Something that always seems to be true: Entrepreneurs are driven by very personal reasons to take the risks they take and persist with the pig-headed stubbornness required for success in the online world. Their goals are as often powered by gut feelings as by logic. Their ambition is crafted just as much by sorrow and loss as any logical projection of profit and loss. Scratch a successful small business and you’ll find a very human, often moving story about how and why it was started.
Nestled in San Francisco’s upscale Hayes Valley, just steps away from Davies Symphony Hall, you’ll find the brick-and-mortar headquarters for VuPorts, a highly successful sales company for video conferencing systems, founded in 2001 by San Francisco Symphony clarinetist David Neuman.
How did this unusual juxtaposition happen?
A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, Neuman became a member of the prestigious San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1986. It was a terrific job with an excellent salary and lots of perks, including tours in Europe, where orchestra members were always put up in the best hotels, traveling on a generous per diem and treated with admiration wherever they went.
Everything was going great. But then his personal life took a big hit. By 1995, Neuman’s then-six-year-old daughter was living much too far away from him, with his ex-wife, in another state. “I wanted to stay in touch with my daughter any way I could,” he told Yahoo.
The telephone felt like a completely inadequate tool for staying close to his little girl, who was changing so much every day. He wanted not only to speak with her but to see her, too, and to have her see him.
Video conferencing was largely unavailable then to the general public; Skype was nearly a decade away from being launched. “Only large companies and governments,” says Neuman, “could afford the good stuff.”
Although identifying himself heart and soul as a musician, Neuman also had an affinity for technology and electronics. He knew enough—or at least felt confident about his capacity to learn enough—to get onto eBay and piece together a personal videoconferencing system for himself and his daughter.
Things took off from there.
It was the days of the first dot-com boom, and everything in San Francisco had started to become very expensive. After a long and costly divorce, Neuman didn’t have enough money to start from scratch and buy himself a house. It struck him then that maybe he could work his way back up the financial ladder by putting together videoconferencing systems for other people. The risks seemed minimal, he says, because he’d lost pretty much everything already. “I knew the upside was much greater than the downside.”
He scoured the Internet and bought some used pieces of equipment, putting them together in new ways and selling them at a profit. “I had one sale to Ohio State University. The professor there was so happy that he asked me to start a business.”
And so he did.
VuPorts took off pretty much immediately. “The cost of new videoconferencing equipment in those days could easily exceed several hundred thousand dollars for one component,” Neuman told us. He learned that universities were all looking for ways around the prohibitively high cost of new equipment. Before he knew it, he was on the road to becoming a leading supplier and purchaser of refurbished, used and new video conferencing equipment for a huge array of customers, from national laboratories to Fortune 500 Companies.
It was a win-win situation for Neuman and his clients. “They saved a bundle—and I went right away from that one sale to selling to universities all over the country.”
Neuman developed his business in between the seven or eight weekly rehearsals and concerts required by his job at the Symphony (to say nothing about the preparation time required every day by every musician in the orchestra, many of whom also perform extracurricular chamber music that demands long and focused hours of practice over the weeks leading up to a concert).
“I worked very, very long hours,” said the King of Prussia, Pennsylvania native. He lived in a rented house that doubled as a warehouse and office for VuPorts. And then, to ease the logistics of his busy life, he moved into a 2500 sq ft office just across from the musicians’ parking lot at the Symphony. That allowed him to do both jobs during the day and night, whatever was required and whenever he had a window of time. “Once I worked 21 hours a day for three days running.”
He was making himself ill with lack of sleep and overwork. But he felt he needed to make his videoconferencing business succeed: he saw it as his chance for financial redemption. “I think one has to live with the idea that if you don't have much in life, you are still very much alive. It makes no difference to have very little or a lot, if you want to do something—and I badly wanted to do it.”
Caution sometimes took a backseat to momentum, says Neuman, in the early days of building his business. He admits that he was occasionally careless about making deals without doing the proper research—and lost quite a bit in the process. “But I knew I could make it up again if I just moved forward and never looked back.”
All that persistence paid off.
Business is booming for VuPorts. Neuman lives with his now 24-year-old daughter and his girlfriend in Marin County, an easy commute from Davies Symphony Hall, “in a very nice house with a swimming pool and gardens in the back, and a bit of land.” He’s even begun to think that he might like to sell his business one of these days, given the attractions of the greater balance he’s been able to achieve between his work in the Orchestra and his life as a corporate mogul. His daughter, inspired by her dad’s success, is about to fly off to Germany to try her hand at creating a startup of her own.
“Safety is nice to have and certainly something you want when you get older and can’t take big risks,” says VuPorts’ CEO. “Even so, I still work very hard at what I do.”
Neuman believes that if he hadn’t pursued his entrepreneurial goals, he would have put himself at risk for hopelessness and stagnation. “When you work toward your dreams, life becomes interesting and challenging, every day. You’re able to forget the past, and move on.”