Thank you William for doing this interview! To start with, will you please share the story of who you are, what you’re doing, and how you got where you are?
I am happy to do that. I grew up on a farm, so my first job was definitely not a traditional job. I went to college at U.T. Martin. There, I got a degree in plant and soil science—which is agriculture. I wanted to do landscape architecture. Closer to graduating, I realized my chosen career wasn’t a long-term passion. My wife and I were writing some music, and our calendar started filling up with opportunities to sing. So, she has a degree in education she never used, and I have a degree in plant and soil science I never used.
As a communications elective, I took desktop publishing while I was in college. That was where I caught the bug for visual design. I was always kind of artsy-fartsy … the “geek sheep” of the family. Growing up, I poured that passion and creativity into music. We did music for about seven or eight years full-time. While we were on the road, the Internet became a thing. People started having websites. I knew that I was not going to be able to afford to pay someone to build a website, and I didn’t even really know anybody that did that. So I got some software. I got online and realized that I could view the source code. I tried to reverse engineer and figure out how people were building their websites. I learned the rules that went with the with the software and put together a website for our music ministry. It went well.
A local business saw the website and said, “Hey I noticed that you did this website. Can you do a website for our company?” They had a lighting and furniture store. I said, “Absolutely I can totally do that for you!” I gave them a price. At the time, I had about 50% of the knowledge I needed to complete that project. I planned to learn the rest of it out as I as I went.
For the next few years, music was the primary money-maker, and the web design work was a smaller thing. We did music ministry for eight years. Then we had a son who traveled with us. My wife become disenchanted with traveling with a small child. She began praying, “God, either give William a passion for something else that he really loves or renew my passion for traveling and doing music.” It was about that time that I started to have an opportunity to do more visual design. So I was able to take some of my creativity and passion for music and put it into visual elements. That was fourteen years ago.
When it started, Sodium Halogen was just me. Now there are six and a half of us. We are spread across four different time zones, and we have clients across the United States.
It sounds to me like you started without knowing exactly where you were going. Did you struggle to believe that you were capable of doing what you were attempting?
I didn’t struggle much because I wasn’t thinking of this as a career. It was just a project. I was thinking, “I’m pretty sure I can figure out how to finish the rest of this project.” Then, project followed project. Soon I thought, “This is something I could do to make a living.” That might have been the reason there was not much self-doubt. I didn’t really understand what I was getting myself into.
Did you ever hit an inflection point where you felt your business was moving beyond your abilities?
Yeah, it seems like that still happens every six months! I think one of the most significant moments was when I still worked by myself. I was able to do the design, web development, and the client relations. I can remember thinking, “I could hire someone to do this part of the job, but that means I have to believe there will be another job after this. I need this money to pay our mortgage and groceries. Do I really want to pay someone to do a job I can do?” I remember it was a leap of faith at the time. I hired someone, and I realized that as much as I enjoy the visual design side of things—working in Photoshop and desktop publishing—I could hire people who were better and faster than me. That would free me up to do some of the things I could do better.
That decision required faith that the future held good things. It also required humility to realize you didn’t have to be in the smartest guy in the room to have a role.
In any enterprise, we can limit our own growth if we feel we have to be the smartest guy in the room. There are times I should be asking questions, but I’m spouting opinions.
I enjoy being the dumbest person in the room because then I have a lot to learn from the other people that are around me. I find myself in that situation often. So I’ve had to become comfortable with it.
How is this business helping you to build something that will outlive you and to leave a legacy?
I definitely try to think big picture. If I have a flaw, I think it’s probably that I love the process, and I love thinking big picture too much. This is at the cost of getting my hands dirty—just putting my hand to the plow and making it happen. I do feel like I’m building something here. I don’t know that I want it to grow into a twenty-five or fifty person firm or to be acquired. I enjoy the people that I get a chance to work with.
We have a mutual friend, Ben, who worked at Sodium Halogen, and I loved it and spent time with him and poured some into his life. I definitely learned some things from him. I think my legacy is the relationships that I get to build with clients and others I meet. I love the flexibility of my work. I don’t have any plans to retire. I enjoy what I do. So much of it is really about my brain. As long as I have that, I’ll be able to go to work.
There is always some tension between where you are now and where you want to be. Do you have advice for people to help them overcome that tension and start a side-business?
