“I like to have the freedom to make my own decisions and to try things without a lot of constraints...”
Mike Levinson, co-founder of WizeHive
Mike Levinson is the co-founder of WizeHive, a cloud-based platform designed to simplify the collection, review, and management of data and applications for grants, scholarships, and countless other processes. Mike started WizeHive, after having founded numerous other business, in order to address a major need in the market he observed when there was no easy-to-use application tool.
What led you to WizeHive?
In 2007, I joined with some other Angel investor friends, and we started the accelerator called DreamIt Ventures. I ran DreamIt operationally for a while. We had to take in hundreds of applications and third-party opinions on these applications. We realized there was no tool to help us do this effectively — everything was still very cut-and-paste in spreadsheets then — so I decided to build something and explore if there was a market. I had already been talking with Mike Carson [co-founder of WizeHive] about finding a new project, so that’s how this started.
What were the challenges you faced with WizeHive?
When we started WizeHive, we asked: do we grow organically and slowly, or do we raise a bunch of capital and try to get a large amount of market share right out of the box?
I didn’t want to raise a lot of capital right out of the shoot. I first wanted to prove and test out the market. So I invested some of my own money, Mike put time and energy in, and after some initial traction we raised some money.
Also, the pace today is so much faster than when I built my first business, and the cost of entry is lower. All of a sudden, a new business pops up that you’ve never heard of and they’re a potential competitor, so you need to understand them and what they’re doing while still staying focused on your own project.
What does it mean to you to be an entrepreneur?
In general, I like to be creative. I come up with a lot of ideas. I think, in order to execute those ideas, I like to have the freedom to make my own decisions and to try things without a lot of constraints, which obviously if you’re an entrepreneur is relatively easy. That changes over time, as you build a team, and you share decision-making. Then if you have investors, you have to understand their viewpoint. But at the end of the day, if you’re an entrepreneur you’re the point person for the direction of a company: for handling the issues, and building the business. I like the idea of building things, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing the results.
What sacrifices have you made as an entrepreneur?
My wife and I have been married for a long time, and we’ve made conscious decisions along the way. For instance, we put off having kids for a while, and lived well below our means to avoid the need for large personal cash flow. As an entrepreneur, you work long hours. For example, rather than spend money, I built our first website myself, which is reflective of the personal time and dedication we put into it to get it off the ground. My wife loves to travel, so that’s one of the compromises we didn’t make, but one of the many great reasons for having a partner in business is so you can take time off to recharge your batteries.
I tend to be very hands on and very cost conscious. But, over the years you learn there’s a time and place for everything. Sometimes entrepreneurs learn that at some point they have to change hats; sometimes entrepreneurs need to manage people and not do tasks. Not all entrepreneurs get over that hump which is why sometimes you have to bring in new management. You need to be able to change, and know what role is needed of you at a given point in time.
“To be an entrepreneur, you need a mix of determination, optimism, and realism.”
Mike Levinson, co-founder of WizeHive
What is your greatest failure?
Good news: I don’t think I have any really big failures, in part because I’m extremely determined to fight through setbacks.
One thing I did fail on early was hiring and managing people. For instance, I was 30 or 31 when my first company started to grow pretty quickly — and I didn’t know how to hire, to manage people, to help them grow or succeed. I had a lot to learn.
An added challenge was that some of the people were older than me, and that took a while to get a handle on. I also didn’t know how to raise money or work with investors — I didn’t take advantage of the things they could do to help grow the business. I was much younger and probably felt intimidated.
Who is your support team?
My family is my biggest support. My wife, Laura, and I bought a house, and literally two months after moving in we started our first business. We knew it had risks — I’m a risk taker, but a calculated risk taker. We felt our downside was limited, but through all the years and all the crazy things I’ve done, Laura has been a really big help. Now my daughter, Taylor, who is 15, is someone I’ve enjoyed talking to about a lot of business-related things. It’s not so much advice, per se, just explaining all the things we’re doing, and using it to teach her.
Did you ever come close to giving up?
Not with WizeHive, but we had some trying times with my first business. One of the nice things about my first company [PTS Learning Systems] and WizeHive is that in both cases we grew quickly. But, sometimes growth requires capital. At times with PTS I had to really hustle to make payroll. Sometimes my partner and I would go every other month and not get paid. It was hard, but I never got to the point of giving up.
To be an entrepreneur, you need a mix of determination, optimism, and realism. You need optimism to bounce back from the hard times, determination to push through them, and realism to know when you’ve hit a wall and you need to change or pivot or do something else. I always have a realistic perspective, but I wake up every morning excited and optimistic about what’s going to happen today, and next week.
In a business, you’re frequently looking two to three years out, and you always have this desire and tenacity to want to drive forward, but it’s also important for entrepreneurs — and really the whole team — to have milestones to celebrate successes and victories. This fuels the energy needed for the long-term goals.
If there is a lesson that is paramount for you, what would it be?
At the end of the day, you have to surround yourself with the right people. Anyone can start a business, but if you don’t have the right support network, the right partners, coworkers and employees and personalities, it’s not going to work out. That being said, you also need the business to be a realistic opportunity. When starting or investing in a business I typically like to think about (1) How life-changing will this be for people? and (2) How big is the opportunity? If your idea is compelling and has a big potential market, and if you start it with the right people, then you’ve got a great chance to succeed.
This interview has been lightly edited from an in-person conversation for clarity. Capturing Lightning is a project from Woden, a strategic storytelling agency in Philadelphia that helps organizations articulate who they are and why people should care. To learn more about how to tell your story, visit us at wodenworks.com.