Q – Kindly give our readers an introduction to your business. Please include what your business is all about, in which city you are located and if you have offices in multiple locations/ cities.
Tom Paul – Pop Art was one of the first digital agencies in Portland, Oregon back in the late 90’s. The founders, Josh and Steve, graduated from Stanford and USC in the spring of 1997. During a brainstorm one night, they observed that the world wide web was a place where commercialism and art collided, hence “web design is kind of like the new Pop Art.” The URL was available and the name stuck.
At that time, there were only four employees in a cramped office with a desk and computer in each corner of the room. In the middle was a couch with a TV and VCR. The only tape in the office was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, so they watched it endlessly.
The first project the company did was the e-commerce website for the Stanford University Bookstore. Freightliner hired Pop Art to build their mytruck.com web site in 1999. I joined up in September of 2000. Over the years we were by turns a web design and development company, an interactive marketing agency, a custom software developer, technology consultancy, prototype builder, and full-service web and mobile application development company.
In a fast-moving industry, you have to adapt. I think our ability to reinvent ourselves is a big reason for why we’re still around.
As David Maister pointed out in Running the Professional Services Firm “The only truly sustainable competitive advantage is to learn faster than your competitors.” Needless to say, I whole-heartedly agree.
We’re still headquartered in Portland, with a globally distributed team.
Pop Art – 100 Best Companies to Work For in Oregon 2016:
Q – Kindly give us a brief description about yourself (it should include your brief educational or entrepreneurial background and list some of your major achievements).
Tom Paul – I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. I grew up a middle class kid in the SW suburbs. My Mom was a part-time secretary but always had some little business or another on the side, whether it was Tupperware, Avon, or a wicker basket business. She was an entrepreneur at heart but always had time to volunteer at school and run the PTA. My Dad was a computer engineer at Tektronix and loved to teach my sister and me about math and Raymond Smullyan, the famous logician who wrote delightful puzzle books.
Over a number of summers in high school and college I had a variety of jobs. I quickly learned that it was much more interesting and fun to be in charge, even though it was much harder and longer hours. In college I was studying biochemistry on a track to medicine but my heart wasn’t in it – I wanted to do something more exciting and outside my comfort zone like “jumping out of airplanes,” so I joined the Army doing PsyOp with the Green Berets.
After putting in my time at Ft. Knox and Ft. Bragg, I found myself at the Defense Language Institute to study Chinese Mandarin. I eventually came back to Portland as a reservist and got a job for a translation agency, where I started doing some work for the government, as well as corporate clients like Nike. I joined Pop Art in 2000 and learned the business while filling roles in project management, operations, bookkeeping and facilities. Looking back, the exposure to so many different parts of the business was the best preparation I could have had for the executive office.
We took home our fair share of awards during the years we operated as an interactive marketing agency (of record) for some large brands, but the awards I’m proudest of are the times we were ranked one of the best places to work in Oregon, including on more than one occasion being ranked the best small company to work for in the state as rated by our employees.
In 2010 I had the opportunity to attend the Stanford Executive Institute New Venture Lab where the team I captained won the NVL competition pitch to a bunch of Silicon Valley VC’s. That was one of the most fun and challenging experiences I have had in my career.
Our SAAS product BAM! Has also gotten some attention on G2, as ranked by our customers. We are consistently ranked as one of the easiest to use and deploy, with the best customer service in the category. As a team we are very proud of this achievement.
Q – What inspired you to (start a new business venture) or (to make significant changes in an existing business)? How did the idea for your business come about?
Tom Paul – Over two decades ago we started working with manufacturers quite by accident. First it was mytruck.com for Freightliner back in 1999, then 7-figure PPC campaigns for Carrier Air Conditioning, creating one of the first true 3d virtual explorations for Louisiana-Pacific, humorously called the LP “exploding house.” And of course, hundreds of websites, IAOR campaigns, and wildly innovative interactive features, like the augmented reality experiences for the Oregon Lottery Mega-Millionizer campaign, and work with Nike and Old Spice. But ultimately it was what happened in 2010 that changed it all. Freightliner was bringing a new truck to market and they needed a new way to get information on the truck and it’s dizzying array of features to buyers in a visually appealing, interactive, and intuitive pre-sales app. Shortly thereafter it became clear that we had something going that could be applied beyond trucks, so we started moving in the direction of heavy manufacturing, construction, farm and ag, mining, forestry.
