2nd mentorship conversation

For the second mentoring conversation, after exchanging short updates on the state of our lives, I took the opportunity to get the inside scoop on how the current situation has affected his business. Jeff walked me through what had happened since our last conversation: his factories in China hadn’t reopened after the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday as expected, and demand for his clients’ products had cratered. Luckily, one of their small startup clients had been working with them to get their product line manufactured. Their product? Air filtration masks. Because of the huge jump in demand, his company has a relatively strong positioning in the midst of this economic turmoil.

As I started asking more specific questions about the lessons he had learned and the specific decisions he’d made as the CEO, he often circled back to a central theme of personal ethics in business. During the last two years, the trade war had hit his company very hard, and then the pandemic and associated lockdown had hit them when they were already down. This had led him to make some hard decisions, including laying off a significant chunk of his workforce in October 2019. However, one fact he is especially proud of, and mentioned in this conversation and the last, is despite the layoffs, no one who they hadn’t cut jumped ship when they could plainly see the company wasn’t having its best days. Especially during Fall of 2019, unemployment was at all time lows, and the job market was blazing, he believes the fact that people hadn’t left could be attributed to good management and actually caring about people. Flash forward to April, when his company wasn’t struggling as hard as many of his friends’ companies are, in large part due to luck by his own admission, and I asked him whether he would take advantage of any of the stimulus loans. Without hesitation, he replied he wouldn’t apply, as although his business could probably benefit from them, other companies needed it more and he wouldn’t feel morally right taking the loans instead of them. Jeff emphasized the role of ethics in business decisions and remarked that there may be some who don’t care, but in management, it’s a consideration that often comes into effect.

Coming from a software/tech background myself, I was curious to learn whether his manufacturing company had contracts similar to SLAs in the IT industry with uptime specifications and penalties for unplanned downtime, and if so, how he was working around those. While he noted that kind of contract didn’t exist, he also said that most contracts signed in his industry had a vis major clause buried in their wording. A concept previously unfamiliar to me, he explained it meant “act of god” and these clauses allow an “out” for parties in the contract if something crazy happens. He said there has been buzzing in his network about how this might likely be the first time since WWII these clauses come into play in court. With regards to his clients, he said they’d been exceptionally accommodating for this situation. During the long backlogs due to lockdowns and missing labor, which normally would have been a huge deal, the depended on his manufacturing production were understanding and even encouraged his company to take as much time as they needed. He speculated they had been so flexible partly due to dried up demand for the products anyway, as well as mutual understanding. He had felt heavy disruptions through his own supply chain as a result of the pandemic, however. Labor, which he considered an important supply chain element, was in short supply for about a 5 week period after the Lunar New Year, and now they were facing shortages of materials.

Through this conversation, the most valuable takeaway for me was the personal factor in entrepreneurship, and I was again reminded of the important of flexibility, which he mentioned in the last conversation, with real world examples of what his company had gone through and overcome in the last year.

1st Mentorship Conversation

In our opinion, the number one soft skill Duke students are apt to acquire during our four years here is networking — amidst countless coffee chats, informational phone calls, and literal events with the sole purpose of creating connections between students and mentors. However, the whole process can become, well, rather robotic and removed. That’s why our mentor Jeff Muti has been such a breath of fresh air. 

We started off our call with Jeff very professionally: introducing ourselves and backgrounds, highlighting our appreciation for his time, the usual. Before the call, we had discussed amongst the two of us (Jimmy and Miranda) some of the questions we would like to pose to him. Our first, the most important in our eyes, was, “What do you hope to gain from serving as a mentor?” Too many mentorship pairings we’ve seen have been parasitic rather than mutually symbiotic.

And Jeff’s response to this question is when we realized this wouldn’t be one of the mentorship-style interactions we’d been used to. He essentially said, in language we would likely be scolded by the Career Center for repeating, that the Duke Giving body had referred him to become a mentor, he had participated last semester with a less than ideal experience, and found himself back in this position again as a last chance effort. In short, he had nothing to gain, but has a number of entrepreneurs whom he mentors in other spaces and thought he should do the same for some students of his alma mater. While both of us students quickly realized the need to impress Jeff enough to stay on as a mentor for future students, we also came to the realization a) that impressing Jeff in other regards (like overly professional jargon) wouldn’t be effective in building a relationship with him and b) he must really have something to offer as a mentor if Duke has been practically begging him to come back for another semester. 

While Jeff’s successes have been abundant, his failures have provided him with the more interesting lessons in entrepreneurship, namely the importance of building his brand. He had reached out to friends, family, and connections as potential sources for funding for a venture in private equity; due to his reputation, a decent number said yes and provided the funds. However, the private equity firm went kaboom, and many of these family-and-friends turned investors lost their money. Fast forward a few years, Jeff had the business plan for his current venture, a phone-case manufacturing company focused on facilitating better supply chain operations between American companies and Chinese factories. Rather than hide from his former investors with his tail between his legs, he went back to this same network of friends and family to pitch his new startup. While he admits he received some cold shoulder responses, he still managed to get the funding he needed without institutional financing. The lesson learned here: people invest in people, and failure is a natural part of a person’s entrepreneurial path. 

Over the course of our talk with Jeff, we learned many lessons from his experiences and his straight-shooter demeanor. But arguably the most important for us was the realization that while it is great to speak to Jeff in the capacity of students wanting to learn, it is even better to bring a concrete project or entrepreneurial venture you’re working on to him for feedback. He’s heard countless pitches and mentors entrepreneurs working on their own startups: asking him advice for the future is great, but his action-oriented nature leans more towards steps for the present. So, for our next steps, Miranda will use her individual call to run her Hacking4Defense startup pitch by him, given his military background, and Jimmy will use the opportunity to run ideas for expansion and new market acquisition in a growing startup he holds an exec position in, as well as seek to learn more about how Jeff identified niche opportunities, and start thinking about how those lessons might apply for the new venture he’s been thinking of pursuing.