In 1982, John McConnell was an out-of-work software salesman looking to start his own company. This was before venture capitalists and investment bankers began handing over millions of dollars to nearly every tech startup with a half-decent business plan. So the Abingdon, Va., native employed a lot of bravado — and some sleight of hand — to get Raleigh-based Medic Computer Systems Inc. off the ground. After growing into the largest U.S. seller of software for doctors’ offices, the business was sold for $923 million in 1997. He later founded McConnell Golf LLC, now a collection of seven private clubs in North and South Carolina. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
I was 32 with a young son and had recently been fired. Unfortunately, I kept giving my opinion on any subject — that was one of the things that contributed to my termination. But I knew for certain that being fired was the best thing that ever happened to me. It reaffirmed that I needed to do something on my own, build a company the way I thought things needed to be run.
I had been selling software to physicians and thought that had potential, as doctors’ offices were mostly paper-based at the time. The big software companies of the world, the IBMs, weren’t focused on physicians, so there wasn’t much competition. I started writing a business plan. I recognized, also from my previous job, that doctors weren’t the decision-makers for buying software; business consultants, who would come into their practices, usually on a monthly basis, to do payroll and other things, were key influencers.
At the same time, this large consulting company out of Michigan decided it might be a good idea to study the market to help clients select some sort of automation. I had developed a pretty good relationship with one of the board members, so he calls me up and says, “John, I understand you’re not working at the other company anymore. What are you doing?” I told him I had started my own business and got a programming person lined up to build new medical software. He said, “Well, can we take a look at it?”
I was pretty flabbergasted. Here was a nationally known consulting firm wanting to take a look at some little startup product with no capital, no track record. I set up a date to go to Michigan, and I took two of my co-founders with me.
We get in my 1979 Olds 98 and drive 13 hours to Michigan. We rent one hotel room, all three of us, and flip a coin to see who gets the beds. There was no sharing — one of the guys slept on the floor. We park at the back of the company’s lot because we don’t want them to know we drove up. Then we have this meeting. I had one of my old managers come and tell these guys what great people we were and how happy he was to have been associated with us. He was an older guy, so he gave us some credibility. The meeting went well. They loved the product we showed them.
This is the funny part: Once it was over, one guy said, “We want to drop you guys back out at the airport so you don’t have to get a cab.” We start making all these excuses like, “Nah, nah, you don’t need to do that,” but the guy says, “Nah, nah, we need to do that.” So they drop us off at the airport. We had to get a cab back to the building to get our car.
We’d just been to Florida that same week to pick up a computer with a U-Haul trailer. I think that week I drove approximately 3,500 to 4,000 miles.
Anyone who says they can’t start their own company because they don’t have capital is using a weak excuse. If you have talent and a business plan and a market and a product you think you can be paid for, you can always find capital. What it takes is passion and talent and drive.
We started the company with $25,000. One of my colleagues, another person and myself put it up. Later, we had to get a $25,000 credit line, so one of my co-founders and I went down to the bank with our wives. We had to sign over our houses as collateral. When I saw the dot-com boys be able to present business plans and get $10 million valuations in the late 1990s, I was shocked.
It certainly made us better managers. We built our company on cash flow instead of borrowing money. The beauty of that first company is that we were profitable within 90 days. We had such low overhead that it only took us approximately one to two software sales a month — I think 1.3 — to break even. That’s how we got such a big start on our competition and why we became the largest company in the United States selling computer software to physicians.
The best part of my life right now is not having to make quarterly numbers, not feeling pressure every day to go make sales to survive each month. But I miss the days of feeling hungry. The more pressure I had on me, the better I performed.