Richard Sweat, Founder and CEO of .decimal, went from working as a low level "gopher" at Orlando Regional Medical Center to using a Hotwire foam cutting machine on his apartment balcony to cut Styrofoam molds to running a company that, as of April 2018, has manufactured nearly 350,000 medical devices and served over 65,000 radiation and oncology patients throughout the country. As you can imagine, a story like that has many ups and downs and offers us a glimpse into the life of a tried and true entrepreneur. Sweat took us back to the beginning and graciously shared his journey with a sense of excitement that can only come from someone that's been in the trenches and survived to tell the tale.
"My first job out of high school was with ORMC in the radiation and oncology department," he said. "At the time, I didn't even know what radiation oncology was. I basically ran errands and did random jobs. I worked my way up to Dosimetrist in Training. I learned how to calculate radiation dosages and learned about radiation oncology treatment machines and equipment. I eventually moved down to Boca Raton to accept a similar position at Boca Raton Regional Hospital."
Sweat continued, "They sent me through training. I continued to learn, but I was also a starving student. To have some additional income, I started making devices for radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is not too hard to understand, you basically needed to position your patient carefully, and know the intensity of the radiation gun. I made jigs and fixtures to help optimize that process. A consumable used in radiation therapy was a high density Styrofoam. People in the industry used this Styrofoam to create molds to stencil the radiation beam onto the patient. In the beginning I started selling these Styrofoam blocks to hospital across the country. I cut them on my apartment balcony (3rd floor) and would then ship them to customers. I can’t even begin to think what the neighbors thought.”
Sweat sold his jigs, fixtures and molds to various hospitals and providers around Boca Raton and along the way, learned even more about the industry. He eventually moved back to Central Florida to marry his wife and began to explore opportunities to make and sell more products. "A big obstacle early on was that the manufacturer out of Coral Springs was having trouble keeping up," Sweat said. "They weren't a machine shop and other machine shops we worked with were taking too long to get us what we needed. It was pretty clear what I had to do. I had to do it myself and teach myself how to use the milling machines. I rented some space in downtown Orlando from an accountant that had a huge machine shop in the back of his building. I worked with a friend to learn about running the machines.”
Eventually, he had to find a new location. He bought his own milling machine and rented a small space near South Seminole Hospital. One machine quickly turned into 5 machines along with the need for more space. This time he bought his own building and continued to expand his production capabilities. "The early days were pretty brutal," Sweat said. One particular banker even asked me how we stayed afloat. It was grinding and involved many late nights. Fortunately, I was tenacious enough to hang in there and not quit. I had three young kids at the time. I had to figure it out." The mid 1990s got particularly tough. This is when Sweat came up with the idea of an Internet-based manufacturing process.
"A customer in South Carolina was making custom radiation filters with their own milling machine and asked if we could do it for them when their machine broke," Sweat said. "I said 'sure, send me the files'. That's when it hit me. Why can't we automate this process and do this for other customers?" This automated manufacturing process allowed .decimal to get most their products back out the same day. To date, they've patented the technology and design around 6 different types of patient-specific devices and now operate 35 different milling machines. Thanks to some additional capacity, they've even built out the machine shop part of their business.
Remaining in business for over 32 years doesn't happen by accident. We asked Sweat to what does he attribute the success and the longevity of the business to. "I'm surrounded by really smart people that do some incredible things," he said. "For these people, they're able to see the end before most of us can. I'm not that smart, but I'm very adaptive and flexible. When the bullets start flying, I've learned to be nimble and open to new opportunities. You can't be confined by preconceived notions. I've developed some very good intuitive skills, but I also rely on very smart people on our team." Sweat is also a firm believer in scorecards as a way to create dialogue, improve communication and as an objective measuring tool. He wants employees to be accountable for their actions, to think on their own and to constantly assess their goals. To that end, he gives his managers autonomy, but ultimately holds them accountable to their scorecards.
According to Sweat, over the next 30 years, .decimal will continue to provide innovative and creative solutions to help cancer patients. They'll continue with more spin-offs and new products. Some of these spinoff products are positioned for possible acquisition by larger companies.
Aside from the aforementioned advice on being flexible and utilizing scorecards, Sweat offers up some more great advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. "Be prepared," he said. "When I talk to business students about entrepreneurship, I like to show them a slide that has a picture of a grimacing bull rider at a rodeo. Some people thrive on that challenge, but the real journey is not 8 seconds. Once you're on that bull, you better hang on with all you’ve got, be in it for the long haul and be prepared to make some mistakes. It doesn't matter if you own a small shop or a Fortune 500 company, you're going to have difficult things to deal with and you need to have a passion for what you do. It's also important to know that, as an entrepreneur, you can't control everything." Sweat also recommends the teachings of Dr. Tina Seelig, a Professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. “She teaches a class on Creativity and that is certainly something you need in order to be a successful entrepreneur.”