Street Talk : Boss Man Brandt

Dallas entrepreneur Patrick Brandt made a solemn vow when he watched his father lose his job: never struggle financially again. He hopes his latest venture, Skywire Technology, is The Big One he’s been waiting for.

When Patrick Brandt watched his father lose his corporate job, he vowed never to work for anyone but himself.

Patrick Brandt knows the pain of losing a job. As a teenager, he saw his father stripped of his longtime position as president of a steel company when a corporate raider unceremoniously ousted its employees and liquidated its assets. The Midwestern family’s middle-class lifestyle was yanked from under them, and young Brandt vowed never to struggle financially again.

“I had always been entrepreneurial and wanted money,” says Brandt, who purchased his first stock, Nike, at age 12. “But that experience was a driving force for me. I never wanted to worry about telephone bills and utilities again.”

Electricity bills are an unlikely concern for the 28-year-old, who has amassed a small fortune starting a string of businesses. Among his many ventures, Brandt co-founded in 1996; served as executive vice president of strategy for Dallas-based Network Services Now (NetSN); and serves on the board of seven companies, including NetJammer, an online artist development agency for musicians.

But making a small fortune isn’t enough to satisfy Brandt, whose relentless determination and business savvy have prompted members of Dallas’ business elite to call him a billionaire in the making. Brandt deeply craves what every entrepreneur wants: The Big One. The lucky strike that transforms him from wishful thinker into creative visionary. From frustrated middle-class outcast into thriving big leaguer.

After years of turning nothing into something, he hopes to turn his latest venture, Skywire Technology, into something big. And if the predictions of Brandt and his financial investor are right, the fledgling e-commerce company may at last help him make the real money he craves.

Patrick Brandt doesn’t look money hungry. In fact, as he digs into a plate of sweet-and sour-chicken, he just looks plain hungry. The first hint of dark circles are beginning to appear beneath his bluish eyes, which at the moment are weary and bloodshot. Still, his freckled cheeks, childlike smile, and fidgety energy on this late winter evening make Brandt seem more like a tired little boy fighting off sleep than a Dallas business exec who’s just finished yet another 12-hour day.

Outside, on the front porch of Brandt’s two-story Dallas home a few miles from White Rock Lake, five-gallon water bottles have been demanding attention for several days, a testament to the couple’s breakneck schedule. “All I have to do is bring them inside,” says Brandt, “but I just haven’t had time to get to it.” Not when he’s at the helm of a team of 15 at Frisco-based Skywire Technology. Along with  Skywire Labs, the company launched last December as a spin-off of IT outsourcing firm NetSN, offering application development, database design, business process reengineering, and supply chain management, among other e-commerce services.

Central to the company’s business model are service-for-equity arrangements with up-and-coming businesses. “If a company has a great idea and no way to execute it, we give them the hardware and software to get it off the ground,” explains Dustin Arnold, Skywire’s technical director of e-commerce solutions. “In return, we have some type of interest in the company. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.”

 “For example, one of our partners is a general insurance agency,” adds Brandt. “We provide the technology; they provide the sales. Everyone focuses on his core competency. And we take a substantial interest in their company.”

Already, Brandt’s new company seems to be off to a strong start, at least from the admittedly biased perspective of Don Braun, president of private investment company Hall Financial Group, which has a $4.5 million stake in Skywire. “The receptiveness from the business community and the equity and incubation opportunities are progressing nicely,” he says. “Everybody is being somewhat cautious in this market, but there’s still plenty of money out there. Our biggest challenge is managing orderly growth.”

Naturally, anyone who commits millions of his company’s money isn’t doing so just because he likes the CEO. Still, Braun readily acknowledges the importance Brandt played in earning the investor’s faith in Skywire. “Patrick has a great deal of passion about what he believes in.” Braun says. “He’s  a guy you will hear from in the future.”

Brandt is quick to pass on any credit for Skywire’s forthcoming success to his handpicked staff. He’s hired what he calls the Dallas area’s top e-commerce developers, most of whom he personally attracted to the company with his enthusiasm, business savvy, and persuasive, boy-next-door charm.

When prompted, Patrick Brandt easily identifies his life’s defining moment. It was in his early 20s,  after a brief stint at the University of Arkansas. He was living the ski-bum life in Vail, Colo., working odd jobs and sharing an apartment with seven others. Eventually he pawned his few belongings, including skis and a television, for gas money to return home to Joplin, Mo. On the way, his car broke down. Stranded, Brandt turned to his father for help. His father refused. Brandt’s father  has since said it was the hardest thing he ever had to do as a parent.

