A Sit-Down with Mike Green of Mountain State Capital

As Part of the Heroes of Change Podcast

Jeremy Turner, Founder and Managing Director of EPIC Mission:

Thank you for tuning into this episode of the Heroes of Change podcast from EPIC Mission. This is Jeremy Turner, Founder and Managing Director of EPIC Mission and I’ll be your host here on the podcast. We are highlighting the trials, victories, and applied wisdom of our community change agents, unsung heroes, and those who empower them to be the change across Appalachia and beyond. We seek to inspire and equip everyday heroes just like you to take on our greatest challenges because together, we are the change. 

Today I’m thrilled to welcome my friend and a changemaker, Mike Green to the show. Before we get to him, I’m going to read a quick snippet just to give you a taste of who he is and what he’s about. So, Mike Green of Morgantown, West Virginia serves as chairman of the West Virginia Growth Investment Fund and is the Managing Director of Mountain State Capital, providing mentorship and funding to entrepreneurs and early stage companies.

He began serving on the West Virginia Board of Education in 2009 and served as Board President from July 2015 to January 2017. He serves on many boards including the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation and the Appalachian Investors Alliance. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Boston University and a master’s degree in numerical science from Johns Hopkins University. He began his career in 1969 as a mathematician, crypt analyst, and software developer at the National Security Agency. In 1979, he moved to the private sector and held senior executive positions with a number of successful technology companies. So good stuff. And I welcome Mike. I didn’t happen to know you a little beyond what’s printed here, and so my hope is that we can now go beyond the glossy headshot and the prepared bio to learn a little bit more about you and the work that you do. So, what should we know about you?

Mike Green, Managing Director of Mountain State Capital

Well, thank you, Jeremy, I’m delighted to be with you, my friend. What you’re doing and your mission is just really critical to all of us here in Appalachia and I’m just delighted to be part of it. I’ve gotten to know you over the last several years, so it’s a pleasure to be with you today. 

What about me? You could never in a million years ever figure out the script or write a script that would say how a kid from the Bronx, New York, which is where I’m originally from, would end up and I don’t mean to end up in any negative way, would end up in West Virginia. But without sounding completely arrogant, if I could live anywhere in the world, I still choose to live here in West Virginia because it became my home. It was 1995; we bought our first piece of property here. 

When I’ve tried to retire a number of times, I decided, “Hey, this is the place I want to live” and more importantly where I wanted to try to give back to the community. I’ve been very, very fortunate in my career, Jeremy, because most of the time I got a lot of people who go out there and they’re there, they’re able to find success and wealth, but they don’t give back. I’ve pretty much decided many, many years ago when we’ve had some successes that it’s important to give back to the community. And in all the companies that I worked with and worked for, I preach that to all my employees and all the people who work closely with me that you’re nobody until and unless you start giving back to the community and giving back from the people who help get you where you are. So very much dedicated in my life over the last, certainly the last 20 years here in West Virginia, for 25 years now, really to focus on what’s great about the community here, not only in West Virginia, but Greater Appalachia, and how we as citizens can make this even a better place to live, to raise our families, keep our kids here, educate them better, create great companies and improve the overall life of the great people here in this region. So that’s what my dedication has been over the last several years.

Jeremy:

Love it. And you know, we’re pleased to welcome you, as you’re now a West Virginian. After 10 or 12 years, you’ve been adopted, so you’re part of the mix.

Mike:

Definitely a part of West Virginia, that’s for sure.

Jeremy:

Has a way of getting in you and sticking with you.

Mike:

Yeah, it definitely does. Like I say, you couldn’t predict where I would be today based on where I came from. I mean, I grew up in a relatively, I don’t want to say a poor community, in the East Bronx of New York. I was fortunate to get a good education in the New York Public School System and then very fortunate to be able to go to college. My parents scraped enough money together to get me through college. Of course at that time in the ‘60s, I usually say the 1960s, instead of the 1860s, I’m not that old! The 1960s were also dealing with war, I had to put some time in the service as well. When I came out of the service, I was fortunate enough to have this opportunity to work for the National Security Agency and it fits into my lifestyle because most of my life, I’ve always been a problem-solver and when I got to the National Security Agency with a degree in mathematics, I thought I was a mathematician, but what I really realized at the time was that I’m more of a problem-solver and so they put me quickly into a program to become a crypt analyst, someone who breaks codes and works on that and it was the most fun job I’ve ever had in my life.

I told one of my friends the other day, I said, “If I had the opportunity, I would probably still be working there because it was so much fun and so exciting to be able to work on some of these issues that are very, very critical to the world.” When you have people’s lives in your hands and things that I was doing as a crypt analyst and later on as a software developer to create systems so that our analysts in the field could know what’s going on in the world and then providing appropriate intelligence to, to our president and others. That’s a very, very critical job. 

So here we are many, many years later and I was fortunate to have that background, but I took that kind of philosophy with me everywhere I went. And that is I try to look at situations to analyze them and then from that, okay, hit the pause button and that’s one of the things I’m going to do in my life before I die. I’m going to write a book called Pause, P-A-U-S-E because if each of us would pause once in a while and reflect on things before we do them, even before we say them, we will be much better off. But I’ve got that kind of ability to be able to look at a situation, kind of pause for a second and then perhaps at that point in time, suggest the next course of action. I’ve taken that kind of philosophy with me throughout my career, not only as a system analyst for the government, but later on my career transitioned to what’s weird, we collectively are doing today and that’s entrepreneurship because entrepreneurship to me is all about taking an idea, but then taking that idea further to be able to put everything around that as necessary to make a successful business.

What I’ve found over the last several years is that most entrepreneurs, in fact, almost all entrepreneurs, never have the whole package. Usually, it’s an engineer with a great idea, but they need somebody to help them in sales and marketing or they have great sales and marketing, but they have no idea about finance. So what we’ve tried to do over the last several years is to educate the community and bring people together to try to fill the gaps that are necessary to make these entrepreneurs very, very successful. So for the last, well since 1979, the only thing I’ve ever done is work on companies that are small companies that are entrepreneurs and I’ve made a great career out of that. The biggest success that I had, I think is worth mentioning here was in 1991, I joined a small company out of Pittsburgh. It was for university professors from Carnegie Mellon University who had a great idea.

