Inside Track: Doyle mastered his creative process in the military
The founder of three startups, Paul Doyle credits the discipline of the Marine Corps for making him a successful entrepreneur.
There are probably few in the Grand Rapids entrepreneurial community who don’t know Paul Doyle’s name. Those who don’t should take note of it.
Doyle made a name for himself with local entrepreneurs in 2011 when he pitched a business idea for a payment enablement and fraud prevention IT firm at The Factory’s Startup Weekend.
That business idea, VerifyValid, has since become what Startup Weekend host Aaron Schaap has called one of the greatest success stories to come out of the event. Rick DeVos’ Start Garden has since maxed out its investments in the new business at $500,000.
Doyle is now the successful founder of three West Michigan startups, and there’s no end in sight to how many more he might build.
“This is not the last idea I’ll ever have or believe in, but I can see no limit to VerifyValid. What we’re doing is completely unconstrained in how big and how far we can go,” he said. “The ability to facilitate commerce of payments isn’t just national — it’s international. Being at the center of that value exchange process, there are so many layers of additional things we hope to build off of.”
Doyle, the youngest of eight children in an Irish Catholic family, grew up in Chicago. He has been working since he was 11, he said, and has always been fascinated by entrepreneurship. Although a bright student, he said he was never comfortable in the education system, which he felt didn’t accept intellectual curiosity. Asking “why” was often met with resistance by his teachers.
“I always asked hard questions, challenged the situation and couldn’t accept the answer, ‘Oh, that’s just the way it is.’ They saw that as disobedience, so my reaction to that was just to get in trouble and become disenfranchised with the education system,” he said.
Doyle attended Marquette University, double-majoring in philosophy and political science with a minor in history, although he often found himself more interested in “extra-curriculars,” he said. While in college, he started a loft-building business, Top Cot, which led him to his first post-college job at storage-solutions retailer California Closets in Chicago.
Something inside him, however, still wasn’t satisfied.
“I had the highest revenue in the office in Chicago, but I was miserable. It wasn’t fulfilling,” he said. “I looked back at a time in my life when I had something that was fulfilling and realized it had been when I thought I was going to go into the service.”
“I don’t see you surviving in that,” a friend warned him, but Doyle insisted that, although he hated the rigidity of school as a kid, he believed participating in a highly organized system like the military would be good for him.
In 1988, Doyle walked into a recruiter’s office and signed up with the U.S. Marine Corps, which he still refers to as “the most admirable organization that exists anywhere.” He shipped out to boot camp in January 1989, about a year and a half before the beginning of the Gulf War. During Operation Desert Storm, Doyle was stationed in Puerto Rico, where he provided security for strategic naval assets.
Interestingly enough, it was his years in the Marine Corps when Doyle, the self-described “hellion” of the education system, believes he truly excelled and developed the core strengths of an entrepreneurial leader: self-sufficiency, organizational management and mission-focused resolve.
“Life is about finding ways to get things done even when you don’t have all the resources you want. So what do you do? You adapt, you improvise and you overcome,” he said. “That’s still, today, the way I approach a lot of things — (as) problems to be solved.”
After the Gulf War, Doyle became part of Force Reconnaissance, a special company of Marines who are inserted into enemy territory in an almost special-forces-style manner. It was this setting of intense combat training that allowed him to master his creative process, he said.
“As a part of amphibian recon school, there was a period of six days where, for 24 hours, no sleep was scheduled. You’d get the assignment the next day after coming in from a patrol, be given your next assignment, and you had to plan it, prep it and go do it. … That process to me is the epitome of a creative exercise,” he said.
“The discipline allowed for higher levels of performance because you worked so closely, so intimately, with people and you rehearsed with them to such a degree that you could literally know what the other person was thinking and act as a unit. … The discipline actually set up a structure that allowed the real creativity to blossom.”
After leaving the military as an E5 sergeant in 1994, Doyle returned to Chicago to get his MBA in information systems and finance at Loyola University. He went to work as a product manager at startup Sensorium Software, where he honed his technology skills.
A year later, Doyle helped found a business with his brother, Mike, whom Doyle said invented the first-ever web browser to support plug-ins and won a high-profile patent infringement case against Microsoft to prove it.
Together, the Doyle brothers developed an IT company and incubator called Eolas Development Corp., from which Doyle launched ProofSpace, a spin-off company.
In 2001, Doyle moved to West Michigan to work with his father-in-law, Forrest Frank, CEO of Thierica Inc. Doyle re-launched ProofSpace, which is currently in a “suspended state,” he said, but it was that background in IT security, cryptography and such that gave him a deeper understanding of check fraud, which eventually morphed into VerifyValid.
“It was actually my father-in-law’s company that got hit by (check fraud). I looked at what had happened and realized you could solve that problem by giving people the ability to prove the truth of an authentic transaction or check and how to put the technology together,” he said.
“I wrote up the patent provisional application and filed it with my attorney Friday at 3 p.m. I got the notice back and I literally walked right into Startup Weekend and pitched VerifyValid. (We) literally built that working prototype over the course of the weekend, and I was sending the first prototypes of the e-checks by Sunday at 1 p.m.”
In 2008, Doyle founded a business named Profitecture, a social media training and advisory firm that teaches people how to use social media for professional purposes. The firm was recruited by IBM Corp. as a business partner, and through IBM, Profitecture has trained more than 2,000 business partner organizations in more than 60 countries worldwide, he said.
It’s been a long road, Doyle said, but one made possible by a West Michigan culture that now embraces diverse entrepreneurial efforts. For generations, the two main industries of the community have been agriculture and manufacturing, which don’t rely as much on tinkering and experimenting, he said.
He hopes his example, along with the leadership of DeVos, Schaap and others, will continue to bring a balanced respect for startups to the business culture.
“It’s all about risk management. I used to jump out of airplanes and do other things people would consider extraordinarily risky, but because of the degree of professionalism that was taken, we were able to do more risky things with confidence,” he said. “It’s not just about avoiding risks; it’s about taking risks intelligently and responsibly.”