Jim Phillips celebrates 40 years in the electrical industry. As a pioneer in the training industry, read how Jim began the company Brainfiller on the traditional back of the envelope as he travels down memory lane. This interview was originally published in Voyage Phoenix magazine and has been updated here.
Voyage Phoenix: Jim, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
Jim Phillips: The old Grateful Dead lyrics “What a long strange trip it’s been” is very appropriate for our story. To begin with, Branfiller.com is the brand that represents me personally and the training programs and products that I develop as well as forensics/expert witness services.
Our story begins as many other startups. Scribbles on an the back of an envelope and thoughts of filling a need. In the early 1980’s when I had “a real job” my employer would on occasion send me to a specialty training program usually held at a university. The registration and travel fees were quite expensive so this type of training was often limited to those working with larger companies with large training budgets. And training budgets back in those days were generally small since training was not considered to be as important back then.
At home I was receiving brochures in the mail for “warm and fuzzy” training. i.e. $99 how to organize yourself, how to talk to others, how to….. They would have a schedule much like a rock band where they were hitting 40 to 60 cities a year.
Then it hit me – one of THOSE moments! I don’t recall anything like this in the electrical industry. All we seemed to have were the expensive university programs. It’s time to bring training to the masses. But let me back up a few steps first.
As an Electrical Engineer with a BSEE Degree, my professional career began back in 1981 working in a small fledgling power system group that was part of a large equipment manufacturer. Our group (all 5 of us) were responsible for some pretty high-end analysis and engineering studies. But somewhere along the way, I was thrown into the deep end of the pool as they told me I would also be teaching at their corporate training events which were held many times each year. This was a total panic moment since I was a shy quiet early twenty-something engineer. But in time, I adjusted and learned to love training. I eventually moved on and headed up a group at a very large electric utility company and later also found myself teaching evening classes at a local college.
Fast forward, this was one of the motivations to bring training programs to the masses. I LOVE training. And recall the famous saying “do what you love”
So, along with my wife (a.k.a. best friend and business partner through this whole adventure) we set the wheels in motion. How do we get this hare-brained idea off the ground?
First, we needed a corporate identity and all the trimmings. We began with the name: “Technical Seminars Group” To the point and descriptive of what we did but it was soon changed it to “Technical Training Group” with a cute logo that I developed that was T2G like the chemical symbol of water – H2O. Years later we became known as Brainfiller.com
Since I still had a “real job”, we spent weekends and evenings creating a training program and developing our first direct mail brochure. All done from our “Corporate Headquarters” a.k.a. our house, and in “Suite 2C” thinking an address with a suite number looked more professional. However, the inside story told here for the first time – it was in inside joke. 2C simply stood for “Too Cool” Our own little bit of humor.
How would we promote this? For our first training program, the idea was to target an area out of state that I could drive to. Far enough away that no one at work would know (hopefully) but close enough that I could drive and not have a big expense. For marketing, we rented a mailing list from a trade magazine and they sent us a zillion old school sticky mailing labels.
And then it began. My wife and I would stay up very late at night sitting cross legged on the living room floor with piles of brochures reaching up to our eyebrows. Classic rock blasting in the background, labeling, stamping, filling mail trays – often thinking – were we insane? – I still have that thought some days. We did everything ourselves because in the beginning, we had the time but we did not have the money to outsource it. The ultimate bootstrapping.
We also had to open a post office box to keep as much action away from our home address as possible. We even obtained an 800 telephone number – a number that we still have today – well over three decades later
Our next move was to become friends with the people at our local post office. Taking in trays of mail every day after my real job, then preparing more each evening. About a week after we delivered our first tray, we received an envelope at our post office box. I opened it and recalled screaming “HOLY #%@! SOMEONE REGISTERED FOR A CLASS – WE ARE IN BUSINESS!”
The big question: How do I find time for a training class when I have a full-time job and am trying to keep this quiet? V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N! I would schedule every vacation day in one-week blocks and have a one-day training class scheduled every day. This was often in the summer when our young kids were on summer break. We would load up the minivan with training material and go on the family tour. A new city each day, travel at night, teach again the next day. Rinse and repeat. I did this until we were in a position to leave the comforts of the corporate electric utility world.
The resignation from my “real job” was a bit funny. I call it my “real job” because having so much fun over all these years, has never felt like a real job. I told my manager that I wanted to talk with him privately in the conference room. He was puzzled. I proceeded to explain that I was resigning and moving to a small startup company – trying not to reveal that it was my startup company. I had kept this a well-guarded secret and absolutely no one there knew. So he had to pry and began asking all kinds of questions. What company? Where? What will you be doing? So, I finally caved and told him the story. He was quite surprised. How could you do this while working here? I showed him one of our brochures with our past training schedule. He looked stunned and said he would be right back. He arrived with my vacation schedule and held it up next to the training schedule and laughed as the dates matched perfectly. “I would have never imagined!”
Our little training company began to grow and instead of receiving training class registrations by mail as we had been, people began to call our 800 number and phone in their registrations. One of the more memorable phone registrations happened early one morning. My wife just got out of the shower and was in her robe when the telephone rang. She went running down the hallway to answer it. The person on the other end said this was Mr. so and so from some department that I don’t recall but in the title were the words “White House” She asked for the address as she always does and the person on the other end began to say those famous words: Sixteen Hundred Pennsylvania Avenue…. Still in her bath robe, she dropped the phone in shock. When she picked it up, the person chuckled and said “Yes, that White House” And all from Suite 2C.