My background was primarily in technology and mostly in the networking community. This was long before Ethernet and the Internet and so on. But what these guys had and what I see in entrepreneurs all the time today is a really great idea, but again, they were missing the sales and marketing piece, the finance piece, you know,  the “How do we reach out to customers,” “How do we communicate our message?” And these are the kinds of things that I think our entrepreneurs need from us and they make a very long story short. It’s the fact that we took a company that had nothing, we’ve got a little bit of money from the government and in the first year we did $100,000 in revenue, second year, $1 million in revenue by year nine, $800 million in revenue and built this company to the point where we sold it for four and a half billion dollars.

That’s a good exit. And these are the kinds of exits that I think that most entrepreneurs of course want. And that’s maybe an unusual situation, but from there I try to parlay that kind of strategy into the next several companies that I work with and worked for in order to have the same kind of exit. And I still think today here in West Virginia and in the Greater Appalachia area, we can create companies like that. It just takes guts. It takes hard work, right? It takes dedication, it takes building a team, it takes clear communication and a real strong mission to be successful. And if we continue to do things like that, I think we can create great companies here in this region. So that’s what I’m all about here today. I know maybe that was a long answer to your question, but I think that together, we can make this happen here in West Virginia and I’m definitely dedicated to doing that by merging together my experience and not only in public education, but in entrepreneurship and building early stage companies and also into having excellent exits so that people get a good return on their investment if they are able to invest in and work with these small companies and entrepreneurs.

Jeremy:

Well you said a lot of really powerful things in there and I’m going to try and pull a few of those out. One of which was this myth that I’m afraid that entrepreneurs think that they have to know and be all things within their entrepreneurial idea, their startup. You know, they may not naturally be a software developer, but they think they need to know all things about coding suddenly or they may be a great engineer, but then they go and try it and be the salesperson, the face of the organization because they think that’s part of the deal that they have to be all things. And so you talked about teamwork and the need to find out what pieces are missing from your team and then begin to assemble those human elements that can help fill in the blanks. And what we’re doing here in West Virginia and I think Greater Appalachia is it seems that we’re working towards forming teams on a couple of levels. One is people like you and I who are out trying to serve entrepreneurs are breaking the silos and getting our egos out of the way and saying, what do we need to do? Because nothing changes until something changes. Right? And so I’m very appreciative of people like you who are both willing and able to say, “Let’s go do this.” So, you know, thank you for that.

Mike:

Yeah, that’s very true. I mean, building the team is very, very difficult and you’re right; I’ve never seen an entrepreneur, even the smartest ones I’ve met, who had the whole package. So if you’re smart, what you do is you bring smarter people around you in order to be successful in whatever endeavor you’re doing in life. That’s been my strategy because I know I’m not the smartest guy in the room, but I’m smart enough to know that. So I think that’s really, really, really key. If you’re building an organization and me as an investor, that’s what I look for when I’m deciding to invest in a company. “Am I investing in the jockey here? Where am I investing on the horse?” And I’ve always had a strategy that says “I’m investing in the jockey. Is this a team builder? Is this somebody who has got listening skills? Are they coachable?” These are the kinds of attributes that you look for when you’re trying to create good companies in our region.

Jeremy:

I think knowing what it is that an investor is looking for is really crucial. And so you know, getting rid of this myth of the entrepreneur thinking they have to know everything. What would you say to the entrepreneur that says, “Well, I don’t want to appear weak or or stupid or like I don’t have plenty of talent by saying, ‘Hey, I don’t know how to do these things.’”

Mike:

I would say to anybody in any situation, number one, be yourself. Know what you know, know what you don’t know, and never be afraid to raise your hand and say, “I don’t know the answer to that.” Oftentimes I say to people that one of the first signs of maturity is to be able to raise your hand and say, “Excuse me, I don’t understand that.” How many times have you and I been in meetings where somebody will stand up there, that’s on the stage and talk about things and throw out acronyms and abbreviations and you sit there and you roll your eyes and say, “I have no idea what this person’s talking about.” My answer to that is if you’re mature, you raise your hand and say, “Wait a minute. You know that I don’t understand what you’re talking about. You know that you just used an abbreviation, an acronym or some term that we, the audience, don’t know. That’s disrespectful. Hit the pause button and explain what you mean.” So I would advise anybody, any entrepreneur or anybody in general, if you don’t understand something, raise your hand and say, “Please explain.” And that’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a sign of maturity and the sign that you’re trying to grow and to learn.

Jeremy:

That’s great advice. You know, so you talked about the need to build teams and the need to build great companies here in West Virginia and across Appalachia that can have these wonderful exits so that we can have that cycle of someone with an idea build a great company, experiences a fabulous exit, and then is able to go and do what you’ve been doing which is pour back into the communities. The need to have these great teams, what do you see, if any, of some of the barriers or obstacles that we have to overcome so that entrepreneurs can begin to build these great teams across Appalachia?

Mike:

Yeah, that’s a great question, Jeremy. There are a lot of things that are missing here. I mean, at the end of the day, funding has got to be an important thing. This is the only state area that I’ve lived in and worked in where you don’t really get a lot of support from the state itself. Our surrounding states pour millions and millions of dollars every day into helping entrepreneurs on the funding side. They also have a lot of programs. I’m keenly aware of the fact that we’re a small state and I tell everybody that all the time. Remember, there’s 1.8 million people in the whole state of West Virginia. Sometimes tongue in cheek, I’ll say there were more people who lived in my building in the Bronx than who live in West Virginia. So we don’t have the quantity, but let me make it absolutely clear to your audience.

