Tom Baur is the founder of Meadowlark Optics, Inc., a company founded in 1979 that designs, manufactures and sells precision optics for polarization control. He is also the founder of Team Baur, a company that is developing a 75-acre business park in Frederick, Colorado. Prior to founding these companies Tom was a research scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. He has a B.S. in astronomy from the University of Michigan and an M.S. in astrophysics from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Tom is the winner of the 2005 Bravo! Entrepreneur Award for Northern Colorado, and a member of the Graduate School Advisory Council for the University of Colorado. He lives on a ranch on the Pawnee National Grassland in northeastern Colorado, where he and his wife Jeanne raise Black Angus cattle.
Here is an excerpt of my interview with Tom:
What would you consider your biggest achievement?
I hate to say survival, but over the past thirty years that has been important, and not easy to achieve. I began Meadowlark as a boot-strap operation and we still have not taken any external money. We’ve developed a line of products that are useful to people and that’s important to me. I am also proud that I’ve provided employment for lots of people, and helped them grow in their careers.
What are some of the skills that allowed you to survive?
It’s very important to hire the right people. Building a company is a tremendous amount of hard work. I was fortunate to not know what I was getting into. That reminds me of what Alexander Graham Bell said about developing the telephone: if he had understood more about what he was trying to do, he never would have attempted it.
For me, starting a company has been about the opportunity to learn new things. I’m not very good at repeating similar tasks over and over. I like to take on new technical challenges and be on the front end creative side of the work. I like to talk to customers and learn about their needs and where that overlaps with our technology. I enjoy trying to find new products that fit our expertise. These are fun puzzles for me to work on.
I also enjoyed learning about business. I see technical people who fail at operating a business because they don’t respect the knowledge base that is required. You have to learn these things yourself or you’ve got to put people around you who know what to do.
How did you solve that problem? Did you learn it yourself?
Yes, at the beginning I did, but what I found is that it became less interesting as I understood more, and there was less to learn. Now I hire other people to make the business machinery run so I can work on technical problems again.
Have you hired other scientists into your company?
We have hired quite a few Ph.D. scientists over the years, but we generally don’t have as much success with them as we do with masters and bachelors trained people. A lot of what we do is custom design work. In that environment, you often run into interesting technical problems, but you don’t have time to study them completely because you’ve got a customer waiting. The employees with Ph.D.s seem to be more interested in chasing an interesting problem until it is fully understood, which is just what they had to do to complete their degree. It’s hard to have the discipline to turn your back on an interesting problem and focus on the customer’s needs instead. In some cases you may never understand exactly why what you are doing is working. That’s a difficult thing for inquisitive minds.
What are the characteristics of your more successful hires?
The people who are successful are good communicators, work well in teams, enjoy helping both internal and external customers, and are willing to put aside their intellectual curiosity when necessary.