From Technology to Sweets: The Anatomy of an Entrepreneur

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Source Direct CEO Mike Roberts has just convinced me to quit my job and start my own business. I’ve known him 45 minutes. He’s incredibly persuasive.

“At first, you’re walking through smoke,” he says, leaning forward in his chair and staring me down from across the desk. His office is immaculate – pristine white furniture carrying no hint of the figurative soot he references. “It’s scary at first. It’s a big cloud. And, then you’re on the other side and you realize it was just smoke.”

He continues, “There were minefields, too. We never knew how close we were at times to getting blown out of the water. But, you never know that until you’re on the other side.”

This is when Roberts really comes alive. High risk, high reward. I’ve seen that spark before, and if you have too, you’ll recognize it as something ineffable and inborn. You understand that an entrepreneur’s drive is as much born as made.

And, this is just the type of individual that Addison courts, what Mayor Todd Meier calls the “creative class,” sophisticated and highly educated individuals that make up the city’s most crucial demographic. Bringing intellectual capital to the city’s low tax rate and affordable cost of living, these individuals have produced an organic influx of thriving small businesses, not unlike Source Direct.

The company formed in 1989 when Roberts drove down to Houston to visit his father with a plan. He believed he could offer superior third-party IT support to companies increasingly disillusioned with blatantly desultory service that had become the industry standard. He said, “Dad, I believe in this idea, and all I have right now is my car payment. If I fail, I might need your help for a while. But, if I fall, I don’t have far to go.” His father replied, “Go for it, Son.”

“I knew I wanted to own my own company since I was five-years-old,” Roberts tells me. “My dad was a purchasing agent for an oil company and we would get invited once a year to go deep sea fishing or deer hunting by these oil field supply companies. Those are of course fun things to do, but also things my family couldn’t afford to do on our own. So, I knew the difference early on between working for somebody else versus working for yourself.”

As Roberts speaks, it is clear that he doesn’t mean pure materialism; it is a matter of liberation, the freedom of control over one’s own life. For Source Direct, this extends to faith as well. The growing company faced catastrophe in 1997 when, slammed with the dual blows of youthful inexperience and under-capitalization, it rapidly began to fold. Multiple offices were downsized into a single headquarters, and Roberts was forced to rebuild from the ground up. During those days, one of the company’s seven employees asked if she could hold a prayer meeting before work. Initially reluctant – unsure if it were wise to mix church and the public sphere – Roberts agreed, and they began with a study by Bruce Wilkinson called The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life. Today, and 150 employees later, that prayer is emblazoned in purple and black on the wall just outside Roberts’ posh, otherwise monochromatic office.

“We pray every morning. No one is forced to – and there are people of other faiths here. But, no one seems to mind. We do a video conference every morning with our other 16 offices around the country and pray together remotely. I give all credit to my higher power.”

This personal touch, even as the company has grown exponentially in recent years, seems to be the foundational ethos of Source Direct toward both its employees and its clients. Of his crucial mistakes early on, Robert counts his not being on the ground floor in his offices the biggest one. Today, he affirms that he knows every employee by name, a task made more feasible with the utilization of a company jet. Perhaps even more remarkably, he says he knows that he could go to any office, cry on a shoulder and be lifted up by his friends and companions there. Similarly, Roberts has within the last two years repurposed the company jet to include philanthropic trips, like his service mission to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. His long-term dream is to make it available for a project building schools in Ethiopia and to allow each Source Direct employee two weeks off to travel there if they feel called to do so.

This human connection is exactly what Roberts believes sets Source Direct above and beyond its competitors when it comes to clients. Evidenced in virtually every step of the company’s action plan, customer service is the top priority and shrewdest strategy. “When we had to start over, it brought tears to my eyes to look at our customer list and see that we had 1200, but only a couple hundred were active. And, I realized that in sales, all of your efforts are like filling a bucket with a hole in it. If you let your foot off the gas, if you slow down, if you have a bad couple of months, you’ve really got to hoof it to fill it just back to where you were last year. That hole is customer attention, and if you plug it with great customer service, then your efforts begin to double – you fill the bucket without losing anything.”

