Position and movement
It’s a late, humid Friday afternoon in August, and Steve Eick is still in his Chicago office. This wasn’t supposed to be a busy day, he says, but that’s how it has turned out. In truth, the term “relaxing day” would be an oxymoron for Eick, who exudes energy, enthusiasm, and a passion to turn new ideas into companies.
He is the CEO of VisTracks, Inc., a four-year-old company that develops software for collecting mountains of abstract, real-time data and turning it into concrete, graphic, usable information for businesses. It was his brainchild, a response to a universe teeming with sensing and positioning data—global positioning systems and mobile phones are obvious examples—that need to be extracted and visualized if they’re to be useful for businesses.
my line-of-credit money to start a
company...but once we started...it
became clear that being an
entreprenur was way more fun than
working for someone else.”
“Devices can track temperature and humidity, how fast you’re going, how bright it is, whether you’re shifting lanes, your vehicle’s speed, your location, and so on,” says Eick. “We grab that information and put it into a database of useful information: Has the freezer gotten too hot and your food is about to spoil? Has someone broken into a property that’s supposed to be empty? Is a truck driver speeding? Businesses then can use that information to market, predict, and plan.”
VisTracks is the most recent, but almost certainly not the last, company that Eick has started since he left Bell Labs after 14 years on its staff. Even though he now thinks he should have started his entrepreneurial life five or ten years earlier, that first step was a monumental decision.
“I decided I didn’t want to work for a big company,” says Eick, who earned a PhD in statistics from the University in 1985 and now holds 38 patents. “I took the risk, quit, and used all my line-of-credit money to start a company—with really no idea of how I was going to pay it back. It was pretty scary. But once we got started and landed the first few contracts, it became clear that being an entrepreneur was way more fun than working for someone else.”
The first company,Visual Insights, Inc., which produced Web-based software to collect data that companies could use to analyze patterns and predict business trends, was a Bell Labs spinout. The second, Visintuit, was launched with my LOC. In between, he’s created more—SSS Research, Inc., MonitorMyProperty, LLC—each one finding a niche in the burgeoning field of information visualization.
As a “serial” entrepreneur, Eick rarely rests for long.
“Taking risks doesn’t seem to bother me,” he says. “It bothered me the first time, writing that check. When you’re used to working in a job and having someone else do the thinking for you, to go to do it all yourself is a big step, a big change. You basically have to do everything yourself. You need a pretty broad set of skills.”
And that’s where a broad-based liberal arts education might come in handy.
“I think to be successful, at least at the beginning, you have to be pretty broad,” he says. “You have to be the sales guy so you have to close the deal. You’re the financial guy who goes to the bank and gets a loan, and you’re the one to negotiate and lease your space. You have to be personable, and you might have to be the technical guy too, who comes home at night and starts writing code.”
“I can’t really start a new company because I’m sort of busy with the current one. But I did call this other guy who is about to start another company and say, ‘Hey, your ideas have inspired me. Would you consider how we might work together to put the following twist on your analytics idea?”
“Being an entrepreneur is more interesting and rewarding both personally and financially than working for a big company.”
“The way I look at it now is, whatever gig you’re going to do, you’re probably going to have to come in to work 10-12 hours a day. So figure out what you like to do, so you enjoy those hours. Forget your title. The only thing you care about is what happens in the end, and if you’re doing something you care about.”
“I’m proud of the jobs I’ve created for people. I’ve inspired people to go out and do things I don’t think they would have if I hadn’t been here. So I’m proud of that. Hopefully some of the companies will go on and do great things. But more than that, help people do things that they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.”