Jay Myers of Interactive Solutions: a case study in how to deal with adversity and find business success.
photograph by Amie Vanderford
Jay Myers’ Germantown office is filled with baseball mementos because he’s a devoted fan. Always has been and probably always will be — particularly of the New York Yankees.
“In my house, Mickey Mantle wasn’t God,” Myers says of the legendary center fielder. “He was God’s brother.”
Part of the admiration sprang from the fact that Myers’ father, Jerry, was from a town near the MVP’s birthplace in Oklahoma. But part of it came from Mantle’s semi-miraculous skill as a switch hitter, one of those rare and versatile birds who can bat right or left.
What better role model for a young boy who one day would break from the corporate world and start his own multimillion-dollar business, as he puts it, “out of the dirt”?
“I guess I was just always restless,” Myers says. “I kind of made my own way in a lot of places.”
Myers was 39 when he started Interactive Solutions Inc. (ISI), a video conferencing venture, in 1996. He had been fired in December 1995 from a local telecommunications firm after building its teleconferencing arm from nothing to $5 million a year. That, as they say, was the final straw for a guy who had spent his entire working life making others wealthy with his sales skills.
“I had to get kicked around a bit before I figured out what I wanted to do,” he says.
At that time, video conferencing technology was largely unknown, but Myers felt strongly that with the right products and services, it could become something big. But he didn’t even have a computer — or a business plan. (He ended up throwing one together on a word processor.) Even worse, his severance pay was nearing its end.
“February 14, 1996, was the day my severance ran out,” he says.
Unfortunately, “no banks would touch me,” and it took a few months to get startup funding from a group of private investors who pulled out almost immediately. Myers also had recruited an out-of-town engineer to help design his video products, a situation that worked for a time but became untenable as ISI gained more momentum.
The engineer, who quickly became a partner in the business and helped get more financing from a bank in Kentucky, began to disagree with Myers on how things should run.
Meanwhile, Myers went to get a haircut one day, only to have his stylist discover a strange-looking patch of skin on his head. The discolored lesion turned out to be melanoma.
“I spent the balance of ’96 wondering if I was even going to be upright, let alone start a business,” Myers says. “The first year here was brutal.”
But business started picking up, and Myers recovered from his illness. He and his partner, however, continued to disagree, and in 1998 Myers bought the man out. In Myers 2007 book, Keep Swinging: An Entrepreneur’s Story of Overcoming Adversity & Achieving Small Business Success, he describes the buyout as one of the best decisions he’d ever made.
Yet it wasn’t all smooth sailing, particularly as he looked for ways to refinance the company’s debt.
“I was flying solo for the first time in my professional career,” Myers says. “It was exhilarating,” he writes in the book. “I was also scared to death: I now had $250,000 in debt to make good on in addition to running the company.”
For a time, things evened out and the business continued to grow. By 2002, sales at ISI had reached $6 million a year.
“Things were going so well I bought a brand-new BMW 525 for my company car and paid cash for it,” Myers was quoted as saying in the Wall Street Journal.
Then, from out of nowhere, his older brother and mentor, John, died suddenly at age 50.
Lost in grief, Myers still had a business to run. He especially needed a bookkeeper and hired a woman named Linda Merritt as his finance and accounting manager.
“When I took time off to mourn John, I counted on employees like Linda to keep things running smoothly at the office,” he writes in the book. “I interviewed her, hand-picked her, trusted her. Now, as I was discovering, she started stealing from me in my darkest hour.”
Myers found that Merritt and her daughter, Angela, had bilked the company of about $257,000 in bogus commission checks, pushing it to the brink of bankruptcy. Merritt pleaded guilty in federal district court in 2005 to misappropriating funds and was sentenced to eight years in prison. The daughter was fired and is slowly repaying her share of the damage.
“In thinking about what I had learned from the experience, I felt like it all happened for a reason,” Myers writes. “The experience has changed me, has changed the way I run my business.”
For one, he’s not as trusting as he once was. But like all the other challenges Myers has faced at ISI, the embezzlement scandal only seems to have made the business stronger. Inc. magazine recently included ISI on its Inc. 500/5000 list for 2012. The company, dubbed one of the fastest growing in America, has been on the list seven times since 2001, including the Inc. 500 twice.
Myers credits the business’ continued growth not only with improved products and services but by being honest. After he published his book in 2007, ISI went from $11 million a year to $25 million and is on track to make $30 million in the next year. “That book has been the best business card of my life,” he says.
Another push forward has been video conferencing for medical purposes. In addition to distance learning setups for academic institutions, ISI supplies and installs conferencing equipment in doctors’ offices. Myers started with teledermatology and has added ear, nose and throat, cardiology, and psychiatry. The technology is especially helpful to patients in rural areas who don’t have time to take off work and travel to doctors in neighboring cities.
“We’ve been able to diagnose a perforated ear drum from 500 miles away,” Myers says. And with the advent of “Obamacare,” more patients will need attention. “This is going to be nothing but good for our business because there are going to be more patients.”
As for Internet technologies like Skype, which allows people to communicate through webcams, it’s really no competition, Myers says. “It’s kind of like Skype is the bike and our stuff is the car.”
Although 2008 presented even more problems for Myers — two key salespeople left, an employee died, and Myers’ wife, Maureen, was diagnosed with breast cancer — the intervening years have gradually but steadily improved.
“It just feels better because the road to get here has not been easy,” Myers says.
But as a plaque on his office wall reads, “Never, never, never give up.”
For more information, go to isitn.com.