True to his first name, Denver-based entrepreneur Rebel Saffold III lives each day with purposeful abandon. As President of Lebertech Technology Services – a firm that provides consulting support to non-profit organizations in the areas of technology, leadership, operations, database management and donor relations – Rebel brings a ‘full tilt’ approach to his game while modeling the essence of free enterprise and abundance. In my exclusive interview with him over wine and pizza at Second Home in Denver’s toney Cherry Creek North District, Rebel uncorked a steady flow of uncommon wisdom about entrepreneurship, technology, money and the vicissitudes of life. Here are a few nuggets of wisdom he shared from our conversation:
I was an undergraduate major in political science and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa before working at the State Senate for about a year. During that time, I reconnected with some friends that I grew up with in high school and from whom I received my first computer: an old Compaq Presario. Because it only had a 166 MHz processor along with 64 MB of RAM, the high-speed internet connection I used proved too much for the computer to handle. In any event, a friend of mine started a business installing network cards for people in our neighborhood. After the two of us hung out for a few months, we started to get into file-sharing and other tech functions. This early orientation to technology still informs my work today.
On The Unexpected
I’ve had plenty of these but there is one life experience that stands out in my mind. My wife (at the time) and I had moved to St. Louis so that she could attend school in the field of social work. I was temping at a call center, collecting on consumer phone bills, and would often spend time after a busy day with some of my work buddies. One evening, we went to East St. Louis and hung out in the basement of someone’s home. Two of the guys I knew fairly well, but I didn’t know the rest. While sitting there engaged in conversation, a bunch of guys I’d never seen before walked in with these brown bags which they proceeded to open up, pouring the contents out onto the table. Eight handguns. And then another guy opens up his bag and pulls out three bricks of cocaine.
So here I am – this guy from Iowa – screaming on the inside from panic because I had never been around guns or drugs before. But I recognized that I mustn’t show fear around these guys because if I do, they’re going to think something is wrong and that I’m a snitch, which could end up getting me hurt. So I sat there and gave off the impression that everything was normal. As I look back at this incident years later, I recognize that this was one of many experiences that gave me the strength and backbone that I now have. I was pretty naive back then for sure.
On My Dad
My Dad went to prison for five years when I was a kid. He was caught selling drugs on the street and he got shot four times. The next day at school, every kid was talking about it. I was in the 9th grade. The teacher actually stopped class and asked everyone to be quiet. “Rebel,” she said, “why don’t you tell us what happened to your dad?” Moments like that make you stop and really consider the larger context of life.
On Early Work Experiences
While temping at the call center agency, I began to realize that I could do more with my life, and that I didn’t want to be in that environment any more. So I applied to another temp agency that found me a position at Washington University in St. Louis. It was only supposed to be a one-week project, yet I impressed so many people that they hired me on full-time. While there, I was able to get a degree in the engineering program, an opportunity I simply would not have had otherwise. It was this combination of opportunities that allowed me to establish myself as the go-to person for technology in the St. Louis non-profit community.
On Being a Black Professional
It’s always a big deal. Most people can walk into a place and not worry about what they’ve done in the past. So for me, having that engineering degree from Washington University really opened some doors. In addition to the great education I received, the university’s name gave me prestige in areas of technical expertise in which I was not formally qualified. That being said, the color thing does come up quite a bit. I definitely notice it whenever I attend events where I’m the only person of color.
On Becoming an Entrepreneur
I eventually got sick and tired of people in the traditional world of work, hating me for my talents. So I refused to let it happen any more. The thing that ultimately pushed me over the edge was when I was working in a 9-5 position yet I needed to travel to see my daughters. I had an experience where I ended up exhausting my vacation time which resulted in my pay being docked after I had gone to see them. That’s when I decided that the traditional job model simply wasn’t going to work for me any longer.
On Growth Experiences
I’ve always been oriented toward personal and professional growth. And in expanding myself, I often grow out of situations that I’m in. This is partly why my marriage didn’t work out; neither my ex nor I knew how to be in a relationship that had changed since we first met. When I grew into a very confident man, things had to change.
Years ago, I had a supervisor tell me to my face that if she had to grade me on my work, that grade would be a D-. I felt hurt and disappointed hearing this, and it also motivated me to do better. So from that moment on, I decided that I was not going to allow this scenario to happen again. I began working 12-hour days, consuming every bit of information that I could get my hands on. I also performed a relentless study of every system that the organization in order for the place to become 100% dependent on me. When I decided to leave, that same supervisor was literally begging me to stay. What all of this taught me is to learn all you can, and grow to where you no longer have to accept any sort of submissive role.
