via: Austin Ambrose
September 30, 2016
Tucked away in Copeland 409A, Paul Mass sits amid the business-deal “tombstones” lining the shelves and cabinets around the room, which showcase more than Mass’s numerous accomplishments. Each one holds a memory, and the new entrepreneur-in-residence and associate director of the Center for Entrepreneurship excitedly reminisces. He can point to any one of them and recall the entire story of that business deal.
However, Mass’s story did not begin in business. He originally was interested in politics, but law school soured him on that field. When it was time to find a job, Mass was particular about the law firm he would work for.
“I wanted to make an impact and have a lot of responsibilities,” Mass said. “I aspired to work in a firm that could train me with a really smart mentor so I would not get lost in a library.”
Through his search, Mass found Long and Aldridge, a young Atlanta, Georgia firm with only nine lawyers. He worked there for many years, specializing in mergers, acquisitions and general corporate matters, until one of Long and Aldridge’s largest clients lured him away temporarily.
His time as vice president and general counsel for Cable America changed his career. Being part of a booming cable television industry was exciting, and representing people in cable and radio was terrific work. Although Mass eventually returned to his former law firm and became a partner, he wouldn’t stay long.
A few years after returning, he moved to Birmingham, Alabama, to start CableSouth, a small cable company that brought cable TV to rural Alabama.
Mass had learned that big cities were saturated by large cable companies, making it difficult for a small entrepreneurial company to gain traction in the marketplace; once a utility was in place, that cable provider had control of the area. In order to enter the cable marketplace, Mass decided to target small towns that didn’t have access to cable yet.
“If you could get the money to build there, you were in,” Mass said. “We had subscribers who would pay their cable bill before their mortgage. People loved their cable service. It was the smartest idea I ever had.”
CableSouth and the rest of the cable industry, though, had a challenge: telling their subscribers what was on a growing number of TV channels. Mass saw an opportunity and bought two data companies. They became TV Data Technologies, and within five years, they were the largest provider of programming information. For seven years, the company supplied more than 90 percent of newspapers and set-top video guides in the country.
“We really got it right,” Mass said. “This was the first time that we started a venture entirely on our own and created enormous value in it.”
But Mass worried that bigger companies would replicate their business model notwithstanding the huge cost. Eventually, he sold CableSouth and TV Data Technologies. It was the end of his career in cable, but just the beginning of his entrepreneurial ventures.
Shortly after exiting the cable industry, a friend approached Mass about helping two prominent scientists in Boston create a biotech company focusing on discovering new antibiotics. Despite having no knowledge of biotech, Mass said yes.
Finding investors in the United States, however, proved more challenging than Mass assumed. Luckily, when one of the scientists was presenting at a conference, Mass overheard some attendees discussing pharmaceuticals. He joined the conversation and learned the men were from Croatia.
“The only thing I knew about Croatians was they loved sports,” Mass said, “so I asked them if they had been to a Braves game. They told me no but wanted to, so that night I took them to the game with my season passes.”
Between teaching the men about baseball and getting to know them, Mass learned they worked for PLIVA, then the largest pharmaceutical company in Central and Eastern Europe. After trips to Croatia, Mass and the scientists received $15 million to create a Boston-based laboratory for their antibiotic project.
Things looked good. The company hired a big-name CEO with a background in the drug industry, raised $60 million, and became a public company. The company eventually failed under this new leadership but Mass is still exceptionally proud of his work prior to the IPO.
“It was a good lesson to learn as an entrepreneur,” he said. “You can’t only measure the quality of your work by whether you ultimately make money or not.”
Mass moved back to Atlanta and taught personal finance to high school juniors and seniors for a year while his daughters were in high school. But, entrepreneurship still beckoned. A succession of ventures followed, starting with Main Street Broadband LLC. Mass decided to increase access to high-speed internet to people in rural areas. The government was pushing for rural broadband, so Mass received loans to kickstart the venture. Unfortunately, when the economy began to fail in 2008, Main Street’s numbers came in short. They attempted to renegotiate the terms of the loans but the government would not change the agreement. Main Street was forced to shut down.
“We learned a big lesson, be very careful if you rely on easy money from a big bureaucracy like the federal government,” Mass said.
Mass then moved to San Diego to start ClosingCorp and GovX with his long-time business partner. ClosingCorp is the country’s preeminent database of closing costs and service providers in the real estate industry. GovX is an e-commerce website for members of the U.S. military, law enforcement, fire, emergency response services and other government employees.
While in San Diego, with both ClosingCorp and GovX doing well, Mass longed to get back in the classroom, but this time at the collegiate level. Then Mass saw the position at Ohio University in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
“It was a perfect fit. OU was looking for an entrepreneur, not an academic, and would treat future entrepreneurial work as my “professional development.”
Mass stepped down from his role as CEO of ClosingCorp, and moved to Athens with his wife, an artist.
As Entrepreneur-in-Residence and Associate Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship, Mass helps the budding center grow and develop. He also works with students, faculty and staff who are trying to develop their own entrepreneurial ventures.
Only four years old, the Center for Entrepreneurship is still working toward its full potential. Mass believes that they must start with academics, such as the entrepreneurship classes that are offered at the University. The CE should then continue to grow the ecosystem by getting mentors, alumni and local businesses involved.
“My real hope is that we take some of these student ideas and actually help them create businesses in this part of the state,” Mass said.
Reflecting on his own ventures and thinking about the future hopes for the Center for Entrepreneurship, Mass noted two key lessons.
“Learn how to take risks and be comfortable with them,” Mass said. “Also, you don’t necessarily have to be the ‘idea guy.’ The truth is, it takes a team of people to start and launch a company.”