A self-described serial entrepreneur, Ryan Whitaker started his first company in high school. Now 32, Whitaker moved directly from Baylor University to the ground floor of an Oklahoma City startup tech company a decade ago. Whitaker and two partners founded Element Fusion in a 100-square-foot office after drawing plans for the Web site design company over a pizza. Over the years, the company’s focus has evolved from Web sites to custom application development and finally into Web-based products, which now provide the lion’s share of the business’ revenue. And the company now occupies a much larger, more elegant northwest Oklahoma City office. Whitaker’s varied interests — from power lifting to photography — reflect his beliefs in determination and creativity. His single-mindedness has allowed him to help direct his firm’s changing model. "I’m very, very focused about what I do here,” he said. Whitaker sat down last week with The Oklahoman to discuss his business, his motivation and his outlook. This is an edited version of that conversation. Q: Do you consider yourself to be a success? A: I do. That’s validated somewhat by the awards we’ve gotten over the past four years. The fact that we’ve been debt-free from the beginning I think is a successful thing. We’ve been profitable from day one. That’s one thing that a lot of up-and-coming tech companies can’t say because a popular idea among tech companies now, especially among ones that are starting up, is that they want to get popular and then years down the road develop a business model that makes them money. Our approach from the very beginning has been to make money. ... Even with all that, we don’t have any outside investors. The company is split evenly between me and Justin Cowan, and with that we have complete creative control over what happens with the company and that gives us the ability to change quickly and it also enables our ideas and vision to not become diluted by what a potential investor could do. Q: What’s the most fun you had? A: The most fun I’ve had recently was when I took my oldest boy, Owen, who’s 4, out to the country and shot a bow and arrow together. That was, for some reason, a life-changing day for me. It’s like I fully understood how much my dad loved me, and then just how much I love spending time with my boys. It was just an incredible experience. Q: Do you have any minor vices? A: I struggle a lot with people who don’t have the same drive or determination or productivity that I have. I’m really big on productivity. It’s disappointing when people kind of fall short of their full potential. That’s something that you do with at any workplace. When you’re the manager of people who aren’t living up to their full potential, you want to do everything in your power to get them up to that level of potential. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s disappointing when it doesn’t work. Q: Do you have a pet peeve, some little thing that just irks you? A: The lack of acknowledgement in people of how good they have it in the world right now. ... It really does kind of bother me how much people don’t understand how good they have it. They don’t understand the things that have been given to them. Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? A: I see myself still with Element Fusion. I have no plans to ever change course from this. I love what I do here. It’s an amazing blessing to be able to say that you love what you do, and I love what I do here. I love the people that work here. I love the products that we’re building together. I love seeing other people, like our 100,000-person user base, using the things that we’re creating. I love seeing it helping so many people. It’s really, really satisfying. Q: Do you read much? A: To be honest, I don’t read a lot beyond the Internet. Not that I don’t think it’s valuable. I do read about five or six books a year. The reason behind that is I have a piece of advice that I gave to myself four years ago after dealing with the effects of information glut in my life — information coming from so many different sources that I felt like I was being inundated. It was at that point in 2006 that I said to myself: From this point forward, I am going to create more than I consume. Watching television or watching movies, I can’t remember a single beneficial thing that’s come from my time doing that. It feels to me like a waste of life when I could be creating something or helping somebody.
• Position: Co-owner, chief technology officer at Element Fusion.
• Age: 32
• Family: Wife, Lindsey, and three boys, Owen, Alec, and Chase.
• Education: Computer science degree from Baylor University.
• Hobbies: Photography, power lifting.
• Most extravagant purchase: Pickup with top-of-the-line off-road equipment.
• Next company product: "That’s top secret.”
• Quote: "I like the idea of giving back to the community. It’s the community that ultimately gave us what we have.”