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How Building a House by Hand Taught Me to Be a Better Leader

James Whitcomb embarked on a journey to build his house. Five years later he's got a new abode and a new company.
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James Whitcomb is the founder and CTO of Video Insight, a leading developer of enterprise-class video management software (i.e., security camera systems). Based in Houston, the company built its foundation selling to North American K-12 and higher education institutions. Today, more than 4,500 schools use Video Insight’s technology to keep their students and staff safe.

But it's Whitcombs journey to build his own home by hand that taught him the most about being a better leader of a business. 

(He's also been an E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year and took one of the first dotcoms public in 1999, www.ashford.com, which is still around.)

Here four leadership lessons Whitcomb learned over five years of putting together his dream home--all while growing his company.

A great leader secures his base.

Whitcomb owned land west of Houston, where he grew up. In 2002, while watching Frontier House with his wife, she challenged him to build his own house. And so his journey began. "A house needs an infrastructure just the way a company does," says Whitcomb, "and it was up to me to create it--the infrastructure for the house began with fifty-foot trees that my father and I felled by hand."

Similarly a new business needs a solid framework from which to grow. It doesn’t mean you need to have all the answers, but if you are organized and have a secure base, you can overcome challenges that will come your way.

A great leader knows the importance of staying flexible in any situation. 

Whitcomb ran into challenges building his home from the very first day. He needed to readjust or the project would not have been completed. "Sometimes the direction you’re originally headed in doesn’t work. In this case, after we cut down 250 trees, we realized the lumber wasn't straight enough for us to build a log house. We weren't using Montana Pine or a more traditional pine tree. We were in the south part of Texas. So we shifted direction slightly and built a timber frame house. That’s where the trees are basically holding everything up and we just wrapped a house around it. We varied from our original idea, but wound up with a very satisfactory result."

There is no one right path as you grow your business. You have to remain flexible as you deal with changing markets.

A great leader focuses on the end goal.

Whitcomb admits that there were plenty of times he thought of throwing in the towel. "I would lose faith in the project, in myself, in everything. But that’s just another way building this house was like building a company. When you're an entrepreneur, you lose faith at many different points as you're trying to grow your business. There's nothing unusual about feeling like you should give in. Sometimes, on a daily basis. You simply have to keep on persevering. You can't quit on your dream."

Whitcomb was close to giving up at many points in building his home. Often he thought the work would never get done. He struggled over the humps by picturing how great it would be to walk into his new home.

A great leader is methodical.

Says Whitcomb, "I’m a computer guy from Houston who was out in the country acting like a lumberjack. But over five years, I learned how to put on a roof, how to do the plumbing, how to put in the electrical. I became inspired and discovered that I liked all of those things, even though I had no experience with them. Once I got into it, I realized that none of that stuff is really complicated. You just have to take it one step at a time and you've got to have the right tools for the job. By the way, I now have a garage full of awesome tools. And, to be honest, there were a lot of times I wondered if I should even be doing it. But ultimately, I learned that you really can do anything you set your mind to. I know that’s a cliché, but I believe it's true. It also taught me the value of seeing something through to the end. I'm glad my kids got to see that because it’s an important lesson for anyone to learn."

Whitcomb took these lessons and applied them to Video Insight, which in its early prototype was a company that helped businesses sell merchandise online. After an online theft, he created a surveillance application. He stuck through the growth of Video Insight as he was building his home--now the company is on firm ground and built to last, just like his house.

Last updated: Apr 10, 2014

ALAN YING | Managing Director, Polus Capital

Alan is the non-executive chairman of KLAS Enterprises, a leading provider of healthcare information services. He is also the President of Polus Capital, a provider of entrepreneur-friendly capital to growing and profitable businesses based out of Houston. He was formerly the founder and CEO of MercuryMD.




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