J.R. Smith is the CEO of AVG, which offers antivirus solutions through a freemium model. Prior to joining AVG, Smith served as chief executive officer of United Kingdom-based Dot Mobile Limited, a mobile virtual network operator he cofounded in 2005 and that partnered with Vodafone Group Plc to provide mobile services to students in the United Kingdom. His first European venture was TelecomSolutions Group, Inc., a pan-European network deployment and telecommunications software development company he founded in 1997. Clients included Vodafone, Nextel, T-Mobile, Telefonica, Nokia, and Ericsson. Smith began his career with PNC, which evolved to become the publicly listed VoiceStream Wireless Corporation, later acquired by T-Mobile USA, Inc.
Sramana: J.R., let’s go back to the beginning of your personal story. Where do you come from? What were the precursors to your entrepreneurial story?
J.R. Smith: I was born in Olympia, Washington. I grew up in a normal family in the countryside. While I was in college, I became a DJ. I studied hotel and restaurant administration at Washington State University. That is a business degree with an emphasis on hospitality and human resources. My first job after college was working at a restaurant and being a DJ. I was a club DJ, and that is where I started getting introduced to the entrepreneurial outlook and view.
I was living outside of Seattle. This was during the Nirvana and grunge years. There was a lot of activity and excitement in Seattle. I had three roommates, one of whom was a talent scout for Sony music. We were all musically oriented. I would basically take over clubs for the night, I would do promotions, spin records, create the atmosphere, and bring in DJs from all over the world. That evolved into renting warehouses and throwing bigger parties. Those eventually evolved into festivals and things. It turned into a real business that required fire permits, police permits, and an incorporated business. These were parties for 13,000 people. That was when I got my first taste of working for myself. This went from 1990 to 1995.
Sramana: It sounds like an incredibly cool and fun period of your life.
J.R. Smith: It was incredible. It was very competitive, and you had to be young and energetic. I have always looked back at my life and felt that I have lived a very charmed life. There is always a bit of timing and luck in everything you do. There is hard work and putting yourself in the right place at the right time as well as having the right skills, but there is definitely an element of luck and timing.
Sramana: Any major success requires a degree of serendipity. What happened in 1995?
J.R. Smith: I was starting to fade from the DJ scene. I went to work part time at a law firm because I was still trying to decide if I wanted to get my masters degree or go to law school. One of the partners took a liking to me and he left shortly thereafter and went to Pacific Northwest Cellular. He brought me along with him. It was a company that was founded by John Stanton to be a mobile business focused on rural areas. He merged with General Cellular, which evolved into VoiceStream. I worked in engineering, legal, and deployment. It was the Wild West of cellular. It was very fun and dynamic. A lot of my style and management skills came from that time. You should worry less about process and give people the freedom and responsibility to be successful. You have to trust that they will come back to you when they have difficulties. That is the profile of what I look for today. That is a super simple way to look at it, but that is still the way I think today.