Entrepreneur Profile: CEO Paul Berberian

by Aidan Sakiri

Today's entrepreneurial profile covers Paul Berberian, CEO of Boulder-based Orbotix, maker of the Sphero robotic ball. The Sphero is the wildly entertaining toy/robot that teaches you the tech industry is far more than programming and utilitarian apps; it can be simply awesome, as well. Paul talked to us about everything from childhood to college to business ventures, and his outlook on entrepreneurism.

The Sphero robotic ball has three main parts. First is the roughly 3” diameter ball, which is smooth save for slightly elevated, stylized swirl marks on its sides, glowing with a small array of colored LED lights when it’s in use, charging, or in need of being charged.

Second is a relatively plain black wall adapter, which connects to the third piece, an inductive charging dock. Equipped with its own blue LED, the dock blinks when it’s in the middle of a three-hour recharging cycle, then goes solid blue when the battery is full.

What the ball is meant to be is hard to describe – essentially, it's a robotic toy that can be controlled by your smart device, or can even control your smart device itself. Whether play golf with the ball over your phone, swimming with the ball, or even controlling a device video game by tilting and shaking the ball, the Sphero can do it all – which is awesome.

The plan now is to refine the hardware platform that the Sphero is based on, create and sell innovative games, and see what evolves at the intersection of the $20 billion mobile apps space and the $80 billion toy industry. Paul's company has even been approached about using the technology to position airplanes on aircraft carriers.

Here is Elite's interview with Paul Berberian:

In the beginning, what motivated you to become an entrepreneur?

I always knew I wanted to be my own boss – even as a young child. I saw my dad running businesses he owned, and I wanted to be like him. That said, one of the things my father never did was create new products or actively sell his offerings.  He simply bought small product companies that had a building with the deal – he'd run the business to simply pay for the building. In the end,we owned a lot of commercial real estate in Southern California. A lot of the products we were making were really good – I wanted him to go big and he liked the lifestyle of very few employees and complete control of his destiny.  So what motivated me is to control my destiny like my father but do something bigger.

Tell me about your first entrepreneurial experience growing up.

In the third grade, I made bottles filled with liquid goo. When you shook them, it looked like a genie was living inside – so I called them Genie Bottles. My father provided with the supplies, and I made a handful and sold them at school for $0.25 each. In a couple of hours I sold out. When I got to school the next morning with more product, kids were lined up by my classroom. Some squabbles broke out, kids bought above retail – it was great. Unfortunately, the principle shut down the operation pretty quickly.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

In life: A fantastic marriage and a beautiful daughter. In business: I'm still working on it.

What does a day-in-the-life of Paul Berberian consist of?

Wake up. Exercise. Get to work around 9-ish. Go home somewhere between 6 p.m. and midnight. Everything in between is either talking to employees, customers, or my direct reports. Honestly, it doesn't feel like work. I typically do emails and writing reports once the troops have left. The most important part of my day? Being present for the key conversations and making sure everything is focused towards one common goal. There may only be fifteen minutes of key conversations per day, but you need to be available when they happen. Each night, I think about what conversations I want to have the next day.

What were you like in college? I mean, were you as hungry then as you are now? Was it more of the typical college experience that the Average Joe has, or were you hustling away, engaged in business endeavors?

My college experience wasn’t what you’d expect. I went to the USAF Academy in Colorado Springs. But I was still a hustler – at least, as much as you can be in the military. I worked out ways to get more privileges for our squadron, I wrote software to track our allotted passes, I helped people figure out how to get sought-after things, like refrigerators. I tried to start a business off-base, but my commanding officer shut it down. I always kept within the boundaries, but I pushed them to make life more tolerable. Many people think being in the military is the most anti-entrepreneurial environment imaginable. I disagree – it was an awesome training ground. You have limits, just like in business, and you have to figure out how to get your job done. Maximizing the system for your own benefit or that of your team is huge.

What is your take on college in 2012? Many successful entrepreneurs are skeptical of how much college actually prepares students for the real world. Would you advise an entrepreneurial-minded youth to go to college today?

Depends. I had my act together coming out of high school, but I was more prepared for the real world after the Academy. I suspect that 7 out of 10 youths would still benefit from going to college – which is much less than what I would have said ten years ago. The most important thing is to always have a plan B (and maybe a plan C).

Was there a turning point in your life, an event that led to your current venture?

In 2003, my family and I were in a horrific car accident while on vacation in Hawaii. At the time, I was the CEO of Raindance – a public web and conferencing company I co-founded in 1997. Luckily we all survived and have recovered well, but I had to resign as CEO to take care of my rehab and to support my wife who suffered the most in the accident. It was two years before I got back to building companies. The accident sent me on a different career path, but I'm happy as a result – and that is something money can't buy. You never know what life will throw at you or how the dots will be connected, but for me these dots have worked out perfectly.

What are your 3 tips for success?

First, learn. Work hard to research everything about your business and industry. This requires getting out and talking to people – Google searches will only get you 5% of the way. Next, think. Struggle with big business issues in your mind. No one else is thinking about the big ideas – it’s all up to you. Lastly, do shit. Make decisions. If they are wrong, change them. Talk and ideas are cheap until you turn these ideas into reality.

What are the hottest market, tech, or social trends that you think have the best potential for an entrepreneur to capitalize on?

I look at it differently. The real wealthy solve problems – they do real stuff and they make real things. They own dry cleaners, windshield repair shops, they make pipe fittings or hair products. The way to become rich is to do that and do it for a long time. The longer you grow your business, the more valuable it will become.

Have you had any setbacks that almost discouraged you from the risk-filled world of entrepreneurship?

I've had setbacks – two big ones in a row, actually. One of them was trying to commercialize on my third grade business (note to readers: DO NOT try to execute your third grade business plan). These setbacks didn’t discourage me, they just made be extra careful lining up all the right elements before I jumped in. Luckily, I had success very early in my entrepreneurial life. I became addicted to that high, and it would take a lot of failure to make me rethink my career choice.

What advice can you give a young entrepreneur who is in the midst of turning a concept into a business? What are those first critical steps that need to be taken?

In addition to my three tips for success above, you need to know where your money will come from. Size your idea to the money you know you can raise. Also, be prepared to do all the work. If you need to hire a team to start – give up now. In the beginning, you are the entire team.

What is most important aspect of a company that determines its success?

Idea, timing, execution, and funds. In that order. Don’t forget that in order to execute, you need a great team.

What plans do you have for your career that we would have never suspected?

I don't plan beyond the current venture. It could last 3 years or 30 – so for now I stay focused. I’ve always imagined that my current business might be my last, either because I’ll be dead or I’ll make enough to move into another phase of my life.

How do you plan on expanding your business, keeping it relevant in the future?

Never stop coming up with new ideas. Our team is always thinking beyond the current product. We listen to our customers to improve our product, and we listen to our intuition for innovation.

Looking back, what's one thing you would do differently?

Nothing. No regrets.

5, 10, 50 years down the line, when you’ve achieved everything you aspire for today, where do you see yourself?

I'll send you a postcard when I get there.