On the Importance of Values
One of the mottos I live by is ‘Persist until I succeed.’ I won’t allow an employer, education, family, my experience, my losses, my failures or other things to prevent me from achieving what I’m seeking to accomplish.
On What I’ve Learned Running a Business
I believe that half of the things that people tell you about running a business aren’t true. People who own their own businesses often lie to others by telling them things like “My business is great..” or “There is this one model for getting your business off the ground.” That’s why I tell aspiring entrepreneurs all the time that “Having your own business is hell and not everyone is cut out to do this.” This was certainly true during my first year or so in business when I was barely making it. My food cabinet was bare and I often had no idea when my next check was coming in. It was hell!
On Persisting through Hard Times
A real test for me was when I had to operate my business while my phone was cut off for 45 days. Bottom line– “Rebel couldn’t afford to pay the bill.” See, that’s the reality of life that most people don’t understand, until something like this happens to them. Unfortunately, when these difficulties surface – as they will – that’s when most people give up. For me, stopping was unacceptable. I simply had to figure my way around this and keep going.
On Being Good at What You Do
Many of us think that having one’s own business is about being good at what you do. Actually it’s not. Rather, its about having the passion to take ownership of your business in the midst of the inevitable rough patches. Sure, creating a widget and providing a service is a part of it but ultimately, the success of a business is largely based on accepting responsibility for the good and the bad. In the end, the real test is in how you’re going to handle things if your phone gets cut off, your website goes down or when you have no money left.
On Having Endurance
Few people know this, but I didn’t have a car when I received my first out-of-state client. They happened to be located in a very rural area of Kansas, so the only way I was able to get there was via a twenty-three hour Greyhound bus ride. This went on for three months straight: 23 hours there and 23 hours back. I had never been on a Greyhound bus in my life, but I knew I had to get to my client. Of course there were a few strange characters on the bus, so I was afraid to go asleep. And I always rode with my bag on my lap so that it wouldn’t get taken. But I endured.
During the early stages of my company, I had a meeting with one of the most powerful lawyers in Denver. He wanted to introduce me to someone with whom our company might do business. As our lunch was concluding between the three of us, he inquired as to who was paying for lunch. This immediately sent me into a panic as I had only $1.11 cents left in my account. Fear engulfed me as I thought, ‘What the hell am I going to do now?’ As we all pulled out our credit cards, the business prospect luckily agreed to pay. It’s a good thing he did because there is no way my card would have gone through.
On Putting Everything On The Line
This occurred around the same time I picked up the phone one evening and confided to my Mom that the coming six months were going to be the darkest period in my life. I’ve never been so scared about surviving, but I knew that I had to do it. A big part of what I needed to resolve was the direction of the company because we were surviving by doing little bits and pieces of everything. It was a mess. I eventually made the decision to get rid of some clients in order to prepare us for where we are now; creating great revenue on a sustainable basis. No one knew how afraid I was. But I had to be willing to risk and lose everything in order to create an improved situation.
On The Meaning of Money
[Chuckle] Well I can tell you that it goes out the door a lot faster than most of us recognize. I remember getting checks for $250 and thinking, ‘That’s good money,’ only to realize that it wasn’t nearly enough to sustain any reasonable type of business. I thought to myself ‘If this is my business model, it’s simply not going to work because I can barely take care of myself, let alone my other responsibilities.’ What I recognized from all of this is that money is a resource that one should use to make more money. With this in mind, I went from ‘How am I going to spend my money?’ to ’How can I invest this money?’ In the end, it’s all about creating wealth.
On Working on a Business Versus in a Business
At a certain point, I realized that I didn’t want to be involved in the making of money. I don’t actually like doing the work unless its for short-term projects. Sure, I’m good at what I do. But what I really enjoy is managing people. My goal is to get myself to the place where I’m supporting the people who are producing the work. That’s in my mind is a true business owner. The vast majority of small businesses are just one person. Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to run a one-person business with the hope of consistently growing it. There’s only a certain amount of time in the day, and no matter how high your fee structure is, it’s just not realistic. I am making great progress in creating a business that’s throwing off income without me even being there. Ultimately, the goal is for it to run on its own with minimal involvement from me.
