Growing up in Danville, Calif., Logan LaHive was not exactly what you would call a star student. Although he passed his classes, he had trouble finding something that sparked his passion. But LaHive graduated high school just 30 miles east of San Francisco at a time when the technology industry in the Bay Area was exploding, and he quickly took a shine to business studies. He ended up studying at the University of California, Berkeley with an eye toward entrepreneurship, only to drop out so that he could earn a business degree from California Polytechnic State University, a school that better fit his “learn by doing” philosophy. With degree in hand, LaHive took a job at a biometric payments company.
He eventually relocated to Chicago to join the city’s newly burgeoning tech scene, where he began working for Redbox as a strategist and marketer. LaHive knew that he eventually wanted to start his own company, and in 2011, he did. He sought to develop a mobile application that would draw customers to small businesses with a loyalty program that doesn’t require multiple punch cards. Now named Belly, his company aims to help stores give rewards to repeat customers, driving more revenue over the long term.
LaHive, 32, spoke with Fortune.
1. Who in technology do you admire most? Why?
The people I admire most are the doers and the builders. Operators, engineers, sellers, the people that you primarily consider behind the scenes. For me, I’m not showy or flashy. I don’t want or need celebrity status in running a business. I care about being great at what I do, and that’s validated by our employees and our customers. I think people who deserve recognition are people like Jeff Jordan, Ben Horowitz, or Keith Rabois. Those are guys who haven’t had—throughout their career—the level of admiration that they’re getting today for their operational abilities and the things that they’ve done behind the scenes. Those are the types of people that I look at and really respect.
2. Which companies do you admire? Why?
The companies I admire are ones that I feel are exceptionally well-run and have had success with sustaining a common vision over a long period of time. That vision isn’t necessarily known or seen in public or through media or through mission statements. It’s sustaining a common vision that when you talk to employees at all levels throughout the company, they can tell what it’s about. What the goal is. What the mission is. That’s incredibly difficult to do.
The companies that I see do that really well are companies like LinkedIn (LNKD) or Salesforce (CRM). Everyone in that organization knows what the goal is. It’s communicated very effectively, and the businesses are very well-operated. The companies that are more common would be Google (GOOG) and Facebook (FB). But I respect them for a different reason. With them, they’ve been able to build real businesses with generating revenue and growing and building jobs, but they also maintain a hardcore engineering culture where they focus on the technology. That’s where many large tech companies of years past have started to fail. They slow down on innovation because they don’t maintain a culture around engineering. Those two have. I also admire anyone who gets into the local space. Like Belly, we work with local merchants, and it’s a hard business. It’s primarily a winner-take-all. You see in any vertical like daily deals or online ordering, you see a clear winner in each category because scale matters.
3. What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you do?
Think long and hard about your motivation for being an entrepreneur. Building startups has almost become sexy. I’ve been given a lot of good advice in the past, but one of the anecdotes that I remember is that being an entrepreneur and building a business is the decision to work 80 hours for yourself rather than 40 hours for someone else. Generally speaking, building a business, disrupting, changing, and starting something new is really hard. It’s not for the weak. Understanding the level of passion and enthusiasm that it takes in order to impact change and find the best people and get them to follow you is critical. If this is the path that you choose because it’s your calling and your passion, then jump in with both feet. You can’t be an entrepreneur with your toes in the water.
4. What is the best advice you ever received?
I actually got it from a wise and well-known source. On the very last page of Southwest magazine—the one that they put in the little pouch in front of you on a flight—there was an interview with three or four questions. One question was, “How do I break into the acting business?” And there was a response from Steve Martin: “Be undeniably good.” I tore that page out and carried it with me in my wallet for the next two years. That quote always resonated with me. There’s no replacement for being undeniably good. It puts accountability on yourself, your own ability, and your own work ethic. That’s something that always stuck with me.
5. What’s the next big project you want to tackle?
I’m still very focused on what we’re building here. With Belly, I think that as a young company, people still know us as a digital loyalty program. We’re creating a replacement for loyalty punch cards so that people can get offers from their favorite local businesses. The next big project I want to tackle is making sure that we deliver the message that Belly is much more than that. Belly is beyond just a loyalty program and is an enterprise platform. It’s helping businesses strengthen customer loyalty. While we’re working hard to help customers, we’re also working hard building a B2C digital connection.
6. What challenges are facing your business right now?
The biggest challenge for us is managing scale. Being a young company that’s growing very quickly always presents us with a new set of challenges. For us, we need the ability to find best talent and find it faster and bring in world-class people and give them everything they need in order to be successful. There are always challenges. As a CEO, you’re typically known as the chief “put the fire out” officer, but on a daily basis, there’s nothing I can do that’s going to replace the work of the 120 individuals who are here.
7. If you could have done anything differently in your career, what would it have been?
I think it goes back to early in my career. The mentorship or advice that I got probably would have guided me in a different direction. I was an entrepreneurship major, which is somewhat a bullshit degree. Now, I probably would have chosen computer science. Who knows if I would have cut it? But computer science can provide you with all of the tools that you need to be an effective entrepreneur, but even if you’re not planning for the long term to write code, the ability to think through problems and the thought process that you learn through engineering provides the fundamentals you need to run a company. So that’s one thing I would change, but I also would have started earlier. I was always waiting for my “aha” moment. I was waiting to fall off my toilet, hit my head, and think of the flux capacitor. But what I’ve realized is that being a founder is 1% idea and 99% execution, and quite honestly, even though I’m the founder sitting here today, the ultimate business idea is an evolution from what I thought the original idea was. But now I have my dream career, so it’s hard to look back with too much disdain.
8. What was the most important thing you learned in school?
I think my lesson generally with schooling was that I learned to never doubt myself. For most of high school, I didn’t find my niche. I didn’t know what I was passionate about. I think that made other people not necessarily believe in me. One day in my senior year of high school, I was probably causing a little bit of trouble, and a campus security guard told me that I would never amount to anything. That moment to me is something that I always look back on as a driving force, a driving passion to prove him and others wrong. I look back on that, and know that what was important in high school was finding something that I was passionate about.
9. What is one goal—either personal or professional—that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime?
It’s gaining the respect of my team at Belly. The knowledge that they believe in me. Knowing that they know that I gave them my all every day. The biggest goal that I want to accomplish in my career is for all of the people who have worked with me to look back on their time at Belly and have them say that it was the hardest job they ever had, but that they learned the most. No matter what throughout the rest of my professional career, if I accomplish that, I’ll be very proud.
10. What was the last book you read?
The last book I read was The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. Andreessen Horowitz is an investor, so I probably sound like Homer, but I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who’s in tech or startups. In terms of a management book, I think on a day-to-day basis, building a company is difficult. It gets hard. There are very few people who understand the things that you go through in trying to build and change something. I think people in entrepreneurship can really relate to the book because it’s written by someone who’s done it before. He’s there to tell you the truth about the hard things that he went through. I learned different things in every chapter.
Correction, June 24, 2014: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that LaHive moved to Virginia to work at a biometric payments company. He maintained his residence in San Francisco, and only traveled to Virginia.
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