Cache Valley businessman and USU alumnus Scott Watterson remembers what it was like to operate a business out of his home with his mother answering the phone.
More than 40 years after he co-founded a clocks and wood-burning stove business, he stands proud as the president of ICON Health and Fitness, a Logan-based seller and manufacturer of treadmills and other fitness equipment worldwide. ICON has become one of Cache Valley’s biggest companies, competing in a multitrillion-dollar industry.
“Certainly, the road has been paved with many, many failures,” Watterson told attendees of the Huntsman Venture Forum at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business on Friday, March 29. “You need to learn how to get up — that’s the important lesson about the failure, is getting up again and again and again.”
Watterson’s talk was the keynote address to close out the second annual conference, designed to help businesses “launch, grow and expand,” according information provided by the Huntsman School.
In citing the reasons for choosing Watterson as a keynote speaker, Dave Patel, an associate dean for the Huntsman School, noted the ICON Health and Fitness co-founder is “entrepreneur at heart” who is engaged in his community.
“I hope the audience will be inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit that built a global business from Logan, Utah, and be informed about the realities of creating and building a sustainable venture,” Patel wrote in an email to the newspaper.
Watterson, a 1979 graduate of USU, told The Herald Journal that the students who attend the Huntsman Venture Forum were the primary motivator in getting him to speak at the university last week.
“I think it’s really a privilege to be able to be involved with young, single adults that are going to be shaping the world that we live in,” he said.
WATTERSON’S BUSINESS APPROACH
“Critical optimism” was the phrase Watterson centered his talk around. He began by telling the audience what it is not: “Fake bravado” or ignoring facts, among them.
Instead, critical optimism is “the ability to bring … to light the problem and then create the solution,” Watterson said.
He likened such a business philosophy to taking a magnifying glass and using sunlight to kill an ant.
“It’s really quite an experiment, where you can harness the light of the sun into one spot and create all kinds of energy — that’s critical optimism,” Watterson said. “It’s taking the focus necessary to recognize the state of play, to acknowledge where you are in business … and then do something about it.”
Watterson continued: “Bring to light to that adjusting magnifying glass all the energy of your soul,” Watterson said. “Because inside of you is an entrepreneur; inside of each of us is an optimist. Really, we all have hope.”
Sometimes, failures “get in the way” and “we hide that optimism,” the ICON co-founder said.
“Entrepreneurs overcome that and they get up again and again,” Watterson said.
Optimism, it turns out, extends to the consumers of the fitness industry, he said.
“What if they had a pessimistic view? What if they saw a treadmill as a way to increase heart disease … what if they saw it as fake? We wouldn’t have a business,” Watterson said. “It’s the ability to then take that energy and that hope — is another terminology for optimism — and translate it into something that provides a good or service to a person that has hope.”
During this talk, Watterson also trumpeted ICON’s successes, including boosting the sales of the Altra running shoe brand before selling it last year to the North Carolina-based VF Corporation. But he’s also been working to change the way ICON offers products to its customers.
“The hardest thing I’ve done in my business career is to change the business that has been so successful in the last couple decades and pivoting it into a subscription-model business,” Watterson said, referring to the fact that customers can subscribe to interactive training. “Being able to find intercompany entrepreneurs that are able to take an idea and make a difference and see where it was going.”
To achieve that subscriber-based model, Watterson said ICON used a critically optimistic approach to business.
“We identify the opportunity, we take a realistic view of … what we’re doing and ... and then we go out and we try and avoid every failure we know how,” he said. “Failure is not a thing you want, but it is a necessary evil to have.”
REACTION TO SPEECH
Aside from USU officials and experienced entrepreneurs, some young, budding businessmen and women were among the attendees of the Huntsman Venture Forum last Friday.
They included Danny Noall, the founder of Infuze Hydration, which makes a flavoring system for hydration packs used outdoors. Watterson was so impressed with the Infuze product, given to him by Noall before his talk, that he held it up and spoke about it during the Huntsman Venture Forum.
“We felt pretty grateful for the vote of confidence. We knew we had a great product, but to get that kind of recognition, especially coming from an industry expert like (Watterson) is the best kind of compliment we could have received,” Noall wrote in an email to The Herald Journal after the event.
Noall felt Watterson’s talk about critical optimism was worth hearing, noting it took four and a half years to develop the Infuze product before taking it to market.
“We definitely had to have a critical view of the obstacles in our way, but it was never an option to give up,” Noall wrote. “Going forward I think that (critical optimism) will become one of the attributes that we will require for anyone on the Infuze team.”
Another young entrepreneur who heard Watterson speak at the Huntsman Venture Forum was Nate Ruben, who developed a “smart” baby monitor for parents to keep track of their infants’ vital signs.
Ruben said he knows several people who work at ICON and that was one of the reasons he wanted to hear Watterson.
“He’s been a powerhouse for economic growth in the community,” Ruben said. “An entrepreneur who’s been through the ring of fire, so to speak. Right now, I’m in the throes of it, so I wanted to hear from someone who has been where I want to go.”
Ruben called his own business pursuits “exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.”
Watterson’s talk “spoke directly to me,” he said.
“We have had setback after setback in lots of ways,” Ruben said. “But very successful times, too. I keep forgetting that I need to celebrate that highlight reel.”
Ruben’s latter comment referred to a comment Watterson made during his talk about taking time to reflect on business accomplishments.
But Ruben will never forget the need for critical optimism.
“I do describe myself as an optimist. I always bounce back from setbacks,” he said.