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Pivot or Die

Pivot or Die

Graphic with photos of Deborah Simpson and Karla Nelson. Title: PIVOT OR DIE

What are the keys to success from an incredible serial entrepreneur?  Debs has12 great IPOs under belt.  So what are her secrets?

Deborah has taken 12 companies from start-up to a successful public offering IPO (2) and 10 acquisitions. Her roles ranged from CEO to CFO to COO and board member on more than $1 billion worth of M&A transactions with companies such as Adaptec (IPO), ARGO Systems (instrumental in getting this sold to Boeing for over $1B), Auspex (IPO), and Kalpana (Sold to Cisco for $250M).

NASA invited Deborah to be on their incubator board which she served from 1995-2004. During that time she was involved in launching the first 9 months of eBay.

Prior to Gatekeeper Innovation, Deborah was a partner, CEO, COO & CFO of The Brenner Group focusing on helping startups that were funded by VCs. She and the team strategically helped them find their ideal market and acted as their C suite level executives for launch and created an average growth rate of 500%. She was also in charge of recruiting and managing all 60 members of the Brenner Group.

Due to her mathematical background, Deborah was the first member of the worldwide high technology team at Arthur Andersen to help startups succeed. She managed tax and consulting engagements for high technology companies and raised more than $50 million in public offerings. She was featured in the Wall Street Journal on the management skills need for a successful startup.

Deborah graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a B.B.A. in accounting.

Website: https://gatekeeperinnovation.com/

Cause: http://eyeinamerica.org/

LinkedIn: Deborah Simpson

Listen to the podcast here:

Read Along as Karla and Deborah discuss Entrepreneurship

Karla Nelson:  And welcome to the People Catalysts’ Podcast, Deborah Simpson.

Deborah Simpson:  Thanks, Karla.

Karla Nelson:  Or Debs, as I like to call her.

Deborah Simpson:  Well, I want to thank you so much for having me. I’m just so excited to be here.

Karla Nelson:  Yes, yes. Well, oh my goodness. Talk about the amazing entrepreneur. I mean, you’ve done just about everything, when you look at your genre, so you have to share with us, where did that start and what was your story from an early entrepreneur to what you’re working on today?

Deborah Simpson:  Where do I begin? I started my career at Procter & Gamble and they switch you jobs every six months, so you basically don’t have a clue what you’re doing. Then my husband got a transfer to the West Coast and I joined a worldwide consulting firm, and as luck would have it early in my career, I became one of the first worldwide high technology consultants. I was very confused at the time. I said, “Well, I’m a mathematician, but I come from consumer products, so how do I get to be a technology expert?”

Karla Nelson:  Figure it out.

Deborah Simpson:  Anyhow, the reality was, I was a sacrificial lamb. The consultant group needed somebody to be a liaison between the venture capital community and the startups. In the early eighties, they were failing left and right, and they felt that the accounting groups should have some responsibility. So I was really a sacrificial lamb and I’m just very blessed and lucky in my career. Through that, took a couple of companies: IPO, Adaptec, with Larry Boucher, who’s an amazing individual, and then we formed Auspex together on a napkin, which was the first file server company, in the late eighties. Then I went the CFO route for a while and-

Karla Nelson:  Really? Well, mathematician, CFO, that kind of makes sense, but just knowing you …

Deborah Simpson:  Well, I’m also CPA, but I don’t really share that. I can say, the number one thing that someone told me very early in my career: don’t ever worry about the money because you know what, if you work off your passion and have fun, you will succeed. And I have lived by that. I can tell you, I have had the most fun in my career. From then, it was growing, I’ve had 12 successful exits, of which, two were in the eighties, the Adaptec and Auspex, and I was a consultant to both of those groups. Then, as I was a CFO, I started just really jumping in, helping companies, specifically medical devices, because I really believe in social purpose in the companies that I’ve dealt with. But I could tell you funniest stories across the board because it’s hysterical. If I have to get one message across, I think I would say, make sure you enjoy the process and have fun.

Karla Nelson:  There you go. Well, and I love that because we’ve heard all this passion, passion, passion, and what’s interesting is I’ve worked with a lot of people and they’re like, “Yeah, I want to find my passion. I don’t know what it is.” However, the second thing they say is, “I want to help people.” So what is your methodology behind finding that fun and passion and helping people because when you discover the why, like why this is so important, it’s interesting how you’ll overcome so many different obstacles and just figure it out. With those 12 companies, what was it maybe about one or even all of them that just drew you into that so that you get in the trenches and honestly get crap done.