Q – What three pieces of advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Tom Paul – One, understand that for an entrepreneur in tech the ability to learn fast is a requirement for survival. You are going to be way outside your comfort zone. If you’re not uncomfortable, you aren’t going fast enough.
Two, profit is the new black. I mean, take money if you have to, but why? There are many ways to effectively bootstrap these days. Critically, particularly if you are in software, sell first and build later.
Three, do you want to be rich or king? Think long and hard about that one early on and make informed choices. The path to riches and the path to control are rarely the same, but it’s a matter of degrees rather than principle.
Q – What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?
Tom Paul –
Two, learning (growth mindset).
Three, balance. If your marriage ends and your kids won’t speak to you, it probably wasn’t worth it. If you aren’t married and you don’t have kids, maybe it’s different!
Q – How many hours do you work a day on average?
Tom Paul – The hours are long, for sure. There’s no typical week and it varies a lot. Anywhere from 10-12 hours a day would be standard. I first plan my time with family, keeping myself healthy through exercise, taking a break, the key things to maintain balance. Getting sufficient sleep. The rest of the time is working. But it’s much better to measure impact than work, so I focus on high-leverage activities.
Q – To what do you most attribute your success?
Tom Paul – The people who have helped me along the way. If anyone ever asks me: what’s more important, the journey or the destination? I say: the company. I believe that if you keep good company, your life will be well-lived.
Q – How do you go about marketing your business? What has been your most successful form of marketing?
Tom Paul – When we were an agency, it was really just word of mouth for new business and account strategy for existing clients with a lot more growth from house accounts. Now that we are primarily a software-as-a-service company, it’s a mix of inbound (content) marketing, LinkedIn, and a direct sales flow.
There are so many wonderful marketing automation tools out there these days, it can be a real challenge to build the right stack. But the tools themselves are better than ever.
Q – Where did your organization’s funding/capital come from and how did you go about getting it? How did you obtain investors for your venture?
Tom Paul – We took a single round of angel investment in 2019 when finishing our product and executing our go to market strategy. Our single “super angel,” Javier Hall, is a successful serial entrepreneur and a former Dollar Shave Club executive who was with them from their earliest days and helped them reach unicorn status ($1B acquisition by Unilever). He is also a dear friend, and a classmate of mine in high school and at Oregon State University.
Javier saw the power and potential of the BAM! Platform’s multiple levels of innovation in simplicity and usability and modern design. Nothing like it exists on the market.
Q – What is the best way to achieve long-term success?
Tom Paul – Don’t try to be anyone else, just be who you are – everyone else is taken. Be clear about where you want to go and have a plan. It’s normal to update goals and revise plans, but if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there. Sadly, a lot of entrepreneurs take bad deals from outside investors they regret. Just make sure you have a network of advisors you can tap into for the big decisions and don’t shy away from candid feedback.
Q – Where do you see yourself and your business in 5 – 10 years?
Tom Paul – Pop Art and BAM! Have a great opportunity to deliver true innovation on a wide scale of industrial manufacturing – and beyond. The innovation is all about making it easier for people to do things that right now are much harder than they should be. I expect the company to be successful and growing organically.
Q – Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?
Tom Paul – I can’t limit it to one. The kinds of businesses and companies I admire are many. Disruptive success stories like Tesla and Dollar Shave Club. Unparalleled execution at companies like Amazon and ClickFunnels. Companies that have successfully redefined long-standing brands like Microsoft.
Q – How important have good employees been to your success?
Tom Paul – On a scale of 1-100? I’d say 100. I have had the good fortune of working with some of the brightest, most creative people I’ve ever met at this company over the years. I have worked in and seen many other companies but what has happened at Pop Art over the last two plus decades is simply remarkable.
