MP spoke with Riggs Eckelberry, co-founder of the company that eventually became OriginClear, about his entrepreneurial journey. Beginning in 2014, Eckelberry and his team developed a series of transformative businesses that OriginClear manages as the Clean Water Innovation Hub™.
Riggs entered the water industry after 25 years in high technology, specializing in commercializing breakthrough technologies. During the dot-com rush, he worked on a series of tech successes, such as Quarterdeck’s CleanSweep, security software vendor Panda Software, and the sale of companies to EarthWeb, BeFree, and BellSouth. Before founding what is now OriginClear, he helped drive security software company CyberDefender to an IPO on the NASDAQ as its President and Chief Operating Officer.
The entrepreneurial journey is one of self-discovery. What have you learned about yourself while building your business?
This is good.
It’s also bad.
Let me explain.
The good: I move quickly and can make things happen fast. I can get deals done and don’t take excessive time deciding things.
The bad: If I don’t make sure my team is on board, I can carry the whole burden myself. This is the opposite of team-building! Also, going too fast can result in the wrong decision.
So… I’ve learned to move things along to ensure people are on board and proper evaluation is done.
That might seem to slow things down, but it means others will carry more and more of the burden, which means that the organization can expand, and I don’t get overworked!
The entrepreneurial journey is often lonely. Have you experienced loneliness as an entrepreneur?
We were undercapitalized when I first had my own company in New York in the eighties.
And meeting payroll for 13 people twice a month was a problem no one else owned.
That is a world every entrepreneur knows!
Then with my current company, it took me many years to pull together the team we have now.
Now I worry less about meeting payroll, and our execution is phenomenal.
So I’m far from lonely these days, and I have the chance to think things through as I’m not doing all the jobs. It took so long to build the team that I now know why leaders take their people with them to the next project!
The Psychological Warfare
Entrepreneurs generally sleep less, work more, and let their health slip. This combination, combined with loneliness, often results in insecurity, self-esteem issues, and low self-worth. Have you experienced any of these issues as an entrepreneur?
For me, having the right person in my life is everything.
My late wife and my current one have been amazing partners who grounded me, provided support, gave me a life outside of work, and were willing to tell me what they thought honestly.
For a person who doesn’t have a relationship partner, it’s essential to develop a close friendship with someone who you feel “gets” you, fueled by such vital things as ski and sailing trips together!
Newer entrepreneurs often equate their personal success with the success and value of their business. If their business fails, they are a failure. If their business succeeds, they are a success. Have you experienced this warped perception of reality?
That business I started in the eighties?
Eventually, I lost faith and gave it away to my best salesman, who built a great company.
It was a tough blow, but I recovered by learning a new set of marketing skills on a series of projects.
I knew so much more the next time around!
Learning new skills absorbs the attention and focuses you on being excellent.
That’s how it gets better.
What are your three biggest fears as an entrepreneur, and how do you manage those fears?
1. Running Out of Money
I recently watched Elon Musk speaking at the All-In Summit 2022, and I was amazed to hear that he still worries about funding for Tesla! Granted, he’s got more breathing room, but to hear that he still thinks about that money horizon… really means we all have that as our first and foremost concern.
2. Being Wrong
I once had one of those interviews with regulators because we announced something a partner told us without first verifying it.
It wasn’t wrong, but the timing was poor.
It all came out fine, but one of those is already too much!
So for the CEO of a public company, there is always the concern that regulators will have a problem with something you do… or don’t do.
But after 14 years as a public company, I think we’re getting the hang of it.
On top of it, we now have a very strong CFO in Prasad Tare, which is very comforting.
As always, you don’t want to go it alone.
3. Not Leaving My Mark
We’ve set our sights amazingly high – a revolution in how water projects are privately funded – and succeeding could affect people worldwide.
We’re doing so well; my strong team ensures things happen.
But when success is defined as something HUGE, you can’t afford to settle for less!
What are three mistakes you made early on as an entrepreneur, what did you learn from them, and how can others avoid these mistakes?
1. Jumping Right Into an Industry I Knew Nothing About
I had never been an entrepreneur, and then suddenly, one day in 1983, I became one!