Deborah Simpson:  Exactly. I think there’s a couple of things that you need. You need a tremendous amount of tenacity because if you don’t have that, basically … I think everybody knows what a big bull is, out in the cow field, imagine getting kicked in the face by him probably six times a day with 2000 pops coming at you. But it’s just not unusual. I mean, they-

Karla Nelson:  I love that. The mindset to be prepared to get kicked in the face. There’s something there because that’s true. Because everybody sees your wins, they don’t see how many times you got kicked in your face prior to having those wins.

Deborah Simpson:  Exactly. Well one of the stories … Reid Dennis, I don’t know if you know him, from IVP. I believe Reid’s 95 now. Last time I talked to him he was 89 and he said, “You don’t need me anymore.” He said, “I’m 89, I’m going to go take care of my grandkids.” He’s just the most amazing man. Anyhow, but I met him in the early nineties when I was working as a CFO, and I went into the board meeting and the CEO — I’m not giving any names — had changed my financials because he had made a $2.5 million mistake, and he tried to hide this from the board of directors. So I went into the board meeting and I opened up the financials and all my numbers are different. So I just slowly shut the book, and I said, “Thank you very much. I appreciate working with you guys, but I just want you to know, I don’t represent these financial statements, and as the chief financial officer, I hear by resign.”

Now you’re dealing with the top venture capitalists and Stanford executives in the world, and basically — I think there was 10 of them — I just walked out of the board meeting. Because you have to stick by your values.

Karla Nelson:  There you go. Have fun, get into your passion, but stick by your values.

Deborah Simpson:  And don’t compromise. And so what happened-

Karla Nelson:  Well, because when you compromise, it’s not only in the situation that you’re compromising, you’re compromising yourself. Then to think about the mindset that if you compromised yourself, that that would completely affect how you showed up. I know it would for me.

Deborah Simpson:  And believe me, I’m an out of the box thinker, I’m probably one of the most creative people you’ll ever meet, but there are issues that you don’t compromise, and that’s integrity and honesty. Those keys go over and over again. I’ve had a couple other experiences and situation where basically, I just said, “If you want to do this, that’s great. I’m just washing my hands. I have too much work to do anyhow.” My phone rings too much as it is.

Karla Nelson:  One of my wonderful mentors that I’ve had — and I say mentor, even though you pay him — is the fact that most of the time, business is exercise in exclusion versus inclusion. Because I think, especially those of us that have been in marketing and sales, we’re constantly trying to fit something in instead of realizing that it’s about saying no. Like, “No, that’s not in my value system.” So many times we’re trying to include, and really, if you look at it, and focus on excluding it … And even in marketing, really. I mean, blue ocean strategies, 66% of the market is about just being different and being unique and it’s about exclusion. Like when you read these advertisements, it’s like, “They’re excluding people. They know who they are and they’re excluding people.” And I think that’s really an interesting human nature piece that we don’t talk about enough.

Deborah Simpson:  No. Another thing we don’t talk about enough is marketing. Your marketing is your driver, and no matter what anybody says, do you know how many times I’ve sat down in meetings with entrepreneurs and engineers, and they say, “You know, this product is so exciting. It’s going to sell itself.”

Karla Nelson:  Whatever. No, it’s not.

Deborah Simpson:  comment ever.

Karla Nelson:  Our good friend, Ernesto Sirolli-

Deborah Simpson:  I love that guy.

Karla Nelson:  In his TED talk, there’s three different people: marketing people, product people, and financial managers. So you got the marketing who will sell it for $1 when it costs $2 to make, product people, who just want to dump all the cash into the product people, and the financial managers are like, “We just need to make some money around here.” Marketing is critical, and there’s, obviously, many reasons why it’s so critical and it’s so human nature. So what have you experienced in your entrepreneurial journey, in regards to marketing, that has really made a difference in how it has been received? It’s so important, and there’s so many yahoos out there trying to say, “Oh, we do marketing.” It’s an interesting topic to have a conversation around, but what has your experience been?

Deborah Simpson:  I guess luck early in my career. I’ll give you a great example, the first person hired at most startups, with the mentors that I worked with, was a marketing communications person. First person, before anyone else. So I think a little tiny company, which was acquired by Cisco in … I want to say it was 1992, that’s when we sold that one. We sold it to Cisco. John Chambers was VP at the time, but he was going to be promoted to president. We had it sold to IBM for 180 million, but the San Jose Mercury News reported it at 150 million. So John came in and we were … I don’t know if you’ve ever closed a deal with IBM, but IBM has, I believe they have — I’m exaggerating — but a hundred binders, each one with 10,000 questions in it that they have to complete before they can do an acquisition. It’s a very, very painful process to put it lightly.

