Endeavor Atlanta held a Scale-Up Breakfast moderated by David Cummings in conversation with Mark Gilreath. During the Scale-Up Breakfast, Gilreath spoke with a group of entrepreneurs about his career, entrepreneurial journey and the lessons learned from his experiences scaling Given Imaging and EndoChoice. Below are highlights from the conversation and some of Mark’s biggest learnings as an entrepreneur.
Decide, then Speak your Future into Existence
Mark Gilreath finished his undergraduate studies in Finance at Winthrop University. Though job prospects came up, nothing piqued his interest so he decided to enlist in the Navy. After three great years in service to his country, Mark decided it was time for a change. He knew he did not want to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, so he decided to become a medical device salesman. In spite of not having immediate job prospects, Gilreath continued to speak his future into existence. He told everyone he met that he wanted to be a medical device salesman. Eventually, his confidence of speaking his future into existence paid off. Mark was at a party and told a woman about his plans to sell medical equipment. It just so happened her brother was a VP at Pentax Medical. Weeks later he had an interview and the rest was history. Gilreath would spend seven years in a variety of leadership roles at Pentax Medical.
Be Truthful and Transparent
While working for Pentax Medical, Gilreath decided to pursue his MBA at Duke University. He dreamed of starting his own company. Gilreath followed his dream after completing his MBA and founded Vortexmed.com. He led the company for twelve months during the peaks and valleys of the dotcom era before running out of capital. This painful failure taught him a lot. His greatest lesson came when he had to call his investors to inform them their investment was gone. He expected angry responses, but Mark was pleasantly surprised with each of their reactions. They each asked Mark when he was planning his next company because they wanted to invest. He learned that being truthful, transparent, and up front goes a long way in business.
September 11th and a Lesson in Resolve
After closing the doors of Vortexmed.com, Gilreath joined the team at Given Imaging (a small Israeli company). Mark was asked to serve as President of the Americas. In 2001 the company was set to IPO. Just before the IPO, Mark and the Executive team traveled across the U.S. to gain investor interest. On September 10, 2001 Mark and his team closed out a successful day of connecting with investors and other business leaders alike in New York City. On September 11 the team traveled from NYC to Blackrock, an investment management firm in Wilmington, DE. Just as they began to pitch, the team received news of the bombing of the World Trade Center. It felt like the entire world stopped. The market was down and Given Imaging was tasked with answering a very important question, “What do we do next?” Instead of returning to Israel, the team continued their IPO Roadshow and on October 4th, 2001, Given Imaging became the first successful IPO post 9/11.
Be a Great CEO, then Hire an Even Better CFO
Mark emphasized the importance of hiring a great CFO. When asked, “How did you know you hired a great CFO?” Mark responded, “I learned something from him every week. He knew the business so well he could have been CEO.” Be great and hire even greater talent.
Fulfillment Comes from Grooming the Next Generation of Leaders
After nine years at Given Imaging Mark resigned to begin building his next company. Mark saw a large, underserved market within GI (gastro intestinal) medical devices and services. EndoChoice was founded to create a platform focused on GI. Mark also knew that he did not want to be CEO this time around, so he planned to launch the company then hire a CEO and serve as Chairman. He assembled a small team of marketers and operators, then began to raise capital. In 2008, EndoChoice raised $600K. Months after the raise EndoChoice had big plans to attend a major industry road show. Unfortunately they were burning cash quickly and in need of additional capital. The trade show was taking place on a Saturday, and by Monday EndoChoice would be completely out of capital. At the time only one Venture Capital firm remained interested in investing. Gilreath had a decision to make; burn additional cash by attending the trade show or cancel the big show and conserve capital. Mark and his team decided to attend the show with the intention of blowing it out of the water. The Friday before the conference, the venture capital firm called Mark to let him know they’d fund EndoChoice on one condition; Gilreath had to become CEO. He said yes. EndoChoice would later go on to raise additional growth capital from Sequoia and River Cities Capital, eventually IPO in 2015, and later get acquired by Boston Scientific Corporation (NYSE: BSX) for approximately $210 million.
When asked what he was most proud of, Mark didn’t mention EndoChoice’s acquisition, the prestigious roles he held, or the money. “The thing I was most proud of was the number of people under me who later became CEOs.”
Get Entrepreneurs Involved in your Venture
Mark encouraged all entrepreneurs to seek out their peers for advice and to join their company boards. Fellow Founders are a great resource to tap into as you scale your company. Mark also cautioned all the entrepreneurs in attendance to carefully choose their investors and Board Directors. He shared his experience managing aggressive activist investors and how that can distract and derail a company from its mission.