We do have the quality of people. We really do, but they do need mentorship. They do need support from the state or from their local communities. At least the air cover, they say, “We’re going to support entrepreneurs, we’re going to support small businesses.” One of the biggest issues that we have here is a lot of people think that the way to be successful is to always shoot for the fences and hit that grand slam home run. Let me make this very clear to your audience and everybody listen to me. We are a community of singles and doubles. We do not have the opportunities necessarily to build the next, let’s say Fortune 500 companies. I wish we did, but our particular economy is based on small businesses and small businesses don’t necessarily have to be tech companies. Small businesses can be any kind of business in your community that’s necessary and our community has to rally around that and not always be afraid to be able to create something that’s new and innovative and it doesn’t necessarily have to be high tech. I think it’s highly unlikely we’re going to be able to create the next Facebook or the next Microsoft here in the next few years, but there are plenty of opportunities within our community to create great companies to help our community and those are the kinds of things that we’re focusing on. Let’s stop worrying about hitting the grand slam home run and try to get a ground rule double once in a while that’s going to help the economy. That’s what I think we need to be focusing on here in Greater Appalachia.

Jeremy:

I appreciate you bringing that up because that’s been sort of something stuck in my craw for a while is, you know, as I travel, there’s the constant banter about “We need to compete with Silicon Valley or be the next Silicon Valley. We need to have the next Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, whatever here.” And there’s been sort of a discounting of invalidating lifestyle businesses where someone starts a new mechanic shop and that employee is five people that puts food on the table and enriches the community in some fashion. So can you talk a little bit more about these lifestyle businesses or small businesses?

Mike:

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I think that when I was on the school board several years ago that was a time where they created this whole concept of expanding career and technical education. And I’m a big advocate of that for our children because there are many great jobs that are out there. If we would train our kids on the jobs of the future and the jobs of the future aren’t necessarily these high tech jobs. Everybody talks about how there’s a great need for people to do welding and electrical work and plumbing work and HVAC work and all sorts of construction jobs that are not jobs for people who are uneducated. I mean, these jobs require education. They require understanding science and math and finance and all the things that are associated with that and we should be focusing on that. It is as much as anything else. There’s nothing really wrong with building\ good lifestyle businesses. If they grow and they become great companies, that’s terrific. But keeping that whole system moving within the community I think is very, very important and should be considered as something as demeaning as some sort of so-called blue collar job that’s not worthy of being funded and being supported in our community. That’s nonsense. It really is. We should be supporting more of that in our community because those are the kind of jobs that we do need and they’re high paying jobs and they’re not jobs that are demeaning in any way, shape, or form. I completely support that. That’s really, really important for us to continue to support those types of opportunities in our community.

Jeremy:

You know, I’ve seen it as I reflect back, I spent almost 20 years out of state in the Greater Charlotte area and moved back here to West Virginia in 2016, and since then, it’s given me an opportunity to really gain some perspective on things because with Charlotte, when I first moved there, there was still a lot of pasture land, believe it or not. Now it’s a concrete jungle and super tall buildings. And so there was this one sort of facade of what success really should look like if you’re not wearing a very nice suit and carrying a briefcase and you’re not really successful. However, as I’ve come back to West Virginia and gotten to become reacquainted with some of the people I grew up with, some of the most successful people that I know that I grew up with are blue collar people who make things; concrete businesses or multiple different businesses that they’ve grown or built or acquired that started with doing things with their hands.

Mike: 

And we should be supporting that. Back to the issue of what was said earlier about the state in investing in our people. Well, the answer to that is, if they don’t, we can’t just say, “Well, the role arises, now what are we going to do?” And just, you know, fold up a tent and go home. Which is why I, myself and a number of the folks that I work with are really encouraging the business community to take a more active role here. I would strongly recommend that more and more local businesses get out in their community, go out and talk to the kids in their high schools and the middle schools all the time and be poster children. I mean that is a nice way to show that people in West Virginia can be successful.

We’ve got thousands and thousands of successful business people in this region. It’s our entire region. So short of doing nothing, my philosophy is when you don’t know what to do, do something. And there’s something that I’ve tried to preach for many, many uses for the business community or business leaders to get out in our communities, get out in our schools and show people that they can be successful and just lead the way. That way, by example, we have tons and tons of people out there who can do that. I wish we can get them better organized to go in and do it if you can’t always rely on the government to save your businesses. You’ve got to do that as an entrepreneur. That’s one of the differentiations of being a good entrepreneur, is being able to figure that out and be successful on your own without the help of a crutch from the federal government or the state.

We’ve got to push that and that’s an important message. There are people like myself who’ve created angel networks, investment entities like angel funds and now a venture capital fund like Mountain State Capital are here to help people. And we have a few state entities that are out there, that people would seek them out. And one of the things that good entrepreneurs always do is find the people that can help them. I mean, if you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you just can’t sit back and wait for people to come to you to help you. You’ve got to go out and seek them out and get them to get you over the next particular hump in order to be successful.

Jeremy:

That’s good advice as well. And you know, the need to not just wait for someone to come to you. What I also heard you say in there, which is something that I’ve been very passionate about as well here in West Virginia. I think too often we’re our own worst critics, our own biggest enemies because we buy in and craft and perpetuate this narrative that we aren’t enough. You know, we operate from this deficit mindset that we have. We don’t have what we need here. We need someone to come from up on high and come and rescue us. And yet, you’ve seen it. I’ve seen it. We have great people who have great ideas and fabulous businesses and business ideas and we have lots of resources. What’s still missing? And so as you consider this question, the term entrepreneurial ecosystem, it’s a buzz, right? You know, we hear it all the time. Could you take a minute and talk about what that means, what entrepreneurial ecosystem means to you and what perhaps you’ve seen elsewhere that we could perhaps take and apply here in West Virginia that would be helpful.