Karla Nelson:  Well, same thing on the VC arm. Oh my gosh. If you want to get investment from them, good lord-

Deborah Simpson:  Well, and we were three weeks from closing the deal. So Jim at the time, he asked me, he said, “Can we …” And everybody just looked and said, “No, we’re not doing this again. It’s done. We’re three weeks from closing. We’re out of here.” And John Chambers looks and he said — an incredibly classy man — he said, “I’ll close in three weeks.” Anyhow, we sold in three weeks for 250 million. So it ended up being a really exciting, really good deal. And I say we, I’m just a consultant on the side, help giving direction, but one of the most unique marketing things that we did in that particular company, Kalpana, was we had incredibly strong MarCom with an executive named Larry, who was absolutely amazing, brilliant across the board, but Larry’s not a strategic mind.

So I’m sitting down with the CEO and he said, “I don’t know what to do. We don’t have any marketing strategy.” And I said, “Well, let’s just split it in two.” He looked at me, he’s like, “You can’t split marketing in two.” And I said, “Why not?” And he said, “Whoa.” Anyhow, to make a long story short, we split it two, now it went to Larry and Charlie, and Charlie was one of the top executives at Cisco. Now he’s CEO of many companies across the board. But just the ability to adjust and change, you have to be tenacious, but you also have to be able to pivot. And if you don’t pivot appropriately, you’re going to die. And in some cases, constantly pivoting.

Karla Nelson:  No more truer in the last year and a half. How do you adjust? And that’s why it’s so critical to understand your market, understand you have to have a great product, but then understand the numbers behind it. That’s really a balance of having a team, just like you were saying, yeah, you were the consultant, but you were the glue pulling all these people together to say, “Hey, this is the part that you do well, this is the part that you do well, this is the part that you do well.” And it’s having the right people in the right place at the right time doing the right thing, and that really is an art and a science to entrepreneurship. I think so many people go at it alone, and that, to me, is a recipe for failure.

Deborah Simpson:  But, Karla, across the boards, it’s listening to your mentors, listening to your people. My first time CEO was in mid-nineties and you meet with everyone who was successful, and I was running around like an idiot, changing my business plan and my structure and everything to how they succeeded. I probably had 200 devices, and I often joked with Reid Dennis, I said, “It costs you 10 million bucks to teach me how to be CEO.” And he just laughed and said, “Oh, well, it was worth it.” But the reality is, when you come from hindsight to foresight, it’s a huge adjustment across the board. But I should let you know, Karla, that I’m a serial entrepreneur, but I’ve never invented anything.

Karla Nelson:  Okay, do tell on that, because I think so many times people think they need to come up with the idea, pick the best idea, set of ideas, run with it, poke all the holes, and do the day-to-day mundane stuff. So seriously, think of that. Serial entrepreneur, never created any of it. Because you’re a mover like me, by the way, so we’re all about picking the best ideas, coordinating them, and figuring out who needs to sit where on the bus to be able to create a plan and then handing that plan off to somebody else. So you have to share that with us.

Deborah Simpson:  Well, let’s just think about how many ideas every day does a human have? Many. But they have ideas. Now, if everybody made a company, then we’d all be running round in our own private jets and the whole world would be, but it just doesn’t work that way. It takes an idea and a very, very strong team, but it’s putting together the pieces, which is probably my strongest skillset, is identifying-

Karla Nelson:  You’re a mover, of course that’s your strongest skillset. Pick the best ideas, set of ideas, prioritize them, and figure out who the heck needs to be on the team to make something-

Deborah Simpson:  And then leverage it and it’ll go … Out of the 15 companies I’ve done, 12 had been … Two IPOs that I’ve been really acting involved in. Now, keep in mind, there’s probably another 50 out there that I’ve consulted with. So out of 15, I had three losses, and those were emotional losses. They weren’t big ones, they were very small angel investments, but social purpose is really key to me, Karla, and one of them was a dental truck company. They wanted to go around to companies to do dental services.

Karla Nelson:  That’s actually not a bad idea if you could execute it well.

Deborah Simpson:  Yeah. Well, then you’ve got capital intensive, then you’ve got contracts, and the skill set associated, and I didn’t have the time to dive into them, but what amazing social cause. I love medical devices, and actually, that’s probably my passion, which is why I got involved with this company that, world await, in probably less than a year, they will be able to scan your heart, basically take a little scanner like this, and tell you if you’re going to have a heart attack 48 to 72 hours before you have, I should say, cardiac event. They keep telling me I shouldn’t say heart attack. have a cardiac event. I mean, this should be, basically, like a blood pressure cuff or a thermometer in every office because of what it can do.

