Clarence Bethea is our Minnesota Tech Hustler of the Year 2016
The hustle isn’t about overnight success, some quantum leap or even having “made it.” It’s a lifelong attitude of urgency and entrepreneurial perseverance through outcomes unknown for sustained periods of time.
Minnesota tech entrepreneur Clarence Bethea was born in 1980 and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He moved to Minnesota in 2002 to attend Bemidji State University and found his way to tech entrepreneurship as most do: first hand pain, a mindset of opportunity, and the drive show the world what’s possible.
How and why did you get started on your current venture Upsie?
Before Upsie, I was unsuccessfully running a staffing agency. It was during that time when I had a really bad personal experience in buying laptops and realized just how anti-consumer the warranty and return process was.
So like any entrepreneur, you see a problem that affects you or your family, and then see that through the lense of opportunity.
Around the same time I had met, in a professional sense, with some executives from the insurance industry and we brought our heads together to formulate what would become Upsie, thinking that technology and customer experience could change the game.
In a recent talk, you spoke about your upbringing and some prior life experiences that formed your entrepreneurial outlook. Care to touch on that?
I credit the way I grew up and some of the struggles I’ve experienced as the reason why I’m able to sustain and grow as an entrepreneur today. I’ve been through the worst that one could go through, so I’m probably conditioned to deal with adversity differently than most.
For me, going through the struggles everyday as a founder, whether that’s with customers or investors or whatever — I look at the positive and tell myself that if I made it through that I can make it through this.
What kind of personality characteristics do you embody today as a result of that?
Resiliency…toughness…you either have those or you don’t, and I got them 20 years ago in the streets.
Self-awareness is important to me, as when you grow up the way I did, you had to have a different level of self awareness. I don’t know everything and there’s no value in pretending that I do.
How many hours a day or week are you usually working?
If you ask my wife, probably 20 hours a day? I mean, I do what I need to do whenever it needs to happen because you’re never really off, right? We’re a small team of five and I’m the sole founder so that’s the tradeoff.
What does hustle mean to you in the context of business?
Perseverance, sacrifice and faith. It’s the ability to make lemonade from an orange.
What is it like to start a company?
It’s exciting at first. Then it sucks. Then it’s great, and then it sucks again. I mean the ups and downs are just so real. Most of what you read in the mainstream media is a reflection of the overnight success syndrome. That’s not the reality that most entrepreneurs I know, especially in Minnesota, are living.
What motivates you to be an entrepreneur?
I enjoy the grind. It’s weird, but I like the ups and downs. I’m OK with waking up in the morning and not knowing what the day will bring. I embrace being the underdog and proving people wrong if they doubt me, because I know that no matter where you come from you can succeed in this country.
Every entrepreneur has their highs and lows, what have yours been?
We launched publicly in November 2014 after 2 years of input and a million dollars of initial investment putting the model together. There were over 200 people there and we were really excited about it all, it’s a highlight when you launch.
But we probably went too early because our payment process wasn’t working right and then you wake up the next day and realize that you have to get people onboarded. A lot of our assumptions were off at the time, which I take full responsibility for. That was the first peak and valley.
What was that process like?
Naturally it sucked, but we worked quickly to turn them into listening opportunities, to be humble, and to manage change.
What’s another one?
Bringing the wrong advisors around…they just didn’t have the startup chops or understand the consumer space. There’s a reason why most people don’t become founders or have what it takes to succeed at it. Some people are great interviewers but terrible executors. That was a big learning experience for me that was hard to go through to right the wrongs I created there.
Probably the lowest low of them all so far was when we were pursuing a fundraising round and after a long due diligence process our lead investor pulled out. Man, that was really something.
Have you ever doubted yourself?
All the time.
What do you do when that happens?
I remind myself of the vision and our reasons why we do this. I recall stories that customers share with us about how we were able to help them better manage their finances for their family and the difference that we make in their lives. That makes me want to get back on the horse right away.
What’s your schedule like or how many hours do you put in per week?
If you ask my wife she would tell you 20 hours a day. I do the work that’s needed, and do what needs to get done whenever that is. You don’t ever really turn off, we’re a small team of 5 right now that I lead.
How do you know when your done?
I will take a break for my wife and daughter and will probably take more when our next one arrives.
How long have you been married for?
8 years. And I always tell people that the only way I am able to run at the pace I do is because of my wife. Before I can sell anyone in the world, I have to sell her and she so believes in me and my ability to do it. It’s incredibly helpful to have a supportive partner during the entrepreneurial process, it can make or break it. She’s my real cofounder.
Where would you say things are at right now with the business?
We’re healthy, but we have our flaws, like any company. I’m super focused on continuing to do the right things to take it to the next level.
How does Upsie use technology?
We are a technology company to bring the consumers and the insurers together, in basic simple sense. We’ve been called a fintech company, an insurtech company, in the end we’re just a company.
How do you acquire customers?
Digitally…and I have to leave it at that.
Who in business do you really respect and admire?
Locally, there are some entrepreneurs who have really been in my corner lately like Thompson Aderinkomi, Carson Kipfer and Alex Rodriguez. And Harold Hughes back in Atlanta, I have a ton of respect for.
What’s the biggest question mark in your mind?
Can we affordably quire users at scale and fast enough to become a formidable player in this market?
Who do you compete with?
Well, our biggest competitor and market leader Squaretrade was acquired by Allstate last month for $1.4 billion.
I can’t tell you how many investor calls I’ve gotten since that happened because the industry is just so big and moving in the direction of increased consumer empowerment every day, right where we are.
What does success look like and are you there now?
Success to me is supporting my family, our employees and their families. It’s simple: get up, go to work, do the right things, and repeat. Again, you have to understand that I feel right in the grind. Imagine if I sold Upsie tomorrow…I’d take a week off and then be back talking with you about the next startup.
It’s almost like that’s your comfort zone?
What a hustler.