The Eternal Entrepreneur: A Conversation with Mike Burns

Some of the most intriguing facts in the life story of Mike Burns are the things most people don't know about him.

The long-time Ann Arbor resident is best known for developing the HandeHolder, a tablet computer accessory that makes things like the iPad easier to hold onto and use. Before that he started Burns Computer Services, which has pioneered integrating technology into recreational running.

"We were the first to do online registration," Burns says. "We had a phone service where runners could get their results over the telephone. A couple years ago when the iPad came out I had a company make an app for me that gave runners their results. We did a lot of innovations in the running industry."

What you don't know about the 58-year-old OT (Original Techie) would throw you for a loop again and again.

Burns got into computers because he wanted to join NASA to become a pilot and astronaut. Unfortunately, when he graduated in the 1970s, the Apollo missions were coming to an end with little in space travel on the horizon. "At that point I turned to computers to see if there was any future in that," Burns says.

He did become a pilot. He now flies P-51 Mustangs (the World War II fighter planes) in his spare time. He's part of a group of people who simulate dog fights with these planes.

"It's just an absolute kick. It's awesome," Burns says. "It flies inverted just as well as it does upright."

Burns wears a pair of U.S. Army Airborne jump wings given to him by the late Leonard Wallach, a brigadier general who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Burns describes Wallach as a "bona fide hero" who won every medal except the Medal of Honor, and is one of his best friends.

"He pinned these on me and said, 'I am making you honorary Airborne because you're the type of guy I would want to have my back in a fight,'" Burns says. "It's something that I wear in his honor."

Burns made a conscious decision to make the HandeHolder an entirely Made in the U.S.A. product, and all but one of its components is Michigan-made. It cost his company significant profit margins, and even prompted a potential distributor to call him stupid. That got Burns a little angry. He strongly believes that staying local means the local business climate stays strong.

"We aren't using him as a distributor," Burns says.

Burns recently invited Concentrate's Jon Zemke to his office on Ann Arbor's west side to talk about the HandeHolder, the next big thing in running, and why entrepreneurship isn't just a young man's game.

The HandeHolder is a great product for everyday tablet use, but getting traction for it as a national product has been challenging at times. What would you tell people who think they have the next great consumer product?

It's a pretty stiff learning curve. We thought it would go viral pretty easily but there are a lot of other things out there. We had to engage people who would be our marketers and distributors, and that process has been painfully slow.

The HandeHolder is an almost entirely made-in-Michigan product. Why is making sure everything is locally sourced a better business decision than choosing the lowest cost option regardless of geography?

I really believe that we can help each other by doing our business with other businesses in the state. If everybody does a little something it will help everybody out. That's truly the reason I am doing it.

There have been a growing number of local small businesses that are focused on in-sourcing as much of their business as possible. A lot of this has been because local businesses are trying to rally around each other in tough times. Do you think this trend will tail off as the economy improves?

When the economy improves, and I believe it will, people will sit back and realize working with the other businesses is what kept them going and allowed them to make it through. We will continue to work with Michigan companies.

How difficult is it for you to find the seed capital you need for your business?

I have been personally financing HandeHolder. We're at a point of making revenues and expanding. I am looking at it as an investment in my people and my company. I'll get everything I put into it.

Have you hit the net-revenue positive inflection point yet?

We're right on the cusp of it.

You doodle a lot of your product designs when they come to mind. Should all entrepreneurs keep a small notebook on hand to capture their ideas?

I never really thought about it that much because it's something I have always done. Everybody is different. The only thing I would advise people to do is be willing to look at things around them in different ways. Keep an open mind.

It's often said that entrepreneurship is a young man's game. What do you think about that cliché?

Maybe in a way, but maybe not. If you're real young you may have a lot of the energy you wouldn't have when you're as old as I am, but you may not have the experience. Experience isn't always what's it's cracked up to be. Sometimes it will hold you back. I have always been a little bit of an adrenaline junkie.

Burns Computer Services has made its money by applying the latest technology to running races. What's the next big technology that runners can expect to see at their next 5K or marathon?

Everybody has the RFID tags that track them. Where there will be some really interesting things coming in the future, there has been such an improvement in small components dealing with accelerameters using Blue-tooth-like devices. You could have tiny little attachments to your shoes or any part of your body. You could actually see and track the length of someone's stride, their strides per minute.

For training, this would be awesome for coaches. You can see when they're in the zone and what is the optimum stride. If someone is getting fatigued, you will be able to see it minutely. You could also zoom in and see if they're training fatigued. It all feeds up to a cloud. The leap it would take, allowing people to track how they train, would be off the charts. HandeHolder has taken up a lot of time, but that is something I would like to pursue, too.

Jon Zemke is the Innovation and Jobs News Editor for Concentrate. He is also the Managing Editor of SEMichiganStartup.com. He conducted and condensed this interview. His last feature for Concentrate was Double Time: A Conversation with Vince Chmielewski

 

All photos by Doug Coombe

 Photos:
Mike Burns demonstrating the Hand-e-holder
The Hand-e-holder as an iPad stand
The Hand-e-holder with the over the shoulder carrier
Mike with some of the Hand-e-holder iPad stands
The Hand-e-holder turns an iPad into an overhead projector
Mike with the Hand-e-holder leg strap
Mike with the Hand-e-holder iPad holster
Mike with a model of a P-51 Mustang

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