Most people don't realize that Todd Lindstrom is completely deaf.
"They usually just ask me what country I'm from," he joked.
That's because the founder of CompuPeace, a tech-support company for homes and businesses, reads lips and speaks with only a slight impediment.
Usually, it's hard to speak when you're deaf from birth. Not being able to hear sounds, it's difficult to learn words.
"No one could understand me before I was 12," he said.
A therapist and a caring mother helped him learn where to put his tongue and what to do with his teeth to make sounds. It was a slow process. But once he learned to communicate, he fell in love with people in general. That's one of the reasons he went into business, he said.
"I wanted to have the opportunity to have relationships with people," he said. "I wanted to be different."
Take the word "deaf" out of his biography, and Lindstrom today is a typical entrepreneur: driven, talented and charismatic.
A hearing aid tucked behind his right ear is the only hint that he's anything other than an average Bible-believing father of three, who has been married to the same woman for 19 years.
He comes from a family of self-starters. His father owned his own business, as did his uncle. So it made sense for him to start a company, too.
"Anybody can run a business," he said. "It's just a system, like any machine."
He founded what is now CompuPeace in a one-car garage in Huntsville, Ala., in 2005. The garage had room for only half a car after he set up shop. He advertised through word of mouth.
Since he can't use the phone, customer calls were routed to an answering service. From there, a third-party translator would listen to the phone message and later translate the request into sign language to him through a video service.
"It was a slow start, but it was enough," he said.
In the last seven years, Lindstrom grew the business into a 100-client IT support company that employs six people. Now he's launching in Chattanooga.
$20 at a time
Lindstrom's fascination with computers began at age 8.
One afternoon, he spotted his mother preparing to throw away the family's broken pocket calculator. Thinking of how great it would be to have his own calculator, even if it were broken, he grabbed it before she could toss it in the garbage.
Through trial and error, he completely disassembled the calculator and carefully put it back together. After he assembled the pieces, the calculator worked.
"I didn't give it back. I kept it after that," he said.
He learned early on about the value of money. In fact, his parents taught him to speak using a $20 bill that they stuck to the fridge. At the end of the week, the money was his -- but only if he used correct grammar.
"Every time they had to correct me, they took 50 cents away," he said. "At first, I made nothing, but eventually I was making too much and they couldn't afford to do it anymore."
When his parents bought him his first computer at age 14 -- a Commodore -- he decided he wanted to study technology full-time, and later enrolled at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
His first job wasn't glamorous. He repaired lawnmowers and small engines. It paid the bills, but it wasn't what he wanted. He wanted to work on computers.
Then he met his wife, who is also deaf, and moved to Alabama to be closer to her family. There he took a part-time job at a computer store, where he worked his way up to manager.
When he founded his business five years later, he mainly wanted to get away from working for someone else, which he calls "self-centered."
"But I realized that wasn't the best way to run a business," he said. "Now, we're in the business of providing peace of mind to people."
Heart before head
The telephone is the obvious challenge for anyone running a business who lacks the ability to hear.
But having overcome that with the video phone answering service, the next challenge was face-to-face communication.
For Lindstrom, "hearing" people is a process of assembling a contextual puzzle that includes body language, lip movements and hand motions.
At his first computer job, he found that if people knew he was deaf, they'd feel awkward. Then they'd stiffen up and talk slower, making their lips and body language harder to read. His co-workers, who meant well, often exacerbated the problem by telling people he was deaf.
The easy solution was to just come out with it.
"I find it works better if I'm the one to tell people," he said. "It puts them at ease, and they talk normally if I break the ice."
Stephen Roland, Lindstrom's brother-in-law and the company's customer relations manager, now helps answer the phone to speed things along. But Lindstrom still handles the customers in person.
"When I came on board, we talked about dropping the residential and focusing just on business, because houses take a while," Roland said. "But when I saw the relationship he had with these people, I realized that part of the business is more of a heart thing."