Mike:

Yeah, I mean the first thing they’ll look at here and what they’re doing there, which was a complete shock to me when I got here is the overall overarching culture that you just mentioned. That implies that we’re not good enough here in this particular region. What nonsense. I mean that’s completely nonsense and so we’ve got to overcome that because I meet with a lot of young people and and a lot of children over the years here in West Virginia and they have a bit of a defeatist attitude and they got to get over that because I think that they have the capability to do anything they want to do if they put their mind to it. But in terms of an ecosystem is something that does require not only funding, the money is the easiest part of creating a company. It’s the ability to really articulate what that company is all about, what that idea is all about to show the differentiation between what you’ve decided to do, what you created is different than what anybody else does. And that’s very difficult. When we meet the new, and I meet with a lot of entrepreneurs, they think they’re the first person to ever think of this particular idea. And I usually point out to them, let me tell you right now, there are 10 people in Silicon Valley, Boston, Washington, New York, and elsewhere who’ve thought about the same idea. What’s so special about it? Where’s your differentiation? Where is your intellectual property? Why should I bet on you compared to somebody else? And that’s a very, very difficult thing to do. There’s always the idea of, “Well, I can build a better mousetrap.” Well, there’s plenty of mouse traps out there. What are you creating that’s going to change the world? What are you doing that’s so significantly different? And what I tell most people at this particular stage, you need to do your homework.

There’s no shortcuts to be a great entrepreneur. You got to do your homework. One of the things that I always recommend to every entrepreneur in building their own ecosystem is to make sure they get some mentors. Get people who are not going to just patronize you, to give you that tough love when you need it, smack you around, tell you that your idea is really crazy and stupid, and make you prove that what you’re trying to do is something different and differentiable and has value that an investor is going to want to come along and say, “I want to party with you. I want to give you my money because I know you’re going to return this with vigor and create a great company.” The whole idea of investing is a head at a venture capital guy explained to me in the simplest terms, he said, “The whole idea of making an investment is, that the investor gives you a small bit of money and expects a lot of money back.”

And so at the end of the day, that’s what a lot of entrepreneurs need to understand. Yes, I want to create a great company, a great product, a great solution, but for investors, it’s what is the return on investment and why or why should I put my money on you versus somebody else. So, building that ecosystem is not only about the idea, it’s about building the team, it’s about building mentorship and having a very clear vision as to where this thing is going to go and how your investors are going to get a return on their investment.

Jeremy:

Mentorship is super important; to partner with someone who maybe has gone before you and who you can emulate and bounce questions off of and get some tough love. Where can folks find good mentors?

Mike:

They’re out there. I think one of the qualities of a good entrepreneur is that they’re able to find those people and they’re everywhere. And they’re everywhere in West Virginia and throughout Greater Appalachia if you go seek them out. From your parents, to your teachers, to some community leaders. I’ve found a lot of entrepreneurs will just go knock on doors or hear somebody speaking and just call them up. And part of being a good entrepreneur is to be able to have the kind of guts to be able to pick up the phone and call somebody. And don’t be afraid to get a door slam in your face. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to get somebody hanging up on you. I mean, obviously we all get telemarketers calling us all the time. I understand that. But I think the most important four letter word for most entrepreneurs is help. And I’ve very rarely run into people, when you use the word, “I need your help.” Who is going to say, “No, I’m not going to help you.” And I think that’s it. That’s a particular trait of the people here in Greater Appalachia is that it’s the only place I’ve ever lived where people genuinely want to help you. Well, you grow up in a big city like New York, New York, for example, where I grew up I would doubt very seriously if I walked down the street and saw somebody and say, “I need your help on something.” So on something, they would probably just either step right over me and say, “Get the hell out of the way, buddy, and I don’t have time for you.”

You don’t find that in Greater Appalachia. You find people who genuinely will help you if you ask the right questions. If you’re appropriate in your way you’re dealing with them and you have a particular mission and your passion comes through the other. That’s a trait that I look for in entrepreneurs. Do they really care? Are they passionate about what they’re doing? Are they people who genuinely want to be successful? For lots of reasons besides making money and a lot of it may be, “I just need to take care of my family,” or “I think this is a great idea.” But to have that passion and have that come through from an entrepreneur I think is extremely important.

Jeremy:

No doubt. You know, I can’t imagine wanting to invest in someone who it seems like maybe they’re asleep at the wheel. There’s just really no energy coming from them. They can be brilliant, but there’s really nothing emotional coming from the new emotional attachment to what they’re doing.

Mike:

Yeah. And most entrepreneurs, and I do that sometimes when I’m lecturing to entrepreneurs, I try to find out what they are like as people. Are they all in? I will oftentimes kind of in a joking way, ask them like in the middle of the presentation I’ll say, “Well, that’s really great. Tell me about your family.” And they’ll talk about that. And then I might ask a silly question like, “Well, what did you have for dinner last night? And if they know the answer to that, I usually say that’s not a good sign. Because they shouldn’t be thinking about what they’re eating. They should be thinking about whatever this entrepreneur deal is all about. And then if you really want to get silly, I’ll say, “Please quickly name your children.” Now if they have to pause for a minute, that’s a positive thing because maybe they’re thinking about the business and said, “I’m trying to be a little silly here, but the whole point of that is that if you’re going to be a good entrepreneur and if you’re going to create a business, you really have to be all in. That means you’re going to be sleep deprived. That means you’re going to give up other things in your life.” But that particular passion and that particular focus is really a critical trait of anybody who’s going to be a good entrepreneur or for that matter, be successful in any business. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t balance your life with your family and other things that are important to you. We all need to do that, but to create a business and to be an entrepreneur does take a very, very different kind of a person, someone who is absolutely focused on what that mission is and will take no for an answer. So we’ll continually focus on, try to get answers and surround themselves with people who can help them be successful. But that’s what I think is really critical to be a good, successful entrepreneur in our community.


Jeremy:

How does failure fit in? You know, failure is a topic that I can recall growing up hearing, you know, failure is not an option when it all costs, you create these really ridiculous zero sum games where I only win if you lose. And we’ve created a culture where people are afraid to fail. Can you speak to failure for a minute for entrepreneurial success?

