Growing up in Long Island, NY, Dr. Russ Barnes, Founder and CEO of Systro Solutions, was one of eight kids. His father was a truck driver and encouraged all of his children to pursue higher education. After watching his two older brothers go off to college, it was Barnes' turn. Searching for a way to cover the cost, he found his answer with a four-year ROTC scholarship at Manhattan College. After earning his Bachelor's Degree, Barnes joined the Air Force in May 1982 and went straight into navigation training. The next 27 years in the military, and the acquired skills and knowledge, would lay the foundation for an entrepreneurial career and a business designed to help other entrepreneurs.
"I worked as a radar navigator on B52 bombers for 11 years," Barnes said. "After that, I worked for 16 years in progressively higher leadership positions at Air Combat Command Headquarters, US Strategic Command, The Pentagon, US European Command and US Central Command, just to name a few. What kept me engaged with the military was the training and leadership opportunities. I flew combat missions during Desert Storm and I recall thinking how the Red Flag training exercises were incredibly accurate compared to the real deal. The training and how well we were prepared for combat really stood out to me. It was incredible."
Barnes learned that a leader doesn't have to be a functional expert. Leadership comes down to vision and surrounding yourself with people that are functional experts. By the time he retired in December 2009, Barnes was ready to take his knowledge, experience, leadership abilities and multiple skill sets and apply them toward something he always had a passion for.
"When I was a kid, I always had that entrepreneurial spirit," he said. "Even as early as the third grade, I remember wanting to control my ability to make money. A year before retirement, I started to look around at what was available. I initially thought about building something that interfaced with government contractors, but after taking some courses and doing additional research, I realized it was something I wasn't prepared for. That's when I switched gears and found a franchise territory to buy into. It was a leather restoration and vinyl repair franchise. At the time, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to 'test out' being an entrepreneur. After speaking with other franchisees and learning about the CEOs optimistic goal to grow from 200 to 800 franchisees, I was all in."
Even though Barnes was able to turn a profit, the opportunity was not the right fit. The skills required to build a strong and lasting franchise were more artistic than analytical. According to Barnes, leather and vinyl repairs are never perfect and, as someone who constantly strives toward perfection, the imperfect nature of his work left him frustrated and unfulfilled.
"Before I sold the business in 2012, I took notice of other franchisees and business owners who also struggled with various facets of running a business," he said. "I was in BNI, so I was always around business owners and knew about their challenges. Helping them became my new focus. Because of my military background, I was strong in areas such as, organizational structure, frameworks, processes and systems. I found that most business owners didn't want to deal with those things. They wanted to be more creative and spontaneous. My thought was, 'how do I get them to employ the necessary processes and frameworks?' That's when I came up with the concept of 'Structures Without Restrictions'. This method provides business owners with a framework, but also gives them room to exercise their creativity."
After three years of assisting individuals and accumulating various models with good results, Barnes officially formed Systro Solutions. He was intent on applying the things he learned in the military and as a franchisee to help other people. He was also excited to take the often complex models of organization, structure and strategy and translate those to benefit smaller companies. This was also around the time when Barnes started his PHD program in Organizational Development from Benedictine University. One of the requirements was to be employed in the field of Organizational Development, which Barnes accomplished by launching Systro Solutions.
As Barnes shared, growth was slow in the beginning, but, through a combination of utilizing local resources and hard work, the business picked up steam and began to grow. "The biggest challenge at first was simply getting people to understand what I was trying to do," he said. "I'm in the business of helping the micro-business owners become purposely and intentionally profitable. Unfortunately, in most cases, profit takes time. Along the way, I came across a term called, 'Entrepreneurial Poverty', in a book called Profit First. I immediately recognized that helping business owners solve this problem would also have an economic impact on the community. This quickly became my passion and I created additional models around this concept."
"In terms of resources, I was fortunate to meet Dan Mitchell and learn about the Pasco EDC CO.STARTERS Program. I became certified in CO.STARTERS through an entrepreneurial support organization called Action Zone. I served as a business advisor with Action Zone and as a co-facilitator for the CO.STARTERS course. I also got involved with the West Pasco Entrepreneur Center and now have a space there. The resources in the local community have been tremendous."
Looking ahead, Barnes is working on an online course and would eventually like to find a way to automate more of what he's doing. His long-term goal is to help 600,000 small business owners become profitable. He's proceeding in a very purposeful and intentional way to maximize the number of people he reaches with the ultimate intent of having a positive impact on the economic development of local communities. Barnes would also love to open a small business "laboratory" to allow entrepreneurs to improve their skills, talents, and to be able to play and interact with games and experiences designed to make them better business owners.
What advice does Barnes have for aspiring entrepreneurs? "You have to love what you do," he said. "It's important to identify your talent. Go back to when you were 10 years old and think about what you loved to do. Now find a way to solve a painful and urgent problem using your natural talents, skills and experiences in such a way that people are willing to pay for a solution. When a lot of business owners go into business, they're trying to solve their own personal problems. If that's the case, it's difficult to make good money. It wasn't until I realized the pain of other people struggling with the condition of entrepreneurial poverty that I became focused on solving problems other than my own. One of the reasons I'm so passionate about rapid revenue solutions is because I don't want to increase my client's money worries while helping to solve their money problems. It's about getting them relaxed. Once they're no longer under pressure to pay the bills their creativity takes hold."