You learn from successes. You learn a lot more from mistakes and failures. Patrick freely discusses various missteps in his journey and how he managed to pivot out of various corners. Excellent discussion.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?
Patrick Quinlan: I was born in Germany to a German mother and an American father. I spent most of my formative years in Germany and growing up very much in a German family. I moved to the States in my junior high years. I ended up here in Denver, Colorado at the beginning of my freshman year in high school, which was another transformative experience. I went to a an inner city high school. It was 70% African-American.
I went from growing up in a very un-diverse world in Germany to suddenly finding myself as a minority in the sense that there were less people exactly like me. I thought it’s probably one of the most important things and impacts that I had in my life. It was an incredible experience in that the world is substantially different than anything you think. It is one of the moments that I look at my life that I’m extraordinarily grateful for.
I do think that I suffered on the education side because George Washington High School at that time had an IB program but I was not able to get into that. However, life learning was just awesome in the Denver high school. I was rather unsuccessful in college and got an 0 in my first semester.
Sramana Mitra: How did you do that?
Patrick Quinlan: I think consistency and follow-through is very important. If you’re going to do something, do it well. I have some pretty substantial learning disabilities from a dyslexic standpoint. I just never had any work done with it. By the time I got to college, I hit that wall where I just wasn’t able to operate inside the classroom environment.
I ended up in the military and served in the US Army for a couple of years. It was actually during Desert Storm. It was a great leadership learning experience. My father had also been in the military. He was a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the army. I’m very glad I did those two years but I realized that it wasn’t for me. I did end up going back to university.
Along the way, I learned that as long as I addressed how my mind works, I can be very successful. I was 26 when I graduated from college because of the military. Those two experiences of being a minority in high school and going into the military at a time of conflict had a substantial impact on who I am today.
Sramana Mitra: What year are we talking about when you came out of college? Can you put this in a timeline?
Patrick Quinlan: I was actually looking at your background. I’m a month older than you. I graduated high school in 1989. I was in the Army from 1989 through 1996. I started at the University of Kansas in 1991. It took me five years to graduate. Then I did an executive MBA program at Regis University in Denver.
Sramana Mitra: What was your next move after you came out of school? It sounds like you came back to Denver?
Patrick Quinlan: I did. I’d been planning on joining the Peace Corps and was accepted, but due to some health issues, I was not able to go forward with my training. I needed a job. So, I got a job at a small company that sold recording systems for businesses. But I got fired within a week, because it didn’t make sense to me what they were asking me to do.
I apparently gave too strong of an opinion to the owner on how he should run his business. I ended up getting a job a couple of weeks later at a small translation company in Denver Colorado called Delta Translation. They had about 40 or 50 team members at that time. I was the third assistant on this project for General Electric. They were building a power plant in Argentina. They needed all of the operating manuals translated.
In that process, I was the lowest assistant on the totem pole. I had come in as a contractor for six to eight weeks and got hired as an employee. The company had made the decision before I got there to work with a company in Argentina to outsource a lot of the actual physical translation. In signing this contract for an Argentinian company, there were a lot of culture gaps between that organization and Delta.
The senior project managers had never worked in a global environment. The guy who ran the project got fired. The assistant got promoted, but he also got fired a month later. Assistant number three gets promoted and that guy also gets fired. Six months in, I was the last guy standing. It’s so interesting in these moments in life when you realize that if those three people hadn’t have been fired, would I be doing what I’m doing today. I told the owner, “I’m going down to Argentina. Give me some cash. I’ll fix the problem.” I didn’t speak Spanish. I had traveled quite a bit in the world, but I had never been to South America or Argentina specifically.
I found myself in Rosario, Argentina and didn’t have a friend or a person I knew. I had this organization that was trying to figure out how to milk the Americans for everything they could. They were operating on Argentinian time. Over the course of six to eight months, I made friends and I learned how to influence people. I took all those things of being a white kid in an African-American school and put them all back to work. I met some folks outside of the company that I could trust. That helped me navigate Argentinian culture.
We got the project done and we delivered it on time about six to seven months later. Right when I’d been there for a year, the guy who owned the company asked me to go for a run and asked me to become the President. It was very exciting except that I didn’t have any idea what that meant. I was an American Studies major who didn’t read or write very well. I was just good with people. I had one of those funny experiences about two to three weeks into the job. I was sitting in the office still trying to figure this whole thing out. The entire company reported to me. He was only coming in maybe two or three days a week right from the beginning.
