Alumni Profile: Jon Bowerman (B.S. ’04)
His path to entrepreneurship has been shaped by $20, a freshman engineering presentation, and an episode of South Park. This VP of Product Development and Co-Founder of High Level Marketing is a Michigan grad, but not with a BBA or MBA, or anything you’d expect to come from a seasoned business man. Jon Bowerman graduated from Michigan with Bachelor’s in Architecture and upon graduation, chose to explore all that the world offered him.
With experience in web design and development, CRM, software management, 3D animation, and so much more, Jon proves daily that the subject of your degree means little, but your drive means everything.
Why go the entrepreneurial route?
JB: For me, it was all a matter of following the path that offered the best opportunities at the time. While I was in architecture school, my final project was website design and it turned my attention to the computer. I also started a small company in school to sell textbooks among students to make extra cash. After graduation, jobs were scarce and low paying. I started working in pool construction and earned double the entry-level salary for most corporate jobs. Then, an opportunity came to my attention through my involvement with U-M’s MISO house competition in D.C. and I took on the project of designing their website. That became the starting point for me entering the industry.
A friend of a friend owned a small business and asked if I knew anyone who could build a website for their company – I decided to jump on the chance and figure the rest out as I went along. I conducted my first conference call with the five owners of the business in the back of a van! I had no screen, so I memorized the website and code prior to the call in order to easily talk them through my plans. They thought I was a high-level site builder, and I went with it.
Next I built an “unsanctioned” website for the city of Plymouth that gained a lot of traffic, and I caught the attention of Dave Brandon. In 2008, I successfully built his regent campaign site and with lead after lead, it launched my career fully into web.
Soon after, I was offered a job to be lead web director at CBS, but that meant I would have to give up everything else I was doing at the time. I received another offer from Wireless Toyz during the same period while they were starting to flourish in mobile. Their site traffic was growing tremendously up to 50,000 views a month, and I realized I was on to something.
When the economic downturn hit in 2008, I saw entrepreneurship as the only option that made sense.
How did you see opportunity in time of strife (2008)?
JB: They key to business success is selling what is always in market demand. I learned this early on in my career and I knew I wasn’t going to spend another day growing someone else’s business when I could grow my own. When I was with Wireless Toyz, I realized that I could be doing a lot more to grow and expand my own work. I then hired my first designer, who is still with us today.
How did you know it was OK to fail/screw-up?
JB: For me it was the mindset of “what do I have to lose?” When you’re at the entry-job level, if something doesn’t work out, you’re still at the same place, so why not try. A Henry Ford quote always stuck with me: “Do what you love and money will follow.” I’ve honestly logged over 4,000 hours of failure during the time I’ve run my company, and have built what I consider a tremendous success.
What’s your typical day look like?
JB: My day typically involves a lot of troubleshooting, communicating with customers and employees, and generally teaching employee behavior that can maximize our growth and returns. Daily, we work on building the executive team to be strong and knowledgeable.
What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
JB: Hiring too quickly can have negative consequences. Find a good hiring process and stick to it. Anytime I deviate from that process, things go sideways. It took me a good four years of running the company before I really embodied this. The biggest cancers to a startup are employees not being a self-starter and passive-aggressive behavior; typically, these people prefer to avoid face-to-face communication.
What is the best advice you’d give to current students?
JB: It’s natural to plateau when you finish your degree, but remember this quote from Dr. Phil: “One day, someone’s going to pay you for what’s in your head.” My advice would be to develop a real-world understanding of how you’re going to apply what you’ve learned in school. If you don’t know how you’re going to apply what you know, question what you’re learning. Everyone going into college should be thinking this – you’re going to be helping make the world a better place or you’re going to be making a business more money…if you’re really lucky you get to do both. Decide what you want and dedicate yourself to that path. This is a mindset that I rarely see in interviews. If I hear someone start talking about how they are going to increase my top or bottom line, I listen.
Why stay in Michigan?
JB: I don’t really follow the Silicon Valley scene, as I think it’s over-inflated. Intense desire of talent in the Bay-Area to work for the next billion-dollar company throws up red flags for me. I was born and raised here, and for me, its home. I think it’s tough to find a better place to golf. SE Michigan is a great place to have a family, and then there’s the craft beer! Michigan is going through a transformation that will force generational differences to be brought to the forefront and create a great opportunity for a thriving future.
Why stay connected to the University?
JB: Every time people see a picture of themselves when they were young, they think ‘I wish I could tell myself what I know now’. I probably would’ve done several things differently; I would’ve explored more of the entrepreneurial field at that time. I wish someone would’ve been there to help educate and guide me in entrepreneurship. Students don’t get the importance of having to think like they are their own business and brand, and that no one owes you anything. There’s a real importance to not thinking small. There’s a great book called Fast Lane Millionaire, and I wish every student would read it; the author speaks about the idea of focusing on big numbers and figuring out how to incorporate that thinking in a day-to-day mindset. Also, every student should watch the ‘Underwear Gnomes’ episode of South Park to know how to get to step 2 because that’s where the opportunity is (step one is what you’re going to do and step three is where the rewards are, there’s plenty of people in this world know 1 and 3, but the strength is in 2).
What was your favorite memory of being a student?
JB: During my freshman year, I had an Engineering 100 class with 150 or so people in class, the final project of the year was a group project to be presented to your peers, who will be evaluating your project and giving you a grade. My group was freaked out and I offered to take on the presentation, so I approached five students in the audience with $20 if they would ask the questions we provided them … and it worked out great, we got an A and that’s the kid in the class that I’m looking to find and hire for our company.
If you’re interested in talking with Jon, or a number of other amazing Michigan alumni, sign up for Face to Face or contact CFE’s M Engage program here. Face to Face is a one-on-one mentorship opportunity with some of Michigan’s most esteemed alumni in the fields of technology and entrepreneurship.
If you want to learn more about Jon and his company High Level Marketing, visit http://www.highlevelmarketing.com/ and follow on Facebook and Twitter at @highlevelmarketing and @HighLevelMarket.
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