I think the closest thing I had to a real job was one summer when I worked at a landscaping company to save up some money for a honeymoon with my wife. I’ve never known what a steady paycheck feels like. It’s always been, “What can you kill and drag home?” I probably got this from growing up on a farm. Farmers are absolutely entrepreneurs. My dad likes to joke that he gets paid one time a year—at harvest. Entrepreneurship was ingrained in me. Fortunately, my wife’s dad is also a business owner, so she’s never known a steady paycheck. Because of that, having a business didn’t create much tension in our marriage even when we were getting started. Neither of us was accustomed to stability.
One thing I would like to say is, “Try not to make career decisions based on money.” Money has never been a big motivating factor for me. If I made more money this year than I did last year, that means the business is growing. It is an affirmation of success. It’s not about what money can do or what I can buy with it. Even if you’re just starting something on the side—nights and weekends working toward that goal—at some point you’re going to have to take that leap of faith.
Be smart about it. Have cash reserves built up. But then, when the time is right, just jump. We can take a risk if we think, “Hey, what’s the worst thing that can happen? Well, I can probably get a nine-to-five if I need to.” If you fail you can say, “I tried that and I didn’t work right now. That doesn’t mean I can’t try again later on.”
Failure is not that big a deal. I think we make too big a deal out of failure. Many of the companies we work with are startups from San Francisco. Failure is not a big deal there. You want to fail fast. Try something big. If it doesn’t work, you pivot into something that works. You keep trying and learning.
I think you may be more qualified to give advice than others since you never made the concessions most of us do by default.
We are talking about Sidepreneur things—starting things on the side. It reminds me about theCO. Myself and four other entrepreneurs from Jackson, TN started it as a non-profit innovation center. It is for coders, creatives, entrepreneurs, tinkerers and makers.
We are running a coding competition in the local high schools. Last year was our first year. We had about ninety students. This year, we have two hundred students participating. The top eleven students won an expenses-paid trip to San Francisco! We’re arranging private tours of Google and LinkedIn. We’re doing a workshop with a friend of mine whose company started the user-experience movement back before the dot com bomb. It’s just an amazing experience to see these high school kids seeing entrepreneurship first-hand—going to Silicon Valley and breathing in that air. Of the six kids that went last year, three had never flown in a plane, and one of them had never crossed the state line. To say that their minds were blown is an understatement.
As for leaving a legacy, my involvement in theCO is all about that. It is not something that makes me money. It has an opportunity cost with all the energy I’ve put into theCO when I could be building Sodium Halogen. It’s so much fun to see how we’re building this community and this idea of entrepreneurship in Jackson, West Tennessee. I hope ten or twenty years from now the landscape in Jackson will have changed and it all will point back to the spark when some guys got together and created TheCO. I’m creating my legacy on the side.
With a nine-to-five job, there’s a big chunk of my life that is taken up. If I’m going to build anything that is bigger than myself, I need to use time outside of that. For you, how important is having a structured life—a daily routine?
Six years ago I had a really tough time with our business. My sole developer gave two weeks notice, and I was not ready. I had six months of work in the queue. I was counting on him to deliver on that. For about a year, I was working twelve to fourteen hour days to complete the work and not lose my business.
The good thing that came out of that was that I changed myself from being a night owl to an early riser. I typically wake up at about five-thirty in the morning. I get up and check email. Then, when the kids get out of the shower, I eat breakfast, sit around with them and talk. They leave to go to school at about seven-twenty. I leave at the same time and go up to TheCO. Up until about a year-and-a-half ago my office was in my house. Now, I actually go into work—something that’s kind of kind of new for me. I work till five or five-thirty. Sometimes I work a bit after that, but I really try to unplug and not worry about work. There are certainly exceptions to that, but typically I don’t get a lot of work done after five or five-thirty.
There are also times we meet at TheCO at eight-thirty and we stay up there until two or three o’clock in the morning working on a project. Those days, five-thirty in the morning comes early, but that’s usually only about once a month. Having a structure helps me stay on track even when I’m up late like that.
What time management habit would you recommend for other people?
Well, we use project management software that I love called Asana. It was created by Facebook guys. Also, we track time using an application called Toggl. I don’t bill based on time. But it’s really interesting to look back and see how much time we spent on each project. It’s good for me to see where I’m spending my time. Then, I can make adjustments and say, “Wow! You spent a lot of time checking email William. Is that really what you need to be doing?” So tracking time has been helpful.