Mike:

Yeah. I talk about this all the time when I lecture to entrepreneurs. I say, “I hope you fail,” and they look at me crazy. Especially for the first time. Entrepreneur, go fail, go make, go make mistakes. That’s okay. That’s growth. Failure to me equals growth. It means education and learning. Do not ever be afraid to fail. I mean it, usually the story I tell is and I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I look at WD-40; you know why it’s called WD 40? Because they messed up the first 39 times, so now it’s a successful product. I hope that’s true. You probably could look that up in Wikipedia. But that’s not a bad thing to quote. Fail. Failure is a learning experience. It’s not a scarlet letter in any way, shape, or form. And people should not be afraid to fail and to make mistakes into use. The buzzword of the day is to pivot.

Okay, it didn’t work. So I’m going to change, I’m going to pivot, I’m going to go a different direction. I’m not going to give up. I have no problems with people who say, “Hey listen, this is my 10th company. I failed the first nine times, but this one’s going to be successful.” I look at that and say, “I think the odds are much better in your favor because you now know what not to do as well as what to do.” That’s my feeling about failure. That’s growth. Not something that’s negative in any way, shape, or form.

Jeremy:

Love it. Yeah. Again, I grew up in this Appalachian culture where we had that beaten into us of “don’t fail.” You know, as an athlete, as a scholar, as a citizen, don’t fail because it’s embarrassing and it’s going to make you look bad and it’s going to reflect so poorly on you that it will be very much like that scarlet letter. So glad to hear that. You know, investors such as yourself and people outside of our culture have known for some time that that’s not really, that’s not real. It’s not a real expectation to have not failed.

Mike:

That’s absolutely true. And it is a trick, too, Jeremy that I look for in entrepreneurs. So tell me about, not telling me about your successes. Okay. Everybody wants to talk about them. Where have you made mistakes and what have you learned from them? It’s probably much more valuable. And that’s what I want. That’s what I listen for when I talk to young entrepreneurs or anybody creating a business. I think that’s very, very important.

Jeremy:

Well, I hope that listeners and then when your video comes out we’ll key into that and get off this “I can’t fail” nonsense. That, I think, is crippling, paralyzing entrepreneurs out there who may have an idea to go do something and yet they say, “Well, I’ve got to get everything right before I start.” I heard an analogy once that waiting for all the conditions to be perfect is very much like waiting if you’re going to drive from the east coast to Seattle, waiting for all the lights, the traffic lights to be green before you leave your driveway and it’s not a real expectation.

Mike:

That’s not realistic.

Jeremy:

Mike:

And learn from your experiences and you’ll be a much better, successful business person, no matter what business it is, no matter what you do in life. I’ve never been afraid to try things and fail. I think that it’s one of the traits you look for is whether that individual has confidence in himself or herself, that matter, and that comes through when you’re interviewing entrepreneurs and they have the only answers to everything, that’s probably not a good bet because that means that person’s probably not coachable, probably not going to be able to change when things go badly. Not going to be able to deal with the trials and tribulations of building a company because they’re going to be bumps in the road and those are the kinds of traits that we look for when we’re trying to win, to decide whether to invest in a company. Can they ride out the storm when things go bad and are they going to get too high when things go good because that’s not necessarily. Another great thing to do is that you’ve got to be more or less even-tempered along the way here. You’re going to have bumps in the road, you’re going to have huge successes. Don’t rally around these great successes and think you’ve got the world by the tail. Be humble. I understand that being a good business person, be a good entrepreneur. It takes humility just to be able to be confident, but at the same time, be within yourself and not think that you know it all, that you have the ability to be able to create great things, but also be humble enough to know, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m not perfect because nobody is.” Most entrepreneurs understand that; most of the good ones do. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a lot of great successful entrepreneurs and great business people in my career and they all had that kind of same kind of quality. The good ones really understand that “I’m not perfect. I’m going to make mistakes.” And they deal with it and you move on instead of feeling sorry for yourself, which is a very bad trait. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go out there and try again. That’s a much better philosophy and don’t get too excited when things are going that great because there’s always a roller coaster in this world and what goes up, comes down. But most of the time, if you’re a successful person, what goes down will come back up. They’ve got to believe in that, Jeremy. And that’s an important trait that we look for when we’re investing in companies and people.

Jeremy:

That’s good. You know, the emotional, even-keel to recognize that there are peaks and valleys in this journey, in that wherever you happen to be at the moment is not necessarily your final destination if you believe it’s not your final destination.

Mike:

Absolutely. I agree.

Jeremy:

So, you know, I’d like to switch gears just a little bit and dig into you for a moment. Talk about if you would, where you grew up and how that shaped you and maybe some of your learnings along your journey to get to where you are now.

Mike:

Yeah, I mean, I’m proud of where I came from. Like I said, we weren’t rich by any way, shape, or form, but from the time I was eight years old, I was always working. Well growing up in the inner city in New York, you gain a lot of street smarts, I think. And I think that’s served me well. But I’ve always had a work ethic. My parents were very strong in my life. I was very fortunate to have great parents; didn’t give me a lot financially, but gave me a great home life and a lot of love. And that helped me. But I’ve always been somebody who was anxious to learn to solve problems and I’ve taken that kind of philosophy with me everywhere I’ve gone. From the time I was eight years old, I’ve tried to emulate that in everything I’ve done. I’ve tried to encourage my kids and the people at work with me to do the same thing. I don’t think there’s any substitute for hard work. I really don’t. There’s a lot of people out there that are very, very smart and have very, very high, good IQs and are brilliant people. But I still think the world is being run by the folks that are the B+ people and not necessarily the A+ people that really run the world because I think for that matter they’re perhaps more pragmatic. I have been able to deal with the trials and tribulations of life and have been able to work through that. I know I’ve worked hard and been more than anything else, very, very fortunate. I’ve been encouraging people from what I’m speaking today, I’ve been lucky to have good mentors along the way because I sought them out. Everybody has that proverbial great teacher that helped them get to where they are today. I had one when I was in ninth grade. It was, I’ll never forget, Mr. Flannery. Mr. Flannery saw in me something that I did not see in me because even though I was kind of a smart kid, I was kind of lazy. 

