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Global Expert: Vasilios Karabatsos, Founder & CEO

Welcome to the latest installment of Jus Agency Global Expert Interview Series, where we introduce you to some of the world’s influential thought leaders and change-makers. Our featured guest today is Vasilios Karabatsos, a true entrepreneur and Certified Public Accountant with a career spanning three impactful decades. Vasilios serves as the Principal at MetroTek Electrical Services and Managing Member at Onos.

Prepare to be inspired as we delve into Vasilios’ foray into entrepreneurship, co-founding a high-tech startup that soared to $25 million in revenue before facing challenges that tested his resilience and adaptability. His insights into the importance of simplicity, perfect timing, and knowing when to stop selling will leave you with valuable lessons for your own entrepreneurial pursuits.

Join us as we explore Vasilios’ ventures as he shares the secrets behind his knack for choosing the right business partners, team building, and creating a thriving work environment.

Julia Ager,
CEO, Jus Agency

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a little bit more about you and your background?

I was born in Kingston, New York, and at 13, I decided that boarding school was in my future.  I filled out my own applications, arranged my own interviews and luckily got in.  Off I went.  

After completing college, I pursued a degree in Finance and Accounting at the School of Management at Boston University. Business has always intrigued me, and once I graduated, I had the opportunity to work for a highly successful real estate agent in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This experience exposed me to the world of luxury residential real estate sales. Back then, we were dealing with million-dollar properties, but today, those numbers would be in the range of 10 to 20 million.

My journey then took a turn when I landed a single interview at Arthur Andersen for what eventually became their Economic and Financial Consulting Group. To my surprise, upon returning home from the interview, I already received a voicemail offering me a job. It was my first and only direct job interview in my life. Although I had my CPA certification, my initial role was to post up in the copy room for the first six months and copy documents. It was frustrating at first, but I made the most of the situation and started to pay attention to the discovery materials I was copying for a client’s significant super fund litigation against the Federal Government. Despite finishing each day with toner all over my shirts and suits, which I could barely afford at the time, I became indispensable to the case due to my knowledge of the documents. This led me from the copy room to participating in meetings with senior partners, high-powered attorneys, and judges. It was a transformative experience, where everything I had learned in school suddenly clicked and made sense. 

After three years at Arthur Andersen, I co-founded a semiconductor intellectual property company with my father, who had retired from IBM after 30 years. Our company focused on technology for high-end server systems during the late 90s “.com” boom. We grew the business from nothing to $25 million and then, unfortunately, back to zero within four years. It was a challenging journey that taught me valuable lessons about capital requirements and breaking into sectors where established players were resistant to new ideas and competition.

Despite facing significant setbacks and accumulating deep debt, we persevered and eventually sold a portfolio of patents after a nine-year journey. It was a long and winding road, but we managed to find a positive outcome.

What would you say were the top learnings from that period?

One of the biggest learnings during that period was starting from scratch and learning everything about business. I started out knowing almost nothing. As I navigated the challenges of raising capital and soliciting venture capital funds, a recurring theme emerged – the importance of simplicity. I used to say that getting in front of venture capitalists was not the hardest part; the real challenge was simplifying my message to avoid overwhelming them with excessive information. 

I vividly recall a presentation I made to one of the largest VC firms in Boston. Despite my good intentions, I ended up complicating everything and ruining my chances of securing capital. It was a valuable lesson in the power of simplicity. My father used to emphasize this concept, telling me that you can’t feed steak to a baby and that you should limit your message to three or four key concepts. It’s a lesson I still grapple with today, as finding the right balance of information is crucial.

Another important lesson was knowing when to stop selling. Once you’ve made the sale and people have bought in, there’s no need to continue talking. I’ve learned this the hard way, realizing that I may have ruined a few sales by being overly persistent. Michael Bloomberg’s article on this topic resonated with me, as he shared a similar experience and emphasized the importance of recognizing when the sale is complete and avoiding unnecessary complications.

Timing also played a significant role in my journey. There were three instances during that period when we were pitching the licensing of our technology to  become an industry standard. If that had happened, I would have been set for life. It obviously did not materialize. Ironically, fast forward twenty years, the technology we developed is standard in today’s server platforms. That experience taught me a valuable lesson that timing is everything. 

How did you end up starting your own business again?

For a short time after my business wound down, I lacked motivation and continually played my recent experiences in my head. After some reflection on my challenges, one of my investors gave me a reality check. He made it clear that nobody wants to hear about your problems, and everyone has their own. With a few dollars in my pocket, I decided get back out there to explore various avenues, including real estate. It was during this time that I reconnected with a childhood friend who had transitioned from being an equity research analyst on Wall Street to developing solar projects in New Jersey. Intrigued by the renewable energy sector, I started investing in it and providing assistance to my friend. Eventually, he referred to me as his partner, and our efforts started to take shape. We also weathered some tough times.

After several years of perseverance, we found a way to unlock the value of our endeavours and turn a profit. While there were no guarantees, I managed to recover all my investments and even generate some profit. It was a positive outcome that propelled me further into the world of renewable energy.

What did you do to make the business successful this time around in a new industry and a whole new space, considering the high stakes and your previous experience?

