Five Questions for … Factom Co-Founder and CEO Peter Kirby

Austin—Peter Kirby describes his foray into entrepreneurship as “following threads of curiosity.”

“That’s always led me to interesting places,” he says. “In this case, my curiosity was around Bitcoin.” That led him to Factom, a blockchain startup in Austin for which he is co-founder and CEO.

Factom is a 3-year-old blockchain company that counts healthcare and financial institutions, as well as a few governments, as customers. (For an in-depth look at the company, please click here for an article written by my colleague, David Holley.)

Blockchain is just the latest object of Kirby’s interests. Prior to the crypto-financial world, he founded a nutritional supplements company—he has a biochemistry degree from Lehigh University—and several real estate companies in the Denver area. (More on those endeavors below.)

“It’s always led me to interesting places,” he says. “I’ve been way luckier than skillful in that.”

Kirby moved to Austin eight years ago to attend Acton College of Business at Hardin-Simmons University. “This is one of those cities for when, the first time I showed up here, it was home,” he says.

This week, Kirby fields “five questions.” He speaks about the importance in surrounding yourself with smarter people, how he discovered entrepreneurship, and losing it all. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

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

Peter Kirby: In early half of 2000s, I ran a bunch of real estate companies, a mortgage company, a real estate company, and a development company, and managed to blow them up quite well in the big housing crisis of 2008. I made a lot of mistakes.

The mistakes begin with a tremendous amount of hubris. The real estate market was, for most of the early 2000s, extremely exciting; it was going through the roof. Financing was cheap, and there was lots of opportunity. The simple answer is we over-leveraged ourselves. The more complex answer is we were way over our heads, and had lots of ego.

I lost the companies, the house, the car, the girl, the whole thing. It was traumatic. The most important lessons learned for me were humility and teachability. I [now] always know that I don’t know. And if I think I know revert to statement number one: You don’t know; you don’t know; you don’t know.

The other major takeaway is luck and success get mixed up an awful lot. What’s more important is to be grateful and consider yourself lucky and blessed that you are where you are, rather than get caught up in that pattern of tying success to brains or abilities or that kind of stuff. There is a big, big difference between things are going well and things are going well because of me.

The other really big lesson learned is to surround myself with people who are way, way smarter than me, people who actually gone through and built the kinds of things I want to build. When we were building real estate-related entities, my business partner and I were convinced that we knew better and we didn’t really have a good collection of mentors and role models who could say, ‘The market’s looking awful frothy’ and just sort of reel us back in. This time in our company, I’ve got an awful lot of people who’ve done it before and have some good perspective.

There is a lot of hubris in tech. That storyline is never going to run out of material. But there’s a difference between doing technologies that are way out on a limb and doing business things that are way out on a limb. A business professor of mine would say, ‘Every great business is as simple … Next Page »

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