At the end of the year, I sit down and make a list of all the things I’m responsible for getting done. I split this list into two columns. On the left hand, are the things that I either love to do or that I can’t get someone else to do. Everything else goes in the second column. These are things I could find someone else to take care of for me. At least three or four times throughout the year, I look back at that list. I ask myself, “How am I doing? I said I was going to delegate this. Am I really delegating this? Do I have a plan for how I can delegate this?” It’s been forever coming, but it finally feels like a lot of the stuff that I’m working on is the stuff that I can’t put on someone else. I’m able to let go of some work and trust others to get it done. They can do as good a job as I want. I’ve got a bit of a perfectionist in me, and I want it done well.
Think back to when you were starting out in business. Is there anything you wish somebody would have told you about time management that you had to learn the hard way?
I wish I’d started making that list of things I can delegate a lot sooner. I waited about nine years to start delegating. I didn’t have many business mentors back then, and I didn’t go seeking business mentors. Now, I so greatly value having other people around me—not just creative people—that are really good at making business decisions. I can go to them for advice about what’s going on and help with decision-making. This ends up being a good time management thing because you’re more efficient when you get the stuff out of your head and verbalize it to someone else. In the very act of hearing it outside my head, the answer becomes obvious.
Next, I have a money question. Did you borrow money to start your business?
No. We had very slow growth. We’ve been able to weather some tough times because we have been very conservative in that respect.
Would you recommend other people also avoid borrowing money?
I think I would recommend against borrowing money. I would find another way to make it work on the side and build it as you can. Get creative, and find other ways to grow your company. One of the ways I did that was to find other people that were freelancers and invite them to work on a project together. Then, we kept working on more projects together. Eventually, this created a symbiotic relationship. For example, Shane is one of the first people that became part of Sodium Halogen. He didn’t enjoy dealing with the customers, and I did. Instead of hiring someone and having payroll every two weeks, I could pay him as I needed him. It was a bit more expensive to pay him as a contractor, but it enabled us to grow without borrowing money. I think you can be creative. Constraints can be a good thing. They can force you to find another way to make it happen.
Where do you think someone who wants to start a business should search for people who can encourage them—others who can get behind the idea and get excited about it?
I would look for an entrepreneur community that’s in your town. If you can’t find a local one, find one online. One of the most important things in my business career was an email ListServ for web designers and web developers. It was an invaluable resource where I learned there were other people that were doing the same thing as me. I could ask questions such as, “Why is the CSS not working the way it is supposed to?” Or I would ask something like, “Hey, can I get some feedback on this design mock-up?” I would learn from others posting, “Check out this awesome site! It’s so cool how they did this.”
Having that community of creators and entrepreneurs helps if you’re struggling. You can know that there are other people that are also struggling with the same things. Maybe they struggled with it two years ago, and now they have some advice to give you. Find a group of people that can help you. Even if it’s just to commiserate. Just to share your sorrows.
I would like you to tell a story about a decision you may have had to make “in the dark.” A time you had to decide without knowing all the details. Perhaps you did your due diligence but you couldn’t answer all the questions. Ultimately, you had to decide, and you really didn’t know which way it was going to go. Did it take faith to do that, and how did faith affect your decision?
A little over a year ago, a client that we had done work for in Salt Lake City put me in touch with someone who wanted help with a large project. It was going to be about twice the size of the largest project I’d ever done. It was to support a line of bodybuilding products—protein supplements and things like that. It seemed like it was going to be a good project. I was assured by my friend—he said, “This guy pays well, and he’s he’s great to work with. I think that you’ll be a good fit for this project.”
When I talked with the business owner, he mentioned that one of the areas of the website would be a bikini spot. I was thinking, “OK. Well, how is this going to be portrayed?” These were bodybuilders, so I know that women who body build are showing off their muscles and their physique. That is the purpose. People are aspiring to look like the bodybuilders in those pictures. If it was going to be like that, I thought it would be appropriate. But, if it was going to be pictures of girls in bikinis for guys to look at in a different aspect, I was not going to be OK with it.
So I asked the business owner, and he said, “Yeah, it’s the latter.” I prayed about it and I thought, “Is there a way for me to show Christ in the situation to this guy?” Then, I got some great advice from a Christian friend of mine in Nashville that is a graphic designer. He said it would be best to tell the guy, “Thank you. But I think I’m going to have to pass on this.” It would have been a really nice job, but I did turn it down. The coolest part about it was when my son said he knew God was going to provide for us because we were faithful in turning down that job because it did not line up with our morals and it did not line up with what we felt God was calling us to do.
