Today, Bruce Lyon is the proud founder of Integrated Media Technologies, a $25.7 million IT services company in Hollywood. He works with high profile media and entertainment clients like Disney and Fox, and has grown the company more than 1,080 percent in the last three years, landing it at No. 284 on this year's Inc. 5,000 list.
But none of that would be possible if Lyon hadn't taken a leap of faith a few years ago, one that few people are willing to take. At 58-years-old, with a kid still in college, Lyon quit his job as a sales executive at the tech juggernaut Sun Microsystems to start his own business. It was a gutsy move, but Lyon says, "I started life as an entrepreneur. Those creative impulses have never left me. I just can't help myself."
In fact, Lyon was an entrepreneur early in life. When he was 20 years old, he and former business partner John Lamb invented a technology that revolutionized the animation industry. It allowed animators, for the first time, to review their work instantly, without sending it out for a day to be processed first. Disney was the pair's first client. Lucasfilm followed soon after, and by 1979, Lyon and Lamb had both won an Academy Award for their technical achievements. They built Lyon Lamb Video Animation Studio around that technology and grew the company for the next 18 years.
But the recession of the early 90s hit Lyon hard. By that time they were specializing in imaging technology for the government, and when the government stopped all its non-essential equipment purchases, Lyon lost his biggest customer. "I felt like I was dealing with a crisis every day, and because it was my baby I thought I was to blame," Lyon says. "My wife said, 'You're killing yourself. Do you want to be doing this the rest of your life?' I had to say, 'No.'"
Lyon sold the company, took some time off, and eventually accepted a job in sales at Sun. For the first time in his life, Lyon found himself working for "the man," but it wasn't all bad at first. There were certain perks that came with the multi-billion dollar territory, most especially a wealth of resources for backing ideas.
"In a small company, you're always battling a [shortage] of resources, and you never have the money to do what you want to do," Lyon says. "At Sun, they could indulge whims that led to almost nothing. It was like going to business school for me."
Of course, for former entrepreneurs like Lyon, the perks wear off. The trouble for Lyon started around 2005. As head of sales for the media and entertainment industry, Lyon noticed that an increasing number of clients were switching from analog to digital technology, meaning all of the content that was once stored on tapes would now require digital storage.
"At Sun, my pitch was, 'It's your lucky day,'" Lyon remembers. "The opportunity to sell lots more digital storage to these companies early on was an opportunity of a lifetime."
Lyon drew up a business plan around digital asset management and entered it in an internal business plan competition against Sun's other managers. The winner of the competition would get an investment from Sun. About 40 entries and eleven months later, Lyon's plan was voted the winner.
"All the execs were patting me on the back," Lyon says. "It was great."
But the excitement was short-lived. A week later, Sun pulled the plug on the project, and, as Lyon says, "The whole thing evaporated to nothing. I said to myself, this is it."
In late 2006, Lyon left Sun to start his own company around the business plan he had created. He knew returning to entrepreneurship at that stage of his life was a risky move, but, he says, "I knew it was a risk worth taking. I had a great deal of confidence that I was going to be able to create a successful company, and what I didn't want to do was end up at a place or a time in my life where I regretted not taking that risk. "
Just months later, Lyon had already raised $2 million to start Integrated Media Technologies, and he recruited several former Sun employees to join him. He rented office space just a mile away from Sun's headquarters and tapped his existing relationships with companies like Disney and Jim Henson Productions to get his first clients. Over the next year, as the value of Sun's shares fell by more than 80 percent and the company was forced to lay off nearly 6,000 employees before selling to Oracle in 2010, IMT thrived. Lyon attributes his company's success to its narrow focus on digital storage. That, and the fact that he had no other choice than to keep his start-up afloat.
"I'm 63. This is it for me," Lyon says. "I needed to make this business work. I get to be master of my own universe here. When you're an employee for a large company you don't feel as if you can make a big difference in a lot of cases. When you're running a formative company you feel like everyday you're making a difference. That's exciting."