Tech Ranch Founder Kevin Koym’s Mercurial Entrepreneurial Journey

By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Photo courtesy of Daniel Heron

Photo courtesy of Daniel Heron

Tech Ranch was born on the side of a mountain, when Kevin Koym was snowboarding. He’d started about seven companies, including the very first internet banking application. He’d worked for Steve Jobs at NeXT, participated in several skunkworks projects—loose teams working without much organizational structure on innovative solutions. He’d made and lost money and he’d spent a lot of time on the bleeding edge of technology, working on what would be the next big thing…in five years.
He’d also been through a major depression and, at that moment, in 2003, had just lost a close friend. And there on the snow he thought: “I don’t want to build another fucking widget.” He wanted to make a difference in the world. And he wanted to do it by helping entrepreneurs.
What he really wanted was a hero’s journey. So he came back to Austin and sought out Betty Sue Flowers, then director of the LBJ Library, who had edited Joseph Campbell’s book The Power of Myth. Flowers listened to Koym’s story and said something unexpected. “If you are serious about this, you should go to Chile and meet Senator Fernando Flores.”
What she didn’t know was that friends—worried about his emotional state—had asked him that morning to join them on a trip to Chile.
“I almost freaked out and ran and hid,” Koym said. “But another part of me was watching over me.” And that part got him to go. So he went: “Hell bent for leather and ragefully angry” about the loss of his friend; about life without meaning.
That was the beginning of Prueba el Mundo, an entrepreneurship development program Koym co-founded with participants from Chile, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia. (He also leads entrepreneur teams in Santiago, Chile and Guadalajara, Mexico.) It was also the year he helped launch Bootstrap Austin. And it was the seed that would, in 2008, become Tech Ranch. It was the start of the journey.

Internal Alignment

Speaking at Startup Grind, hosted at Tech Ranch Monday night, Koym told a story of periods of meteoric success, huge mistakes, emotional storm and eventually arriving at a place of doing what he’s meant to do. Though he’s still doing it in an “unruly,” special forces, take no prisoners way.
A graduate of UT with an electrical engineering degree, Koym had several great internships at major corporations like IBM and Motorola, but when he discovered startups, he said, he “got religion.” He worked for Pencom Software after being laid off by NeXT, then founded Praxsys, a skunkworks, early stage technology implementation and innovation consulting firm. It was during those years, when he was a golden boy of the software industry, that he hit a huge depression.
“I had my first venture–an ecommerce venture–my face was on the cover of Computer World magazine, most of the cash I have in my bank account came from that time, I was one of the fair haired boys of the Austin Chamber…and I was suicidally depressed,” he said. For Koym, that was a seed to one of the aspects of Tech Ranch that is unique: helping entrepreneurs become “internally aligned” as well as offering insights about getting customers or pivoting a business plan.
“You can do the lean startup, but if you don’t have the insides of you ready to attack and hold the customer…you need to find what’s missing in yourself, to develop that part of you for your venture. If you don’t figure out the inside you end up cheating or think you’re winning when you get funding.”
A lot of entrepreneurs are misaligned in terms of seeking money or meaning, Koym said. They have one, but not the other. They may have issues with performance or with dysfunction. As the child of a psychologist who’s dug around plenty in his own psyche, that’s one area where Koym likes to help. It’s impossible to succeed, he said, unless you have internal alignment.
But Tech Ranch requires more than internal alignment. It requires a small investment: The Ranch’s weekend program, Venture Start, is $150. Venture Forth, the eight week mainstay of Tech Ranch, is $650, but Koym said the price is going up soon. Then there’s Venture Builder for established companies.
It also requires intense passion.

Take No Prisoners

When talking about Venture Forth, for example, Tech Ranch’s main program for entrepreneurs, Koym makes it clear that it’s only for people who are committed to their enterprise, because it’s done in groups of 15 where there’s “nowhere to hide.” It’s not for “entrepreneurial tourists,” or “pretentrepreneurs.” If someone is building a business with his last dollars, he doesn’t need to try to work through his issues with a team mate who is dabbling. Koym prefers bootstrappers because they tend to “bleed” for their companies and—he’s seen a lot of this in countries like Chile and Mexico–they find solutions that people with venture backing don’t have to look for. And he promises that any teacher who is used by Tech Ranch will have “entrepreneurial scar tissue, none of this bullshit arrogance.”
“What I really want you to hear,” Koym said, “is there’s something really special about the path of the entrepreneur. There’s something really special you stand for. You have to be the pioneer. You’re the one going out on the skinny branches.”

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