The art of the start with John Jackovin

John Jackovin is the CEO and founder of BREWD. He lives in Des Moines with his family and is one of the few people that I feel has mastered the art of the start.

He’s founded multiple companies in the area and been through the extreme ups and downs of starting all along the way. Outside of work, he’s a CrossFit enthusiast and a lover of craft beer. I don’t see many people stick with it like John has and I thought this would be a good opportunity to get to know him a little better.

BPM: How many email addresses and email aliases do you own?

JJ: This is speculation, but I am guessing I have 30-40 email addresses. When I start a company I typically create anywhere between 10-20 to use for a variety of reasons.

BPM: What is it about CrossFit that you love so much?

JJ: There is a bit of exclusivity in it. Not that people can’t do it, but they choose not to. It’s painful. It’s scary. And it gets me out of my comfort zone. I think the more you can feel comfortable with being uncomfortable the better you will be as a person and ultimately an entrepreneur.

BPM: What was the first company you founded and why?

JJ: I started a company called InSight Solutions in 1999. It later turned into Ontuet. We collected and normalized product info for two-step hardware distributors like Ace Hardware and True Value. My partner and I created the company because not only do they sell the 65,000 products that they stock in warehouse, but the stores have access to millions of products that they can buy drop ship. Because of this, they often have a huge data collection problem.

My business partner, Tom Love, came to me and asked if I wanted to develop a piece of technology to collect this info. So, I bought a book and an MSDN subscription and built our first product which we sold into Ace Hardware and others. Of course right away I brought on a friend of mine, Jeff Stapleton, to really build out the infrastructure. That was a critical piece of the puzzle.

Honestly, it taught me that the right people can make your company and the wrong people can break it.

BPM: You were involved in a custom window company if I remember right. Tell me everything about that without it getting weird.

JJ: It’s funny. As we were running Ontuet, we hit some lean times and were looking for more ways to use our data center (yeah we had a big server room … remember those days?) Tom (business partner) came to me and said he had an idea. His kids were tearing the window grilles off his windows and busting them up. He was just going to remove them all, but his wife said no f’ing way. So, he went to the Home Depot and they said they only sold grills for the windows they stocked and that he should talk to the manufacturer.

So, he talked to the manufacturer and they said they don’t sell to consumers, but the local distributor might. So he called them, and they said they they don’t sell to consumers either and that he should look at the Home Depot.

So, he put together this whole business plan together about how many homes are in the U.S. and how old they are and how many might need window grilles. He thought I would laugh him out of my office, but it made a ton of sense, so we put in some money to have our developers work off hours to build out a configurator so any one, with any window, could make any window grille, in any design. This was back in 2004 when there wasn’t much of this.

Anyway, we worked out a deal with a window grille manufacturer in Wisconsin to take orders electronically and build, stage and ship the grilles with our brand. This company had no retail exposure so it was a market they never had access to. And it was a premium price because they were built one or two at a time. And for us, we made killer margin and never touched the product. Eventually, the manufacturer decided they wanted our margin as well and in 2013 purchased the business.

BPM: How many pushups can you do?

JJ: Real pushups? Probably 30-35 in a row max. A real pushup is when you keep your body in full plank, touch your chest to the ground, and don’t let your thighs touch. You’d be amazed how much harder it makes a pushup when you do them correctly.

BPM: What has surprised you most about the DSM tech community over the last two years?

JJ: I think all communities ebb and flow. I feel like the community, from a community perspective, has regressed a bit. I mean back in 2011/12 I felt like there was a ton of involvement from outside the startup community. Now I feel those people have slowly melted away. Then again, since there is less hype, I think people are starting companies for more of the right reasons vs. just wanting to be part of the cool crowd.

BPM: What advice do you give first time founders about what to focus on?

JJ: Focus on a problem that you can solve given your situation and resources. Some problems may be painful problems, but if you can’t solve them with your resources, seriously consider that before tackling them. Not to discourage anyone from tackling a BIG problem, just make sure you can see all your stepping stones before getting halfway into the water and realizing you don’t have a next step.

BPM: How do you think about describing market opportunity in your companies to investors?

JJ: I think with every company there are the opportunities that you have identified and then others that will present themselves if you are doing your job. For example with BREWD (Fermented Labs) we are providing technology to craft breweries, but if you think other opportunities won’t arise if we are doing a good job, then you’re crazy. I think investors who understand a pitch deck at the seed level and what the company will look like in 3-5 years will be very different things are the type of investors I look for.

BPM: Why in the world don’t more people start companies?

JJ: There is a perception of risk. And it is likely more risky than a 9-5, but the difference is you have more control of that risk. I mean how many companies will lay off 100 or 1,000 employees at a crack? Seems like it happens a lot. As an employee you can’t control that. Entrepreneurs have to be uncomfortable for a period of time, and there is risk, but we have a more direct impact on that risk. I also believe some people just don’t think like an entrepreneur. I see a problem and wonder how I could fix it. How much money would it take? How quickly could we fix it? How big of an issue is it? Other people just get annoyed.

BPM: What’s your favorite food?

JJ: I love burgers and wings. If I can count beer as a food then beer too. Craft beer to be exact.

BPM: Why stay in Iowa? You’ve done TechStars and you’ve built multiple businesses in the past. Why are you here?

JJ: This is home. I’m a pretty sentimental person and location is important. My family is here. My friends are here. My support network is here. I guess I feel that I should be able to build my business anywhere. And, as most every entrepreneur knows, building a business is difficult. Having the people who love and care for you close is important.

BPM: What’s your favorite color?

JJ: I am a black and gold type of guy.

BPM: Are you superstitious?

JJ: Yes I am. I know it’s all bulls–t (* knocks on wood *) but I don’t care.

BPM: What is your favorite food to cook and why?

JJ: I like overly-complicated meals. I am actually pretty good at making meals and like to do stuff that most people don’t want to try just to prove I can (see a common theme???).

Editor’s note: This interview was initially conducted in early 2017.

Ben Milne is a co-founder of Clay & Milk and the founder of Dwolla, a technology company in Des Moines.