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For these serial entrepreneurs, it's lather, rinse, repeat

John Traina, CEO and president of NCRx Optical Solutions. Photos | Bob Perkoski
John Traina, CEO and president of NCRx Optical Solutions. Photos | Bob Perkoski

Starting a business can be a scary prospect – a calculated risk that many are simply not cut out for. It takes money, lots of time and lots of courage. The risk is great, the reward uncertain. But some people enjoy the process. These "serial entrepreneurs" do it over and over again. Lather, rinse and repeat.

hiVelocity recently sat down with four serial entrepreneurs from around Ohio to hear their stories and to learn about their strengths, challenges and secrets. As it turns out, there are a number of ingredients that belong in these entrepreneurs' recipe for success. Among them: products that people need, drive, dedication, energy, and a little bit of luck.

David Gasper

David Gasper says he's living the American Dream. He has been for the last 30 years, since he founded The Gasper Corporation – a Dayton company that produces software to manage automated teller machines (ATMs). By the mid-1990s, one out of every two ATMs used the company's software. The company made millions. Gasper sold the company in 1999, and he considered retirement.

"To be honest, I have lived the American Dream. To grow a business to have it be successful, and then sell it ... It has been great," he says.

But Gasper wasn't quite done, choosing instead to stay in Ohio and invest in new start-up companies. "I describe myself as a serial software entrepreneur," he says.

His latest venture, Initial Point, uses facial recognition software to match photographs of faces to real faces. The project is still in its infancy and free software has recently hit the market, making competition difficult.

Gasper also spends time (lots of it, he says) working with young entrepreneurs with big dreams. One piece of advice he shares is that entrepreneurs find a niche – a practical need for consumers -- and taking it from there.

He also advises entrepreneurs to keep grandiose ambitions – like "becoming the next Google" – in check. "I think people should have realistic expectations. Could I have made a billion-dollar company? I could have tried. Try to become a king of a niche instead of a competitor of the big boys."

What's the next move?

"I am 53. I am way too young to be put out to pasture," he says. "I really concentrate on mentoring and helping people who have the same dream I had."

Benson Lee

When Benson Lee was a teenager growing up in New York City, he wanted to find a career in the medical field. He also wanted to make a difference helping others. He wanted to have fun. And, as any ambitious teenager would, he also wanted to make a little money.

Fast-forward a few decades.

Lee says he has accomplished his childhood dreams in a way he could have never imagined. In 1971, he founded Interscience, which provided operating management to emerging technology-driven corporations. From 1977 to 1983, Lee was the founding CEO of Biolectron, a medical device company. That company sold in 2000 for $90 million.

Lee is now the president and CEO of Cleveland-based Technology Management, a developer of solid oxide fuel cell systems. "One of the most exciting things about being in the fuel cell business is to be working on a technology that can impact billions of people as a business. We're not talking about giving our products away – we can make money – but we have the potential to impact so many lives and also benefit our shareholders. This is what social entrepreneurship is all about. That's were TMI is and that's where I am at this point in my career."

Lee says it was his education – and a push from a mentor at Cornell University – that put him on the path to entrepreneurship.

"Everything I've done at college and in the corporate world, all of that has come together. TMI represents that very gratifying point in my career where I am harvesting everything I have planted in the early part of my career."

Among the advice Lee says he would like to impart on the first-time entrepreneur: Know your strengths and weaknesses and put together a complete team; and don't get greedy – Lee says the purpose is to win.

"There's more to it than making money. But, we are not a charity," Lee says. "We believe you can do better for your shareholders by also dong good for people."

John Traina

Unlike many entrepreneurs who have grand ideas, then chase them, John Traina started out in 1978 as a one-man consulting business. He didn't have a master plan to become an entrepreneur, let alone a serial entrepreneur.

With his background in motion control (a "fancy way of saying electrical engineering") he discovered a need to monitor emissions from factory smoke stacks in Pittsburgh – years before anyone had heard of cap and trade. He sold the company to United Sciences Testing in 1993.

Traina's next project was aimed at perfecting the EPA's own testing methods of those smoke stacks. He says the new methods "saved utility companies a fortune," and the company was bought in 2001 by American Electric.

Traina says his main talent is finding a problem, then coming up with its solution – a professional problem-solver. "I always wanted to design something that others were not doing," he says.

He is now the CEO and president of NCRx Optical Solutions, a Medina-based company working to commercialize an idea that he believes will revolutionize the eyeglasses industry. Rather than using bulky (and expensive) machines, the company has found a way to cut the costs for opticians and optomitrists on "Main Street" by cutting the time it takes to make lens.

"A trait entrepreneurs need to have is perseverance. It isn't going to be a grand idea and a short term implementation of that grand scheme."

Traina suggests that it's having the right people around him each step of the way that has made his career successful.

"You cannot do it all yourself — not in a million years…If you have an idea you would like to commercialize, the most common mistake I've seen is not having the resources to get it done, with people and finances. Then, use those resources with as much efficiency as you can."

Mahendra Vora

Insiders will tell you that the success rate for start-up companies is about 10 percent. That means 90 percent fail – which is exactly what makes the accomplishments of serial entrepreneur Mahendra Vora so special.

Vora, the Midwest's answer to Silicon Valley, has founded more than a dozen start-up companies in the last 23 years. Not one of them has failed.

"A serial entrepreneur can be defined in two ways," he says. "There is the one who starts new ventures and makes them a success. Then there's one who starts one company, and makes new products within the same company."

Vora is both.

"Being an entrepreneur is an attitude more than a bank balance," he says. "It's about finding a common sense-based solution quickly, and understanding the deal."

Vora is the founder of Vora Ventures, a Cincinnati-based high-tech private equity firm that maintains a portfolio of 12 companies worldwide and employs 2,000 people.

"A lot of people have the same qualities I have: drive, passion, vision and energy. The key is converting that drive, passion, vision and energy into a profit for shareholders.

"What does it take?" asks the 47-year-old native of India, already knowing the answer. "The first thing is putting together a solid team," he says. "You have to surround yourself with people … who are passionate about things you are not passionate about, or things that do not drive you. That's the first place a lot of entrepreneurs fail. The key is putting the right people on the bus, and in the right seats."

Other secrets to entrepreneurial success include backing a product that is in demand and believing in that product.

Also, he adds, serial entrepreneurs need a bit of luck.

"If you are well grounded and willing to roll up your sleeves you have a chance," he says. "There is no one formula that makes someone an entrepreneur or a serial entrepreneur. It is an attitude."

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