Orange County Register: Family Funds Entrepreneur Vision


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Robert Lotter was the chairman of R.A. Lotter Financial Group, a Newport Beach financial services and insurance agency. He had dozens of awards for business success and innovation, including Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year.

Comfortable and financially secure, Lotter turned to his wife in 2000 and said, "Hey Honey, how about we risk everything to start this new venture?"

She said yes.

Thus began eAgency Systems Inc., creator of Web-based, productivity-enhancing software and services for personal computers and wireless handheld devices.

Entrepreneurs like Lotter see opportunity where others see risk. They see money not merely as a possession, but as a means to accomplish the next new idea.

In the early 1980s, Lotter was preparing to leave the Army and read a Wall Street Journal article about the best careers in a recession. Insurance was No. 3, so that's what he chose. In 1991, another recession year, he started the Lotter Group to provide insurance and financial planning.

Lotter had always been an early adopter of technology. He built his first computer himself. He was one of the first people to carry a BlackBerry. He developed such effective productivity software and systems that his agents earned gross commissions seven times the national average.

At the height of the dot-com boom, he noticed young entrepreneurs raking in millions of dollars in venture capital to launch their Internet concepts. Why not join the frenzy by taking Lotter Group's productivity tools to the next technological level?

His concept was to enable a worker in the field – everyone from insurance agents to doctors – to access e-mail, calendars, contact data, documents and records from a BlackBerry, Treo or Pocket PC.

Being Web-based, the software would record any information changes instantly and preserve records even if terrorists or natural disaster struck or computers crashed.

Lotter couldn't have picked a worse time to start a tech company. The economy was hit successively by the technology industry crash, Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, low interest rates that hurt his insurance agency's profits and the Iraq war.

"I had invested all my assets in eAgency. It was a real shocker when no VCs would give me money," Lotter says.

He started seeking investments from family and friends, who in turn brought in other family and friends. They added $14 million to the $6 million that the Lotters had put into the company.

"I couldn't have raised the money if it hadn't been a good product with a good story to tell," Lotter said.

Lotter didn't want one large investor, but he also wouldn't accept money from individuals who would be strapped if they lost the entire investment. The average investment was less than $100,000.

"It's hard for me to give up on a goal if I think it's a good one," he says. "But taking (a concept) from nothing to something on other people's money is stressful. It's more responsibility. I had lots of headaches and sleepless nights."

Although Lotter provided much of the work and the vision, he relied on executives like Lisa Blumfield and Tim Allard to run the operations of the Lotter Group and eAgency.

"If you're both the visionary and operations guy, that's tough," Lotter says.

After five years of fundraising, software development and beta testing, eAgency's product now has a name, Nice Office, and several thousand corporate customers.

This month, eAgency is introducing a version for individuals and small-business owners called Rover, costing as little as $9.99 a month. Nice Office Corporate costs $49.99 a month.

"Fifty-six million (Americans) don't work for big companies," Lotter says. "I wanted to give small businesses the same tools that only big companies had before."

Lotter is sleeping better now that eAgency will be profitable this year, an achievement that took much longer than he initially anticipated.

"We're just at the spot that we know we're going to make it. I couldn't say that six months ago," he says.

He's now considering potential exit strategies. While he'd love to take the company public and "ring the opening bell on Wall Street," Lotter expects eAgency to be acquired by another company.

"The entrepreneur who starts a company, the operations guy who grows it and the guy who takes it public all have different mind-sets," Lotter says. "I'm a serial entrepreneur."