I think you know that I was invited to join the NASA Incubator Board of Directors, and that was really fun, eBay was probably the most famous one that came out of that incubator. There’s ideas left and right, Karla. Even Gatekeeper Innovation, which is involved with the opiate crisis, absolutely every person that has an opiate or any kind of abuse, Xanax, any kind of drug actually, even to save babies. I mean, 2 million babies are poisoned every year from getting into their parents’ medication. It’s a simple locking cap, that’s all it is. Now, why would I waste my time dealing with a locking cap? Well, one, because it was saving lives.

I got a phone call from a mother, and this is probably in about 2015, and she said, “Does this cap break?” And I said, “Well, tell me what you mean.” She said, “Well, it must break in cold weather.” I joked, I said, “Well, we took them to Alaska,” — we love Alaska — “and at 40 below it functioned just fine, so I don’t think that’s an issue.” “Well, it must break.” And I said, “Well, we dropped it off a 10 story building and it didn’t break until the 11th time. So I don’t think that’s an issue.” And then I asked the question, it’s designed to break if someone tampers with it. And I’m telling you, the love that came from this woman, she said, “Oh my God. I thought, my son … You just saved his life, he’s going to wilderness camp.” It’s like, “I cannot believe … He’s going to be 18, and I got this before …”

It’s making a difference. This mother did not know her child. I went through this with my son, which is all on the saferlockrx.com website, and now he’s happily married with two amazing grandchildren, but I would say for five years, Karla, I sat on the edge of my bed crying. I didn’t know if my child was alive or dead.

Karla Nelson:  And how many other parents are going through that, right?

Deborah Simpson:  Exactly.

Karla Nelson:  I mean, like you said, it’s a crisis.

Deborah Simpson:  And then how did I get involved in the heart company? I got involved in the heart company because it was a technology that actually came through the military and the company was bankrupt, but it had not a good staff of engineers, probably the best I’ve ever worked with. Three of them are on the genius level.

Karla Nelson:  It’s bad-ass. I mean, the group-

Deborah Simpson:  And if you take these people and you keep them focused … I mean, you always have to-

Karla Nelson:  Keep them focused.

Deborah Simpson:  They’re always going to go …

Karla Nelson:  They’re always Shakers or Provers, because the provers do whatever, they’re just poking holes in crap, and the shakers are coming up with new ideas like, “No, we got across the finish line.” And that’s engineers. It’s always been 50/50 with engineers that we have worked with, for years and years and years. Either they’re like, idea, idea, idea, and they’re constantly focused there or they’re just have no ability to see the prioritization of what should you be doing right now? They’re just like, ping, ping, ping. So I love that, and it definitely shows too, working with engineers.

Deborah Simpson:  And they’re so fun. And the technology is out there. I mean, they do have some amazing patents across the board.

Karla Nelson:  Oh my gosh, it’s insane.

Deborah Simpson:  But it’s just so exciting because, I’ll give you a great example, guy walked in and he said, “I just got, I was in the emergency room last week for chest pain and I wasn’t feeling good and so I was there for two days and then they let me go and said go to my cardiologist.” So he said, “I just came back from my cardiologist and he says I’m just fine.” He said, “But I understand that you have this machine,” — I believe it was a prototype — “that you can put me on and tell me what’s going on.” So we put him on the machine and then we got on the phone, “Would you please get a taxi to the hospital?” Three of his heart valves were clogged and the cardiologist had just released him.

Karla Nelson:  My goodness. I mean, and talk about that, when you look at the stats of heart-related issues and the cost, you can just keep going, and the fact of lives saved, it’s just incredible. So where can our listeners get ahold of you, Deb?

Deborah Simpson:  Probably the best way is at, I would say, dsimpson@seemedx.com. That’s S-E-E-M-E-D-X .com. I do get a tremendous number of emails, but I do have people to help me across the board.

Karla Nelson:  Thank goodness for our help and support, right?

Deborah Simpson:  It’s all about having fun-

Karla Nelson:  It takes a team. It takes a team, right?

Deborah Simpson:  Exactly.

Karla Nelson:  My goodness, thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Deborah Simpson:  Anytime, this is just really fun.

Karla Nelson:  I love your entrepreneurial story, and there is just beauty within tragedy sometimes and love that you are sharing it with us all.

Deborah Simpson:  I’m here for you, and just doing a great job, letting the world know that, you know what, in America, we are driven entrepreneurs. EYE in America is a non-profit that I formed and basically focusing on helping American youth across the board and drive home entrepreneurship, making it … Fear is one of the things that stops progression within the world, so let’s educate and eliminate fear.

Karla Nelson:  Let’s make sure we get that link in the podcast notes, so I think that’ll be awesome. Thank you so much, Deb.

Deborah Simpson:  Karla, thank you so much for your time today. I appreciate you.


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