David Fetterolf | Crain's Tampa Bay

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

David Fetterolf

Background:  

Stratus Video is a Tampa-based technology company that offers on-demand video interpretation to people who don’t speak English and need help communicating in hospital and courtroom settings. The company’s revenue has grown dramatically in recent years. Stratus Video is ranked 66th on the Inc. 5000 list of the nation’s fastest-growing private firms.

The Mistake:

I was smart and thought there was nothing I couldn’t figure out and be successful at.

In my earlier years, when I was president of my first company, going back 20 years ago, and even at my second company, I was too self-confident. I thought I could do everything. I was smart and thought there was nothing I couldn’t figure out and be successful at. That’s a very dangerous thing. I’ve made a million mistakes by trying to do something myself or having my team do something that we just weren’t good at.

The one that hit home the most happened when I was at the second company I was running. We did an acquisition, a pretty good size acquisition. We bought this company, and there were very specific terms. I was really just buying the client base of the company. I was going to take those clients and convert them, from a technology standpoint, and put them on my system. And as I converted them I was going to pay for them.

So I got the deal signed. I looked at the technology, looked at the conversion process, got my head of IT to look at it. But we weren’t experts in this exact software that we were looking at, and we were overconfident. We were like, “Oh yeah, no problem; we’ll convert all those clients, and we’ll pay it off within six months.”

Well, lo and behold, we did the acquisition, and the terms of the deal said if we didn’t convert all the clients within six months we had to take over the entire company – buy it. I thought, “No problem, we’ll get it done.” But we get into the technology and it was impossible to do this conversion. As a result, six months went by and we couldn’t do the technology piece and we had to take over the company, and it was losing money – a lot of money. Which is why they wanted to sell. So I got myself from something that I thought was going to be an acquisition into what became a turnaround. So I had to spend the next year doing the turnaround, firing people, moving offices. It was a nightmare.

You should focus on people’s strengths, not their weaknesses.

The Lesson:

That was a pretty big lesson. What I should have realized is that I’m not an expert in that particular software, and my VP of IT was not an expert. I should have hired a consultant during the due diligence process, someone who knew exactly what this software was and could map out the conversion before we did the deal.

I was a little too young, a little too self-confident. And it cost us many, many millions of dollars and a lot of time because of being overconfident and not going through the right process. I don’t think I would make that same mistake today. We thought we knew everything when we didn’t. The general principle is that you should focus on people’s strengths, not their weaknesses.

Hire around those strengths to fill the gaps. That’s how you build a really strong team and a strong company. At the end of the day, the reason Stratus is so successful isn't because of the technology. It’s because we have the right people, the right team. It’s the people who develop the technology.

Follow Stratus Video on Twitter at @stratusvideo.

Photo courtesy of Stratus Video

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