The controller walked into my office and set the monthly statement in front of me. He said, “Can we go through this?” I said, “Can we do it tomorrow? My schedule is full.” The reason I told him my schedule is full was I had no idea what it was. I called my dad and asked, “Do you know anybody that can explain this to me tonight?” He called a buddy of his who was a banker. I went over the guy’s house and he taught me the income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow in one night. I walked in the next day.
Sramana Mitra: How big was the company?
Patrick Quinlan: At that point, it was doing about $10 million a year and had 64 employees. It was a project management company.
Sramana Mitra: It was not like it was a very small company.
Patrick Quinlan: No, and I hadn’t taken a business class in my life. We ended up selling the company to a private equity firm two years later. They were doing a roll-up in the industry. It was interesting because the owner said, “I think we should sell this.” I was like, “You can do that.” I literally knew nothing. There’s something that you learn in the military. The mission is always very simple. The military’s mission is very black and white.
Growing up in that culture, you get to experience amazing leadership from the day you go to basic training. In the military, leadership is a life and death scenario. If a leader makes bad decisions, people die. In the military, there’s a tradition that when you’re leader, if one of your soldier dies, you write a letter to the family. Even today, it happens. They’re handwritten letters. If you think about that sense of having to write a mother, father, or wife and explain how your husband, wife, son, or daughter died and what cause they died for and accept the responsibility, that’s a huge responsibility.
I think I was a really bad leader when I started, but I always started with the feeling that it’s an obligation and it’s a huge responsibility. Your job is to always own up to the failures. You eat less. You sleep less. Those things have been ingrained into me from day one.
Sramana Mitra: The truth is, you can learn income statement. Learning leadership is a much harder thing. Leadership is something that is either you have it naturally or don’t. It’s not so simple.
Patrick Quinlan: I would agree. We certainly see people who are uncomfortable leaders who have done good. At the end of the day, you can learn it. You either have that ownership or you don’t. You can get better at it.
Sramana Mitra: You can get better at it with experience. I think people are either natural leaders or not natural leaders. I don’t know. That’s just my bias. When this company was sold, what year was this happening?
Patrick Quinlan: I joined the company in 1996. I became the President in 1997 and we sold it in 1999.
Sramana Mitra: By the end of the century, you were done. Did you have to serve an earn-out or any kind of lock-up?
Patrick Quinlan: Yes. I got fired again.
Sramana Mitra: Did you make money on that deal?
Patrick Quinlan: I made some. He treated me fairly. I never actually had true equity but when the deal closed, he gave me a portion of it. Then I did have an earn-out with a severance package. I went to the new company. Entrepreneurs don’t really do great in earn-outs.
Sramana Mitra: Given what you just described, the fact that you got this incredible learning opportunity in this company, even if you made no money at all, I would say that it was worthwhile.
Patrick Quinlan: It’s interesting when you asked the question if I made money on it. Where I am in life was not impacted by that outcome. I never think of Delta from a money standpoint. I think of it as my actual MBA. I very much agree with the Peter Thiel view of the world that college is a highly overused tool for a lot of people. I think that life is the best educator.
Certainly if you want to become an accountant, lawyer, or doctor, you should go do that. I have a strong belief that you learn a lot more through experience. I have a seven-month-old son. He’s my first kid. I don’t look at him and think, “I hope you go to Stanford.” It’s right for some people, but I don’t think it’s the automatic answer.
Sramana Mitra: I don’t have an MBA. I’m a computer scientist. I started my first company at graduate school. I have very good business acumen, but I learned everything through the job.
Patrick Quinlan: Yes, and you learn through failures. The company that I was involved in after this was a seven-year slog. We were in the housing space. We made the horrible decision to charge on a per-home start basis. For every house you started, you would pay a fee, which was awesome in 2006 and 2007. The company grew. We raised money from some local investors. The company’s revenue dropped 95% in four months in 2008.
Sramana Mitra: What was it about your background that gave you any affinity towards that industry?
Patrick Quinlan: I wish I had a great answer to that, but I don’t. I love to eat out with my wife. We have a very funny way of going out to dinner. We get in a car. We pull out of the driveway. If we go left on the street called Cofax, there’s a bunch of immigrant non-US food joints. If you go right, you go to the cool bistros, farm-raised stuff, two blocks down that street. Once we decide right or left, we just go somewhere.
Even when we’re in different cities, we just walk in places. Where I’ve ended up in my companies is very much that same thing. My partner and I are very good at taking tiny ideas and blowing them up into global companies. We found this little company that was in the ethics space and we turned it into something we’re proud of. We didn’t know when we left the house if we were going to have bistro or street food.