That’s also leaving a legacy in another way.
So much more important than money! I wasn’t necessarily trying to use that as a teachable moment for my son. It was just something I talked with my son and my wife (my daughter is too young to talk about that yet). He came to that conclusion on his own, so that was a proud moment for me. I wasn’t even trying to teach him something, and God used it to teach him something after all.
Based on your last answer, I think I know the answer to this next question. Is faith in God relevant to running a business?
In my case, absolutely. Part of the reason I named the company Sodium Halogen is that it’s a code word for salt and light. It’s a weird enough name that people invariably ask the reason for it. That gives me a very non-threatening way discuss faith. I talk about how I try to run my business with Christian principles, and I let them know I am a Christian. One of the most powerful ways believers can affect business is by being really good at what they do. My faith is a big part of who I am, and it bleeds into everything that I do—whether it’s music, my relationship with my wife and my kids, how I interact with my friends or how I play sports. I take a holistic approach to faith.
When my wife and I were doing music ministry full-time, most of the people we met were in the church, and it was great. I think building up the church and edifying them and allowing God to use us to help them to worship was awesome. But now I get to meet so many unchurched people. I might be their only exposure to the church. I get to have some really cool conversations with them. One of the best compliments I’ve ever received was when we spent some time with someone who has become a great friend of mine in San Francisco. During the visit, she commented to a mutual friend of ours, “Wow! Who would have thought it would be this much fun to hang out with Christians!” I just love that! That relationship that my wife and I have been able to build with that family has been really cool. They have come to visit us here and stayed with us. God continues to use that as an opportunity for us to just live out the Gospel with she and her family.
I want to talk a bit about persistence. You mentioned a time about six years ago when you lost your lead developer. I assume you have had other difficult times. What has kept you going?
Yes definitely. It seems like at least once a year I have that day when I think, “Oh man! I’m just ready to go get a nine-to-five.” One thing that helps me keep going is knowing this is not the first time I’ve felt this way. I know everybody feels this way from time to time. You have self-doubt. Things are not easy. Sometimes I think, “I just want to get a job that lets me fall asleep when my head hits the pillow and not worry about anything.”
What I really want to get at is the mindset that keeps you there. There’s a calculus you’re making. You’re saying this is worth it. And that’s what I’m trying to get a handle on.
Sure. I think it requires some stubbornness. Good, bad, or otherwise, it requires a little pride too I think. My pride is part of what keeps me going—not accepting defeat. I think it’s just belief and heart, and having a family that is supportive too! That makes a big difference. And, loving what I do! There are definitely days that I don’t love what I do. But most days I look forward to getting up in the morning and working. I enjoy what I do. For the last five or six years, a lot of what I get to do is the problem-solving, which has always been the most fun. I’d rather figure out how we’re going to solve the problem than to get down to the last-minute execution—dotting every dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”. There are other people who enjoy doing that. I’m more of a starter than a finisher. I need to have people on the team that are finishers. I love what I do, and if I worked for someone else I might not get to do what I love to do all the time.
What has been your biggest success in business? Can you take me to a recent high point?
Four years ago, we were doing website design and development. I had a friend that had launched a startup based out of San Francisco. Working on her project ended up being the most successful thing that has happened. It led to a whole different world for me. And so now about half of what we do is working with Internet startup companies. Another high point was this last December when I spoke at The Lean Startup Conference. I got to share the stage with some people that I really respected. I had read their articles. They were big names, and I had this tiny slice of knowledge, experience, and expertise, and I was able to share that with other people.
I have one more question before we wrap up. What book have you read that you think would best help somebody who is considering moving from a nine-to-five to a startup of their own.
I would have to say The Lean Startup. If you’re a teacher you can use it to find innovative ways to teach your kids how to do stuff. If you’re a pastor you can use the lean startup principles to help grow a church. It helps you figure out how to iterate: build, measure, learn. Try something. Figure out how to measure its effectiveness and then learn from it to make things better. You can use that lean startup idea for building a business, or you can use it for spreading the gospel through the community and planting churches. If you’re planning a startup, whether it’s a traditional business or a high-growth startup, it’s a really easy book to read with lots of great stuff you can apply.