slightly lowered haha

  4. I believe you be right Coy, but I'll bet my friend would disagree with us.

  5. Now if it were only possible to hear the term "enterpreneur" without recalling Doctor Johnson's "The more he proclaimed his virtue, the more carefully we counted the spoons." Two centuries of history contradicts you.

  6. No spoons here, I assure you. I was never given a thing. I paid my dues and put in the work.

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  8. Yes. Coy Pittman is truly an inspirational entrepreneur. A lot of young entrepreneurs need to hear his story. We all love a good entrepreneurial success story with all the failures it entails, which I think is the beauty of Coy's story. At any rate, I think he'd do well in his attempt to change the world. Moreover, I think he has a real shot at it. Hahaha! Thanks for sharing a great read, Morris! More power to you!

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