Sharks and sweat equity 


Sharks and sweat equity 

“I speak Shark. Most of the people who have great ideas for a business are dolphins —   trusting and thinking everybody shares their excitement. My mother tongue is Shark, but my heart is dolphin, so I can translate between the two,” said Kai Wulff, CEO and managing consultant of Plexus Consulting based in Brownsville, serial entrepreneur, and, until recently, Google’s director of global access development.

Kai Wulff
Kai Wulff

Wulff’s Plexus partnership with CPA firm BMC has two functions:  to incubate new businesses and to advise established companies on improving their performance.

Incubator seekers might wonder why Plexus would invest time in them without upfront charges.  “Yes, I have a hidden agenda,” admitted Wulff, who has had a home in the Valley since 2011.  “I love the area and want to see it develop.  It’s all about paying forward. I believe in growing people, giving them opportunities and dealing with them in an honest, upfront manner.”

Wulff has a radical approach to sweat equity that will appeal to start-ups: the white collar side contributes the sweat.  “You come to me with an idea with legs, and I will help you. You do the work and you keep 90% of your company.”  Plexus the incubator acquires a modest, equitable share of the company for providing free consulting, accounting and legal services — the framework that enables entrepreneurs to concentrate on the product.  He believes some start-ups fail because they focused 80-90% of their time on administration and only 10% on the product. The Plexus incubator does not provide a physical space.

“Our sweat equity is the only right way to make it work. I try to protect you from going to investors too soon,” Wulff said. “I’m not doing this to make money. It would be easier to earn money in other ways, but I choose to do this for the innovation and karma.”  While Wulff and Plexus make nothing if the start-up doesn’t succeed, his track record leads him to believe that the incubator’s successes will be good for his bank account.

“I believe that future innovation does not come out of areas where abundance is a daily occurrence.  If you live in that bubble, you cater to incremental improvements,” said Wulff, who recalled serving on hiring panels in Silicon Valley. “In my opinion, it’s absolutely snobbish if you only take people who look and talk like you. That’s how innovation dies.”

Maxwell-Dickson-Business-Shark-Canvas-Art-Print-9866a54b-fc52-4576-b9b9-c0a461015722_600One of Wulff’s plans is to incubate promising young chefs in temporary test kitchens that are food trucks owned by angel investors. His premise is to let the chefs take a great idea, get a track record, prove their points and then scale up.

When it comes to consulting with established businesses, Wulff sees himself as a positive disruptor, an outsider who can bridge the arroyo between vison and action. He draws on his broad and deep experiences with his legacy businesses in Kenya (where he established the nation’s largest fiber network) and was managing director of East Africa’s largest tourist company (10 hotels, two airlines, cruises ships, etc.). He sees tremendous potential in existing border businesses.

“Efficiency is my focus.  And I am an absolute fiscal conservative,” Wulff said.  “It is your duty to maximize the usefulness of the money you make. Efficient companies can pay higher salaries. We show people how they can benchmark and have something that is great.  Companies here think they are not competitive outside the Valley, so they see their market as limited.”

Plexus is structured to overcome businesses’ fear of consultants, their fees and outside micromanagement. “If you engage us, I will not charge you to have a look. Companies that will be successful put employees first, then customers, then shareholders,” Wulff said.  “I don’t know everything, but I am not afraid to ask the right questions. If you are sure you are doing everything perfect, you are doomed.”

“I could have opened my own shop,” Wulff added, but he didn’t hesitate to form the partnership.  “BMC is driven by partners who believe everyone in the company is equal, that we’re all in it together.”

He has a rule of not consulting where he invests and not investing where he consults.

Wulff  treasures a recent honor: a young accountant he mentored in Africa dedicated her PhD thesis to him and her family. “In 10 years, if someone here acknowledges my help in their business book or dissertation, that would be very satisfying.”

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By Eileen Mattei

Freelance writer Eileen Mattei was the editor of Valley Business Report for over 6 years. Her articles have appeared in Texas Highways, Texas Wildlife Association, Texas Parks & Wildlife and Texas Coop Power magazines as well as On Point: The Journal of Army History. The Harlingen resident is the author of five books: Valley Places, Valley Faces; At the Crossroads: Harlingen’s First 100 Years; and Leading the Way: McAllen’s First 100 Years, For the Good of My Patients: The History of Medicine in the Rio Grande Valley, and Quinta Mazatlán: A Visual Journey.