Entrepreneur Summit: Fort Worth startup leaders share stories of failure, success

🕐 5 min read

Entrepreneurship comes with lots of headaches: sleepless nights, over worries about making payroll and repaying investors, funding shortfalls, equipment malfunctions and fear of failure, sometimes followed by failure.

But the upside is success that comes with perks like being the boss, fulfilling a long-held dream, profitability, contributing to the greater good with a breakthrough product or service and helping others through philanthropy.

Frost Prioleau knows the risks and benefits well. As co-owner of Simpli.fi, a Fort Worth-based digital advertising firm, this is Prioleau’s fourth startup and the one he hopes has the most staying power.

Prioleau shared his experience with entrepreneurship and startup companies as keynote speaker at the Fort Worth Business Press’ Second Annual Entrepreneur Summit on Friday, Oct. 20 at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

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As a serial entrepreneur, Prioleau said he has learned many valuable lessons over the years, including “watch out for debt.” But the one lesson that resonates over and over in his head is “work hard, be nice.”

A native of the San Francisco area, Prioleau began his career not in technology, but working in his family’s foundry, which manufactured metal castings for aerospace companies like Bell Helicopter, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney. From a job on the conveyor line, he moved up to sales after finishing college at Princeton University. That job gave him experience in dealing with customers and their needs.

When the business was sold several years later, Prioleau took his share of the earnings and invested it one of the first 3D printing machines that cost about $250,000 and were only being bought by heavyweight companies like Pratt & Whitney and General Motors.

Prioleau figured out how to make the printer useful to his old foundry customers as well as customers in other industries. He and his team bought more machines and grew the business to $24 million in revenue, 200 employees and four locations, including one in Oregon to service Nike.

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“But the biggest lesson that I took from that business lay in the piece of advice that I ignored….and that cost us the business,” he said.

The company’s business plan was to load up on debt to minimize dilution and retain more ownership. Prioleau recalled pitching his expansion plan to a venture capitalist from Silicon Valley who told him, “We don’t believe in financing risky growth plans with debt.”

Sure enough, after taking on more debt to buy more printers, the market for the company’s services sank and the company failed.

The experience was painful but Prioleau had no time to waste. “Don’t wallow in self-pity.”

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Prioleau quickly went to work for a friend’s software startup company. The company grew quickly and soon went public. He recalled the company’s lavish 1999 Christmas party in San Francisco with a vodka bar made out of ice.

Three months later, the Internet bubble burst. Prioleau was named president in the hopes that he could turn the company around. “Toxic debt. Public company….there was no place to hide.

“This was the scariest job I ever had in my life,” he said.

Through downsizing and persistence, he managed to stabilize the company and break even without debt.

By then, he knew it was time for a change so he took a year off to travel with his family and then in 2003 moved to Fort Worth, the hometown of his wife, Martha. He started two businesses, a printing firm that used a patented printing process, and Personifi, a digital advertising business and predecessor to Simpli.fi.

His takeaway from that experience: “startups are hard and need 100 percent attention.”

Prioleau sold both companies in 2008 and then started Simpli.fi in 2010. He cofounded Simpli.fi with Paul Harrison, who had worked with him at Personifi. Chief designer Armin Roehrl was also part of Personifi.

Prioleau’s other advice for successful startups is to know the industry, hire good people and create a culture embracing values such as honesty, respectfulness, customer-focused and growth-centered. Last but no least: fun.

“All of a sudden, it seemed like all kinds of self-organized activities were happening – Nerf wars, Beer-30, wine clubs, goldfish funerals,” he said. “Our team has bought into owning the culture. The buy-in has been amazingly powerful to the success of Simpl.fi.”

In August, GTCR, a private equity firm based in Chicago, announced it will acquire a majority stake in the Simpli.fi.

Fort Worth Business Press teamed up with IDEA Works FW, the United Way and The Alternative Board to present a series of workshops focused on pitching a business plan, securing capital and social entrepreneurship, which involves interfacing a profitable business with a charitable or worthy purpose.

Single mother Lisa Freeney launched her new company, Lisa’s Lemonade last month to provide an alternative to people who must eliminate sugar from their diets. Her son diagnosis with ADHD when he was in kindergarten 10 years ago and eliminating sugar, dyes and preservatives were part of his treatment plan.

Since her family loved lemonade, she waited for a product to come on the market that would meet her needs. Finally, she gave up and decided to invent her own.

Repeated attempts proved disappointing until she came up with a recipe that met her needs and tasted great.

“I had a real passion for this,” she said as a panelist. “It was not just to make a product but also to make a difference.”

Michael Fletcher, founder and CEO of RIDE TV, a television network dedicated to equestrian culture, said he is an entrepreneur who found his niche in media through sales.

His privately-held corporation based in Fort Worth provides 24-hour programming.

Shareholders include John Paul DeJoria, founder of Paul Mitchell Systems and Patron Spirits Co., Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, Tom Moncrief and former Dallas Cowboys tight end Jay Novacek.

“I started selling flower seeds at age 6 so I’ve been an entrepreneur almost all of my life,” said Fletcher, who was also a panelist.

Contact Lauren Vay for information on future Entrepreneurship Summits. lvay@bizpress.net

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