I jumped right into an industry I knew nothing about (computing) and learned there is nothing like an apprenticeship in a junior position before jumping into an owner’s position.
Fortunately, I did that apprenticeship for my current job, which is a big reason why we have lasted more than a decade.
2. Not Having a Clue About Strategic Finance
Early on in that same company, I was given the opportunity to go public.
This would have given me the capital I needed. But I turned down the banker, saying we weren’t profitable!
The fact is that modest capital would have ensured we prospered, and companies routinely go public while in their developmental stage.
3. Not Thinking I Had the Leverage To Build a Great Business Right From the Start
For example, by acquiring a solid existing company. I didn’t understand how much financial power I had through having a public company with plenty of investor support. Today, we know we can be ambitious and get it done!
What are three things you see that are often overlooked by entrepreneurs you encounter, and how can other entrepreneurs be aware of these things from the beginning?
1. The Importance of a Team
You just can’t go it alone, and the best entrepreneurs focus on building great teams.
2. Responsiveness to Public Needs
You must ensure that you successfully deliver a great product or service to promote it well. The alternative is terrible word of mouth and the end of your business.
3. Remembering To Have a Life
Especially after COVID, we’re all a little too tied to our computers and the virtual world – and that’s about to get worse as we get into augmented reality…
For example, I try to ski at least 20 days a year.
It’s tough but so rewarding to get a total change of scenery!
What are three seemingly insurmountable obstacles you’ve faced as an entrepreneur, and how have you overcome them?
1. Fixing Our Business Model
When COVID hit, we had to look at our business model and fix it. I heard the CEO of Airbnb compressed something like ten years in ten weeks doing the same thing.
We weren’t quite that bad, but we had to work out a solution to an industry-wide problem: the incredible slowness of projects.
And we solved it!
2. Lacking Persistence
The lack of capital I experienced in the eighties created a tangle that eventually caused me to give that business away (and live through a terrible period for my finances).
But I had something good, so the insurmountable obstacle was me – my lack of persistence in the face of ridiculous odds. I had it… I just needed to do it.
3. Combining Technology and Commercial Savvy
It took me years to acquire the combination of technology and commercial savvy, our modular product line, headed by a real industry guru and supported by an influential administrator.
We had creativity and competence, but they were not integrated. And so we struggled.
To accomplish big, you must have huge creativity and proven competencies, all working in the same direction.
Otherwise… nothing happens!
What are three ways you have managed to boost your productivity without causing burnout?
1. Living in a Safe Place That Is Not Likely To Be Disturbed
You want your personal life to be together so you can work without distractions.
We feel blessed that we are living in a great place that we purchased, by the ocean in Florida.
That move from LA in 2020 was the best decision ever.
2. Sitting Back and Relaxing
Go for a walk. Have people over for dinner. Take a nap. Otherwise, it just gets too grim!
3. Adopting the Right Workflow Tools
We have carefully adopted the right workflow tools, including a top-tier task management system and a killer CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system. These days that is critical to business success!
How can newer entrepreneurs develop a healthy work-life balance even when it seems like an impossible task?
Build your personal life by investing in a family or having a close circle of friends. Human interaction is the most important thing and goes way beyond the value of nice cars, homes, and all that.
What three key pieces of advice would have made your entrepreneurial journey easier, and why?
1. Be Sure To Learn the Trade You Plan To Succeed In
It just makes life so much easier. The reason is that you have the benefit of context for your decisions.
For example, in the mid-eighties, I focused on minicomputers for businesses – when networked PCs were the new trend.
I could still succeed, but I wasn’t on the “big wave,” – which made the job so much harder.
2. Avoid the “Big Deal” Just Around the Corner
I have seen a small business team mesmerized by the potential of a single, transformative deal, which never comes to pass.
The better way is ALWAYS to build a volume flow of routine business.
3. Work Hard To Delegate the Grind
Despite having a dozen staff in my New York IT company in the 80s, I designed every single client proposal down to the surge suppressor!
This got very old.
I would have been better off standardizing proposals and delegating them to someone else.
As an owner or CEO, give yourself the freedom to think and plan.