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Power in Weakness How Nathan Stooke, CEO of Wisper ISP, turned his glaring weakness into his company’s greatest asset
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Power in Weakness How a local entrepreneur turned his most glaring weakness into his company's biggest asset. words by jeremy nulik photos by bill sawalich
ichaele Stooke thought she was raising a juvenile delinquent. Each evening, her sweet and intelligent boy was transformed into a temper-tantrum throwing derelict. Homework time, which lasted for hours, was a theater of tears, shouting and even airborne textbooks. What made matters worse was when she found out that her son’s classmates weren’t having the same struggles. They would hardly study for spelling tests, while she and her son, Nathan, painstakingly studied every night. She became determined to find out what was different about her son. 18 ST. LOUIS SMALL BUSINESS MONTHLY / july 2011
“At the end of second grade, Nathan was tested, and they told us that he had dyslexia,” says Michaele. “It was a huge turning point in his attitude. I think the diagnosis gave a name to what made him different. He knew it was not because he didn’t work hard enough or that he wasn’t smart enough. It was this condition.” Contrary to popular belief, dyslexia is not simply difficulty reading or seeing words backwards. According to the International Dyslexia Association, dyslexia is a neurologically-based, often familial, disorder which interferes with the processing of language. No matter the amount of coaching or support, dyslexia is a permanent condition, something you never outgrow. “Today, the place that most people will notice something is in my emails,” says Nathan, CEO and founder of Wisper ISP, a wireless internet service provider based in O’Fallon, Ill. He still reads at a sixth grade level and spells at a third grade level. “I won’t see the difference between words that sound similar. For instance, recently, I enrolled our company in a Financial Peace
Seminar, and I wrote the Financial Piece Seminar in an email to our employees.” However, the email issues and slower reading speeds are not bogging down his company’s growth. After eight years in business, Nathan has acquired 11 of his competitors, grown to 22 employees and in 2011, predicts to have revenues upwards of $2.4 million. Nathan attributes a good portion of his success to his dyslexia and the coping skills he has learned in overcoming it. And it turns out, he may just be on to something. In fact, that diagnosis back in second grade places Nathan in the company of Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, Steve Jobs and Henry Ford. And a recent study by Julie Logan of the Cass School of Business at the City University of London concludes that dyslexia and the measures that an individual takes to deal with its symptoms actually create characteristics that are desir-
“Dyslexia has been the biggest challenge in my life. It makes any challenges that come up in business seem smaller. I know that we can get around anything.” Nathan Stooke CEO, Wisper ISP
ST. LOUIS SMALL BUSINESS MONTHLY / july 2011 19
able for wildly successful entrepreneurs. These characteristics include delegation, unique vision and intuitive people skills. Logan found that the incidents of dyslexia among U.S. entrepreneurs was more than three times as high as the incidents among the general population – 35% versus 10% respectively. Nathan’s hard-fought success is the embodiment of Logan’s study. “Dyslexia has been the biggest challenge in my life,” he says. “I live with it everyday. It makes any challenges that come up in business seem smaller. It gives me a quiet confidence. I know that we can get around anything.”
Tireless Drive & Confident Visions
“I didn’t dwell on my weakness. I accepted it. You are responsible for your own actions. Life hands you circumstances and how you respond is who you are.”
20 ST. LOUIS SMALL BUSINESS MONTHLY / july 2011
Coming from most people, a statement such as, “I know we can get around anything,” sounds Pollyannaish. However, the first words that people use to describe Nathan, from his wife to his employees, are ambitious, persistent and driven. Those are words that would describe most people unbalanced enough to start their own business. However, Nathan has a perseverance that can put his neurotypical colleagues to shame. A glaring example of this drive is evident in Nathan’s swimming career at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (SIUC). Nathan was a walk-on to a team with more talented scholarship athletes. However, by the end of his junior year, he was leading the lane in practice and had also secured himself a place on the US National Swim Team. He represented the United States at the 1998 World Aquatics
Championships in Perth, Australia. Nathan’s event was the open water 15.5 mile swim. That is the cardiovascular equivalent of running 45 miles. “When I first met Nathan, I thought that he was going to be a huge success or an awful let-down,” says Rick Walker, head coach of SIUC Swim Team and previous head coach of the US National Open Water Swim Team. “He was talking and walking like a champion from day one. He already saw himself there. He did not need somebody to motivate him. He took full advantage of every opportunity. Nobody that I know of in my career has come so far having started with so little as Nathan. It was always important to him to know that he had given his all. There is nothing that Nathan can’t do.” Nathan’s drive to do his best and to exceed expectations was evident before he set foot on the SIUC campus. While in high school, he would spend his hourlong, early morning commute listening to cassette recordings of literature or text books that his mother made for him. When most kids were blaring music, Nathan was making full use of his time. “In high school, we eventually got a computer system that would convert text into audio,” says Nathan. “I found I could listen to books while working on my calculus or other homework. Also, I adjusted the speed to 350 words per minute. Other people couldn’t understand what was being said and my mother would ask me if I should slow it down. So, within the same time frame, I could get more done than the average student.” As a result of his persistent drive, the
What Dyslexia is NOT... Seeing words or letters backward, it is a processing disorder that is caused by a brain difference; a brain difference that can be seen in FMRI's. Inability to read; children with dyslexia can read using different strategies that begin to fail by the time they are in 3rd or 4th grade.
