Meet Barry Levine, Founder & CEO of a 30-year old company and before that, a 25-year old business. He was on the board of directors of the New York Police Reserve Association. Was ASIS Chapter Chair twice (world’s largest security association). Vice President of the San Diego Chapter of the Navy League. Chairman of the board of directors of the San Diego Chapter of Operation Homefront.
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Thank you for joining us today. Please introduce yourself to our readers. They want to know you, some of the background story to bring some context to your interview.
Barry Levine: Hi, I’m Barry Levine, born in Brooklyn N.Y. I’m an Air Force Veteran and have had an interesting career. I am the Founder & CEO of Sperry West, a 30-year old San Diego manufacturer of body temperature alerting video cameras, & covert cameras to help catch illegal activity. At the beginning of my career, I worked for several small businesses & was able to learn a lot about entrepreneurship. I was doing very well as a young sales manager in the last of those businesses and had an idea to start a new company. I discussed it with my then boss, who liked the idea and agreed to become my 50% partner in the new venture. He even allowed the new business to use his facilities to get started. Of course, I was very excited and managed to get the new business off to a great start.
After three or four months, I sensed that something was wrong, as we were doing lots of business and I knew that we were working on a very good profit margin, but the money just wasn’t there. At that time, my girlfriend was a bookkeeper and I asked her to look over the books one evening. She was able to show me how my partner was stealing right from the inception of the business. I quickly dissolved the business and within one month, started another, without any partners. A few years later, I married that bookkeeper and we remain happily married 54 years later.
You are a successful entrepreneur, so we’d like your viewpoint, do you believe entrepreneurs are born or made? Explain.
Barry Levine: I don’t know the answer, but in my case, I think it is both. By age 13, I started doing professional photography and had business cards, letterheads and an order pad, and the ability to provide invoices. I quickly learned how to buy some of my supplies directly from the manufacturer. No one in my family was an entrepreneur, I just learned as I went along. Of course, in those days it was a hobby business. Today, I find it hard to imagine that families entrusted a 13-year-old to take all of the Bar Mitzvah pictures & create custom albums full of eight by ten pictures made in my bedroom/darkroom. They saved a lot of money and were happy with the results. Later, while in High School, I created portfolios of students who aspired to be actors & dancers.
If you were asked to describe yourself as an entrepreneur in a few words, what would you say?
Barry Levine: That’s all I know how to be. I enjoy being in business, most of the time, especially when things are going well.
Tell us about what your company does and how did it change over the years?
Barry Levine: Sperry West started by doing some local systems, then contracting with others to make a few small products. Then as sales improved, we hired techs to make some products and sales, marketing, and other office people. We were able to get our company on the GSA (government services administration) schedule. That helped us when we located interested government buyers. We were also able to begin working with several distributors.
We are considered a manufacturer, but I think of us more as doing light assembly.
Thank you for all that. Now for the main focus of this interview. With close to 11.000 new businesses registered daily in the US, what must an entrepreneur assume when starting a business?
Barry Levine: What is the new company going to do to attract business? How do they stand out and be seen? Why will anyone want to deal with them? We chose to build a reputation for making fine quality covert video security cameras. That was our way of not having to compete with giants like Sony, Panasonic, and so many others.
Did you make any wrong assumptions before starting a business that you ended up paying dearly for?
Barry Levine: Absolutely! One was trying to deal with distributors on our terms. Distributors can be very difficult and we stopped doing business with one in particular because we refused to go along with their policies. In the end, I have little doubt that it cost us a lot of money.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what advice would you give yourself and why? Explain
Barry Levine: Very little advice. If you realize all that you must do, you probably would never start. Entrepreneurship is a long journey and hopefully a most enjoyable one.
What is the worst advice you received regarding running a business and what lesson would you like others to learn from your experience?
Barry Levine: It was advice from a former partner of a former business. It just didn’t fit with my personality and who I was. I made the mistake of listing to that advice and following it. It was wrong. Only do what feels right for you.
In your opinion, how has COVID-19 changed what entrepreneurs should assume before starting a business? What hasn’t changed?
Barry Levine: As a group, we mostly tend to be optimists, but should we assume that things will be getting better soon and start our adventure? Probably not. For me, this last year and a half have proven to be very challenging. Are we ready to get back to what we knew as “normal”? There is no longer a “normal”. We have no idea of what is coming for our business in the next six months or even next year.
What is a common myth about entrepreneurship that aspiring entrepreneurs and would-be business owners believe in? What advice would you give them?
Barry Levine: That we will succeed regardless of the statistics. That we will beat the odds. Why? Because we know we can!
What traits, qualities, and assumptions do you believe are most important to have before starting a business?
Barry Levine: Overconfidence is probably a good thing. If you do not believe in yourself, don’t consider starting a business. Do you think that you have all of the attributes necessary to run a business, or are you prepared to hire the talent that you will need? Do you need a partner for either support or to fill in the gaps that you are not confident that you can handle?
How can aspiring leaders prepare themselves for the future challenges of entrepreneurship? Are there any books, websites, or even movies to learn from?
Barry Levine: Lots of books, but you can only use what may work for you. Sure, lots of websites, but what are they trying to sell you? I learned a lot from movies, as I learned to fly planes and to race cars! Movies probably were an influence.
You have shared quite a bit of your wisdom and our readers thank you for your generosity but would also love to know: If you could choose any job other than being an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Barry Levine: I don’t think that I would know how to do anything else. Being in business has had many ups & downs, but it has allowed me to take good care of my family and to enjoy so much in life, such as traveling with family. Motorcycles, boats, fine cars and several wonderful houses.
Thank you so much for your time, I believe I speak for all of our readers when I say that this has been incredibly insightful. We do have one more question: If you could add anyone to Mount Rushmore, but not a politician, who would it be; why?
Barry Levine: One of my childhood heroes is Jackie Robinson. Or perhaps one woman representing all that women have contributed to our lives and the little credit they have received.
Mike Weiss, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Barry Levine for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
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