Civic entrepreneur Stephen Culp co-founded Smart Furniture, Delegator and PriceWaiter, as well as philanthropic organizations ChattanoogaSTAND and Causeway. He served in the Peace Corps, traveled in Eastern Europe during the revolutions there, and studied law at Stanford University. Now, nearly 20 years after returning home to Chattanooga, he is raising three children with his wife, Karen, as he plots his next moves.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You work, in one capacity or another, at multiple businesses you have founded or co-founded, as well as devoting time to philanthropy and a young family. How do you prioritize your time?
I am probably to a fault involved in a lot of things, and it relates to love of entrepreneurism and a love of this community and an inability, at least early on, to say no. Have I developed a secret way of dealing with this very full plate? Not really. Sometimes they're all a priority all at once, and this is not advice, but that's when I just work more. There are times when you've got to do that. I've been in that mode for about 30 years, but I do prioritize where I think I can be most helpful. In my downtime, I try to think about the big picture, but the more day-to-day, let's face it, that's where most of the impact comes from. I try to commit to being available and responsive to colleagues. So much is about being responsive, attentive, not only to a team but to what has happened that is affecting your company.
So how do you pick your targets day-to-day?
I am so organized it is ridiculous — literally to the point of ridicule. I get to inbox zero every day. I do not forget to do things because I write them down immediately. I'm a little impatient with people who say 'I'm not organized.' I wasn't, but it was a survival tactic. If I'm going to juggle all these things, I need to learn how to juggle. One thing common to the businesses I've been involved in, I try to early on set a foundation we can build on. If you put time into systems and infrastructure, build one that's agile, scalable, then when the ideas start flowing, when the team starts growing, you can move fast.
As an entrepreneur, you've launched a variety of businesses that cover a lot of ground. Are there common themes or goals that are reflected in those businesses?
I could be fooling myself to make my life make sense, but I think there's a theme of leveraging the power of people, often with platforms or systems or tools. It dates back to my time in the Peace Corps, which was probably among the most entrepreneurial experiences I ever had. It's all about giving people tools to help themselves, and figuring out how to do that in the midst of great uncertainty. A typical Peace Corps volunteer has 2 years to move the needle. They don't know where they're going or what they'll be doing. Your first year is often chaos in the Peace Corps, and what you do with that makes the difference. Do you freak out? One guy I know crawled out the window of his classroom. Don't do that. So it's: A, don't freak out, and B, are you paying attention, are you seeing what is out there in your limited universe to do something productive for the people you're serving? It's a civic metaphor for what most people consider entrepreneurism. Entrepreneurism is not limited to for-profit endeavors. It's a mindset.
How does that empowerment theme show up in your businesses and philanthropic work?
As an example, I started Smart Furniture in my professor's garage, and the premise of that was design on demand, taking an industry that for so long had dictated to consumers what they would buy that year. The point was democratize design leveraging tools out there — the web — that would help people to help themselves. Delegator was created to empower small businesses with tools and insights and reach they would not have had. It was born of necessity from Smart Furniture, when we needed an agency like Delegator and couldn't find it. PriceWaiter empowers consumers to negotiate on goods across the full range, and that could be a really big deal. It's a bold venture that will take a lot of big breaks to succeed, but there's something to negotiation that the rest of the world has figured out that we haven't indoctrinated into our culture — and in a way that both sides come out with a win.
ChattanoogaSTAND was not as successful as we wanted it to be, but we reached out to 25,000 people, had in-person discussions. We would say, 'What do you want for Chattanooga?' They would say, 'No one has ever asked me that question.' We realized there was a huge swath of the population who really are not consulted and not enlisted in the fate of their community. That's where Causeway came from. Stand was 'stand,' and Causeway was 'deliver.' We're still working on it and hoping some good things can come, but that was absolutely founded on helping Chattanoogans help Chattanoogans.
Who have been some of your most important mentors?
My father was my mentor, but he passed away 22 years ago, so I didn't get as much from that relationship as I wish I could have. He didn't talk a lot. He kind of governed with his eyebrow. I knew exactly what he was suggesting or recommending or telling me what to do at any moment. That was a great thing. I wish I'd had more time with him to flesh out what was behind that. One of my greatest weaknesses is I haven't really found someone else I could call my mentor, no one that I regularly consult for wisdom. The result has pros and cons. I've chosen to try to create my own answers to questions that I had, and another way of phrasing that is I've had to innovate.
How have you used lessons from your father in your businesses?
They say the quietest person in the room might be the smartest. My father always appeared to be the smartest person in the room. He had the right strategy. I have learned a few things from that. One practice we have that people would chuckle at if you asked them about is 'Give me your third reaction.' That is something you will hear often in our conference rooms. Your first reaction is generally emotional, your second is a blend of emotion and action. If there's a word I would like to describe myself aspiring to be, it is constructive. 'Give me your third reaction' gets me to the constructive reaction. It's a kind of self-imposed silence.
* Career: Co-founder of Smart Furniture, Delegator, PriceWaiter, Chattanooga Renaissance Fund, and philanthropic organizations ChattanoogaSTAND, Causeway, and the CF Smackdown
* Did you know? Culp is a black belt in karate and was an NCAA Division I fencer at the University of North Carolina
* Personal: Wife, Karen, and three children: Lily, 8; Charlie, 6; Stella, 2
What was your biggest setback, and how did you overcome it?
There have been two tough periods. During the first, around 1999, I was starting Smart Furniture, and I went through a break-up and my dad died and the market crashed. I had venture capital teed up for Smart Furniture, and the law firm that was going to help us manage that went under. Silicon Valley in 1999 was insanity. But the most intense time was when [my oldest child] Lily was born. She was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis through newborn screening. She is doing great — you can almost not tell anything is going on except biochemically. But that threw me for a loop, and it made me realize that up to that point I had been able to solve most problems, and this was insoluble. When we got that news, I couldn't take my eye off the worst possibilities, and I couldn't get my eye out of the future. If you read down a list of clinical depression symptoms, I think I was there. It was an eye-opening time.
And from that experience you started an organization to fund research into CF treatment?
We made some headway there, helping to catalyze an international collaboration between a University of Alabama at Birmingham doctor and an Israeli research team. We were lucky that we were able to find some avenues where we can potentially help not only our daughter, but a lot of other people, but since I was only a part of this effort, I don't want to overstate my role or claim credit. We were going to rely on that to help Lily if and when she needed it, but we may not need to. The world of CF has had so much innovation even since she was born — in fact, two weeks before Lily's birth, a breakthrough CF drug was approved, a drug which received the FDA's first ever "Breakthrough Therapy" designation. I have developed such an empathy for parents, anyone, who face a situation like this where they can't figure out anything to help — it's the worst feeling. I essentially didn't sleep for a year, devouring the internet and every bit of research I could find. And being able to find a path forward and make some crucial connections — however incremental the progress may end up being — was a salvation in more ways than one.
What's next for you? What's yet undone?
I hope to have a chance to spend more quality time with my wife and children. My parents were older parents, and I am, too. I want to be around and present and healthy and be able to intimidate my daughters' boyfriends for years. I want to be able to travel with them a little bit once that's a thing again, I want them to see 50 countries, I want to blow their minds. I want to continue in some way the whole thesis of helping people to help themselves, but on a bigger scale — helping to bridge divides. We work in all these circles, and they're not overlapping, but there is intersection. That's where we can start doing stuff together, being constructive, build trust. You've got common ground with everybody. The civic entrepreneur in me looks at that thinks what a wasted, untapped possibility.