If you’re a seasoned business owner of a certain age, you might scoff at the idea of turning to a 32-year-old entrepreneur for advice. But John Roa has already had nearly two decades of experience as a CEO.
Since age 13, when he launched a computer repair business that made sales calls around Detroit by bicycle, Roa has been his own boss. He has launched and invested in enough successful ventures along the way to have also become a winning Las Vegas tournament poker player and a world traveler with more than 50 nations’ stamps in his passport.
Today, the serial entrepreneur says running tech ventures is what he knows best. His current venture, ÄKTA (Swedish for “authentic”), is a “digital experience design and engagement consultancy” in Chicago that designs core digital products. It was recognized as a 2014 Inc. 500 company and was the James Tyree Emerging Business Leadership Awardee at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce last year. ÄKTA employs about 60 people and, according to Roa, is “hiring like crazy.”
We spoke with Roa about his business philosophies, why he considers Richard Branson a role model, and his own secret to success.
Yahoo Small Business: You recommend that entrepreneurs participate in ventures outside their own areas of expertise. Why?
Roa: A lot of times when I seed early-stage businesses, the founders’ tendency is to do what they’re comfortable with. But in my experience, if you’re the CEO, it’s advantageous to not be the person who’s the expert. When you are, you get bifurcated. Are you pushing the practice or running the company? I tell people all the time, “Figure out which one you are.”
I am not a design expert. I love design, but that’s as far as it goes. I built ÄKTA from a CEO’s perspective. If I had been a designer and sitting in front of clients who were saying, “We want John in the room,” then who’d be running the company?
YSB: If you’re not a digital design expert, what made you want to start a digital design business?
Roa: I like building brands, selling, and leading a team. And I noticed big markets for experienced design. I honed in on it and found the best designers in the world and gave them the autonomy to do their jobs.
A person who epitomizes this is Richard Branson. He has started ventures in soda, lingerie, airlines, and record labels. He’s an expert on being a CEO. He understands business models and finds the right person to put in the managing director role. I don’t hold a lot of business people in wildly high regard, but he’s one who I think is brilliant and more people should be mimicking.
YSB: ÄKTA is a consultancy, but you call it a “do tank” rather than a “think tank.” Why?
Roa: I would love to work at a think tank sometime, but businesses today need to solve problems, not just be given ideas. It was a client of ours—an ex-executive for Motorola—who said we are more like a “do-tank” than a “think tank.”
When we started doing our work and presenting what we do as a company, we got bucketed together with well-known think tanks like IDEO and Frog—iconic design firms that you go to for help to evolve an idea. The feedback we heard from companies who worked with them was that you’re left with well-formed ideas, but the question, “Who’s going to make it into something valuable for our business?” There was a gap there.
Then there are all of these companies that are really good at executing, like Accenture. They can build, but they don’t come up with the ideas.
Those two kinds of companies are oil and water together. I said, “Let’s take the best of both. Let’s create an innovation engine so we can do similar strategy, ideation, and conceptualization and build an execution team to bring products to market to solve business goals.” Now we can achieve the goals that our business is setting out to achieve instead of just being the smart guys in room.
YSB: If the cultures of ideation and execution are like oil and water, how do you combine them successfully in one company?
Roa: In our first three years, we were purely on the design side. A little over a year ago, I bought a Chicago mobile engineering house and integrated them into the design side of ÄKTA. We were timid about mixing those two groups, but we found we had practically minded designers and artistically minded engineers, so there was good meshing and we built a culture that blends both disciplines.
Merging design and engineering teams is about having a healthy respect for the other side. The classic breakdown between designers and developers is when the designer creates something and the engineer says, “That cannot exist.” A designer who understands the limits of technology is better than the classic artist who creates for sake of creating. And the same goes for the developer who can understand animation and creation.
YSB: Explain why you consider the experience of world travel important to management, and how you lead a company while exploring the world.
Roa: To me, travel is one of the most important things anyone can do, no matter your discipline. It’s been proven that we develop a sense of mental lethargy when we go through life on autopilot. My technique is to break out of my comfort zone by exploring other societies.
It’s not like I walk through a village in Cambodia and have an epiphany. It’s about realizing that a lot of people are doing things in different ways and that your way of thinking and life style could change.
There are places I’ve been that were so different and incredible that it expanded my way of thinking in general. Iceland. Morocco. Burma. Those three places were very inspirational to me.
I knew I wanted to build a company that gave me the flexibility to travel. It’s not always easy to have a good work-life balance. I’m not a person cranking the gears inside all day. I built an incredible leadership team that covers all aspects from solutions to design, and they’ve built teams under them to have flexibility and sustainability. Our VP of Operations is leaving for three weeks to go to Thailand and everything will be fine. We’re built to be that way.
Ed. note: Headline has been updated to correct age.