Naturally, I would jump at the chance to bring most of my obsessions to bear on a common thread. I suffer from "an addiction to quack" -- I love my University of Oregon Ducks and greatly respect everything about the many academic and athletic programs they have built in Eugene.
The opportunity to do business with and support the U of O is always a priority. Every year I see friends at Autzen Stadium for at least one football game. I joined equally obsessed fans at the Olympic Trials and the NCAA Track and Field Championships at Historic Hayward Field. When the lady Ducks made the NCAA volleyball tournament, I was in Eugene for their first game and in Louisville with my family at the finals. On the business side, Swiftwick licensed new technologies first developed by the highly acclaimed U of O Chemistry department.
As this relationship has developed, I connected with Business School graduate candidate Dillon Caldwell, the president of the highly respected Duck Cycling team. From the day we met, I enjoyed the intelligence and humor he brought to our conversations. When he asked for time to interview me as part of his final business school paper I was looking forward to that experience. When he shared his essay, I learned several things about myself as seen from another person's experience.
So, I wonder what grade his paper got?
I know this, I'm expecting many great things from Dillon Caldwell, Oregon Graduate and certainly a leader of tomorrow.
Simple as Socks:
Entrepreneurial Insight from Swiftwick Co-Founder and CEO
Mark A. Cleveland
The storied Sands Convention Center hosts more than 20,000 show attendees and features upwards of 1,000 industry suppliers from all corners of the American cycling world each summer all in the name of the bicycle. Cold beer, hot new bikes, babes, balloons… you name it. Like kids in a candy shop, my wingman Blake and I were almost overwhelmed. Despite all that happened over the course of that week in the city that never sleeps, one encounter stands above the rest in my memories.
Tucked away in a corner of the showroom that took some serious meandering to find, on day two of the three-day convention Blake and I walked past the brightly colored stage of a vaguely familiar sock manufacturer from Tennessee. “Go Ducks!” Immediately recognizing the big green Os on our chests, we were greeted by a friendly Swiftwick representative who was quick to mention that one of the company’s founders was a UO alum himself and would love to meet us. Despite already having a longtime sock sponsor, we were intrigued enough to skip out on another appointment in the interest of meeting a fellow Duck under rather unique circumstances.
My first encounter with Mark Cleveland, unlike so many first impressions in this life, was a remarkably accurate portrayal of the man I’d come to know over the next ten or so months. Blake and I approached Mr. Cleveland as he was admiring the carbon fiber prosthetic leg – Swiftwick wrapped, no doubt – of a double amputee who was gearing up for an extraordinary athletic feat that most people, myself included, couldn’t even fathom doing with two working legs. Mark’s genuine excitement about this man’s life was no anomaly, as I’d come to learn. A brief examination of his company’s website (www.swiftwick.com) confirms this interest, with one of six categories of sponsored athletes being dedicated to the amputee and only one topic on their blog roll just barely beating out the para-athlete for attention – “cycling”.
After a few hearty laughs and an impressive display of goodwill, Mark turned his attention to the pair of Ducks standing awkwardly beside him. “All the way from Eugene!” Mark welcomed us just as warmly as we had just witnessed him treat the para-athlete. After a brief yet energizing conversation between two parties who initially knew very little about each other’s organization, Blake and I were walking away with hands full of gifts and a very promising new sponsorship prospect, leaving Mark to continue to gracefully host the hottest party on the >2 million square foot Interbike floor.
Two months later Blake and I were greeting Mark on our own turf, his old stomping grounds, over coffee at the University of Oregon’s student union. We painted a brief picture of our fledgling student-run Club Sports team and pitched him a proposal for basic replacement of our previous sock sponsor. After strolling down to the new Jacqua Athletic Center for a quick photo opportunity, Mark popped open the trunk of his rental car and handed Blake and I some more sock samples. “Frankly, f*** (previous sponsor),” he said. He promised that Swiftwick would do more than replace the old sponsor, much more, so long as Blake and I could offer something more than just a little strategic logo placement in return. After our first full season of partnership, I could not be happier with the relationship we have built and the great promise this man has graciously offered our growing program – in regards to his socks, of course, but also to the future of this team on the whole.
As soon as I heard about the final project for this course, I knew exactly who I wanted my subject to be. I merely asked for a few minutes of his time over the phone. Instead, in typical Mark Cleveland fashion, he had something more up his sleeve. Mark had already booked a trip to his hometown for some brand promotion associated with the NCAA Track & Field Championships and a few notable civic engagements. I caught up with him between his presentation – and gracious UO Cycling plug – at last Friday’s Delta Rotary Club luncheon and his presentation at a para-athletics conference in Portland. I’ve met several entrepreneurs from various walks of life and from various industries over the years, but none who had quite as much genuine enthusiasm for what they were doing or interest in sharing their unique insights and perspectives as Mr. Mark Cleveland.
Me: “What did you study during your undergraduate years at the UO?”
MC: “I started out in history and political science, and then realized that I was never going to be able to make money doing that, so I moved over to the business track.”
