Paul Lewis knows that unchecked overhead can signal ruin. As chief executive of MC2 Microsystems, a computer networking company, he has seen clients with the spare-no-expense attitude. "I'd have some hotshot CEO wanting to buy the biggest and best computer system," says Lewis. "I'd know the guy will be out of business in six months."
No mere observer of the start-up process, Lewis launched his own company with $200 while in college. He operated from his dorm for two years before relocating to a space sandwiched between a sewage treatment plant and a nuclear dump site. Hardly chic, but, Lewis argues, "the rent was cheap." He assembled a motley assortment of garage sale office accoutrements, but at first he managed with no furniture at all. "When I interviewed my first receptionist," recalls Lewis, "she sat on a cardboard box. I stood." And he chose his used phone system for its hold music. Though the office phones rang only four or five times a day, Lewis insisted that his receptionist answer and put every caller on hold to hear the music. "Would I answer the phone if I'm the CEO?" he reasoned. Nevertheless, he had no title on his business cards, so he could claim to be the CEO, the vice president of sales, or the service guy. "I was whoever they wanted me to be," he says.
You might expect a computer networking company to have the latest technological doodads, but doodads eat cash. Accordingly, Lewis's own network was "a joke," but workable and cheap: Whenever MC2 installed a new computer system, Lewis carted away the client's old system -- for a fee -- to his office. He took a similarly lampreylike approach to keeping his technical staff up to speed. Lewis either wheedled loaners from manufacturers or had the new equipment delivered to his office, where he and his staff held in-house training sessions before its installation at the client's office.
This article was adapted from material that first appeared in Inc. magazine in August 1995.