Clear as Glass

Starting a business in the worst of times is the best idea.

By: Jason Forrest

In 2009, Robby Whites and Jeremy Rincon (each with new babies at home) found themselves suddenly jobless during one of the worst seasons America’s economy has ever faced.  The year before, they had both been counting their blessings because they still had jobs in the hard-hit financial services industry.  They Were earning nice paychecks from one of the few hedge funds that weathered that year’s financial crisis unscathed.  While industry giants were falling left and right, their employer kept humming along.  2008 was a banner year.  But in spring of 2009, it came out that the leadership had engaged in fraudulent activity.  The company shut down almost overnight.

Whites and Rincon could have polished up their resumes and desperately pursued work in a bleak job market—the course recommended by friends and relatives.  Instead, they sold everything they had and started a company.

Rincon and Whites first committed to starting a business, then set out to decide what that business would do.  In search of the next big idea, they hit on a memory from their business travel, where, during a trip to Colombia, they had visited an office that used a simple sheet of glass mounted on poles as a writable surface.  They envisioned vast, untapped potential in a market where the only competition was dry-erase whiteboards (a product that had changed little since its introduction in the 1960s). Clarus Glassboards was born.

Investors were hard to come by, though, so they capitalized the company out of their own pockets after selling everything they had and moving from Houston to North Texas.  There, they founded the company out of Robby’s childhood home.  Their first office was his old bedroom, and their first warehouse was the garage.  They worked on a card table with their personal laptops.

Out of Season, Ahead of the Curve

In the natural world, the seasons dictate what kinds of activities people involve themselves in.  Farmers plant crops in the springtime, tend them through summer, harvest in fall, and spend winter hunkering down and preparing for the coming year’s growing cycle.

Conventional wisdom says to launch a business during economy’s springtime— when it’s easiest to get financing, find investors, and land top-notch talent.  But there’s a funny thing about businesses that get their start not in economic spring, but in winter, when most would-be entrepreneurs are biding their time until conditions are easier: They tend to outpace and outlast springtime businesses.

Andy Philipp, president of Clarus, says the company has benefitted from its out-ofseason start.  While others were hunkering down during the tough economic environment of 2009, Clarus was busy honing its craft.  “It’s tough for competitors to catch up.  We’re so much further down the learning curve.  We really had that first movers’ advantage to get out in front of the market and pioneer this space.”

Clarus is now a robust company that has moved three times since outgrowing its humble garage birthplace.  The company’s current multi-building campus in Fort Worth spans more than 70,000 square feet.  And they’re confident enough to feature a tongue-in-cheek video addressed to their competitors recommending a series of shortcuts for those who want to produce cheaper knock-offs of their product.  You won’t find them taking any of those shortcuts, though.  From start to finish, Clarus Glassboards are manufactured on-site in the company’s Fort Worth plant.  Clarus takes a lot of pride in owning every facet of their manufacturing and sales processes—it gives the company greater control over quality assurance and customer service.

What’s an Innovative Glass Products Company Built on? 

Transparency, of course.  According to Philipp, the culture at Clarus is based on the E’s—Energy, Enthusiasm, Engagement, and Excitement.  He juggles the realities of building a cohesive team and steadily improving processes with the necessity to follow the founders’ drive toward constant growth and innovation.

Clarus is big on producing exceptional products and an amazing client experience.  Philipp knows there’s a simple but profound condition that this mandate is built on: “Clients cannot have a better experience with us than our employees do.” When employees are happy, happy customers are a natural byproduct.”

This translates to a work environment with monthly cookouts, daily huddles, and Constructive challenges built right in.  “We promote and really push transparency and openness,” says Philipp.  “When people are aware of what’s going on and feel they have a part, it’s much easier for employees to connect with the company and be engaged.  We have an environment of forced communication and a lot of collaboration.  People know what we’re working toward, what’s expected of them, and that we’re recognizing and rewarding people who are excelling above and beyond those ordinary standards.”

The standards are high.  “Intrapreneurship”— being entrepreneurs within the company— is expected.  Finding people willing to build, own, and manage their own world has been key to their success.  Philipp acknowledges that the culture at Clarus can be a bit jarring for newcomers: “It makes new people very uncomfortable.  We have to tell them, ‘If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not growing.’” Clarus is certainly growing.  The company has consistently blown by its key milestones and doesn’t show any signs of letting up.

Clarus now employs 110 people, and manufacturing has ballooned from 1,150 square feet of product produced in year one to 982,857 square feet in 2015.  Philipp projects the company will be three to four times its current size within the next five years.

Rincon, Whites, and Philipp have positioned Clarus Glassboards at the cutting edge of their industry with a simple formula for success.  Philipps says, “The secret is that there is no secret.  We’ll gladly show anyone (even competitors) our plant, our process—but good luck trying to match it.  It’s by the small and simple things that great things come to pass.”

Clearly, he’s on to something.

Jason Forrest is CEO of Forrest Performance Group, a global leader and designer of sales, management, and corporate training programs.  He grew up “under the influence” of his father, a business owner and professional salesman, and his mother, a persuasive speaking professor.