New or rare. The National Institutes of Health have been studying dyslexia since the early 1980's and in research released in 1994 conclude that dyslexia affects approximately 20% of the population. This research was replicated at 18 universities using over 5,000 children. from Kim Stuckey, owner of Purple Peg, a Lake St. Louis-based company that offers dyslexia consulation, testing and tutoring.
power in weakness
curio cabinet of Nathan’s achievements is a crowded one. He graduated as Valedictorian of his high school, completed his bachelor’s degree with a 3.85 grade point average and got an MBA. Not bad for a guy who had high school guidance counselors advising him to take an easier course load. “I did not have a chip on my shoulder or anything,” says Stooke. “I was just driven to be the best I could be at whatever I was doing. I didn’t dwell on my weakness. I accepted it. I didn’t ever use dyslexia as an excuse to underachieve. You are responsible for your own actions. Life hands you circumstances and how you respond is who you are.” Nathan’s audacity continues present day. It was evident to Ian Ellison from their first meeting at a trade show in 2004. At the time, Ellison, who has worked in the internet service industry for 19 years, was working for one of Nathan’s competitors. “What stuck out to me was that he was very ambitious,” says Ellison, now the chief
risks financially than most of our competitors, and we make big investments in the latest gear. We find people who are going to love doing what they are doing. Nathan always says, ‘If you don’t love your job, let me know so I can help you find a new one.’” According to experts, a tireless perseverance is not rare among dyslexics. Some of that drive comes from the obstacles they have had to overcome and some from the way a dyslexic brain is wired. According to Drs. Fernette and Brock Eide, two physicians who the run Eide Neurolearning Clinic outside of Seattle, Wa., dyslexics are able to predict future events with greater accuracy, and they also tend to be talented at articulating that vision in a narrative. “We interviewed people with dyslexia like Douglas Merril, the former CIO for Google and CEO of his own startup, ZestCash.com,” says Dr. Fernette Eide, who also co-wrote a book, “The Dyslexic Advantage” with her husband. “One of his major
“If you are willing to work hard, a weakness can be the driving factor to make you perform better... Maybe you are weak at finances or sales. Use it as your catalyst to work that much harder.” technology officer at Wisper ISP. Nathan hired Ellison as part of the acquisition of Papadocs in 2006. “He did not have a huge networking background, but he had a good business model. When he acquired Papadocs, he was buying out a company that was bigger than his. There is just not a lot of fear in his decision-making. Once he has something in mind, he pursues it.” Ellison reports that this kind of drive has become a key component of company culture at Wisper ISP and has helped the company to be competitive. “It is pedal to the metal 24/7,” he says. “We take more
strengths was being able to see what comes next. He sees clearly where he wants to go, and he relies heavily on his intuition.”
Nathan’s present day audacious vision is for Wisper ISP to become the industry standard against which other internet service providers are measured. And he faces some daunting odds. Larger telecommunications and cable companies are also competing for those customers, and they have large marketing budgets and scale. “We are not going to be the cheapest
solution, and we are not going to be the fastest,” he says. “But we have found that the large companies are good at alienating their customers, and the mom-and-pop internet service providers don’t have the business plan that we do. So we compete on customer service and a reliable network. Our goal is to create lifetime customers.” Most firms cite customer service as their ultimate aim and their key to success. However, Nathan takes service to an outrageous level. He once climbed an 80-foot tree and installed equipment to get a stronger signal for a customer. Also, the company invested in a fire truck with a 105 foot ladder to act as a temporary tower when severe weather knocks down equipment. To date, this philosophy has been a fruitful one for the company. Their customers have become the company’s raving fans and their referrals have kept business growing so rapidly that at times the crews can’t keep up. So, the company has not yet had to have dedicated sales people or even a concerted traditional marketing effort. All the growth has been as a result of creatively wow-ing their customers. One clear competitive advantage that Wisper has is this: Facing daunting odds and finding a way to work around them is old hat for Nathan. “When things are hard, I don’t roll over,” says Nathan. “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. School was hard. They told me there is no way I could have done what I did. So, I am comfortable when things are hard, there aren’t enough resources, and we try to do something that they say we can’t do.” While not every business owner may have the fortune to be dyslexic, most have some area of weakness. Some place where a humble admission and a call for help is necessary. “You don’t have to be the absolute best at everything,” says Nathan. “If you are willing to work hard, a weakness can be the driving factor to make you perform better. It forces you to work harder just to be above average. Maybe you are weak at finances or sales. Use it as your catalyst to work that much harder.”
The Dyslexic Advantage Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide's book, “The Dyslexic Advantage” is the culmination of years of research and experience with dyslexics. The husband and wife couple also operate the Eide Neurolearning Clinic. Here are some of the advantages that successful dyslexics have over their neurotypical colleagues: Problem solvers. Dyslexics have a strong sense that there is a better way to do things. Many tend to be real-world smart as opposed to book smart according to Dr. Fernette Eide. Intuitive people skills. “Many dyslexics can read people and have a sense of psychodyamics that is superior to neurotypical people,” says Dr. Fernette Eide. Driven. “Typically, they have had to overcome a lot to arrive at a place that they are successful,” says Dr. Fernette Eide. “They are used to having to find a better way.” Better able to predict future events. “Scientists that investigate memory say that discrete episodes can better simulate likely outcomes as opposed to a generalized memory,” says Dr. Brock Eide. “Dyslexics have strong personal memories and that contributes to an ability to simulate into the future.” Strong vision. Since a dyslexic's mind may be stronger visually, their visions for the future are vivid and well-defined. Great storytellers. Dyslexics can weave together a narrative and often can articulate their ideas in such a way that they can be retold. “If you combine the ability to perform mental experiments and cast out likely outcomes, with people skills and tendencies to rely on others, with a focus on the big picture, with someone that is driven who does not get bogged down, then that person, the dyslexic, has the characteristics that make for a successful entrepreneur,” says Dr. Brock Eide.
ST. LOUIS SMALL BUSINESS MONTHLY / july 2011 21
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How Nathan Stooke, CEO of Wisper ISP, turned his glaring weakness into his company’s greatest asset.