Five Questions For … Houston Medical Device Investor Larry Lawson

Houston—Houston entrepreneur Larry Lawson started out his professional life immersed in the groovy melodies of the mid- to late 1960s.

Lawson was part of an East Texas “sunshine pop” band that relocated to Houston as the Clique. One of the band’s bigger hits, 1969’s “Superman,” reached a new generation in the mid-1980s when R.E.M. recorded its version of the song.

By any measure, it was a good life. The Clique, Lawson says, sold five million albums and had multiple top-40 hits. “I was making very, very good money in the ’60s … enough to pay cash for my first home at age 21 and for multiple cars,” he says.

But eventually Lawson says his parents’ disapproval of music as a viable long-term career option and his own distaste for some of the characters around a rock-and-roll lifestyle prompted Lawson to change professional gears.

A former high school teacher who had worked for Pfizer connected Lawson with Johnson & Johnson, where Lawson became a hospital sales representative. He founded his first company in 1982 and today is an angel investor focused on mentoring medical device companies.

“I volunteered in hospitals to learn more, volunteered when the paramedic program began in the ’70s, and rode in ambulances at night to learn more,” he says. “I love this business, mainly because I receive so much gratification from making a difference being a part of saving lives.”

In 2008, the Clique reunited for a show when the band was inducted into the Music Hall of Fame at the Museum of the Gulf Coast—joining fellow East Texan Janis Joplin, among others.

Lawson, who plays “just about everything” but focuses on keyboards and vocals, has more recently partnered with medical device inventor—and fellow musician—Billy Cohn, playing a gig or two around Houston.

For this week’s “Five Questions For …” Lawson told me about the importance of seeking silver linings among the clouds, a potential coffee klatch with Dwight Eisenhower and Steve Jobs, and why entrepreneurs should nurture their creative sides. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

Xconomy: How does music, and being a musician, impact the way you’ve approached entrepreneurship?

Larry Lawson: Music has helped me quite a bit. As a musician—and I’m a writer; I write music—I’m creative. And being an entrepreneur, you better be creative because you will be challenged with many obstacles and opportunities to be creative. When I was in college, around 19 or 20 years old, I was an entrepreneur then but didn’t know it. I formed my first band. I was the manager, the booking agent, bought all the clothes for the band, and hired each one of the guys in the band and for specific parts. I got us our first recording contract, took us to the studio, and made those decisions. I did every aspect of it.

I did so much of it as a young man, up until I was 24, when I left that business and was fortunate enough to be hired by Johnson & Johnson to be a hospital representative. I probably still had entrepreneurial tendencies even after working for Johnson & Johnson but I was so new in the medical business that I cast aside my entrepreneurial spirit in order to learn, because I had a lot to learn. That’s when I immersed myself into the medical business. I volunteered at [Houston’s] Ben Taub Hospital so I could learn more how products were used, how the doctors thought, how nurses thought. That was a period of my life that I immersed myself a lot. Then my entrepreneurial spirit kicked in eight or 10 years later, and I began thinking to start my own company.

X: If you could go back in time and get five minutes with any major historical figure, who would it be, and what would you want to say to them?

LL: I would have loved to have an opportunity to speak with Dwight Eisenhower. The reason is because he was such an influence for our country from World War II but he was a strategic thinker as a general in the army. I think, strategic thinkers, I’m drawn to people like that. I would ask him what processes did he use to make the decisions he made while commanding our forces.

In the world of business, it would be Steve Jobs. I would have loved to have gotten to know him. He was so creative. He had an ability to foresee markets and technology. And I’m in technology now and I like to think that I have the ability to grab ahold of what’s coming and do something about it, but that guy really did.

X: What leadership lessons did you get from your parents?

LL: My dad was a tremendous mentor to me because he was an entrepreneur. He owned a group of auto parts stores. It was not quite at the level that I am but, in his own way, he was a successful entrepreneur. The main thing I learned from my dad, well, two things, is, number one, always exercise character and integrity in everything you do, and to be honest. The other thing was for every negative situation in life, there’s a positive component to that. For every negative situation, you must look deep, look thoroughly, and find a positive outcome out of that negative situation. Always exhibit character and integrity and be honest.

Also, there was this lesson: be fair with other people. Don’t be greedy. When I started companies—I’ve been in the medical area since the mid-’80s—I always shared equity in my companies. With eCardio, my most recent company, I shared equity in my company with everyone senior, at the director level and even some managers. Several people became millionaires because of the equity. My theory is when other people are successful, they will make you successful. I’ve never hesitated in sharing equity in my companies, and it’s always paid off.

When people say, “I’m working for the man,” they feel separate and apart. When I [gave those employees equity], it made them feel like they were really part of the team. It brought that relationship closer together.

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

LL: I advise them, find your niche, and immerse yourself in that. I immersed myself in my business. I wanted to know all I could know. I did tons of research and traveling. If you will do that, you will be miles ahead of any of your competition.

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

LL: I guess it was being unprepared to be an entrepreneur. I remember when I first started, my first attempt to be an entrepreneur, I had the attitude, I know enough to go out there and start my own company and I can beat the big companies. But I had a lot to learn as part of the game of being an entrepreneur.

But failure is part of the business. Most fail before they ever make it big. You’re navigating new territory and you’ve got to be prepared. I guess I probably relied upon my attorneys and accountants probably more than I should have. I should have done more to surround myself with people who could steer me and guide me better as a young man, as an entrepreneur. As I look back over my 30 or so years [in business], I could have and should have surrounded myself with more astute people at times.

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