Five Questions For … Houston Entrepreneur and Investor Neal Murthy

Houston—Don’t call Neal Murthy an innovator.

Sure, he’s founded and sold companies in behavioral simulation software, energy consulting, and social ventures, and he is an avid investor and mentor to entrepreneurs. His interests range from biotech to artificial intelligence to the social impacts of playing games. “I love to get my hands on something new and I’m constantly trying to learn,” Murthy says.

A characterization he might find more comfortable is seeker. Each year, Murthy makes what he calls a pilgrimage, traveling both internationally and in the U.S. for three to six weeks, focusing on a particular area of technology. (In 2017, his focus is on machine learning.) “I try to find some of the best people in the world working on this,” he says. “I want to see if I can find people and sit down and have coffee with them and just learn from them.”

Looking back, he sees this tendency to wander among disciplines, among physical places, as something that stretches back to his college days when he would change his study focus from artificial intelligence (early ‘90s version) to physics to math and applied economics.

Murthy has two bachelor of science degrees, in economics and math, and an MBA—all from the University of Houston, where he also teaches.

His latest company is a passion project, Nefer Games. “For almost 30 years of my life, I’ve been a hobbyist game designer,” he says. “I’ve also been inspired by scholarly work into the nature of play in human interaction.”

The company’s first game is called Sedis, a gaming system that he says is only the fourth generic gaming device in history—after dice, dominoes, and playing cards. Murthy says Sedis will launch a campaign on Kickstarter in mid-February.

Here is a lightly edited version of our conversation:

Xconomy: What career advice do you give to new college graduates?

Neal Murthy: Hmm … each student/graduate is different. The best advice I can give to anyone is the advice my father gave me: There are two keys to success, in work and in life:
—Be self-aware; know yourself, your strengths/weaknesses/goals/vision/etc, and then …
—Step deliberately into everything you do. Know why you’re taking the action you’re about to take and take it.

X: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned about managing people?

NM: I learned that people can’t really be managed. They can be incentivized, acknowledged, developed/trained, and even shamed, but they manage themselves. Acknowledging the intrinsic qualities—motivations, desires, idiosyncrasies—of each individual is the way of “managing” people. And, if they’re not the right person for the job, get rid of them. They’ll be better off, and you and your company will be better off.

X: Tell me about your early influences.

NM: Whoa. Too many to list. I pride myself in drawing inspiration and influence from many sources and domains. Here’s a breakdown.

As a person: My dad, my brother, 10 years my senior and a vice president at Dell, and an old acquaintance named Denis Waring, an ethnomusicologist in Connecticut—one of my greatest passions is music of all types—had a profound influence on me.

As a consultant: Marvin Bower, an important founding figure in the history of McKinsey responsible for its founding principles and culture, was a powerful influence from history. Jack Ivancevich, a professor at the University of Houston and an influential management professor I had while getting my MBA, was another important figure.

As a game designer: I take influence from a variety of sources of human-made beauty in design, including Klaus Teuber (developer of Settlers of Catan and its variants), Hayao Miyazaki (filmmaker), Buckminster Fuller (architect), and Paul Rand (graphic designer.)

X: What’s your biggest failure as an entrepreneur?

NM: Ha! I’ve had many, many failures. How can I choose just one?

I suppose I’d say it was not starting my game company, Nefer Games, sooner. I semi-retired in 2014, leaving my second consultancy behind to be run by others. For the next two-ish years, I spent my life wandering—guiding other companies, but not really doing anything for myself. I finally had the will to move this thing forward. Time will tell if it succeeds, but not starting sooner is definitely a major failing, I feel.

X: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

NM: A veterinarian, then a computer scientist. But, I’ve designed games since I was around 11 as a hobby, and I’m now turning that into my next career. So maybe I always wanted to be a game designer in the back of my mind.

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