One day, he took me by the collar that you couldn’t do today and grabbed me by the shirt collar and looked right in the eyes and said, “Wise up, Green. Wise up.” And the anecdote of that was that when I got to high school, I was very surprised because when I got there and I went to an all-boys high school with 6,000 boys. And when I got there, to the high school on the first day, I get my card with all my classes on it and on the classes it said, “English SC, Mathematics SC,” and I’m thinking, “SC, that can’t be stupid kid? What is this?” And it turned out that Mr. Flannery, who grabbed me by the shirt collar, had made a call into the school and recommended me for this thing. They called the scholarship class, which was only 30 kids out of the 6,000 and the kids that were part of this class and it was a wake up call for me because all I wanted to do at that particular time was play sports or play music. And I didn’t realize that there was much more potential out there because in both cases, both of my music career and my sports career, I was going nowhere. Okay. I was a pretty good baseball player, except for the fact I couldn’t hit and couldn’t throw. Other than that, I was a really good ball player. I was a pretty good piano player and I played the trumpet, but it was not good enough to be in a rock band. So, I had to hide to grow from that. And the growth experience from that was working harder, working smarter, staying focused. And then I was fortunate enough to go to college, get a degree. And then my experience, you mentioned earlier at the National Security Agency was a great experience because it got me out of my initial element to go someplace where I was really critically important, too.

An important mission. That may sound like brainwashing and it really kind of is. But the point is, when you wake up in the morning, you realize that what you’re doing for a living has a lot to do with people’s lives. You take that very seriously. If you translate it to the business world, and I kind of say that somewhat tongue in cheek, when you’re dealing with a job that requires you to do your job appropriately, the people save lives. That’s very, very important. Then you get into the business world where making money, and especially if you worked for a public company where there’s pressures on you to make your numbers every quarter, that’s pressure, too in a different kind of way because the last thing you want to in a public company or any kind of company is to lose money and your investors get sour on you.

So I think that learning the lessons that I think I’ve learned over the years that having internal pressures is a good thing. Having yourself focusing on a mission is a good thing. You shouldn’t be complacent, and I’ve always found a way to try to encourage people to push themselves. As a manager, I always would look at my employees and say, “You’re doing a really good job. Have you thought about this?” Not telling him what to do, but encouraging to go forward, to push themselves a little bit further and years later, I would get people to come back to me. “I’m glad you told me to do that because I became more successful in doing so.” I think that’s an important trait of who we are is to never be complacent in what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished in the past. Go forward to try to do more. And that’s what we were trying to do here in our region here. I said earlier in the podcast that I’ve been very, very fortunate, very, very fortunate in my life and a lot of luck was involved in that as well. But working in education and I still continue to work on the West Virginia Public Education Collaborative, which is a number of us from the private and public sector and university sector to work together every day to try to come up with better education policies for our children and making sure our legislature understands, that our law makers understand that it’s important for us to have good education policies to work with them, to work with our communities on entrepreneur programs that get key people to understand the pragmatic things associated with being in business.

Okay. It’s not that easy, but unless you put the people together in an organization where they’re able to learn from others to share their experiences, we’re never going to get there. If you look at what’s going on in Appalachia, I say this all the time, there’s a new invention called the Internet. Many people have heard about this, which basically normalizes the entire world. You can be anywhere and be successful. Now we do have challenges which we continue to work on in terms of things like Broadband in our Appalachia area. And we will continue to push that. We have challenges in terms of the curricular that exists in our school system today that I’m intimately involved in. We’re working very hard on trying to increase the opportunities for STEM or STEM programs in our schools because these are the jobs of the future.

The one thing we do know is that the jobs of today are not going to be here 10 years from now. There is such an evolution and revolution in the development of technology and what the needs of the future are going to be that I don’t think any of us can predict what the world is going to be like in 10 years from now, from a technological perspective, what the jobs of the future are going to be like. So, we’ve got to prepare our kids for that. And there’s one mission that I want to make sure everybody understands. That’s what our focus needs to be on today is making sure that our kids, the next generation, are prepared for what’s going to happen in 10 years. Because it’s my strong opinion that a lot of the curriculum exists in our school system today and a lot of the things that we’re teaching our kids today are not going to be the foundation for what’s going to be needed in 10 years from now; five years from now. With the development of technology and the way things have changed and the trajectory has changed so significantly in my lifetime where things just take a month or two months to happen now happen in milliseconds. So, I know that’s a long answer to my philosophy, but I think that our entire community has to be focused on our young people and focusing on them, on curriculum that matters.

I think we should be teaching things like life one-on-one skills. We should be teaching in our school system things like financial literacy. A lot of our children today wouldn’t know how to write a check, wouldn’t even be able to write their name. Okay. Because they’re so used to doing everything with their fingertips and their thumbs. But understanding basic things like that is part of curriculum that I think should be taught in our schools. And I think we, as investors, look for people who are well-rounded and understand that. And if there’s one other takeaway from that is to be able to communicate, be able to collaborate, and be able to work together in teams. These are the kinds of things that I think are extremely important for our young people and for our society here, especially here in Greater Appalachia, to thrive and to be successful in the future.

Jeremy:

And again, this reactivity that we’ve developed here across Appalachia, just sort of wait and see rather than being proactive, it has become such a hindrance to us. You know, hockey is great. Wayne Gretzky talked about the need to skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it is now. And you know, we’ve got great biblical wisdom from Proverbs 22:6 that talks about “Train up a child and the way it should go and when he’s old and not apart from it.” So you know, preparing them for what lies ahead rather than being stagnant and just staying status quo and keeping things as they are and sort of this protectionist environment.

Mike:

Yeah, we’re nowhere unless our next generation really has the tools to be successful. My age, my parents, were indeed the greatest generation. My generation came along and I think kind of messed things up quite a bit to be honest with you. We maybe gave our kids too much, but life is cyclical. It’s coming around again and I think it’s really, really important for us today to make sure that our kids are more grounded. We’ve got many more problems to deal with today in today’s society than we had when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, okay. The world has changed so much. We have so many bigger challenges, whether it’s the opioid problem or it’s homelessness, and that’s a part of society that we’ve got to help as well. So there are many of the things that we’re doing and as entrepreneurs and as business people, I think we have a responsibility to find solutions to these big problems.

