Embracing Entrepreneurship

Jon Horbaly BBA ’08 came to William & Mary as an undergraduate business student with a clear vision of his future. The plan was to graduate from the Raymond A. Mason School of Business with a degree in finance, gain a couple of years of professional work experience before attending business school, get a job at an investment bank, and eventually transition into a large company working his way up the corporate ladder.

“I was fortunate enough to get a job at KPMG in their Advisory practice after graduation,” Horbaly explained. “My very first day of work in 2008 was the day that Lehman Brothers announced they were going under. It was a very strenuous time with a lot of uncertainty but it turned out to be an opportunity to learn and I had been very well-prepared by William & Mary’s undergraduate business program to excel.”

His willingness to seize opportunities even if they were not in alignment with his perfectly crafted plan served Horbaly well both during his time at KPMG and throughout his subsequent career. Today, he serves as the CEO for Altitude Medical Inc., a fast-growing hand-hygiene medical product start-up company.

“Entrepreneurship just threw a wrench in all of my plans shortly after coming out of college,” he said. “I was always willing to take on any task that would push forward whichever organization I was working for and as a result, I’ve had experiences that I never would have dreamed could be possible because I had an open mind.”

Laying the foundation for finance

Horbaly’s interest in business began as a child. His father and grandfather encouraged him to read the finance section of the newspaper and Horbaly says he became enthralled with stock ticker symbols and prices. During his summer visits to his grandparents’ house in Ohio, he would spend each day reviewing the changes in stock prices with his grandfather.

“My father and grandfather helped me to invest in my first stock when I was eight-years-old,” he said. “That kind of got the ball rolling.”

As a teenager, Horbaly dabbled in entrepreneurial ventures, establishing his own lawnmowing business and working with an inventor to develop an innovative, two-piece polyurethane golf tee.

“I incorporated a company in the State of Delaware called The Great American Tee Company and I started selling golf tees as a 16-year-old. That was my first entrée into starting a business and I learned at a young age that I had to be tough and grow a spine because no one was looking to do me any favors,” he said. “That experience gave me a very early education in the realities of the business world.”

He arrived at William & Mary as a freshman in the undergraduate business program and was assigned Dr. Julie Agnew as his advisor. He says her support and mentorship solidified for him the decision to pursue a career in finance.

“One of the most fortunate things in my life is that she was my advisor,” he said. “She recognized things in me as an 18-year-old that I didn’t even see in myself. She could tell what my passions were and out of all the teachers I’ve had in my entire life, she was the most helpful and would bend over backwards to make sure I could get where I needed to go.”

Trained to persevere

Horbaly is clear that his experience at William & Mary wasn’t always easy. While he had Dr. Agnew’s support, he still had to meet the program’s high academic standards and accomplishing that proved challenging for him at first.

“I was able to maintain balance in high school. I got good grades and excelled in soccer and wrestling. I was able to make everything click. I got to William & Mary and it was like I ran into a brick wall,” he explained.

Horbaly found himself struggling that first semester and remembers specifically that one of his professors was giving him a hard time on his papers. So, he sought help from one of his dormmates when it came time to complete the next assignment and he said that the process of watching him edit that paper was grueling.

“My friend sliced that paper apart. I do well with constructive criticism however I almost regretted sitting down with him,” Horbaly explained. “But I learned so much from him and from that moment. William & Mary offers you the opportunity to surround yourself with really intelligent students who are willing to help. I ended up getting an A+ on the paper.”

After graduation, Horbaly excitedly entered the business world ambitious and ready to advise his Wall Street clients on asset management, valuation, and corporate finance matters but the environment quickly destabilized due to the 2008 recession. Determined to succeed, he found creative ways – like networking with colleagues by the watercooler – to find projects and to make himself indispensable.

His efforts worked. By taking a proactive approach, he not only was one of the busiest junior associates in his department but also he was noticeably outperforming his peers. It’s a lesson he hopes other young professionals will learn from and apply to their own careers and jobs to accelerate their success.

“By the time I left for business school a few years later, I was one of the most well-rounded people in the office because I had introduced myself to everyone and made myself appear available to help with any projects they had,” he said. “I don’t think I would have had that get up and go attitude without William & Mary because they taught me to roll up my sleeves and get work done and to be a business generalist who understands how departmental relationships encourage flow between all of the areas of a business.”

Pivoting to entrepreneurship

Horbaly jumped at an opportunity to go overseas to Oxford University for business school. Though he was the youngest in his class, he ran tutoring sessions for upwards of 30 students seeking help with their finance and accounting courses. He played on three soccer teams competing all across Europe in between his studies and graduated in the top ten percent of his class.

“There’s no way I would have had the confidence to believe that I could accomplish all of that without having the experience of a William & Mary education. I was clearly more prepared for business school than the majority of my colleagues,” he said.

While living in Oxford, Horbaly attended an Oxford University networking event where he serendipitously met an alumnus who was explaining his frustrations with a corroded boiler in his home to an Oxford professor. This professor happened to be the national advisor of nanotechnology to Great Britain’s Parliament.

“I turned to the professor and asked him if it were possible to use nanocoatings to prevent the boiler from breaking down and he responded that in theory ‘Yes’,” Horbaly explained.

With that an entrepreneurial venture was born. With the proper support and advisement, Horbaly drafted a business plan, won a competition, and applied for and received over £500K in funding grants including £45,000 from the European Space Agency which came with office space in a business incubation center outside of Oxford at the European Space Agency’s campus.

“We were written up in the Financial Times, started meeting with investors, and surpassed our target valuation right out of the gate. We hired employees, set up a chemistry lab to research and invent a way to prevent corrosion and improve heat transfer in boilers using nanotechnology, and Oxford nanoSystems took off,” he said. A few months later, the company found itself on the cover of the European Space Agency’s website!

In 2014, Horbaly was looking to move back to the United States. It was while playing basketball with some fellow entrepreneurs when he heard about another Oxford start-up called Altitude Medical which was inventing door handles with hand sanitizer dispensing capabilities built into them. They were looking for someone to come on board, help bring the idea into real life, and to move the business to its next phase. So they pitched the idea to Horbaly.

“It was the right opportunity at the right time. I was able to learn everything about the company from the ground floor and while we’re a small business, we’ve experienced a lot of growth over the last seven years,” he said. “Some of our clients include the biggest name brands in the hotel and restaurant industry.”

A servant leader

Now in the role of CEO of Altitude Medical, Horbaly sees himself as a leader who prioritizes the well-being of his business partners and employees. He says the key to his success has been cultivating meaningful relationships with customers, suppliers, and staff and genuinely caring about people’s lives, families, and backgrounds.

“The thing about entrepreneurship is that while you may have an idea on your own or with a small group of people, to get that business started you inevitably can’t do everything by yourself. You have to rely on a larger group for support,” he said. “When you take on employees, you take on a responsibility to provide a livelihood for the people who are quite frankly spending a short portion of their time on earth pushing your vision forward.”

Though his career didn’t pan out how he initially envisioned it would as a freshman at William & Mary, Horbaly says he has no regrets.

“My advice to young business students is to be open to any and all opportunities because you never know where it’s going to lead you,” he said. “I thought I was on the finance track and my passion for finance served me extremely well. But by broadening my view and using the business generalist knowledge I acquired at William & Mary, I was able to pivot in a different direction, travel all over the world meeting a lot of interesting people, and open doors to opportunities I would never have otherwise had.”