Q – How long do you stick with an idea before giving up?
Tom Paul – That depends. If it’s a good idea, as long as it takes. If it’s a bad idea, not very long! But there is a key point here. Decision-making is one of the key qualities in a leader. If you make bad decisions you won’t last long. One of our most fundamental decisions is how we spend our time. Spending it on the right things, the high-leverage things no one else can or should do, can yield results beyond your wildest dreams. Spending time on the wrong things is a slow, meandering path to waste and ruin.
Q – What motivates you?
Tom Paul – Growth in myself and others. Achievement in all areas of life that are important. An examined life worth living.
Q – What are your ideals?
Tom Paul – A world where people are unencumbered by technology. Meaning: a world where values such as democracy, freedom, quality of life, and self-determination are achieved on a global scale. Where standards of living are raised worldwide and we harness the power of technology for good, and not as an accelerant to dystopia and our inevitable extinction.
Q – How do you generate new ideas?
Tom Paul – It’s a mindset, an openness to the world. I truly believe inspiration can come from anywhere if one is merely receptive to it.
I love Catching the Big Fish by auteur David Lynch in which he describes how he uses transcendental meditation to find ideas, the “big fish,” that he uses in his stories and films.
Q – How do you define success?
Tom Paul – For myself, in a balanced way, in relation to the key areas of my life, my life accounts. I have seven accounts defined. If I can achieve success in all seven areas, then I am fulfilled.
For others, I would not.
For the world? Gross global happiness, perhaps.
Q – How do you build a successful customer base?
Tom Paul – Taking care of your customers and employees. Which means: helping them solve important problems and giving them tools to solve them, too.
Q – What is your favorite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Tom Paul – The constant challenge and complexity of running a business and being responsible for everything that happens to it. The buck stops with me. It is easily the hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done professionally, and no two days are the same. Which is why I love it.
Q – What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
Tom Paul – Taking the reins of a company where I had started at the bottom and worked my way all the way up. From private to general officer. That and turning my vision for a new type of product into reality. Seeing the difference this makes in the lives of customers and employees.
Q – What do you feel is the major difference between entrepreneurs and those who work for someone else?
Tom Paul – The appetite for risk. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I have spent most of my career working for others and it can be very rewarding under the right leadership and with the right people alongside you. Ultimately, though, it’s like the Sword of Damocles. Everyone thinks it would be great to be in charge until that day comes and you have to make big decisions in an ambiguous context. There’s no off switch when you own the company. So you have to thicken your skin, build up your armor, and go into battle.
Q – What kind of culture exists in your organization? How did you establish this tone and why did you institute this particular type of culture?
Tom Paul – The goal is a results oriented work environment, the classic “ROWE” so admired in texts on operational cultures. If you build the company the right way, and hire the right people, you can focus more on leading than managing. And then it isn’t just you who shines – it’s everyone.
Q – In one word, characterize your life as an entrepreneur.
Tom Paul – Fulfilling.
Q – If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
Tom Paul – My first answer would be “nothing.” My life and career experiences make me who I am. Of course, there are some things I wish I had learned a bit earlier, like the critical foundational skill sets of the entrepreneur, including end to end sales. Perhaps some frameworks on hiring and managing staff. But overall, things happened how they were supposed to. I wouldn’t change anything, warts and all.
Q – How has being an entrepreneur affected your family life?
Tom Paul – When you own the company, you experience both the unbelievable highs and soul-crushing lows in an unfiltered way. It’s very much a rollercoaster ride. To be present and enjoy the richness of family life, I find it helpful to compartmentalize things as a way to keep everything in perspective. They all want to blend together but I don’t let them. It’s just about doing what’s needed to maintain balance, an even keel. Time management skills are critical, too. Even when the weeks are really long, my family always has dinner and quality time in the evening. Even if I have to get back to work at 9 or 10 PM, I feel refreshed.
Q – What is your greatest fear, and how do you manage fear?