And many of us are working on those types of things. If we have an opioid crisis, we can just put our head in the sand or any kind of drug problem and say, “Okay, there’s nothing we can do about that.” And many people, including myself sometimes just just roll our eyes and say, “I really don’t know how to solve that particular problem.” But that’s the way I feel for about 10 milliseconds. And the next thing I say is, “How are we going to fix this problem?” Because it’s critical that we do and the homelessness problem and all the other additional pressures that are on our children today is something that we, our kids, try to find solutions for. And I just hope to God and I pray that we can rally around together as a community to solve these types of problems and not just focus on what’s very specific and important to us.

You know, deep down inside maybe we’re all kind of narcissistic in many ways. “It’s all about me.” But I try to surround myself with people who don’t think that way, that they think more globally than this is about our community. This is about improving the lives of the people here in this region. And that’s my passion. Okay. When I got here, I said, “These are great people. I love it here in Appalachia.” Okay, we’ve got to overcome the concept that we’re not good enough. Okay? We’ve got to keep our kids here. And I frequently will lecture at the universities and I’ll ask how many of you young people are going to stay here in Appalachia or after you get your degree? And it breaks my heart when I see the hands go up and say 95% of them are going to leave. Why?

Because no opportunities, no jobs. We’ve got to fix that problem here. There is no better place to live in my opinion, because I live here. Then in this region, we’ve got it all. I look outside my window right now. It’s a beautiful day here. I was talking to a friend of mine who was in the Carolinas, “It’s cold and yucky here today.” Friend of mine in Florida, “Yeah, it’s raining.” We’re so immune to it. Terrible. You know, weather conditions here, we’re close to big cities, right? We have all the culture that we would need. We have great people, we have great weather. What’s not to love about the outdoors here in our area. It’s a great place to live and there’s no reason in the world we couldn’t thrive here in this region. We don’t have to be on the coast. You don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to be a great entrepreneur. You don’t have to be in Boston or New York or Washington, DC. You can be right here in Greater Appalachia and have a very successful life, have a great lifestyle, and great opportunities. But we’ve got to create companies. We’ve got to make sure that we do everything you possibly can to keep our kids here and have them thrive here and bring people home. That’s what we’ve been trying to do. 

Jeremy:

I describe myself as one of the boomerang kids. You know, I threw myself down in the Carolinas, but I was able to find my way back. And you know, there are others who grew up here and are finding the way back in different chapters of their lives. So, for anyone listening, if you’ve been thinking about coming back, get on board. When I was in the Carolinas and said that I was coming home, moving back to West Virginia, they said, “You’re going to be out of  work. You’re going to have to go get a job. You’re going to have to shut your company down. There’s no opportunity there.” I said, “Great. Watch me.”

Mike:

Well, you’re a great example of somebody who came home and are making a big impression on what’s happening in our community and I’m grateful to you for that. And our community should be grateful to you, Jeremy; you’re doing a great job getting the message out. But this is a great place to live, to raise your family, and have a great life. I wish people would come home, too to our area.

Jeremy:

Well, we’re going to keep pushing it until they do because you and I share the trade of we don’t give up so easily, so.

Mike:

It’s not in my DNA. Never will be. We’re going to have to carry me out of here and I’m going to do everything I possibly can to try to create companies and create wealth and we’re going to have those successes and people are going to say, “Gee, that was a great idea. I’m glad I thought of it.” Now, it doesn’t matter. None of us who do what we do are looking for any kind of personal gratification. I think that the people that I’ve surrounded myself with are people who really want this community to thrive because we have all the raw ingredients to do that. We just have to have a couple of good dominoes to fall. And I think from there on end people are going to realize, “Wow, what is it? This is a great place to live, great place to raise your family and I can be successful in many, many ways here.

Jeremy:

I agree with you 100%. I can keep you here all day and I always enjoy our conversations. They’re valuable to me. I’m very thankful and appreciative of you taking the time, but I want to move towards wrapping up. So a couple more questions as we move towards that direction. The name of this podcast is the Heroes of Change podcast. The tagline for my company is Guiding the Heroes of Change. And you’ve likely heard me use that phrasing more than once. So if you would take a minute and talk about when you hear that phrase, “Heroes of Change,” what does that mean to you and why is it so important for everyday people like you and I to get up and go do the things that need to be done?

Mike:

A great phrase. It’s hard to put into words exactly the way I feel about this, but I think that just by definition, the world is always changing and you have to be flexible and you have to be someone who looks at the world through not only the glass being half full, I think it’s three quarters full and able to look at that and say, “Okay, yeah, well we got to make full.” And in order to do that, I think you’ve got to have a much better attitude about what you do every single day. And I think we just have to look to make sure that we create better leaders. And one of the things that concerns me about what we’re doing in our community is that we’re not growing great leaders from  inside our communities.

And I think that’s one of the reasons that we haven’t been as successful as we could have been. We’re always looking to the outside for people to come in and do things for us. So, I think a program that we need to create here in our community is to create those next level of leaders. The next, we call C-level, CFO, CEO, COO leaders in our community. But in order to do that, the business community has to rally around that and basically take a lot of these people, young people in as interns, great programs so they can actually see how things are done. We have so many kids in our community who are looking for that hero and they don’t realize they’re right in their own hometown. But I think part of that means that the business leaders need to not just sitting back waiting for that to happen, to proactively go out to the community and show these young people that this is the way you are successful.

So the heroes are here and the heroes are definitely people that are your next door neighbors and everywhere I go, I try to talk to business leaders to say, “Take an hour a month and go to a high school and walk in there and talk to the principal and let a kid meet you.” We have so many young people in our community who are looking for those heroes in there right around us. But I think the heroes need to go out and seek them as much as the young people need to go out and seek the heroes. How hard would it be for a successful business person to take an hour a month and just show up at a school? We have so many kids who have no idea what a university looks like, what a college looks like, what a CEO is and what he does.