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For Source Direct, filling this hole means that high-end software and hardware support is a matter of constant micromanagement. From the company’s Addison-based call “command center,” teams are established in “pods,” each consisting of a trifecta of specialized engineers – a software engineer, a hardware engineer and a network engineer – that monitor clients’ equipment 24/7. Roberts says, “Our software is so refined, it can tell us if even one fan is moving too fast out of 1,000, and it will alert us that something is about to burn up, so that we can be very proactive, rather than reactive, in problem solving.” As part of this aggressive strategy, the command center contains a number of massive big screen televisions that monitor weather patterns in order to assess any geographic location that might require additional on-call engineers. The Addison center is set up on a generator system to account for any power outages, and Source Direct is sealed to ensure the confidentiality of clients’ sensitive material.

When an issue does occur at a client’s facility, an Addison employee remains in contact with the client until the ticket is resolved, constantly updating them. In the rare event that a ticket takes longer than two hours to resolve, engineers retire to one of two “War Rooms,” in which employees from the company’s 17 offices teleconference until the issue is resolved. Roberts says that, with 20 to 30 engineers from across the country then problem-solving the matter, it is not uncommon for such a situation to resolve itself within five minutes.

While industry standard means outsourcing such jobs to foreign countries to minimum-wage employees who read from a script, Source Direct engineers are highly trained and highly compensated to ensure efficiency and the highest level of professionalism. Source Direct provides intense onsite practical training so that engineers are personally familiar with the type of equipment that clients utilize. And, though it is a massive upfront investment, when the company takes on a new client, Source Direct stocks 100 percent of the necessary replacement parts so that issues are, more often than not, resolved by the time that competitors are even able to arrive onsite. Roberts says that more than 60 percent of companies – even sophisticated, highly-capitalized ones – which experience massive data loss will fail within one year. By hiring the right employees and maximizing their compensation, both monetarily and environmentally, Source Direct can guarantee unbeatable service. The undeniable proof: the company is today entirely debt-free and growing exponentially.

Outwardly proactive in encouraging and fostering involvement in the city’s innovative lifeblood, Mayor Todd Meier says that Addison’s government has worked tirelessly to make accessible a diverse and cutting-edge economy. This is evidenced a mere half mile from Source Direct’s sleek modern space in the Colonnade complex, where another Addison entrepreneur is winding up her busy afternoon. Initially opened last June before managerial changes necessitated a triumphant re-opening in November, Polk-A-Dot Bakery sits nestled beneath a warm pink and brown awning on Quorum Drive, just a skip past Addison Circle. On any given day, you will find owner and manager, Narcy Gonzales, poring over cookbooks and manuals, studying new baking techniques and wine lists, devouring new ideas that have gradually formed the foundational basis of her bakery project.  “Even when I’m at home,” she says, “I’m always ‘at’ the bakery.”

Gonzales comes in every day, many days from the time the first batch of bread is placed in the oven until the key slides into the lock after dark. Describing a regular customer, so enamored with the bakery that she sees him almost daily, Gonzales begins telling me about the type of patron that Polk-A-Dot attracts. But, she is interrupted and instead excuses herself to step away and help a waiting customer.  As I watch her attend to the customer’s questions about organic ingredients, I notice that not only is the bakery aesthetically pleasing – its industrial “soft loft” appeal with exposed air ducts and concrete floors is tempered with softly colored antique furniture often described as “shabby chic” – it is also immaculately clean. Though the space is filled with gently chatting patrons, there is no remnant of previous consumption at my table, and even softly lit, it is clear that the bakery’s surfaces and floors are spotless. When I mention this to Gonzales, she redirects my attention again to the polished concrete floors. Dazzling subtly beneath the overhead light, I see that she’s added a glittering finish, a combination of grit and glamour that roundly sums up the bakery’s aesthetic. “I love the glitter,” she says, “It’s very me.” In fact, the counter boasts a sign that reads, “Have a glittery day.”

