MASTERMIND: Rich Sheridan

Rich Sheridan has always had big dreams. He grew up in Clinton Township near Mount Clemens where his first brush with entrepreneurship came the way it comes to many eleven year-old boys, delivering newspapers. As he grew up and entered the high-tech marketplace, Sheridan discovered he still had the will to make his big dreams come true, if in slightly altered form. As a boy, he wanted to be an airline pilot. As an adult, he earned a private pilot's license. He hasn't found the way to achieve his dream of building the Starship Enterprise – yet.

Sheridan is a definitive geek. Technology obsessed, jargon-spouting, he's the leader of a pack of equally geeky software developers at his Kerrytown technology company, Menlo Innovations LLC. His titles, President, CEO, and co-founder, are conventional. The rest of the establishment is not.

Tall, athletic and quick-moving, he casts a big shadow, but not as big as his hero, Thomas Edison. Menlo Innovations is named for Edison's New Jersey laboratory, now at The Henry Ford in Dearborn.

"My parents were a great inspiration. They were both fascinated by what I did. My dad worked in purchasing at the GM Tech Center (in Warren.) Mom was a homemaker," Sheridan explains. "Dad couldn't afford to take us traveling, so he would bring the world home. We would sit around the dinner table with people from all over the world. He was also a gadget guy."

Sheridan blames voracious reading for his many and varied interests. "My dad used to read books to me. I read to my kids. Books are the love of my life. I'm always in books," he says.

Sheridan remembers the spirit and energy he felt on childhood visits to the Edison lab at Greenfield Village. His goal has been to foster that same spirit in his own enterprises – in his words, "to save the world and end human suffering as it relates to technology."

His speech on the stupid design pandemic was a highlight of last October's TedXDetroit technology conference. The gist – that user error (human suffering) is usually due to poor design – resonated with the audience. "I have a passion for [public] speaking. On-going personal energy is rare. I'm aware of that and I appreciate it. I thrive on meeting people, hearing their ideas, how they plan to change the world," Sheridan says.

Can Michigan change the world?

"Yes – of course. We did," he points out. "Right now, we're missing the collective will to do it again. We fell into a thing where they took care of us. We can be a very vibrant part of the economy again."

Sheridan was an early adopter of technology, starting in ninth grade. It was 1971 and his computer science class had a dial-up connection that was slower than maple syrup straight out of the fridge.
His first paying tech job was for Macomb Intermediate School District developing their email system. At $3 an hour, he earned 50% more than at his former dishwashing gig at Big Boy. He stayed there for more than three years, postponing college for the "pure joy" of the job.  "I couldn't believe I got paid," he recalls.

At the University of Michigan, he earned a bachelor's degree in computer science and a masters in computer science engineering, completing his studies in 1982. From work for pioneering Ann Arbor computer company, MDSI, he progressed to Winterhalter, Inc., which was bought out by Interface Solutions. By 1999, he was vice president of software development and joyless.

"I was no longer satisfied with the results of the work and my team. The whole industry didn't pay attention to customer needs. Technology didn't serve business needs," he says. A total immersion in business books and seminal websites led him to a new approach to software.

It was going well. Then came the dotcom crash. "I'd had a big paycheck, lots of stock options, a guaranteed future, great retirement – when suddenly the whole industry was gone. I was 44 years old. It was 2001. For the first time in my life, I was out of work," Sheridan says.

The economy was messed up. The technology industry was in shambles. "I decided this was the time to open a business," he says.

"As I read books on Edison, I was astonished by the parallels [to my situation]: The environment, the energy, the desire to work in a space like this. People want to work where there's enthusiasm."

"Thomas Edison had so many interests," he says of his hero. "I'm interested in so many different things – trains, for example. I'm fascinated with everything that's going on in the community. I love being in contact with students."

Since his decision to start a business 10 years ago, the joy is back for Sheridan. "We encourage big-idea thinkers. We have a pretty bold vision – to fix our industry," he says. And that renewed enthusiasm has been infectious, landing him in partnerships and local speaking gigs.

"One of the things I'm best known for is coffee conversations," he boasts. "This morning, I talked to Chuck Newman about the Israel business bridge – how to foster more interplay between our educational institutions, foundation research." Newman is the founder and chairman of ReCellular Inc. and launched Michigan Israel Business Bridge to promote economic development between the Midwest and the Middle East.

Does he maintain any kind of private life?

"My youngest would say 'no,' " Sheridan confesses. "I'm very busy – one of the fortunate few who love their work. My work and personal life blur."  Sheridan's wife, Carol, works at Menlo. He has three daughters: 25, 23 and 21. The oldest is a project manager with the company.  "She's just thriving. My wife started as a high-tech anthropologist (a position exclusive to Menlo Innovations) and is now factory floor manager. She enjoys it – it's fun for her. We've been married for more than 30 years. We're both astonished," Sheridan says. Their middle daughter helped get the Menlo Innovations Chicago office started. Their youngest is still at home.

Sheridan has no trouble relating to the young people who make up most of Menlo Innovation's 40-strong staff.  "As a youngster, I played guitar – still do. I do like keeping up with trends. My three daughters share their music with me. For me – I never feel old. Technology promises change. I have my iPhone, my Kindle. It all gives ever-more access," he says.

Needless to say, he enjoys new sci-fi movies, as well as classic films. "The Matrix is a phenomenal movie for me – mainly for the dialog. I'm also a golfer and a skier. I like playful applications of physics (also speed and adrenalin.) I love golf venues. You're never done learning the game," he notes.

Most of all, he embraces the opportunity to learn.

"We're racing away from knowledge. There's so much more to learn today than 40 years ago," he says. "I'm just plain old ordinary curious."

To watch Rich's talk at TEDxDetroit click on the YouTube video below.



Constance Crump has an uncanny sense of timing. She is an Ann Arbor writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine. Her previous article was Ann Arbor's Beagle Brain Gain.

All Photos by Dave Lewinski


Photos:

Richard Sheridan-Menlo President, CEO and Co-Founder

Unisex and Handicap Accessible

Richard Sheridan's On Target

That's a Lot of Post-Its

Rich Made his Own Wall of Fame

All Photos Taken at Menlo's HQ






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