Only In America Says CEO After Going From Living Off Of An Exxon Credit Card To Pulling In 4 Million

Sep 10, 2010

Excellent article from long time client, Clearstar, that shows how to thrive in bad economy, the benefits of solid financial management, and how to leverage and exploit product strengths... 

ClearStar combines relaxed culture with savvy business sense

September 10th, 2010

“Only in America”, says CEO after going from living off of an Exxon credit card to pulling in $4 million

By Allan Maurer 
ClearStar, Inc., a firm providing technology and services to companies that screen potential tenants and employees for their clients, has racked up 106 percent sales growth in the last three years, earning a spot on the Inc. 5000 list each year. Not bad, considering the economy was in the tank and employers were firing far more employees than they were hiring. Yet the small company made about $3.1 million last year and is on track to do $4 million this year.

ClearStar 01

Bob Vale in the kitchen of the ClearStar offices, a focal point for the family oriented company

That’s not the only unusual thing about ClearStar, either. The company pays 100 percent of its 19 employees’ benefits package, including medical and dental, encourages them to wear shorts if the Atlanta weather is steamy, and boasts a kitchen right smack in the middle of its curved modern offices.

It took a while for ClearStar’s founder and CEO Robert Vale, to grab the success he kept reaching for. “I failed twice,” he says. He’s also been fired from a job. We asked him how the company is funded.

“I funded it with two partners, (CIO Ken Dawson and Inside Director William White) $700,000, four mortgages and credit cards, lots of credit cards.” 

Not an overnight success

“ClearStar did not just pop up overnight,” he tells us. “We have been at this for 15 years, which predates the acceptance of the Internet as a business medium. “We struggled through the .com insanity and 9/11.”

He continued, “We made the transition from a bulletin board system, to software and to the Internet. At one point the company was half a million dollars in debt and we were living off of an Exxon credit card. I think we fed ourselves on Exxon hotdogs for several years. We built this company three times over.”

Was it worth it?

“Hell yes, this is America and it’s the only place you can do that.”

ClearStar 02

The ClearStar offices: not bad for a renovated warehouse

How to succeed in a down economy

The question we really wanted to ask though, was how the company managed to buck the downward trend in the economy, and do it while performing background checks on employees while companies are laying off millions of workers.

“It’s not really counterintuitive,” Vale says. “Risk and threats have gone up and people are trying to avoid that. There are fewer jobs, but more candidates and a background check becomes part of the decision making. If you have three candidates for one spot who are pretty even, they check all three.”

Also, he says, the company diversified and some of the areas it moved into are growing faster than its core business.

“Early on we looked at what place in the value chain our technology occupied for our customers,” he says. “We then looked at all the points that our technology touched, whether they be human processes or other technologies.”

“By having the blueprint of a value web, versus a value chain, we were able to see where we could make critical processes more cost effective for our clients.  So we really just let our technology organically grow.”

You have capabilities you didn’t know about

He explains that the company looked at its place in the value chain, in this case the screening and background check industry, and found it could become a middle man for criminal records checks as well.

As an analogy, he suggests, “There are all these little printers, all putting out periodicals. Then a big press owner says, send me your work. I buy the paper cheaper, get a discount on ink. I’ll produce the product, you get it cheaper, sell it and make more money.”

The idea, he says, is to make sure you aren’t wasting capacity to do more business by turning your value chain into a web. “You have capabilities you don’t know about,” says Vale.

ClearStar 03
Vale walks ClearStar’s offices, which are partly modeled on Google’s

A family-oriented culture

Vale says that putting a kitchen smack in the middle of ClearStar’s offices in a renovated Alpharetta warehouse it bought reflects that “We’re a family-oriented company. We find ourselves doing a majority of our conversations and meetings in that kitchen, so we put it in the middle with four glass walls.” Formerly a photography major in college and a graphic arts person, Vale says, “I have great distain for the egg crate building.”

He adds, “You can’t just create a culture with words. I looked at Google‘s buildings and incorporated some of that. Everything is curved. It’s an exciting place to be and go to work.”

Vale says he thinks there are a couple of things wrong with what a lot of start up companies do. For one thing, he says, “There are too many investors and not enough entrepreneurs. Too many build a company to feed off of it and sell it, not to last.” That is distinctly not his goal, he notes.

“Someone asked me, what’s your out,” Vale says. “I just hired a president younger than me. If we get to $10 million, $20 million, or $70 million, we will still be vital and building things. Why do I have to sell it?”

Instead, he says, he wants to be the “Corner hardware store of the future, always there.”

© 2010, TechView Atlanta. All rights reserved.


A collection of books from B2B CFO® to help any business succeed. Read the first chapter from books, including the Wall Street Journal’s book, for free.