Gonzales decorated the space herself, primarily with artistic antiques that she feels add a sophisticated and classy touch to what is an otherwise relaxed and casual eatery. The walls are adorned with work by local painters and designers, such as Leslie’s Art, which, like so much of Polk-A-Dot, is Addison-made and supported. From the coffee and espresso roasted just over on Beltline at Addison Coffee Roasters to the freshest ingredients purchased from local markets, Polk-A-Dot is a true Addison original. Gonzales tells me this is how the town operates – with a sense of union and dedication to home-grown products and services. This focus is reinforced by Mayor Todd Meier and City Council members, many of whom are proactive in supporting local business and who regularly drop in to say hello.  “I didn’t even initiate a relationship with the city,” Gonzales says, “They found me, welcomed me, and supported me. The city has been integral to our success.”

Similarly, Polk-A-Dot’s patrons, many of whom live in Addison Circle, have shown the same commitment to this unified support of the local economy. Because of its commitment to organic ingredients and green-friendly, compostable service items, Polk-A-Dot appeals largely to the aforementioned “creative class,” who focus on healthy and sustainable choices. Gonzales says, “I’m very motivated by customer feedback, and I use that input to generate business. For instance, my customers tend to be more interested in the quality of ingredients than price, and they demand healthy options. Most recently, because of a customer’s suggestion, I’ve began reading about the Paleo Diet and incorporating those ideas into the existing menu.” In fact, Gonzales operates in flux: she has, through trial and error, determined the basic building blocks of a highly desirable menu, while remaining open to new artistic combinations and culinary additions. It’s a “no rules” policy that means the business is a living entity, constantly growing and ever-improving.

“I wasn’t a baker when we started,” Gonzales says. “But now I read constantly and have quickly learned.” Now the sole-owner and financer, she originally opened with a partner whose focus was more explicitly on the culinary aspect while Gonzales’ role focused more on providing capital. But, despite initial growing pains, Gonzales has learned to bake herself, and has now amassed a team who operates under a “baker as artist” philosophy. Polk-A-Dot employs roughly 10 staff members, and while Gonzales has not yet been able to offer health benefits, doing so – and thereby solidifying the bakery’s “career” track – is a priority. Having played a key role in the management of her husband’s small business for many years, Gonzales acutely understands the challenges of balancing a budget that closely reflects the business’ successes and growth. In order to maximize profitability for both herself and her team, she has utilized communication skills gleaned from her work with her husband’s company, marketing the bakery as a full-on cultural experience.

In fact, “bakery” simply doesn’t do the space justice. With the upcoming addition of dinner entrees in conjunction with the already successful lunch menu, Polk-A-Dot is transitioning into a full-blown restaurant, wine bar, coffee house, patisserie, and cheese shop. Incorporating the five little shops under one roof, Gonzales has marketed the bakery to sophisticated and well-educated clientele from students drinking on leopard print sofas in the lounge area until closing time to hungry employees from surrounding businesses popping in for a brief but wholesome lunch and retirees discussing the evening show they’ve just taken in at the nearby WaterTower Theatre over dessert. Through openness and experimentation, she has found that beer doesn’t sell well but homegrown herbs from her own garden do, and that breakfast burritos require too much prep time to be profitable. This summer, she looks forward to phasing out her meager beer selection and replacing it with frozen yogurt and Sangria sno-cones. For now, Gonzales is merely focusing on the 20 guests arriving for tomorrow’s baby shower and ensuring enough champagne for mimosa celebrations following city-wide 5Ks.

Like Roberts’ Source Direct, which hopes to go global within the next five to ten years, Polk-A-Dot plans to eventually expand into a DFW franchise with locations in multiple surrounding cities.

Seems the lesson here is large or small, being an entrepreneur is a complex proposition with many connected, interdependent parts and evolving practices. At center of this evolution lies the endless risks, long hours, efforts and continual education, failures and re-starts that Roberts and Gonzales have experienced, but for the right person with an insatiable independent spirit it is all worth it!

-By Brentney Hamilton

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