“I was so angry with my father at that moment,” says Brandt, “but the truth of the matter is, that was one of those turning points in my life where I said, ’I have to figure out how to get out of every mess on my own.’ I hit the proverbial wall, but I learned that I could survive anything.”

That resiliency served him well a few years later at SMU, where he earned his business degree while waiting tables and launching a landscaping business on the side.

“I didn’t really know Patrick until the end of the term, when I handed back the exams. He had the highest grade,” says Michael Cox, a part-time adjunct economics professor at SMU and chief economist and senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. “He was the guy who’d been sitting there quiet all semester, looking bored to tears, but he was listening and getting it all in his brain.”

After earning his undergraduate degree, Brandt went on to serve as director of marketing for the Avion Group, an international trade firm, before co-founding (originally called DigiPix) in 1996. The Internet company provides e-commerce services for photographers, including cataloging and distributing images.

“I thought I was bulletproof after my experience at Avion, but my partner (John Mark Osborne) and I made one stupid move after another,” Brandt says. “We had a great concept that wasn’t very scaleable, and we signed one of the worst term sheets in history. It was everything you shouldn’t do in business, but you learn from failure, not success.”

Like most entrepreneurs, Brandt rarely sees failures as failures. So what if he didn’t finish his master’s at SMU? He was too busy. And so what if he bailed on the landscaping company he started? His business philosophy conflicted with that of his partner. These weren’t failures. They were  part of the entrepreneurial process. He was  moving on to more important matters with bigger stakes and bigger paydays.

Brandt’s departure from Cyberpix was different. He doesn’t casually dismiss it as par for the course. The fact that Brandt left the startup in its darkest moments, when bill collectors were applying pressure and failure seemed imminent, still haunts him. It doesn’t matter that leaving Cyberpix was the only thing that made sense—both for Brandt, who was on the brink of personal financial ruin, and for his company, which could no longer afford to pay his salary. It doesn’t matter that after his departure, Cyberpix has gone on to become a “well-capitalized” company with “major alliances,” according to Brandt, thanks mostly to the efforts of his former partner. The only thing that matters to Brandt is that he wasn’t able to see his vision all the way through to success.

“My wife and I were living in a 600-square-foot apartment, and I was fully leveraged, to the hilt. There was no income,” he says. “Failure wasn’t an option, but I was supporting two people. There were no assets to sell; everything was gone for me personally. That was easily the low point of my adult life.”

Deflated, Brandt breathed new life into his personal finances as a stockbroker, then as an independent consultant for NetSN. There, he developed new markets and a three-year business plan for the company before divesting its e-commerce and incubation divisions to form Skywire as a separate entity under his direction. In the meantime, Cyberpix took off—both figuratively and literally, when investors moved it to New York—and Brandt sold part of his stake in the company. “That helped leverage my career, and I invested it wisely,” he says. “And Cyberpix is well-capitalized, with great partners and a great business model, so it all turns out well.”

But the truth is, even if Cyberpix had generated revenue sooner, Brandt probably wouldn’t have stayed at its helm long term. “My Achilles’ heel is that I get bored,” he admits. “I could never take a company from an entrepreneurial stage to a Fortune 500 company. I’d have to leave at some point, because I enjoy creating businesses and providing jobs.”

Restless from sitting still for nearly an hour to conduct an interview on a sunny winter afternoon, Brandt gets out of his chair and peers out the window of Skywire’s temporary digs inside Frisco’s Hall Office Park. He motions to an unfinished building a few hundred feet away within the Park, pointing to what will be his company’s 7,000-square-foot home in late spring. “Our office space can hold about 35 employees, and we’re projecting to have 25 by the end of the year,” he says.

Brandt has lots of projections. He hopes to generate cash flow for Skywire’s incubatees within nine months. Already, he says, two of them should generate revenue by June. He’s so sure of Skywire’s success that he leaped at the chance to buy out some of his company’s partners for a greater personal stake. “Basically, Natalie and I bet the farm on it,” Brandt says.

The irony that a man who once watched helplessly as his father’s livelihood was stolen plans to make his mark at Skywire creating wealth for others is hardly lost on Brandt. “I walked the halls at Cyberpix last year, and I thought, ’Yes, I’ve made money, and yes, on a piece of paper, it’s seven figures. But there are 30 people who have jobs because of me,’” Brandt says. “I love creating wealth for others—financially, and in terms of new ideas and concepts. That’s one of the coolest things, and they don’t teach it to you in business school.”

Mario Talkington is the managing editor of Impressions magazine and a contributing editor for Texas Technology.


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