Well, what this young woman who created a company in some small town in West Virginia, how hard she worked to create that. That person is a hero and they’re right here. So let’s get them more organized and be able to proactively go out and educate and show people by showing them, not talking about it, but actually showing them YouTube can be successful, just like me, and I come from the same community that you do. And there’s many people around who are trying to do that, but it needs to be much more organized and we need to be much more aggressive in trying to get our young people to know that they’re out there if they would seek it. So that’s what I think the heroes are in. And I absolutely believe that they’re right here next

door. We just got to get more people involved and engaged in our communities. 

Jeremy:

Love it. And with the media and such, I think we’ve got sometimes a distorted vision of what success has to be. You know, you experienced this major actually now a couple of major exits where we’re talking billions of dollars and not that there’s anything wrong with that and not that we can’t have that here within Appalachia. I think the understanding that success doesn’t have to be that success can be running a small business that employees, a handful of people, a success can be you know, serving on a school board and loving your neighbor and doing great things within your small community. Doesn’t have to be appearing on the front page of major publications or on major networks, day in and day out. 

Mike:

Yeah.The people that I really love and respect at the table who are under the radar don’t look to be the ones that are on the front page of any paper or getting a lot of notes, positive notoriety. That to me is not a successful person. I mean, yeah, we need some of that out there, but the successful ones are the ones who are working day to day, raising their family and running good companies and giving back to the community. And maybe, I don’t mean to sound cheesy or anything like that, but the people that I like to certainly personally associate with and try to show as a leader and a role model, are the people who do pay it forward and give back to the community and don’t look for anything in return because that’s obvious. I think it comes through very clearly to some of the people that I know, okay. If it’s what’s in it for me. So I don’t think that way and I try to associate myself with people and think the same way. It’s not about me, it’s about us. And I think once you have that kind of philosophy, I think you’ll sleep better at night. So it’ll be a place to go when you’re all done. That’s probably positive. And I think that’s important for everybody to really understand. That it’s for the greater good of the community and great community here in Appalachia. And I’m just thrilled to be here and be a small part of it. We’ll continue to do everything I possibly can to improve the lives of the people here in our greatt community. 

Jeremy:

That’s as much appreciated with those who are giving things and expecting something in return. That’s not a gift. It’s a transaction. I think it was Einstein that said something to the effect of don’t seek to be a person of importance. Seek to be a person of value. And you know, that’s what we need more of, is getting away from the ego piece. “Look at me. I’m so great.” If you’re a person of value, others will notice. And in the end, it doesn’t really matter anyway. If others notice, just go do what you know is right and make an impact. Being the change is about it’s an act. It’s an action that you take. It’s not something you consider or wonder about or dream of. You get up and go, do you default to action? As you were talking earlier, you go do something, whatever.

Mike:

I love your philosophy, Jeremy. I mean, it’s so refreshing. I mean, I feel so fortunate to know you and so I’m excited about this particular mission you’re on right now because it’s critically important to our community. So I want to, before I forget, thank you again for this opportunity to speak to you and to your audience, but thank you and bless you for what you’re doing every single day. It’s really meaningful and important to our community.

Jeremy:

It’s a humbling experience to take on something like this and yeah, just my hope is just to share these words of encouragement and stories of others that might inspire someone else. So, final question for you is how, if people want to learn more about you and the work that you’re doing at Mountain State Capital and elsewhere, how might they learn more about you?


Mike:

Yeah, I probably make it a very, very important mission of myself to be responsive to anybody who contacts me no matter, what it is. You certainly can reach me by email. It’s Mountain State Capital, it’s one word. So you can go mike@mountainstatecapital.com, which we there, we have a website, mountainstatecapital.com. All one word. And I will do my very, very best. We’ll be responsive to any of your listeners or people watching this podcast to be responsive as best I possibly can. And if there’s a response, that’s important. And if I don’t have the answer, I’ll try to direct that person to whoever can answer the question. We view ourselves oftentimes what we do is triage agents for the community. We get a lot of calls from people who are looking for help or looking for money or looking for advice and for guidance. And we don’t have all the answers, nor do we have all the money. I wish we did. If we did, we would certainly invest in more companies. We have to be very selective. Entrepreneurs need to understand that, too. When they’re looking for money, a venture capital fund like ours, we will look at 200 companies and invest in one. So, you’ve got to be very special out there. You’ve got to be very creative. You’ve got to be very clear in your communication. You’ve got to be inventive. You’ve got to have intellectual property. You have to have differentiation. If you’re looking for help I’m happy to be a person who can help you. Challenge me. See if I’m telling you the truth, I’m trying to be as responsive as I can, but be prepared for the fact that I might tell you, “Hey, wait a minute. I think you’re barking up the wrong tree or you’re going in the wrong direction.” You don’t need, “yes people.” You need people who give you encouragement, but not give you encouragement for something that we strongly believe is not going to be successful for you. That’s okay. Like I said earlier, we talked about earlier – failure is ok. Making mistakes is fine. God knows I make them all the time.

But when you bounce back from that, I think you can be much more successful. So any of your listeners out there, mike@mountainstatecapital.com. Reach out to me anytime you would like and I’d be delighted to be able to help in any way I can. 

Jeremy:

And I know that to be true. I know I’ve reached out to you a number of times and you’ve always been terribly responsive and I appreciate that. So again, appreciate you taking the time to be on today and sharing some I think really sage advice and some words of encouragement for especially for people here within Appalachia. But your messages translate no matter where our listeners may be. So again, much appreciated. 

Mike:

Thank you, Jeremy, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for the opportunity. 

Jeremy:

So that’s all for this episode of the Heroes of Change podcast from EPIC Mission. We hope that you’ve been inspired by something you heard today because together, we are the change. Tune in next time as we dig into the story of another hero and learn what they do, how they do it, and more importantly, why they do what they do. Take care, stay encouraged, and we’ll look forward to seeing you next time on the Heroes of Change podcast from EPIC Mission. Take care.