Tom Paul – They say fear is the mind-killer, and it’s true. What is the point of fear? To keep you alive. But most of what people fear they choose to fear, and it usually isn’t life and death. Some times, but not most of the time. The tragedy is it’s largely self-inflicted. Or perhaps family afflicted. Yet fear can be overcome with assertiveness, action. Mindset is critical. The old Serenity Prayer comes to mind: serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. The point being that it’s helpful to only be concerned about the things you actually concern yourself with through action. Want to make a bigger impact, make the circle bigger. Or don’t. It’s up to you. But my message to the world: stop wasting your time and energy on things you can’t or won’t impact!
Q – How did you decide on the location for your business?
Tom Paul – I grew up in Portland, and so did the company. No reason to change that yet. We are so distributed and virtual these days, I don’t see the point of spending a lot on an office. Sure, the team needs to get together every once in a while for social interaction and in-person collaboration, but mostly it can be done remotely with modern tools. I think there are always better things to spend that saved rent money on – more people, higher salaries, marketing. And people don’t even have to relocate. These days they can work from anywhere. Let them choose where they want to live, I say.
Q – Do you believe there is some sort of pattern or formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur?
Tom Paul – There is no secret, no hack. I know everyone’s all about life hacks and secret tricks that serve as shortcuts to success – that’s what everyone is selling. It’s natural to want really badly for there to be a shortcut. Six minute abs. To be a successful entrepreneur boils down to a couple of things and they aren’t fancy or sexy or cool. First, the number one thing is learn as fast as possible. Fail fast, yes – but also succeed fast, and then do the next thing. But also learn fast, experiment, try something else and go again. The speed of learning and iteration cycles dictate success. And to go fast means two other things: forgot about your comfort zone – you won’t be spending ANY time there. You are your biggest blocker. Get out of your own way. And you have to do whatever it takes to get there, which means as many hours as you can pour in on the RIGHT THINGS while keeping yourself sane and healthy. And if you’re an entrepreneur starting out you probably have to do a lot of things you don’t want to. A LOT of things.
Q – If you could talk to one person from history, who would it be and why?
Tom Paul – Ray Kurzweil, the noted futurist. You didn’t say the person had to be dead…
I am fascinated that the Singularity he predicts could arrive within the next 30 years, and if it does people might well be able to extend their lives arbitrarily. And yet it doesn’t get much press.
I’d like to really pick his brain about the singularity, what it means, and how to best get ready for it.
Q – Who has been your greatest inspiration?
Tom Paul – Russell Brunsen and what he’s done at ClickFunnels is not just an amazing business success story, but it’s also an incredible personal story. Russell is a wonderful, authentic human being who cares about people and gives back to the world in big ways.
Q – What book has inspired you the most? (OR what is your favorite book?)
Tom Paul – The Art of Possibility. As Life-changing as paradigm shifts can get.
Q – What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve made in business?
Tom Paul – Building before selling. Falling into the trap of the Field of Dreams Fallacy where you expect people to come to the product you built because “it’s great.” Necessary, yes. Sufficient, no.
Q – How can you prevent mistakes or do damage control?
Tom Paul – Have a growth mindset. You will make mistakes, just learn from them, efficiently. Have a process to learn from the and to teach that learning as needed to your team. Don’t make the same mistake twice. Be open about your mistakes and own them. See Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink which is really THE book on how to take ownership as a leader.
Q – What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?
Tom Paul – I like to lift weights and swim, play chess / poker / ping pong / billiards with family, friends and online, play Cataan / Wits and Wagers / Wise and Otherwise / Qwixx with family and friends, go on walks with the family or just the dog. I’m a huge fan of the Blazers and Seahawks so I watch their games streaming and in person when I can.
Q – What makes you happy?
Tom Paul – Seeing other people choose to do hard things, and the right things. When people dear to me are successful and happy.
Q – What sacrifices have you had to make to be a successful entrepreneur?
Tom Paul – I would call them trade-offs rather than sacrifices. It’s all about choices. As long as you think it through and know the risks, you should learn to live with the outcome.
Q – If you were conducting this interview, what question would you ask?
Tom Paul – That one.
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