Me: “When did you first realize that you wanted to lead your own company rather than work for someone else?”
MC: “My mom would tell me that I was an entrepreneur from an early age… I used to shoot down mistletoe from the top of oak trees around Christmastime and go down the streets of Eugene selling mistletoe to all the neighbors. Back then I think everyone just thought, ‘Oh, isn’t this cute – look at this young, enterprising boy.’ I think being comfortable talking with people and having a personality that worked in a creative way was a big asset for me. Now on the flipside, you’ve got people like Paul Allen who maybe aren’t famously outgoing but are extremely successful entrepreneurs. I don’t think being an entrepreneur puts you in a box. And I don’t think working for someone else is necessarily a bad thing. I think the question is whether or not you’re learning. We should be on a life-long learning path. I think I’ve always been in business for myself, whether I was working for someone else or not. So I don’t view, necessarily, starting and running your own company any differently from being paid to run a company for someone else. It’s just a question of ‘what am I learning?’ And if I’m learning, then I’m going to stick to it. And if I’ve mastered it and it’s a bore, then I’m going to go do something else.”
Me: “What would you say your first entrepreneurial experience was?”
MC: I think it was when I acquired my first real business license. You know, when I had to first cross over and start paying taxes and start employing people. That’s probably the place where you show whether you’re really an entrepreneur or you’re not. This was when I started Horizon Satellite Systems here in Eugene.
Me: “Which you installed on Bill Bowerman’s house?”
MC: [Chuckles] “That’s right.”
Me: “How long did that business last you and how did you know when it was time to move on from that venture?”
MC: “Maybe six years. I met my future wife, who was living in Portland, and I decided that I wasn’t learning enough.” With some hesitation, Mark related, “I kind of became the boy-wonder-guru kid in this segment of that industry.” Then, striking a chord of resonance with so many of our guest speakers from throughout the term, he admitted that he had begun to lose touch with reality “and just kept on doing whatever I wanted to do,” regardless of whether it was actually “out of reach.” Eventually I felt like I wasn’t learning the things I needed to learn, like bigger organizational structure and larger financial capital management.” Instead of flopping, he appreciated the opportunity and decided to go to work for someone else: Jubitz Corporation (Portland, OR).
Mark took this opportunity to briefly recount the dozen or so different companies, throughout a wide range of different industries that helped to form his diverse perspective on the business environment. “I’ve been fortunate to be in a lot of different industries, but the common thread then is: it’s all business. It’s concept to execution. If you get really good at business – managing a human organization, managing capital, focusing on sales and growth and development – if you do that, you can do it in anything. You can do it for a landscape maintenance company; you can do it for an aerospace engineering company. So people get involved with things that are more or less sexy to them and things that feel more or less interesting or comfortable to them – but it’s all the same thing, it’s all business.”
“Some people are specialists, some people are generalists – I want to be excellent.” – Swiftwick co-founder and CEO, Mark Cleveland
MC: “Some people are specialists, some people are generalists – I want to be excellent.” As a personal example, Mark offered that, “It forced me to learn a great deal about software when I was running a software development company. I believed that if I wasn’t really aware of the objective and the customer’s requirements then I wasn’t going to be able to meet those requirements. I believed that if I didn’t know the ‘how’, then I wouldn’t be able to manage the ‘who’. It’s a balancing act. You have to appreciate the time at which you need to migrate your company towards greater process awareness and you have to appreciate the time at which you need to let your company be free, flexible and ‘wild wild west’. And you have to be able to move back and forth as the culture changes and as the business landscape changes.”
Me: “What would you say has been your greatest achievement with Swiftwick so far?”
MC: “I’d say our greatest achievement has been defining and building a sustainable company culture.”
(individual and organizational)
-“Personal communication – not email, where the investment is not personable or memorable, but just flipping information back and forth between people.” Personal interaction and relationships are extremely important to this particular entrepreneur’s method.
-Civic engagement (like today’s Rotary meeting), in order to give back to the community and support local retailers
“I don’t think much about the competition and I don’t worry about what they’re doing. I know it’s hard enough to do what I do, so I don’t look for justification, validation, or leadership in the competition. I know that if I do the right things, I will define the market.”
Swiftwick, now in its fifth year, is already the industry leader in performance sock sales for the sport of cycling. Currently, they hold the third spot in terms of sales in the gargantuan American running market. Swiftwick's stated vision is, “to be the leader in sock technology while creating a culture focused on manufacturing the best products through environmentally friendly means, social responsibility, and superior customer service.” Swiftwick strives to distinguish itself from the competition through several primary means: 1) 100% Made in the USA – consider how many competitors can make this claim; 2) Environmental Stewardship – from making a more durable, thus less wasteful product, to a focus on use of environmentally friendly materials, Swiftwick is clearly a leader in the increasingly environmentally conscious marketplace (would you expect anything less from a Duck?); 3) Culture – between a focus on a wide range of activity and sport (golf to indy car racing) and a focus on traditionally ignored classes (amputees and military athletes), Swiftwick appeals to a truly diverse market base.
Dillon Caldwell (June, 2013)