Inside Track: Risky venture pays off for Harris
Worksighted owner fondly remembers starting company on tight budget with no capital.
A futon and old TV stacked on a milk crate were all that sat in a plain, white-walled apartment, as Mike Harris greeted his parents.
Harris recently had launched the IT services firm Worksighted with his co-founder, Mat Nguyen, and they were on a shoestring budget. The pair had graduated from Hope College in 2000 and almost immediately launched the company seeing an opportunity, but the young entrepreneurs had very little capital to work with.
Harris remembers his parents leaving appalled and wondering what he was doing with his newly earned degree, but he now looks back fondly at the time. Now more than 15 years old, the 38-year-old Harris is one of the oldest employees at the firm, which has landed on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing private companies five straight years.
Without the early struggles of living with no paycheck and starting a company with no money, Harris doesn’t believe the workplace culture and current growth of the company would be as vibrant as it is today. A lack of money forced Harris and Nguyen to dig deep and grow through passion and ensured each new hire also would carry on the passion and do the work because they love it.
“It’s that return on luck, it just kind of worked out, and we capitalized on it and turned it into something,” Harris said. “Without it, we wouldn’t be the same. The feeling you get when you walk through; the people here love what they do.
“That’s what we were building over the time, there’s something about not having it be super easy that caused us; that’s what we survived on and we grew that and it’s the company today.”
The early struggles sat with Harris, too, and it wasn’t until 2011 when he realized Worksighted was a business with an opportunity to be successful — several steps removed from his initial career aspiration of chemist.
Growing up in Brighton, Harris was attracted to the chemistry performed on whiteboards.
“I liked the theory and could absorb it well but not so much inside the fume hood,” he said.
His grasp of chemistry was strong and won him several awards and was directed to Hope College by a boss at a chemistry-oriented job he held in Southfield during high school. Not too long into his life at Hope, Harris discovered his mind didn’t work well in the production side of chemistry.
“I like the visioning, the theorizing of it and working it out, then moving on to the next thing,” Harris said.
As he moved to computer science, he was working with Nguyen, who he had met his first day in the dorms in 1997, at Johnson Controls Inc. as interns. They both were hired full time, but they saw an opportunity in IT.
With technology mostly relegated to large companies at the time, Harris and Nguyen saw small companies might need specialists to help with technology as it advanced into everyday life. They felt their talents would be useful, so with nothing to lose, they launched Worksighted.
“It was similar to the juxtaposition of millennials and how they view technology today,” Harris said. “We viewed technology a little differently than the corporations did. We saw the future of tech would make it more accessible to small businesses and not just these huge corporations that could make massive expenses.”
With more maturity, and success, under his belt, Harris safely can say there was a large risk in moving forward with an entrepreneurial idea with no capital backing, despite his initial belief there was nothing to lose.
“I could have invested several years and have it fail and have no résumé; that was a risk,” he said. “It’s different than the person who is 45-50 years old, putting a 401K on the line with kids, it’s a different risk. The radius of impact was limited more to me.
“It was still a risk and difficult to do, but I always knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was very passionate to take a challenge and figure out how to get there. It felt right. I knew that if I were to go out and work for somebody else, I would ultimately be unhappy.”
Worksighted has doubled its size every three years, and six years in, Harris still was grinding at the ground level. He says it was a lot of fun and the sweat equity means a lot more to the company than if it had received a couple hundred thousand dollars of investment. Harris recognized his passion early and how it drove his work, so he entrusts the passion of employees to carry on the work for the company.
The company has numbers each employee follows and how the number affects the company’s bottom line.
“It doesn’t matter to me if someone is sitting at their desk or downstairs collaborating with someone,” he said. “We make sure everyone understands how the company is doing and how they affect it. Then, either they do their work or they don’t. It’s pretty cut and dry in the data.”
Working at a company with few, if any, workers over the age of 40, Harris is perplexed by the idea millennials are the ones in the wrong with their perceived affinity for job-hopping. Instead, Harris believes millennial workers are largely more in-tune to their talents and, unless given an outlet, much more likely to be dissatisfied in their job, thus requiring a move.
To help derail the trend, Worksighted’s “passion statement” is alignment, and connects employee talents with customer needs. Harris said engaged employees perform better.
“In the beginning, it wasn’t by design, but it’s about hiring super passionate people wired a certain way, letting them go to work and just get the hell out of the way,” Harris said. “I don’t have to micromanage. They’re freaking smart, just wind them up and let them do the thing they’re good at and, bam, a home run.”
With technology moving quicker than humans can, Harris said it’s important to keep the company’s emotional intelligence high. Staying ahead of where needs are as employees and not being the best in a certain technology, because in five years, it might not be around.
When Worksighted launched, sales calls were convincing a client should use email. Now, the company works to incorporate strategy of how to use technology to better a client.
“You were selling tech, you don’t have to convince someone they need to use technology anymore,” Harris said. “It’s shifted from a conversation about technology to about how our people align to their company and how plugging into our organization will supercharge their company and take them to the next level.”
With essentially a full career ahead of him, Harris is happy at Worksighted and acknowledges he doesn’t have life figured out. He wants to continue to grow the “magic” at Worksighted and create opportunities for his employees. Beyond that, he wants to share.
“I don’t want to box myself in, but I can tell you that I love being an entrepreneur,” he said. “I’m definitely spending more time trying to grow our leaders. There’s a lot that we’ve learned that we have to share.
“Sometimes, you put your head down and don’t realize all you’ve learned and how much you have to share.”