On Working Hard and Having Fun
It is important to realize that there are two different levels of fun when you are a professional; the level of fun you have in public and the level of fun you have around people you trust. This requires one to remain aware at all times of one’s surroundings when having a good time. Me, I have to admit that I’m a pretty crazy guy. I fully own who I am: a pretty off-the-wall, quirky person. But at the end of the day, I’m the type of person you’ll want by your side when you have a technology problem that needs to be solved.
On Being Crazy
I allow myself to be crazy with the people around me whom I trust. In public – because I’m there to entertain people – I engage that crazy side of myself that makes everyone laugh. At one point in my life, I tried to fight that but now I accept it. You have to let your personality flow and be a grown-ass person about it.
On Making Mistakes
We’re all going to screw up because that’s just a fact of life. I recall working an event for a non-profit a number of years ago. I was young and had way too much to drink. Oddly, I kept thinking, ‘This is great because I’m making people laugh. My boss is going to love me because I’m keeping everyone here entertained.’ The next day she comes into the office and shuts the door and says to me “You were drunk. You are no longer allowed to drink at any event ever again.” Hearing that made me feel awful as a person. But I didn’t beat myself up about it. Rather, I used it as a learning opportunity so that I could make sure next time that things didn’t get out of hand.
On the Name Rebel
[Roaring laughter] Yeah, I’ve heard it all. When I introduce myself, people say some off-the-wall stuff like, “Your parents must have been crazy or lived like hippies.” So over the years, I’ve developed some standard rebuttals to this like “Actually I’m Rebel The Third. My dad, my grandfather and now me – we all come from a long line of troublemakers.” People often ask me “Are you really a rebel?” My response is that it kinda depends on the circumstances. Even with women, I mention my name and their first response is often “Oh, here we go. You are already starting off crazy.” That’s when I flip open my wallet on them and say “See, I’m Sargeant Rebel.” In the end, I must admit that my name provides me with somewhat of an advantage because it’s a great conversation starter. I just have fun with it.
On Lebertech, the Company Name
When I began dating my ex-wife, her Mom didn’t want us to go out because I was black. And she would never call me by my real name. She’d always called me ‘Leber.” That’s why I named the company Lebertech. I wanted her to understand that I’m going to turn her negative into a positive. It’s something that she is going to have to live with forever, a positive thing. I now own that company name and I love it.
Technology is actually easier than many people make it out to be. The biggest thing is that people are intimidated by technology because most IT and super computer savvy folks make it intimidating for people. Here at Lebertech, we give people the feeling of comfort and confidence; showing them that they’re really capable of using technology to move things forward. We allow people to take control of their technology by putting the opportunity for success in their hands. Personally, I love solving quick problems for clients, versus getting bogged down in long-term projects because it allows me to always be learning something new.
On Crazy Client Situations
Hum, yes there is one that immediately comes to mind. I got an unexpected call from a church to inform me that they had a major computer issue and could I come by immediately. Here they are halfway across town here in Denver, and I had no money or a car at the time. So I took the bus which dropped me off right in front of the place. They apparently saw me get off, looking all professional in my jacket and tie, so their first response when I walked in was “Was that you we just saw get off the bus?” At that point I’m feeling kinda embarrassed, but whatever.
To make a long story short, I was informed that the volunteer who was managing all of their church technology got mad, quit the church and locked down their entire system. As a result, they couldn’t log in, do payroll or accounting… nothing. So they took me to their computer room to see what I could do to get them back up and running. While I’m there working away at addressing the issue, I happened to glance over at the closed-circuit television and notice a woman in the outside parking lot with a gun aimed at the pastor’s wife. The woman happened to be the wife of the man who created this computer mess. As all of this is taking place right before my eyes, I began to think, ‘I’m just a guy who deals with technology. How did I get in the midst of this? I’m going to end up dying because of someone’s technology problem.’ After they called the police, I not only had to hack into the system to regain control of all of the computers, but I also had to troubleshoot the video control software because he had hacked into my hack in an attempt to delete the video of his wife pulling the gun. The good news is that I was eventually successful in capturing an archive to give to the police along with a documented statement of what I had witnessed. It was a day of all days, that’s for sure.
On Leaving a Legacy
At the end of the day, what I do on a daily basis is ultimately about my daughters. I don’t want their lives to be difficult in the way that life has been difficult for me. All of this is aligned with my larger legacy of making people’s lives easier. I’m hoping to build a company that becomes successful enough to empower people to achieve their goals in the jobs in which they are working. Most importantly, I want to leave an impression on the people I interact with so they are able to use the resources I leave behind, well beyond the time that I’m here on this planet. I would love to see this mission continued so that my daughters have a positive example of what life should really be about.