Back in the Driver’s Seat

Jorge Varela, with 14 startups in his back pocket, left that world years ago to raise his four children. With the youngest in college, they’ve given him the green light to return to the starting line.

It’s the one business Jorge Varela, a gearhead, dreamed of: starting an automobile design house. But with no idea how that one could happen, Varela’s leaving that one aside for now. “I wanted to do it big time, take it public,” says Varela, an apparent gearhead who says his first car was a “humongous boat” and his second, a Ford Pinto. You remember Pinto, the compact with the easily punctured fuel tanks that were susceptible to catching fire? “You take Cobra parts and a Cobra engine in a small light frame…” Varela says of his dream custom Pinto.

Varela, who these days motors around in a couple of BMWs, has been ruminating on several potential projects since he stepped down in March as director of the TECH Fort Worth incubator. He moved through a series of startups as a founder or willing participant early in his career, estimating he fulfilled one life’s goal of becoming a millionaire by age 30 when he and a partner sold a voice mail company.

His startups ran the gamut, including several in his native Belize, like a coffee shop he opened outside a small airport that ended up serving as the airport’s de facto passenger waiting lounge; golf cart rentals; real estate; a soccer team; an internet service provider; construction materials; road construction; and shipping.

Fourteen years ago, “my oldest daughter sat me down and said I was the worst dad ever” for never being around, he says. “I made a promise I wouldn’t do another startup. I wanted to be there for them. When I get involved in a startup, I tend to be a little obsessive.”

Varela exited his last company about the same time and semi-retired. He moved to North Texas 10 years ago as a favor to friend who asked him to “keep an eye” on a company he owned in the area. Doing consulting work, he was recruited to TECH Fort Worth four years ago by Darlene Boudreaux, the incubator’s executive director.

“I said I don’t know anything about nonprofits and incubators,” Varela says. “But I could play with startups and not have a startup, and I wasn’t lying to my kids. They hired me for less than I was making as a consultant.”

Varela says he soon got restless. His children – the youngest is studying at Tarrant County College, and oldest is 27 – released him earlier this year from his promise to not dive into another startup.

“Two days later, I said, ‘I quit,’” Varela says. “I launch and grow companies and sell them. And I try to do it in two to three years. It’s not that I like to sell things. I like to grow things.”

So what’s next?

“For sure, I’m starting up a consulting business to help economic development units, cities, develop innovation centers like TECH Fort Worth,” Varela says. “I’m also in talks with a venture capital fund that’s not Texas-based that is looking to expand into Texas. It’d be a Series A fund that exploits the gap between angel investors and VC.”

Finally, he says, he’s in the middle of discussions with a group that is planning an innovative interior-city redevelopment in the United States. He’s not naming the city.

“There is a foundation that is developing an innovation district in the downtown of a major U.S. city,” he says. “They’re going to plan the entire thing. It’s live-work-play where the focus is innovation. You take the concept of innovation, the incubators, the accelerators, the VC, the angels, within a livable, walkable area. If we pull it off, it’d be a masterpiece.”

If that deal happens, he’d have to move. With the other two, he’d stay in Fort Worth, Varela says.

Varela doesn’t claim to be a startup savant. He founded 10 companies and entered four other startups early stage. “My 14 startups, there was nothing unique about them. There was a small competitive advantage,” he says.

His restaurant at the airport in Belize was one example. When he installed a communications link between the airport and his restaurant, the airport used it to let waiting passengers know their flights were preparing to depart. Passengers began to hang out at the restaurant. “I helped the airline, and I drew people to my place,” Varela says. “I didn’t open a restaurant; I opened an outlet for the airlines.”

Varela grew up in a fishing village. His father was in the coconut business first, then moved into seafood exports. Varela’s dad sent him to New Orleans to live with family when he was 15.

“I started learning about business and the stock market in the U.S.,” Varela says. “I set a goal to be worth $1 million by [age] 30, take an automotive design house public. Stupid.”

Varela found his route to $1 million net worth by 30, but he took a different route. He started college in New Orleans and found he didn’t like college so, in 1981, Varela joined the Air Force. “They did an aptitude test for me,” he says. His father was an electrical engineer who managed refrigeration for seafood. “I worked with him and learned mechanics and electrical,” Varela says. “I had an aptitude for electronics.”

Varela soon put that to use after moving to Florida. At 21, a mutual friend introduced him to an entrepreneur who wanted to start a company selling telephone systems and data wiring. The two started their company in Tampa.

“He advised me to have a lifestyle company,” Varela says. What’s a lifestyle company? “It’s a company that makes enough to support your lifestyle.”

Every day, the two would meet near Varela’s house, then head out for the day. “Then we would get back together every day at the Hooter’s at 12:30 in Clearwater. Then he’d go fishing. He had his lifestyle company. He let me do whatever I wanted, and we started skyrocketing. I worked my butt off.” Varela had been attending college on the side, but he dropped out. “The work was too much.”

Varela owned 10 percent of the company, which paid off when his partner decided to sell two years after they started the company. “I got a big chunk of change. That was good enough for me as a kid,” Varela says.

Varela next moved to California, where he was introduced to a group that was starting a company selling voice mail systems. Varela decided to join them. When the group exited a few years later, Varela says he achieved his big bucket list dream. “I wanted to be a millionaire by 30, and I was able to do that by exiting.”

Varela “retired” to Belize in the late 1990s, where he soon got caught up in a number of startups and became an angel investor. Ten years later, he took his break to raise his children.

After moving with his children back to North Texas to look after his friend’s company, Varela decided to try to finish his college degree. “I wanted to get a degree before my daughter beat my ass to it,” he says. He decided on the University of Texas at Arlington.

UT Arlington at the same time was working on a sustainability initiative and reached out to Varela to help work on it as a paid consultant. “Somebody at the university figured out I had a communications and tech background, and they wanted to know if I could do it,” Varela says.

That’s when he connected with Tech Fort Worth. “It was only logical we go after the incubators tied with universities,” he says. That partnership didn’t come off, but the introduction to TECH Fort Worth led to Varela’s move to the incubator in 2012. The incubator, under Boudreaux, has built a number of programs to foster entrepreneurial enterprises and launched the Cowtown Angels angel investor group. Most recently, it celebrated the sale of one of the businesses it fostered, an eye care company called Encore Vision, to Novartis for as much as $465 million.

Varela says the Fort Worth entrepreneurial ecosystem is strong. “You have everything here from zero to angels,” he says. “Where the need lies is in the VC realm. The one thing we need more than anything else is a champion to market our ecosystem to the world.”

These days, when he’s not thinking of his next startup, Varela can be found at Bass Hall or other theaters, taking in a show with his youngest daughter, Anna; mountain-biking on the river trails; or hanging out with other entrepreneurs at The Proper Bar on West Magnolia Avenue on Fort Worth’s Near Southside.

“I’m retired, but I’m not retired,” Varela says. “If somebody wants to talk to me, I’m here.”