We faced several challenges, including changes in laws in the state of New Jersey that effectively put our efforts on hold. To overcome this, we secured a loan from a Chinese company to continue development. I personally travelled to Trenton, New Jersey, for an entire year to lobby the Board of Public Utilities alongside a group of other developers. Our goal was to unlock the regulatory hurdles that had stymied the completion of our projects.Through persistence and hard work, we succeeded in obtaining the regulatory approval for one of our larger projects. That effort led to the sale of our project, resulting in an outcome that turned around three years of difficult times. It was a turning point for me, and I made a promise to myself to avoid such steep roads in the future.

During the journey, I had the opportunity to connect with many individuals. While I remain involved in the renewables industry, I made a pivot and acquired a business in electrical infrastructure construction. My intention was to leverage this business to find more solar development opportunities, but I discovered that the infrastructure construction space was vast, underserved and in need of greater efficiency regarding capital resources. Alongside my partners, we acquired the business when it had only 10 employees and now we’ve grown it to 100 employees. We went from generating around $3 million to projecting $45 to $50 million in revenue this year. It’s been a significant transformation with a national footprint achieved in just a few years.

If you had to distill your success into something that is universally applicable, what would it be? Is it primarily about networking and partnerships?

Networking, negotiation, and persistence are the key factors that have contributed to my success. Building a strong network, understanding sales principles, and staying persistent are vital elements. It’s important not to repeat the same actions and expect different results. Sometimes you need to draw a line and be aware that emotionally investing in something can cloud your judgement. Personally, I have reached an intersection where the decision to go right or left is equally compelling. It’s about taking a leap of faith, even when the outcome is uncertain. Making those tough decisions can be scary for many people.

What advice do you have for choosing the right business partners?

In my first business, we started with five partners, but it quickly whittled down to three as we had to part ways with two individuals. Letting go of partners can be painful, especially when equity has already been distributed. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more tolerant and learned to trust my instincts about people. In my current business, my partners are all unique individuals with differing viewpoints. Despite this, we maintain respect in conflicts. It’s not about winning arguments but finding the best outcome for the collective. This often requires biting your tongue and realizing that everyone has a similar risk tolerance. There’s no room for cowboys who are only concerned about personal wealth; success requires a mutual will. It’s also important to note that having partners doesn’t guarantee success. In my second business, for example, I decided not to work with a partner again, despite maintaining a friendship. We reached a point where our working styles and reasoning didn’t align, and it was time to move on. It wasn’t antagonistic; it was simply recognizing the endpoint and making the best decision for both parties.

What advice do you have about team building, hiring, and creating a positive company culture?

As we continue to grow, the team building and hiring process has become more challenging. We are still figuring out how to optimize this aspect of the business. It’s difficult to step back when you love what you do, but it’s something I should consider in order to achieve a better work-life balance.

Regarding moving away from the day-to-day operations, it comes down to building layers of competent management. We are gradually bringing in more skilled individuals who can take on responsibilities and make informed decisions. It takes time to find the right people and trust them with the tasks at hand. I often hear people saying they want to be their own boss, but it’s essential to develop a comfort level with delegating and empowering others. Personally, I haven’t received a W-2 since 1997/98, which has provided me with flexibility, but it’s important to remember that such flexibility comes as a result of hard work and dedication. It goes beyond just selling products or services.

For someone who owns a small business, my advice would be not to expect every decision to work out perfectly. It’s important to make informed decisions based on the best information available and think logically through them. You can’t sit on decisions indefinitely; you have to take action. Getting comfortable with the fact that not all decisions will lead to the desired outcome is crucial.

If you had to invest $1,000 and $10,000 in your business what would you invest in?

In the startup world I would recommend investing in education. There are fundamental skills that are not typically taught in school, such as networking and negotiation. Reading books on negotiation daily can greatly enhance one’s ability to navigate business interactions. Negotiation is a part of everyday life, whether it’s with clients, vendors, bankers, employees, or even my kids. Finding that middle ground where both parties benefit is key. As for the $10,000, investing in developing efficient processes and systems within the business can yield substantial returns.

Can you recommend a transformative book for growth or any final words of advice?

I highly recommend a book by Roger Dawson called “Secrets of Power Negotiating.” It’s an easy read that emphasizes the importance of negotiation as a skill and how to create win-win situations. Another transformative aspect is networking. I learned the value of introductions and networking from a mentor in Boston. He had a fascinating knack for recognizing the value of connections.  Connecting with people, both personally and professionally, has tremendous power. Platforms like LinkedIn have made it easier to connect with like-minded individuals. Remember that you don’t always need to expect compensation for every introduction or good deed. Focus on the bigger picture, and everything will align in your favour. It’s crucial to understand that most things are beyond your control, so instead of getting frustrated, concentrate on what you can control. In the journey of decision-making, failures will outnumber successes, but that’s part of the process.

Contact Vasilios via LinkedIn here.

About Jus Agency

Jus Agency is an international marketing agency that helps clients to grow, scale, and launch their businesses through a variety of services, including Marketing Strategy, Google Ads Management, and Expert Team Hires. Our mission is to help our clients achieve their business goals and realize their full potential.

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