Thirty-four years have passed since we were sitting cross legged on the floor – honestly, I’m not sure I could sit that way anymore.
VP: Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
JP: Every business has its challenges but on the whole, it has been fantastic. Why? A few of my simple rules:
Of course, there have been times where we could have capitalized on a good business opportunity, but at the expense of our core values. In the end we win by sticking with our beliefs.
Since we have been in business since 1987, we have seen major changes in the training industry. When I began, we were one of the very first to provide live engineering training programs to around 30 to 40 cities every year. It was like our own “Rock Concert Tour” schedule. Everything was direct mail, word of mouth and an occasional magazine advertisement. This meant the cost of entry was quite high and the average person found it difficult to just jump in on a whim.
But also recall, back then that meant a life without the internet. Hard to imagine. Once the internet came along, it was the single biggest game changer. All of a sudden, it seemed like training websites were springing up overnight. Acme Training Company, ABC Training Company, XYZ Training Company, you get the idea. Everyone was suddenly “The World’s Best Training Company” according to their websites – so it must be true. But reputations catch up with people and many quickly had an abrupt ending.
The proliferation of all of the training websites is also the reason we changed our name along the way to Brainfiller.com – so we do not appear as just another “Acme Training Company” getting lost in the noise. People remember the name. Fortunately, our long history and especially our global reputation have also carried us very far.
VP: Brainfiller – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
JP: Our business brand Branfiller.com is my identity. As the “brain” behind brainfiller, the services have grown significantly since our humble early days cross legged on the living room floor. Today, we are not only involved in electrical power and electrical safety training worldwide, but also forensics/expert witness, contributing editor to one of the largest magazines that serves the industry, and electrical standards development. Let me explain these one at a time.
Electrical Power Training – this is where it all began. Based on my experience in electrical power system design and analysis for the industrial and utility industries, the topics were directly related to the those industry segments. Over the years, I have been invited to speak all over the world which has resulted in some incredible adventures and making many international friends along the way.
The safety side of this came later when an emerging field know as ARC FLASH was being investigated. An arc flash is when energized electrical conductors touch creating an electrical explosion. You have probably seen a small version of this if you have ever jumped a car battery. There are often sparks. With an arc flash, there is so much power in the electrical system, that the sparks can create a massive explosion resulting in catastrophic damage, injury and death. I am one of the people directly involved with the research, theory and development of the electrical industry standards behind this potentially deadly phenomenon.
What does all this mean? I get to blow stuff up – literally. With electricity – kind of like our own private version of the TV show “Mythbusters” I would be lying if I said it was not fun.
This leads to another topic – Forensic Analysis and Expert Witness. From time to time, I am called upon to investigate what happened during some catastrophic electrical incident. My all-time number one investigation is when I was contacted several years ago about one of the nuclear power plants that had a major fire as a result of the Fukushima earthquake in 2011. The country of Japan sent a delegation to the U.S. to meet with a few of what we called “wizards and gurus” to determine out what happened.
All kinds of off the wall theories were being floated but then it was my turn. I suggested with a 9.0 earthquake, maybe the electrical equipment was shaking so violently that energized parts made contact and caused an arc flash. This theory got their attention and next thing I know, we are in a high-power lab blowing up equipment to see if we can get a large fire. The answer – YES, we had a HUGE fire! I think I was close to burning the lab down with that one – they were not prepared for the size of the explosion or the resulting fire.
I am also involved with a lot of writing. In addition to writing technical documents. I was picked up years ago as a Contributing Editor for one of the largest trade magazines in the industry – Electrical Contractor Magazine where I have a regular column and features about arc flash and electrical safety. To date, I have published over 100 technical articles, several guides and a book on the subject of Arc Flash.
One of the most important areas that is central to our training is that I am personally in the leadership position as either Chair or Vice-Chair responsible for over 40 electrical standards and working with 42 different countries that define the industry globally. Quite a bit of responsibility that I take very seriously.
There are some days when I am sitting at home dumbfounded just reflecting – how did all this happen? Being directly responsible for the development of so many electrical standards means that when I create a training program and present it, it is not just another trainer reading a script like so many people out there. It is me telling it from the inside perspective saying things like “Well, here is what happened when we blew it up in the lab” or “here is why we wrote that requirement the way that we did.” The usual response is “wow, no one has ever been able to explain WHY, before”
VP: What is “success” or “successful” for you?
JP: I believe the definition of success is unique for everyone. For me it is just looking back saying, “Yes, this has been a good ride (so far)” It is also about being secure, achieving many personal goals, and instilling positive values in our family. A very important role for our family is helping others through several charitable organizations. We are blessed to be a blessing to others. None of this success would be possible without the support of my wife and best friend of over 40 years.
Jim and his wife live in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published January 2018 Voyage Phoenix Magazine – updated.
During Jim’s four decade career, he has been helping tens of thousands of people around the world understand electrical power system design, analysis and safety. Having taught over 2500 training programs during his career to people from all seven continents (Yes Antarctica is included!) He has developed an international reputation for being one of the best trainers and public speakers in the electric power industry.
Jim is very active in the development and holds leadership roles of many U.S. and international standards such as:
Awards and Recognition
He earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering (BSEE) from the Ohio State University. His career began with Square D Company’s Power System Analysis Group where he was responsible for power system studies, software development and training at their engineering training programs – where his love of teaching all began.